As part of his trip along Spain’s unspoiled Northern coastline, Duncan Rhodes explores the ancient land and culture of the Basques, discovering first hand both its natural beauty and its spirited cities and towns…
“Everyone who has visited the Basque Country longs to return; it is a blessed land.”
So said Victor Hugo, the brilliant French poet and novelist, who journeyed through the region whilst writing and researching his travelogue The Pyrenees. In fact he liked the village of Pasai Donibane so much that he decided to lodge there during the summer of 1843.
“Everyone who has visited the Basque Country longs to return; it is a blessed land.”
Walking through this centuries-old village, that comprises of little more than a single street clinging to the bottom of a green forested cliff, it’s easy to share the Frenchman’s appreciation of this unique location. The modern industrial port that has developed since his times, may have impinged on its beauty somewhat, but as you follow the narrow Donibane Kalea street through a slalom of 17th century houses, decked out with flowers in bloom, you can see why a poet like Hugo might want to settle down here for a few month’s hard scribbling, as the waters on the bay shimmer lazily under the bright summer sky.
During my visit a large group of boys where flinging themselves acrobatically off the mildewed stone quayside, whilst a smaller grouper of girls sat around playing cards in the sun, only semi-interested in their antics. It seemed to me a timeless, archetypal scene, one that mon ami Victor would have no doubt witnessed himself 160 odd years before, and one that no doubt had played out many times before that and will continue to play out every summer for many years to come.
During my visit a large group of boys where flinging themselves acrobatically off the mildewed stone quayside, whilst a smaller grouper of girls sat around playing cards in the sun, only semi-interested in their antics.
Timeless is perhaps the best way to describe the experience of visiting the Basque Country; whether its taking a boat ride through the Geopark, where the Flysch rock formations delineate the passage of millions of years of the Earth’s history, or else visiting the Urdabai Bird Centre, where the ancient rhythms of Mother Nature and her feathered progeny’s migrations can be studied and observed, or whether it’s the chance to come face to face with the Basques themselves, a people who have lived in Europe longer than any other, and whose language predates any of the Indo-European languages that you hear spoken around the rest of the continent. As much as anywhere I’ve been, this seemed a land steeped in history, traditions and natural rhythms.
So without further ado let me go into more details about some of the timeless pleasures of visiting this corner of North Spain. As Monsieur Hugo said, you’re sure to want to return…
Highlights of the Basque Country
After a whirlwind tour of the region, here are 11 fun things to see and do and one fantastic boutique hotel to stay in.
If you could distill the essence of summer and pour it into a glass you should name that drink San Sebastian in honour of this brilliant, lively and beautiful city. To step onto the sands of La Concha beach during a sunny day, when it’s packed full of beautiful people, laughing children and wistfully-gazing pensioners, is like pressing the “holiday mode” button on your own personal remote control. Troubles flee away as you take in the green mountains, blue sky and turquoise sea, the latter specked with bobbing leisure boats, and your only dilemma is which of the city’s famous pintxo bars or Michelin starred restaurants you should dine at. Whilst I didn’t have time to explore San Sebastian’s cultural scene in any depth, the atmosphere of the city alone makes me want to dub it the Rio de Janeiro of North Spain…
Not famed for its looks, Bilbao is a bustling and cosmopolitan port city and the capital of the Basque Country. In fact it’s not a bad looking place at all, a predominantly low-rise former industrial town on a river, with attractive churches and squares, that reminds one a little of Dublin in looks and character. Posters advertising Arcade Fire, and rainbow banners announcing the imminent arrival of Gay Pride Bilbao, along with the thronging streets during my visit, was enough to tell me that this is a city with a lot going on. Of course the jewel in its crown is the Yoko Ono approved, Guggenheim museum, a curvaceous titanium and glass behemoth designed by Frank Gehry.
Visit a Txoko
The txoko is one of the quintessential pillars of Basque social life. The name literally means “cosy nook” or “corner”, although txokos are in fact private dining societies where friends and family gather to cook for another, often experimenting with recipes and trying new things in a fun, informal and intimate setting. I was lucky enough to be invited to one in Mutriku, an old whaling town on the Basque Coast. As with many txokos the location is unmarked, and we took a rather shady looking elevator up to the top floor of a port building, where a private lounge with large tables and sofas and night views over the harbour awaited. Around the entire circumference of the lounge shelves were proudly decorated with gold and silver sports trophies, hinting at the members’ other passions, and overall the place reminded me strongly of the dusty common rooms of the local hockey clubs that I frequented every weekend during the 80s as a boy, following my father’s team around Kent. Here our gregarious hosts Noemi and chef for the night Santi, entertained us with conversation and three courses of Basque cuisine. The main was a delicious dish of hake with oil, parsley, tomatoes and cider sauce (giving the fish a sharp almost citric taste!). Naturally this was washed down with several bottles of Txakoli, the regional sparkling white wine. I would definitely recommend eating at a txoko if you can, although their private nature means you might have to hustle a bit for an invitation. Search around the web, or else get in contact with Noemi at The Basque Way and visit the very same txoko in Mutriku that I did.
Urdaibai Bird Centre
Positioned right next to a marsh in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, which in turn is part of the migration highway of many species of birds who make their way between North Europe and Africa every year, this bird centre is the perfect place to learn more about our feathered friends and their epic journeys across half the globe… as well as to see any number of exciting species in their natural habitat, from the centre’s observation points. Top of the bill is Juan Zuria a young male osprey who recently returned to the marsh after his own migration south. The centre is attempting to reintroduce this gorgeous species of raptors into the region. As well as the chance to see J.Z. munching on some fish, you’ll also find marsh harriers and black kites wheeling over the trees, fields and reeds and exotic wading birds like the spoonbill foraging in the shallows. The centre’s opening days vary a lot depending on the month, so check their website ahead of time.
Sitting on the highest point of the Urdaibai estuary you’ll find the town of Guernica, which despite the famous 1937 bombings (made famous by Picasso’s painting), is still a nice town to spend an afternoon in, with several nice squares and churches. The high point of my visit was calling by the Assembly House and the Tree of Gernika. For centuries the Lords of Biscay met under an oak tree in this very spot to discuss the issues of the day, eventually building a more solid shelter (for those wetter days) in the form of The Assembly House. The House contains an absolutely stunning stained glass ceiling (pictured below). Other sights in Guernica include the Astra Bunker air raid shelter or the Jai Alai pelota court, if you fancy checking out some of this very Basque sport being played. Obviously with its location, Guernica is a great place to situate yourself if you’re keen on exploring the Urdaibai Bird Centre and other attractions in the Biosphere Reserve.
Albaola Sea Factory
One of my personal highlights of the region, Albaola: The Sea Factory of the Basques offers a fascinating insight into a long forgotten world of whaling. Long before the Middle East provided our petroleum, it was whaling that supplied the world with oil from the blubber of these mighty marine beasts, chased and harpooned by foolhardy sailors. The Basques were masters of the art, not only hunting on their own shores, but even sending boats to the Americas. This museum not only shines a light on all kinds of intriguing details to do with the Basques’ whaling heritage, from their ability to shape trees to aid their shipbuilding, through to the prodigious amount of cider they packed on any given journey (which fortuitously enough staved off the scurvy that blighted so many other maritime cultures), but it also serves as a factory for the reconstruction of the Sant Juan ship – a 16th century sailing vessel that shipwrecked off the Canadian coast. The Albaola team are currently faithfully recreating this piece of nautical history and plan to sail it to Newfoundland, just as their ancestors once did (hopefully with more success!). If you loved Moby Dick, then this is the place for you – find it in Pasai San Pedro, just across the water from Victor Hugo’s beloved Pasai Donibane.
This pretty town is the first settlement pilgrims will come upon as they follow the Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago from France on their way to the final destination Santiago de Compostela. It’s a beautiful settlement of white washed houses whose balconies, shutters and beams have been cheerfully painted with bright colours using left over paint from the settlement’s boats. One afternoon is probably enough to take in the sights, which include a 12th century castle replete with cannonball scars (it is now a hotel), a marina, church and a couple of scenic squares.
The Basque Coast Geopark is a 90 square kilometres area of natural beauty, covering the region around the Gipuzkoan towns of Deba, Zumaia and Mutriku – it is one of only 120 Global Geoparks recognised by UNESCO. The park can be divided into two zones: the coastal area, characterised by the spectacular cliffs that make up the Flysch (more on that in a second), and the inland, karst area, which is home to the largest number of caves in the whole of Gipuzkoa. If you take a look at the Geopark’s website you can check out all manner of ways of exploring this region, from self guided walking routes to boat tours. I took a guided boat tour from Zumaia to Deba, which enabled us to study the spectacular formations of rock layers, known as Flysch deposits, which form a material testament to over 60 million years of planet Earth’s history. Our guide was even able to point out a thin black layer of rock in the cliffs that indicates the impact of the giant meteor that resulted in the death of the dinosaurs. Poor Mr. T-Rex! A must for geologists and natural historians.
The Basque Country is renowned for being one of the world’s foremost fine dining regions – not only does it have more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere in the world (restaurant finder here!), but it also has a tradition of simple but fantastic food that seems to find its way onto every table in the territory, high and low. Seafood is the Basque Country’s forte, with chefs excelling at serving fine white fish, like hake, cod and turbot, as well as octopus, shellfish and other “fruits of the sea”. A personal favourite is txipirones, which are fried baby squid served in their ink. The region is also known for its fresh locally produced fruit and vegetables, and artichokes, asparagus, beans and peppers are served as delicious starters or sides. This being Spain you don’t need to order a set menu… here in the Basque Country you can also indulge in tapas, but with a twist. The Basque style of tapas is called a pintxo and is a delicious morsel of meat, fish, cheese or vegetables (or a combination of any of those), skewered onto a piece of bread with a toothpick. You’ll find fun and casual pintxos bars almost everywhere you go in the province. No Basque meal would be complete without either a bottle of regional cider, or the refreshing sparkling white wine txakoli.
Commonly spelt as the Vizcaya Bridge this 160m long engineering oddity spans the Ibaizabal estuary, to link the towns of Portugalete and Getxo. It was completed in 1893 and is one of the few transporter bridges still functioning in the world today. Every few minutes its nifty gondola zips across the river, carrying both cars and pedestrians, whilst suspended by wires from the 45m high structure. This wonder of the industrial revolution has been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site. As well as taking the gondola for little more than a euro, you can also take an audioguided walk across the top of “The Hanging Bridge” for great views of the towns and estuary.
The Camino del Norte
Many of the above highlights are linked by the Camino del Norte.. aka The Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Whilst religious devotion was once the prime motivator for taking this 800km long hike to see the relics of St. James the apostle, these days the route is taken by travellers who want to experience Spain in a different way, challenge themselves and make friends with fellow pilgrims. At any rate, even if you don’t have time – or simply don’t fancy – such a long odyssey I would recommend joining the trail at some point and enjoying the rolling green hills of the Basque Country, dotted with monasteries and coastal views over the Bay of Biscay. Here are a couple of photos of my own hike from Getaria to Zumaia. It was a beautiful walk across fields, hills and vineyards where cows grazed lazily, swifts arced out of barns and into the air and the omnipresent shell, symbol of the Camino, led us onwards. I was also amazed to see that one church we passed even had its own pelota court. How very Basque!
A Boutique Hotel
If you’re looking for some stunning accommodation from where to explore the Basque Country, then I can highly recommend the Hotel Arbe, a sleek modern boutique positioned about 20km west of San Sebastian and around 30 east from Bilbao. Here you can start every day with a breakfast of homemade pastries and cakes and fresh fruit juice in their conservatory overlooking the Atlantic ocean and then go for a dip in the pool. The service is personal, the coastal setting wonderful and the rooms are gorgeous too.
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