The homeland of the proud and resiliant Basque people is split between France and Spain. From our San Sebastián home base, we tour the ancient Basque capital of Gernika, the dazzling Guggenheim Modern in Bilbao, and then cross into France for more Basque Country charms. From yummy tapa bars to lightning-fast jai alai games, we'll experience Basque culture at its most vivid.
San Sebastián Gastronomic Club
Ramón Barea, who owns the San Sebastián Gastronomic Club, offers travelers the opportunity to enter one of San Sebastián's exclusive "private eating clubs" and even participate in preparing a gourmet dinner (mobile 650-862-202, www.bidainet.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Local Guide Itsaso Petrikorena
A local guide can help make your Basque visit more meaningful. Itsaso Petrikorena is good (mobile 647-973-231, email@example.com).
San Sebastían's Bar Herria
Bar Herria, which flies the Basque flag above its door, is on a street avoided by many locals opposed to the violent tactics of the ETA. I'd just get a drink here, and ponder the art, notices, and propaganda of the independence movement. Photos of masked political prisoners hang in a thought-provoking line above the bar (Calle Juan de Bilbao 14).
Gernika Assembly House and Oak Tree
In the Middle Ages, the meeting point for the Basque general assembly was under the old oak tree on the gentle hillside above Guernica. The tradition continues today, as the tree stands at the center of a modest but interesting complex celebrating Basque culture and self-government. The exhibit has four parts: A stained-glass window room, the oak-tree courtyard, the assembly chamber, and a basement theater where you can request the 10-minute video in English that extols the virtues and beauties of the Basque Country (on Allendesalazar, tel. 946-251-138).
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 designed the vast ground floor mainly to house often-huge modern-art installations. Computer-controlled lighting adjusts for different exhibits. Surfaces are clean and bare, so you can focus on the art. 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 (tram stop: Guggenheim, Metro stop: Moyua, Avenida Abandoibarra 2, tel. 944-359-080, www.guggenheim-bilbao.es).
Eglise St. Jean-Baptiste in St. Jean-de-Luz
The marriage of Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse put St. Jean-de-Luz on the map, and this church is where it all took place. The ultimate in political marriages, the knot tied between Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse in 1660 also cinched a reconciliation deal between Europe's two most powerful countries. The church, centered on the pedestrian street rue Gambetta, seems modest enough from the exterior...but step inside. The local expertise was in shipbuilding, so the ceiling resembles the hull of a ship turned upside down. The 1670 Baroque altar feels Franco-Spanish and features 20 French saints. The place has great acoustics, and the 17th-century organ is still used for concerts (mostly in summer, tel. 05 59 26 08 81, www.orgueluz.c.la).