Spain's Basque Country
By Rick Steves
If you're traveling between Spain and France, the coastal resort of San Sebastián and the Guggenheim Bilbao modern art museum merit a quick visit, if only to see what all the fuss is about.
This is Basque Country, or in Spanish, País Vasco. The Basque region stretches 100 miles from Bilbao north to Bayonne, France. And in some ways, the País Vasco has more in common with the neighboring Pays Basque in France than it does with Spain. The Spanish and French Basque regions share a Union Jack–style flag (green, red, and white), cuisine, and common language (Euskara), spoken by about a half million people.
Insulated from mainstream Europe for centuries, the plucky Basques have just wanted to be left alone for more than 7,000 years. For 40 years, Generalissimo Franco did his best to tame this area; the bombed city of Guernica (Gernika), halfway between San Sebastián and Bilbao, survives as a tragic example of his efforts to suppress Basque independence.
Today the Basque terrorist organization, ETA (which stands for the Euskara phrase Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or "Basque Country and Freedom"), is supported by a tiny minority of the population. The ETA, which tends to focus on political targets (and has been blamed for 800 deaths since 1968), goes largely unnoticed by tourists.
Even though the region was technically bilingual (Euskara and Spanish), Franco so effectively blunted Basque expression that the language was primarily Spanish by default. But after several Franco-free decades, there's a renewed awareness of the importance of the Basque language (which is absolutely unrelated to any other). Look for it first on street signs, menus, and signs in shops — the Euskara word will be above any Spanish translation.
Similarly, today's Basque lands are undergoing a 21st-century renaissance, as the dazzling new architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao modern-art museum and the glittering resort of San Sebastián are drawing enthusiastic crowds. For small-town fun, drop by the fishing village of Lekeitio (near Bilbao) and little Hondarribia near the border — either is a good last (or first) stop in Spain.
Shimmering above the breathtaking bay of La Concha, elegant and prosperous San Sebastián (Donostia in Euskara) has a favored location with golden beaches, capped by twin peaks at either end, and a cute little island in the center. A delightful beachfront promenade runs the length of the bay, with an intriguing Old Town at one end and a smart shopping district in the center. It has 180,000 residents and almost that many tourists in high season (July–Sept). With a romantic setting, a soaring statue of Christ gazing over the city, and a late-night lively Old Town, San Sebastián has a Rio de Janeiro aura. While there's no compelling museum to visit, the scenic city provides a pleasant introduction to Spain's Basque Country.
In 1845, Queen Isabel II's doctor recommended she treat her skin problems by bathing here in the sea. Her visit mobilized Spain's aristocracy, and soon the city was on the map as a seaside resort. By the turn of the 20th century, Donostia was the toast of the belle époque, and a leading resort for Europe's beautiful people. Before World War I, Queen María Cristina summered here and held court in her Miramar Palace overlooking the crescent beach. Hotels, casinos, and theaters flourished. Even Franco enjoyed 35 summers in a place he was sure to call San Sebastián, not Donostia.
Planning Your Time
San Sebastián is worth a day. Stroll the two-mile-long promenade and scout the place you'll grab to work on a tan. The promenade leads to a funicular that lifts you to the Monte Igueldo viewpoint. After exploring the Old Town and port, walk up to the hill of Monte Urgull. A big part of any visit to San Sebastián is enjoying tapas in the Old Town bars.
The San Sebastián we're interested in surrounds Concha Bay (Bahía de la Concha), and can be divided into three areas: Playa de la Concha (best beaches), the shopping district (called Centro Romántico), and the skinny streets of the grid-planned Old Town (called Parte Vieja, to the north of the shopping district). The Centro Romántico, just east of Playa de la Concha, has beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, but no real sights. It's all bookended by mini-mountains: Monte Urgull to the north and east, Monte Igueldo to the south and west. The river (Río Urumea) divides central San Sebastián from the district called Gros (which has a lively night scene and surfing beach).
Sights in San Sebastián
La Concha Beach and Promenade — The shell-shaped Playa de La Concha, the pride of San Sebastián, has one of Europe's loveliest stretches of sand. Lined with a two-mile-long promenade, it allows even backpackers to feel aristocratic. While pretty empty off-season, in summer, sunbathers pack its shores. But year-round, it's surprisingly devoid of eateries and money-grubbing businesses. There are free showers, and cabinas provide lockers, showers, and shade for a fee. The Miramar palace and park, which divides the crescent in the middle, was where Queen María Cristina held court when she summered here. Her royal changing rooms are used today as inviting cafés, restaurants, and a fancy spa. For a century, the lovingly painted wrought-iron balustrade that stretches the length of the promenade has been a symbol of the city; it shows up on everything from jewelry to headboards.
La Perla Spa — The spa attracts a less royal crowd today and appeals mostly to visitors interested in sampling "the curative properties of the sea." You can enjoy its Talaso Fitness Circuit, featuring a hydrotherapy pool, relaxation pool, panoramic Jacuzzi, cold-water pools, seawater steam sauna, dry sauna, and a relaxation area (on the beach at the center of the crescent, Paseo de la Concha).
Old Town (Parte Vieja) — Huddled in the shadow of its once-protective Monte Urgull, the Old Town is where San Sebastián was born about 1,000 years ago. The grid plan of streets hides heavy Baroque and Gothic churches, surprise plazas, and fun little shops, including venerable pastry stores, rugged produce markets, Basque-independence souvenir shops, and seafood-to-go delis. "THC shops" offer the latest from the decriminalized marijuana scene in Spain — adults are allowed to grow two plants. Be sure to wander out to the port to see the fishing industry in action. The Old Town's main square, Plaza de la Constitución (where bullfights used to be held — notice the seat numbering on the balconies) features inviting café tables spilling from all corners. The highlight of the Old Town is its array of incredibly lively tapas bars — though here, these snacks are called pintxos (see sidebar).
Cruise — Small boats cruise from the Old Town's port to the island in the bay (Isla Santa Clara), where you can hike the trails and have lunch at the lone café, or pack a picnic before setting sail. The good ship City of San Sebastián gives one hour tours of the bay.
Aquarium — San Sebastián's impressive aquarium exhibits include a history of the sea, fascinating models showing various drift-netting techniques, a petting tank filled with nervous fish, a huge whale skeleton, and a 45-foot-long tunnel that allows you to look up at floppy rays and menacing sharks (at the end of Paseo del Muelle).
Naval Museum — Located at the port, this museum's two floors of exhibits describe the seafaring city's history, revealing the intimate link between the Basque culture and the sea (just before aquarium at Paseo del Muelle 24).
Monte Urgull — The once-mighty castle (Castillo de la Mota) atop the hill deterred most attackers, allowing the city to prosper in the Middle Ages. The museum located within the castle features San Sebastián history and is mildly interesting. The best views from the hill are not from the statue of Christ, but from the ramparts on the left side (as you face the hill), just above the port's aquarium. Café El Polvorín, nestled in the park, is a friendly place with salads, sandwiches, and good sangria. A new walkway allows you to stroll the mountain's entire perimeter near sea level. This route is continuous from Hotel Parma to the aquarium. Paths are technically open only from sunrise to sunset. Why are some of the directional signs defaced? Because you're in the land of Euskadi, not Spain — and to remind you, some proud Basque has spray-painted over the Spanish.
Monte Igueldo — For commanding city views (if you ignore the tacky amusements on top), ride the funicular up Monte Igueldo, a mirror image of Monte Urgull. The views over San Sebastián, along the coast, and into the distant green mountains are sensational day or night. The entrance to the funicular is on the road behind the tennis club on the far western end of Playa de Ondarreta, which extends from Playa de la Concha to the west. If you drive to the top, you'll pay a fee to enter.
Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum
In recent years, the cultural and economic capital of the País Vasco, Bilbao (pop. 500,000), has seen a transformation like no other Spanish city. Entire sectors of the industrial city's long-depressed port have been cleared away to allow construction of a new opera house, convention center, and the stunning Guggenheim Museum.
Bilbao feels at once like a city of the grim industrial past...and of an exciting new future. It mingles beautiful but crumbling old buildings; eyesore high-rise apartment blocks; brand-new, super-modern additions to the skyline (such as the Guggenheim); and, draping the lush green hillsides on the horizon all around, typical whitewashed Basque homes with red roofs. Bilbao enjoys a vitality and well-worn charm befitting its status as a regional capital of culture and industry.
Sights — Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum
While the collection of art in this museum is no better than that in Europe's other great modern-art museums, the building itself — designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997 — is the reason why so many travelers happily splice Bilbao into their itineraries.
Gehry's triumph offers a fascinating look at 21st-century architecture. Using cutting-edge technologies, unusual materials, and daring forms, he created a piece of sculpture that smoothly integrates with its environment and serves as the perfect stage for some of today's best art.
This limestone- and titanium tile–clad building looks like a huge, silvery fish, and connects the city with its river. Gehry meshed many visions. To him, the building's multiple forms jostle like a loose crate of bottles. They also evoke sails heading out to sea. Gehry keeps returning to his fish motif, reminding visitors that, as a boy, he was inspired by carp...even taking them into the bathtub with him. The building's skin — shiny, metallic, fish-like scales — is made of thin titanium, carefully created to give just the desired color and reflective quality.
A great way to really enjoy the exterior is to take a circular stroll up and down each side of the river along the handsome promenade and over the two modern pedestrian bridges.
Guarding the main entrance is artist Jeff Koons' 42-foot-tall West Highland Terrier. Its 60,000 plants and flowers, which blossom in concert, grow through steel mesh. A joyful structure, it brings viewers back to their childhood...perhaps evoking humankind's relationship to God...or maybe it's just another notorious Koons hoax. One thing is clear: It answers to "Puppy."
Descend to the ticket counters. Be sure to pick up a free audioguide when you pay — it explains Gehry's architecture in vivid detail and describes the rotating exhibits.
After presenting your ticket, you come upon the atrium. This is clearly the heart of the building, pumping visitors from various rooms on three levels out and back, always returning to this central area before moving on to the next. Only the floor is straight. The architect invites you to caress the sensual curves of the walls. Notice the sheets of glass that make up the elevator shaft: They overlap like scales on a fish. The various glass and limestone panels are each unique, designed and shaped by a computer — as will likely be standard in constructing the great buildings of the future.
From the atrium, step out onto the riverside terrace. The shallow pool lets the river lick at the foundations of the building. Notice the museum's commitment to public spaces: On the right, a grand and public staircase leads under a big green bridge to a tower designed to wrap the bridge into the museum's grand scheme.
As you enter, pick up the English brochure explaining the architecture and museum layout, and the monthly bulletin detailing the art currently on display. It's a nice supplement to the audioguide. Because this museum is part of the Guggenheim "family" of museums, the collection perpetually rotates among the sister Guggenheim galleries in New York, Venice, and Berlin. The best approach to your visit is simply to immerse yourself in a modern-art happening, rather than to count on seeing a particular piece or a specific artist's works. Gehry designed the vast ground floor mainly to show off the often-huge modern-art installations. Computer-controlled lighting adjusts for different exhibits. Surfaces are clean and bare, so you can focus on the art.
Twenty galleries occupy three floors. Use the handy touch-screens scattered throughout the museum to figure out exactly where you are and what's left to see, since the organic floor plan can be confusing. If you've always confused Klimt with Matisse, be sure to visit the espacio didáctico (learning area) on the third floor for its brilliantly concise timeline of all major art movements.
A small fishing port with an idyllic harbor and a fine beach, Lekeitio is an hour by bus from Bilbao and an easy stop for drivers. It's protected from the Bay of Biscay by a sand spit that leads to the lush and rugged little San Nicolás Island. Hake boats fly their Basque flags and proud Basque locals black out the Spanish translations on street signs.
Lekeitio is a teeming resort during July and August (when its population of 7,000 triples as big-city Basque folks move in to their vacation condos), and it's a sleepy backwater the rest of the year. It's isolated from the modern rat race by its location down a long, windy little road.
While sights are humble here, the 15th-century St. Mary's Parish Church is a good example of Basque Gothic with an impressive altarpiece. The town's back lanes are reminiscent of old days when fishing was the only industry. Fisherwomen sell their husbands' catches each morning from about 10:30 at the tiny Plaza Arranegi market (a block off the harbor). The golden crescent beach is as inviting as the sandbar, which — at low tide — challenges you to join the seagulls out on San Nicolás Island.
Lekeitio is a good base for car explorations of the area (coastal and medieval hill villages). The nearby town of Guernica (Gernika in Euskara, nine miles toward Bilbao) is near and dear to Basques and pacifists alike for good reason. This is the site of the Gernikako Arbola (oak tree of Gernika), which marked the ancient assembly point where the Lords of Bizkaia (Basque leaders) met through the ages to assert their people's freedom. Long the symbolic heart of Basque separatism, this was a natural target for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His buddy Hitler agreed to use Guernica as a kind of target practice in 1937. This historic "first air raid" — a prelude to the horrific aerial bombings of World War II — was made famous by Picasso's epic work, Guernica (now in Madrid).
For a taste of small-town País Vasco, dip into this enchanting, seldom-visited town. Much smaller and easier to manage than San Sebastián, and also closer to France (across the Bay of Txingudi from Hendaye), Hondarribia allows travelers a stress-free opportunity to enjoy Basque culture. While it's easy to think of this as a border town (between France and Spain), culturally it's in the middle of Basque Country. The town comes in two parts: the lower port town and the historic, balcony-lined streets of the hilly and walled upper town. For more on the Basque Country in France, see this article.