This ethnic enclave in northern Spain is a paradise for foodies, wine lovers and fans of cutting-edge design
Strolling along the beachfront promenade on La Concha Bay is a prime tourist activity in San Sebastian, Spain. (Randy Mink Photo)
Seafood, from clams to octopus, has a starring role on most restaurant menus in Spain’s Basque country. (Basquetour)
Spider by French sculptress Louise Bourgeois on the Guggenheim’s riverside terrace. (Basquetour)
Tours and tastings are popular tourist pastimes in the Rioja Alavesa wine region, a must stop in northern Spain’s Basque Country. (Basquetour)
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going. — Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Travel"
Discovering Spain's Basque Country
By Randy Mink
Photos courtesy Basquetour, Tourist Office of Spain and Bilbao Convention Bureau
With a language, culture and gastronomic traditions all its own, the Basque region of northern Spain is practically a country within a country. In fact, many Basques don’t even consider themselves to be Spanish.
Believed to be Europe’s oldest ethnic group, the Basques have strong links to the land and sea. They have farmed the green hills and valleys of their homeland for centuries, and their deep-sea fishing industry goes back to the 1500s, when fearless fishermen traveled as far as Newfoundland in search of cod. Today the seafood from cold Atlantic waters and raw ingredients from pastures, gardens, orchards and vineyards have given Basque Country a rich food culture. Indeed, gastronomy is a hallmark of Basque identity and a vital part of everyday life.
To the casual visitor, the Basque people look pretty much like anyone else in Spain. Stereotypes might show stout men in berets, perhaps herding sheep against the backdrop of a whitewashed stone farmhouse. At festivals and folkloric shows you’ll see male dance troupes in traditional white outfits with red sashes and berets. Typical Basque games include pelota (what the world knows as jai alai, played on a court bare-handed or with a paddle or basket sling) and manly rural sports like stone-lifting, wood-chopping and tug-of-war.
What really sets Basques apart is their language, or Euskara. Speaking Euskara makes one a Basque. Unrelated to any other tongue, it appears bizarre and unpronounceable to those more familiar with the Romance or Germanic languages. You’ll see Euskara words on menus and road signs (often with the Spanish equivalents) and notice they are full of k’s, tx’s and z’s. About 600,000 Basques in Spain and bordering southwestern France converse in the language.
Above all, Basques cherish their independence. With their own parliament, tax collection and police force, the three Spanish Basque provinces enjoy a substantial level of autonomy from the central government in Madrid. The red-green-and-white Basque flag, a symbol of this nationalism, flies everywhere. There’s always been a determined separatist movement, but violent acts by political extremists are a problem of the past.
Train station, Bilbao (Bilbao Convention Bureau)
As for tourism, Basque Country (Euskadi in the Basque language) is somewhat off the beaten path and has few iconic landmarks. That makes it all the riper for discovery. Perhaps the region is best known for its culinary prowess, and it has certainly capitalized on the growing interest in food and wine travel. Celebrated for its inventive chefs and blessed with the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, the region has earned a reputation as the best place to eat in Spain. In England’s most recent World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, four on the list were in Spain’s Basque Country.
Travelers make a point of indulging in one of the region’s signature treats—pintxos (pronounced “PEEN-chos). The Basque equivalent of tapas, these exquisite little bites served at bars and cafes can range from unadorned slivers of dried Iberian ham on bread to miniature works of art reflecting the heights of nano-gastronomy. Locals make an afternoon or evening of hopping from bar to bar, selecting one or two pintxos at each and washing them down with a small glass of beer or wine, all done standing or sitting at the bar rather than seated at a table. It’s more a way of socializing than having a meal.
Pinxtos, the Basque version of tapas, are laid out in all their glory at bars and cafes throughout Spain’s Basque country. (Basquetour)
Bar counters piled high with platters of pintxos (usually skewered on sticks or toothpicks) are really something to behold; the sheer variety is mind-boggling. Most popular is a slice of Spanish omelette (tortilla de patata), a mixture of eggs and potato fried in oil. Also commonly found is the Gilda, an olive-anchovy-green chili pepper medley eaten in one bite. Other snack-sized morsels might include mayonnaise-based salads, grilled wild mushrooms and the huevo frito, a heavenly, deep-fried pillow of dough filled with hot, runny egg, a slice of potato and a bit of bacon.
In the big port city of Bilbao, a foodie paradise, you might sign up for a walking tour of the atmospheric Old Quarter (Casco Viejo), a labyrinth of pedestrian streets with some of the city’s best eateries and boutiques. Ribera Market, the largest indoor food market in Europe, is also worth a look.
Seafood dominates menus in Basque Country, and no one (except the Japanese) eats more fish per capita than the Basques. Cod (or bacalao) is the fish of choice, and hake comes next. Grouper, turbot, tuna, monkfish, jack mackerel, anchovies, baby eels, spider crab, lobster, octopus and baby squid are found everywhere as well. The classic dish bacalao pil pil is dried salted cod in a mayonnaise-like sauce of olive oil, chili and garlic. At any pintxo bar you’re likely to encounter salted cod, cod croquettes or crispy fried cod skin.
Aside from exploring the Old Quarter and savoring the bounty of the Basque table, the chief tourist activity in Bilbao is visiting the Guggenheim Museum, a repository of modern and contemporary art more famous for its architecture than for the works inside. The city’s very identity has been linked to the curvaceous colossus of limestone and titanium since it appeared on the banks of the Nervion River in 1997. Designed by controversial Canadian architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim radically transformed a derelict industrial area and catapulted Bilbao into a center of art, architecture and urban design, as many other famed architects were attracted to the forward-looking city of 350,000 (one million in the metro area, or almost half the Spanish Basque population).
The Guggenheim invites photos from every angle. Just as photogenic is “Puppy,” the 42-foot-tall, color-splashed sculpture of a terrier standing guard outside the entrance; some 60,000 flowers and plants cover the floral masterpiece by American artist Jeff Koons. A giant, spindle-legged spider by French sculptress Louise Bourgeois commands the museum’s riverside terrace.
Just as eye-popping: the Guggenheim’s interior, its enormous atrium connecting to 19 galleries via metal walkways and glass elevators. Changing exhibitions of art from the second half of the 20th century are from collections of the Guggenheim in New York.
San Sebastian vies with Bilbao as the Basque Country’s most popular tourist destination. The glorious crescent of golden sand beaches right in the heart of town gives San Sebastian a laidback feel. A summer retreat for the royal family and Madrid aristocrats in the 19th and early 20th centuries, San Sebastian (Donostia in Euskara) commands an incomparable setting on Concha Bay, a stunning jewel with two mountain peaks as bookends and a petite island in the center.
International Film Festival
Today one of Europe’s most prestigious international film festivals (in September) and a collection of Michelin-starred restaurants enhance San Sebastian’s pedigree, lending the city an aura of sophistication. Take a walk along the fashionable beachside promenade and visions of Monte Carlo, Cannes and Nice come to mind. The elegant City Hall, built in a style similar to that of the Monte Carlo Casino, actually was a casino until gambling was outlawed in the early 20th century.
The lookout points and amusement park atop Mount Igueldo afford stunning views of San Sebastian’s La Concha Bay. (Basquetour)
Tours of San Sebastian, a 75-minute drive east of Bilbao, feature the lookout point atop Mount Igueldo, where picture-postcard panoramas of the shell-shaped bay and distant green mountains keep cameras clicking. Besides viewpoints, the promontory, reachable by road or funicular, has a hotel, cafes and a century-old amusement park. Another stop is the Old Town (Parte Vieja), where narrow streets packed with shops, restaurants and a tantalizing choice of pintxos bars lie just minutes from La Concha Beach.
Basque Country’s famed Rioja Alavesa wine region is an hour-and-a-half drive south of Bilbao. Tucked into a relatively compact area between the southern slopes of the Sierra de Cantabria and Ebro River are endless vistas of vineyards on terraced hillsides sprinkled with olive trees. Protected by the mountain range from coastal winds and moisture, the vines, mostly of the red tempranillo variety, thrive in a microclimate ideal for growing grapes.
You’ll have a chance for tastings (with pintxos) at some of the region’s 300 some wineries and enjoy passing through idyllic hilltop towns, their church towers visible from miles away. A favorite wine country stop is the walled medieval town of Laguardia. Adorned with balconies, lines of drying laundry and religious shrines, its pedestrian passageways invite random wandering.
The undulating tangle of purple, silver and gold metal ribbons of the Frank Gehry-designed showpiece hotel at Herederos del Marques de Riscal winery has become a landmark in the Rioja Alavesa wine region of Spain’s Basque Country. (Basquetour)
Herederos del Marques de Riscal Winery
Just as ancient Laguardia rises ship-like over the sea of vineyards, a much newer landmark looms prominently on the horizon just four miles away in the town of Elciego. Dominating Herederos del Marques de Riscal winery is the undulating tangle of purple, silver and gold metal ribbons of the estate’s Frank Gehry-designed showpiece hotel, a building reminiscent of his Guggenheim Museum. The eruption of steel and titanium, according to one guidebook “looks as if a colony from outer space had crashed in the middle of La Rioja’s oldest vineyards.” Dubbed “City of Wine,” Marques de Riscal is indeed the region’s oldest winery, dating from 1860. The luxury hotel features a one-star Michelin restaurant.
Even in bucolic wine country, you can’t avoid the Basques’ penchant for daring design and fine living. Whether you stick to the coast or venture into the countryside, a brief visit to Spain’s Basque Country will give you a taste of this ancient culture and perhaps whet your appetite for second helpings on future travels to the Iberian peninsula.