The homeland of the proud and resilient Basque people is split between France and Spain. From our San Sebastián home base, we tour the ancient Basque capital of Guernica, the dazzling Guggenheim 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 Food offers travelers the opportunity to enter one of San Sebastián’s exclusive “private eating clubs” and even participate in preparing a gourmet meal. They also organize pintxo tours that have you hopping from bar to bar (includes food and wine) and Iberian ham-cutting courses with sherry tasting.
Playa de la Concha
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. Although it’s pretty empty off-season, sunbathers pack its shores in summer. 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. 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. It’s shaded by tamarisk trees, with branches carefully pruned into knotty bulbs each winter that burst into leafy shade-giving canopies in the summer — another symbol of the city.
A local guide can help make your Basque visit more meaningful. Itsaso Petrikorena is good (mobile +647-973-231, firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
Although the collection of art in this museum is no better than those in Europe’s other great modern-art museums, the building itself — designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997 — is reason enough for many travelers to happily splice Bilbao into their itineraries. Even if you’re not turned on by contemporary art, the Guggenheim is a must-see experience. Its 20 galleries, on three floors, are full of surprises, and it’s well worth the entry fee just to appreciate the museum’s structural design, which is a masterpiece in itself.
Bayonne’s Cathédrale Ste. Marie
Bankrolled by the whaling community, this cathedral sits dead-center in Grand Bayonne and is worth a peek. Find the unique keystones on the ceiling along the nave, then circle behind the church to find the peaceful and polished 13th-century cloisters.
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).
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi. I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re in for a stunning array of cultural treats — and it’s more than just great food. This is the land of the Basque people.
The land of the Basque people is one of Europe’s “nations without a state.” Its territory is split between France and Spain. With a stubborn spirit and an industrious nature, the Basques celebrate their rich heritage while embracing the future.
We’ll enjoy the classic Basque experiences in the classic Basque places — sunny beaches, spectacular modern architecture, tasty tapas, charming villages, venerable men’s clubs, a dramatic coastline, and a lightning-fast sport.
When they drew the national borders of Europe, the Basque nation was left out. While you won’t see this country on standard Europe maps, Basque people define their land like this, bounded by the Pyrenees Mountains and the Atlantic coast. We start in San Sebastián, tour Guernica and Bilbao, and finish in the French part of Basque Country, visiting Bayonne and St-Jean-de-Luz.
The independent-minded Basques are notorious for being headstrong. But, as a culturally and linguistically unique land surrounded by bigger and stronger nations, the Basques have learned to compromise while maintaining their identity.
Much unites the Spanish and French Basque regions: They share a striking Atlantic coastline with communities reaching far into the Pyrenees. They have the same flag, similar folk music and dance, and a common language, spoken by about half-a-million people. And both, after some struggles, have been integrated by their respective nations. The French Revolution quelled French Basque ideas of independence. And in the 20th century, Spain’s General Franco attempted to tame his own separatist-minded Basques.
But in the last generation, things are improving. The long-suppressed Basque language is enjoying a resurgence. And, because the European Union is interested in helping small ethnic regions as well as big countries, the Basques are enjoying more autonomy.
So, just who are the Basques? Sure, you can still find a few beret-capped shepherds that fit the traditional cliché. But the vast majority of Basques are modern and relatively prosperous city dwellers. Widespread Spanish and French immigration has made it difficult to know who actually has Basque ethnic roots. Locals consider anyone who speaks the Basque language to be Basque.
If you know where to look, Basque customs are strong and lively…perhaps nowhere moreso than in one of their favorite sports, called jai alai. Players use a long wicker basket to whip a ball, smaller and far harder than a baseball, off walls at more than 150 miles per hour.
For less adrenalin but just as much Basque culture, there’s the institution of the men’s gastronomic club. These clubs are common throughout Basque Country and range from the more working class communal kitchen type of place to the fairly highbrow more exclusive version with extensive wine cellars, and gastronomic libraries.
The clubs serve several functions: Traditionally, Basque society is matrilineal — women run the show at home. These provide a men’s night out. It’s also a place where friends who’ve known each other since grade school can enjoy quality time together, speaking Basque, and savoring traditional ways in an ever faster world. And, it’s a place where men cook together and celebrate the famed Basque culinary traditions.
While much of Basque region is in France, most of the land, industry, and people are in Spain. And many consider Spanish Basque culture to be feistier and more colorful than that of the more integrated French Basques.
The leading tourist destination in Spain’s Basque Country is San Sebastián. Shimmering above its breathtaking bay, elegant and prosperous San Sebastián — or Donostia as locals call their town — is your best home base for exploring Basque Country.
With its romantic setting on the sea, lively Old Town, and its soaring statue of Christ gazing over the city, San Sebastián has a mini–Rio de Janeiro aura.
Its shell-shaped Playa de la Concha, the pride of San Sebastián, boasts one of Europe’s loveliest stretches of sand. While sunbathers pack its shores in the summer, the elegant promenade is pleasantly devoid of commercialism.
For a century, the promenade’s wrought-iron balustrade has been a symbol of the city; it shows up on everything, from headboards to jewelry.
In the 1840s, Spain’s Queen Isabel II was a regular here on the beach. Her doctors recommended she treat her skin problems by bathing here in the sea. Spain’s aristocracy took note, and soon San Sebastián was on the map as a seaside resort.
By the turn of the 20th century, San Sebastián was the toast of the belle époque, and a leading resort for Europe’s beautiful people. Hotels, theaters, and casinos flourished. Even the anti-Basque dictator of Spain, Franco, enjoyed 35 summers here in a place he was sure to call not “Donostia,” but “San Sebastián.”
Huddled under its once-protective hill, is the Old Town. This is where San Sebastián was born about a thousand years ago. Its port, while sleepy today, has long hosted the town’s hard-working fishing boats. Because the town was almost entirely rebuilt after an 1813 fire, its architecture is generally Neoclassical and uniform. Still, the grid plan of streets hides surprises: ornate Baroque and Gothic churches, delightful plazas, and shops offering fascinating insights into this culture.
Local guide Itsaso Petrikorena is joining me so my window shopping will take on some meaning, such as the importance of salted cod.
Itsaso: This shop is all about cod. It’s very, very important for the Basque culture. Salted cod has been part of our culture, economy, and daily food. Historically, sailors used to have it in their boats. Now it’s a very, very big part of our cultural heritage as well as our gastronomy.
Rick: What is the word in Basque?
Rick: Like Spanish, bacalao.
Rick: And what is the recipe?
Itsaso: The recipe, you have to soak it in water for 48 hours.
Rick: So I can’t just take it now and eat it.
Itsaso: No, I’m afraid not.
Rick: Have to wait.
But there are plenty of taste treats you can eat right now. Shops show how, with the fertile land, Basque cuisine is rich and varied.
Itsaso: You are going to love this.
Itsaso: The cheese, idiazabal cheese, mixing with walnuts and apple jelly. Altogether.
Itsaso: Beautiful flavor.
Rick: Let’s have some. The three things together here?
Itsaso: Yes. A piece of these. Some walnuts. And we finish with some sweet, in this case is apple jam.
Rick: So it’s sheep cheese from the mountains, walnuts, and…
Itsaso: Apple jam.
Itsaso: It’s a good combination. This is a very traditional dessert here in the Basque land.
Rick: You have the salty and the sweet and the Basque cheese. How do you say “delicious” in Basque?
Itsaso: Oso ona.
Rick: Oso ona. Mmm, that’s very good.
Rick: So tell me about this marijuana store.
Itsaso: Well, in Spain, it is illegal to sell it, but you can grow it at home, but only for your own personal use.
Rick: Okay, so this shop would sell seeds and tools to help you grow at home.
As is the case in more and more countries, low key shops cater to the needs of locals who enjoy marijuana legally by growing it at home. If this variety of plant appeals, just ask for the proper seeds…and some grow lamps…maybe a handbook for this new niche in the gardening market…and then perhaps get the latest on just the right liquid fertilizer.
The Old Town’s main square, lined with inviting café tables today, is where bullfights used to be held. Balconies still sport their seat numbers. Above it all the seal of San Sebastián shows a merchant ship — a reminder of the Basque Country’s rich seafaring heritage.
Itsaso: People say the best food in Spain is in the Basque Country, and from the Basque Country, the best food is here in San Sebastián. Let’s go in. Let’s go!
Rick: I can hardly wait!
San Sebastián is famous for its many bars offering a dazzling array of tapas. They’re called pintxos in Basque. Basically, you belly up to the bar, point to what you like, and munch away.
Rick: Txangurro caliente.
Bar server: Caliente.
Zurito is a small beer in Basque. Don’t worry, they’ll keep track of what you eat and drink. It’s rude to put dirty napkins on the counter; they belong on the floor. No matter how much you like a place, save room for the next bar. You want to be mobile…that’s part of the fun.
Itsaso: San Sebastián, we have so many bars that I cannot even count them. We go bar hopping and every bar has its own specialty.
Rick: Its famous little treat.
Rick: Oh, good.
This bar is loved for its txangurro — that’s spider crab — and its mushrooms. This one’s a town favorite for shrimp. And they all serve txakoli — fresh white wine. Poured from high to aerate it, which adds sparkle, it’s good with seafood and, therefore, pairs well with Basque cuisine.
Bars display their pintxos mid-day and again in the early evening. And keep your eye out for bars with empty counters. The best tapas are often not the ones on display but the hot ones advertised on blackboards and cooked to order.
The specialty here: melt-in-your-mouth beef cheeks in a red wine sauce, pulpo (or octopus), and foie gras — grilled goose liver with apple sauce. Tasty delights — all coming out of a tiny kitchen.
Wandering the streets, you see there’s a political edge to the graffiti. This poster shows Basque separatists doing time in Spanish prisons for violent activities.
Rick: So, tell me about the separatist group, the ETA.
Itsaso: I’m proud to be Basque. However, we have three different mentalities. The first ones, ones that are very proud to be Spaniards or French citizenships.
Rick: So, Basque people content to be Spanish citizens or French citizens.
Itsaso: Some of them. People who want independence without violence.
Rick: So, the peaceful ones that want independence.
Itsaso: Yes, and the ones that are fighting for independence.
Rick: Okay, so, people who are willing to fight to make an independent, free Basque state.
Rick: And that group is the group supported by the ETA.
Itsaso: Yes, exactly.
Certain pubs have separatist sympathies. You’ll know by the photos of prisoners and political murals on the walls. While the struggle for Basque independence is in a relatively calm stage, with the vast majority opposing violent tactics, there are still underlying tensions between Spain and those among the Basques who aspire to more autonomy.
Traveling on, we enjoy pastoral scenes along a rugged coastline. Overlooking the Bay of Biscay the countryside here is green and lush.
An hour’s drive takes us to Guernica. The market town of Guernica has a workaday feel — typical of this region, which is one of Spain’s most industrial.
Visiting its stately parliament building you sense the importance of this town to Basque culture. Historically, leaders would gather in the shade of an old oak tree. And this new oak tree — supposedly a descendant of the original one — reminds the Basque people of their unique clan traditions.
In the adjacent assembly chamber, historic portraits of Basque lords surround today’s representatives. And high above, a medieval lord swears allegiance to the almost sacred book of Basque laws.
In the next room, a stained glass ceiling causes Basque hearts to stir. A sage leader standing under that venerated oak tree holds the “Old Law,” which provided structure to Basque society for centuries. Around him are groups representing the traditional Basque livelihoods: sailors and fishermen, miners and steelworkers, and farmers. And it’s all set in a classic Basque landscape.
While it does have deep-cultural roots, most people know Guernica for a horrific event in the years leading up to World War II.
Guernica was bombed flat in 1937. Because it was long the symbolic heart of Basque separatism, the city was a natural target for the dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His ally, Hitler, wanted a chance to try out his latest technology in aerial bombardment. The result: the infamous bombing raid that Picasso immortalized in his epic work, Guernica.
Picasso’s mural, considered by many to be the greatest antiwar work of art ever, tells the story. It was market day. The town was filled with farmers from the countryside. First, a single German warplane bombed bridges and roads leading out of the town. Then, more planes arrived. Three hours of relentless saturation bombing followed. People running through the streets were strafed with machine-gun fire. By sunset, the planes had left, leaving thousands of casualties and Guernica in rubble.
Nearby, the city of Bilbao has recently been transformed from a gritty steel town to a happening cultural center like no other Spanish city. Entire sectors of the industrial city’s long-depressed port have been cleared away to allow for new construction. This bridge is part of what’s now a delightfully people-friendly riverfront.
Bilbao’s Old Town is well worth a stroll. You’ll find tall buildings and narrow lanes lined with thriving shops and tapas bars.
A modern light -ail line conveniently laces the Old Town with points along the river to the sight which spearheaded Bilbao’s urban renaissance: the Guggenheim Museum.
While its art collection is impressive, it’s the building — designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997 — that’s created a stir in the world of architecture and put Bilbao on the traveler’s map.
Gehry’s groundbreaking design helped set a new standard for architecture. Using cutting-edge technologies, unusual materials, and daring forms, he created a piece of architectural sculpture that smoothly integrates with its environment. With the bridges, pedestrian promenade, and art all complementing the building, it’s an engaging ensemble.
Gehry was inspired by a variety of visions. For instance, to him, the building’s multiple forms jostle like a loose crate of bottles.
Guarding the main entrance is Jeff Koons’ towering West Highland Terrier — made of 60,000 living plants, which blossom in a carefully planned visual concert. A joyful structure, it takes viewers back to their childhood. “Puppy,” as it’s known to locals, was meant to be temporary, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with Puppy, so they bought it.
Stepping inside, you naturally flow to the museum’s atrium, which acts as the heart of the building, pumping visitors in and out of various rooms on three levels. The glass and limestone panels overlap each other like fish scales…each is unique, designed by a computer.
Joyful as the building is, the art it holds is even more fun. While the museum’s audio guides give meaning to the abstract art, my hunch is that the artists are entirely happy for us to simply wander, interact, and play with their creations. This is art that welcomes you in. Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum makes you smile.
From here, we leave the coast, and head inland. Within an hour, we cross into the French part of Basque Country. Traditional village settings reflect the colors of the Basque flag — red and white buildings nestled in the green of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Spared the beach scene development of the coast, these villages offer a more rustic glimpse of Basque culture.
Compared to their neighbors across the border back in Spain, the French Basques seem more integrated into French culture. You hear the language less on this side of the border. But, still, this area blends the French and Basque influences into its own distinct style.
It seems that every small French Basque town has two things in common: a church and a court called a frontón. These courts, where Basque-style pelota (or handball) is enjoyed by experts and beginners alike, dominate town centers and add a unique ambience.
The inviting town of Espelette is worth a short stop. It’s famous for its red peppers — with strands of them dangling like good-luck charms from many houses and storefronts.
Higher in the foothills of the Pyrenees is the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Like many of these villages, it’s a hit with hikers. Most are simply on vacation, trekking between Basque villages or heading from the villages higher into the Pyrenees. But, since the Middle Ages, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port has been the historic departure point for pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela — 500 miles away in the northwest corner of Spain.
With its mix of day tripping families and determined pilgrims using the town as a spring board for the time-honored pilgrimage, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port has an endearing energy.
To feel the urban pulse of French Basque Country, visit Bayonne, back down on the Atlantic coast. In the town’s old center, tall, slender buildings, decorated in Basque fashion with green and red shutters, tower above narrow streets.
Bayonne’s cathedral, funded by its former whaling industry, stands bold and tall amid quaint lanes. We’re here on a Sunday, when the streets are quiet, but surprises reward those who poke around. This group is celebrating its cultural roots. While we’re in Basque Country, these dancers made it clear to us that rather than being Basque, they were of Gascony descent — from a time when the English ruled this bit of France. Just another reminder of the ethnic complexity of Europe.
For a dose of French Basque sporting culture we’re checking out a jai alai match. While kids play on the village courts, the pros take the game to another level. And the audience takes the sport just as seriously. The mascot is cute, the crowd’s revved up, the sport is lightning-fast, and the rocketing ball clearly holds everyone’s attention.
The nearby port town of St-Jean-de-Luz is my favorite home base here in French Basque Country. Cradled between its small port and gentle bay, today it thrives on tourism. The days when whaling, cod fishing, and pirating made it wealthy are long gone.
St-Jean-de-Luz feels cute and non-threatening today, but in the 17th century, it was a home port to the fearsome Basque Corsairs. These pirates looted and plundered with the French government’s blessing.
And the wealth they brought home is evident in the town’s fine timbered buildings. The main square, Place Louis XIV, is a hub of action and serves as the town’s communal living room. It was named for King Louis 14th, who was married here in a small church just down the street.
In 1660, in this beautiful church, little St-Jean-de-Luz hosted one of the greatest political marriages of all time. The king of France, Louis XIV, married the daughter of the king of Spain. This helped to end a long period of fighting and forged an alliance between Europe’s two greatest powers. Why here? Well, one of the reasons is it’s about half way between Madrid and Paris.
But today, 350 years later, it’s all about fun in the sun. Holiday goers fill the cobbled streets. A high embankment is ideal for a lazy stroll. And the soft, sandy beach, which is lovingly groomed every day, is the playful haunt of sun-seekers and happy children alike. In the heat of the summer, St-Jean-de-Luz tempts travelers to toss their itineraries into the bay.
The Basques — even though split between France and Spain — remain a vital culture. And a visit here provides a vivid look at the resilience of Europe’s smaller ethnic groups. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’.
Rick: It’s hot. It’s hot. Sorry Karel, it’s, like, burning hot.
Rick: And before long San Sebastián was a regular on a big-time beach resort map.