Ready for a different European Experience: Basque Country

By, Patricia Cotti

If you are ready to explore a new part of Europe, I would like to propose a visit to Basque Country. Basque Country is located in a compact area in the western Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain and the Bay of Biscay.  There are 7 Basque Provinces:  3 in France and 4 in Spain.  The Basque people are a fiercely independent people.  They speak a unique language unlike any other.  It is believed to be the oldest language in use today.  The Basques are world famous for their cuisine. It is the nucleus of world - class gastronomy and home to a concentration of Michelin starred restaurants. As of 2018, 7 of the top 100 restaurants in the world are Basque.  There are over 1500 secret gourmet societies that traditionally were men only.  The national sport is called pelota.  It is a kind of handball played with curved baskets on outdoor courts called frontons.  You may know it asjai alai.  From the Rioja Wine Region of Basque Spain, the popular Txakoliis produced.  It is a slightly sparkling, dry, white wine that goes well with pintxos,Basque style tapas.  Consequentially, Basque Country is a pleasant mix of unique culture, fine cuisine and wine alongside historical cities and towns.


Let’s start by exploring the French Basque Country.  Biarritzis the focal point and the grand Belle Epoch resort of the French Basque Coast.  Napoleon III and his new bride arrived in 1855 and built an aristocratic villa as a summer residence.  Biarritz became a favored destination where royal and noble travelers came “to take the waters.”  Today, visitors come to stay at Napoleon’s villa, the beautifully restored Hotel du Palais.  Others come to discover the beaches or surf the waters of the rugged coast.  It is an elegant city of grand architecture and lovely pedestrian streets. 

Nearby is the charming and picturesque beach town of St Jean du Luz.  Bayonneis a larger city and regional capital.  Strategically located, it was once a Roman military camp.  Bayonne is a river town protected by fortification walls that today contain traditional houses bearing slanting foundations along the cobblestone streets.  There is a Basque Museum showcasing the complex culture and history of the region. St Jean Pied du Port was my favorite stop in the French Basque region. It is a wonderful medieval town that has been described as one of the most beautiful towns in Basque Country. It has always been an important crossing of the Pyrenees as early as Roman times.  However, from the middle ages pilgrims flocked through St Jean Pied du Port en route to visit the tomb of St. James at Santiago de Compostela. One can feel the karma of the past as you cross the stone bridge and walk along the main street that descends to the river.  The street is lined with rose granite traditional houses that bear their histories inscribed above the doorway.  Some date back to the 1500’s.  The scallop shell, symbolizing the pilgrims of St James is seen as carved decoration on houses and in the cobblestones.  Throughout this region, we had our first experiences with the pintxosconsisting of excellent cheeses, ham, pates, and delicious accompanying wines.  There was an opportunity to visit the town of Espelette,nationally known for it peppers.  Here you can see red peppers drying on the outside on the walls of buildings.  You can try a variety of pintxosmade with everything containing pepper.


Now, we can head to Spanish Basque Country where I found the language and customs even stronger.  The first introduction was Hondarribia.  This was another charming town that was part of the pilgrim’s road to Santiago.  The upper town was the medieval quarter consisting of charming old houses with balconies and carved eaves placed around a small square.  There is a Parador here.  This Parador was once a tenth century castle built as a defensive fortress but today has been transformed into a historic hotel.  The lower part of the town that is closer to the sea has brightly colored fisherman’s homes.  So colorful that it is said that the fishermen could recognize their homes from the sea.  San Sebastian and Bilbao are the two larger cities.  Like Biarritz, European aristocracy chose San Sebastian as a summer destination in the 19thCentury.  The resort was built around a crescent shaped bay.  There is a lively medieval quarter that today consists of shops and dining establishments.  Don’t forget to shop for your Basque Beret in one of the over one hundred year old shops. There is an annual Film Festival and lively Arts Festivals.  San Sebastian is known for the “highest number of Michelin Restaurants per square meter”.  So, here would be a great place to take a cooking class.  At Mimo San Sebastian, a culinary school housed in the Hotel Maria Cristina (the Grand Dame Hotel of San Sebastian) aspiring chefs can take a 5-hour Michelin Star Secrets course.  Certainly, you will eat very well in this city.  Proximity to the Rioja Wine Region makes it easy to explore and taste the local Txkoli wines.  The wineries are interesting.  You can visit a historic village of Laguardiaand have a visit to the Fabulista Winery, a historic, traditional underground winery. The Baigorri Wineryis the largest boutique winery where you can indulge in a wine pairing lunch.  The Marquis de Rescal Wineryis a large complex consisting of cellars dating from 1858; a cellar housing eight million bottles including bottles stored for the current king; a hotel designed by Frank Gehry. Indeed, you will have excellent wine to complement the excellent food.  I would be remiss if I did not remind you to visit the Balenciaga Fashion Museum in Getaria, the city where the fashion designer was born.  Now, we must move onto Bilbao.  This former industrial city emerged in the 1990’s to transform itself from its gritty past.  The Guggenheim Museum was the centerpiece for this transformation.  Bilbao took on a new identity.  The Gehry Building and its colorful ribbons of steel along with Jeff Koons’ Puppy are symbols of the transformation.


Try a new European destination.  You will not be disappointed.  You will be amazed by the history that is so remarkably preserved.  Participate in the lively, spirited  Basque Culture. Indulge your palate and in the evening, rest your weary body in accommodations fit for a king or queen.  This is a unique destination and, certainly, should be part of your bucket list in the New Year.  Visit Basque Country with Bayside Travel and our Virtuoso Partners preparing your way!