The Basque Country (Basque: Euskadi, Spanish: País Vasco) is a region in Northern Spain. The name can also refer to all the land of the Basques (Basque: Euskal Herria) from a historical, cultural, linguistic and identity standpoint.
The Basques are the group of people who have inhabited this land for several thousand years.
- 1 Vitoria-Gasteiz — the capital of the autonomous community
- 2 Bilbao (Basque: Bilbo) — largest city of the region
- 3 Balmaseda – small town nestled in the mountains, an excellent base for exploring the wilderness
- 4 Getaria — top-notch fresh seafood at this fishing harbour
- 5 Guernica (Gernika) — a thriving commercial town with great historical and cultural significance for the Basque people. In 1937 it was devastated by the German air force under the command of the fascists. Bombing was an experiment for WWII.
- 6 San Sebastian (Donostia) — a provincial capital curved around a dramatic moon-shaped beach hedged in by cliffs
- 7 Fuenterrabía (Hondarribia) – a fishing town with a walled old town
The oldest remains discovered in the Basque Country are made of stone, dating from the Paleotlithic period (150,000 before Christ). The Neolithic period (4,500 to 2,500 BC) brought about a major change in people's lifestyle: the inhabitants built settlements and began to farm the land and raise livestock. In ancient times, today's Euskal Herria and adjacent areas were inhabited by ancestors of Basques who the Greek historian Strabon considered savages and warriors.
The land of Vascones became a kingdom in the ninth century when the nobles chose Iñigo (824-852) from the Aritza dynasty as king. The kingdom underwent many changes over the next few centuries under Castilian King Ferninand the Catholic invaded and subdued by arms peninsular Navarre Kingdom in 1512.
From the 12th to the 15th centuries villas (towns) and cities emerged, also with their own local fueros or charters and rights granted by kings. It was during this period that the so-called "foral territories" were created and agreements reached with the king, by which he would have authority over the land in exchange for respecting the territorial self-governments or fueros and rights.
The 19th century is characterised by a gradual loss of rights for the Basque people. The Kingdom of Navarre was incorporated as another province in Spain and the other three provinces of the south refused to become a single province, and therefore retained provisional status.
In the late 19th century new ideologies and political movements came into existence, such as socialism but especially Basque nationalism for the restoration of the rights and privileges of the Basque people, as did labour unions.
The first 3 decades of the 20th century came a flurry of political activity, followed by the military uprising led by Franco and a long civil war (1936–1939). In 1936 the Spanish Congress (Cortes españolas) passed the Basque Statute of Autonomy and Euskadi reestablished its self-government that had been demanding since the abolition of the rights and fueros. The entire Basque Country fell to Franco's troops in July 1937.
The Franco dictatorship (1939–1975) was a dark chapter. As the Basque country had been among the centres of anti-Franco activity and the Basque language was seen as a threat for Franco's vision of Spain, Basque cultural expressions, including the language, were banned. In part as a reaction to that, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna; "Basque country and freedom") formed to violently oppose first the Franco regime and then its democratic successors and fight for an independent Basque country. With the death of Franco and transitioning to democracy, the Basque language was legalised once more, and gained co-official status with Spanish within the region. ETA declared a ceasefire in 2010, and declared its dissolution in 2018, but open wounds still remain, especially since even the democratic governments of the 1980s used some extra-legal measures in fighting ETA.
The Basque area (Basque: Euskal Herria) is divided into three different legal and political entities, of which the first is what this article is about:
- Euskadi, the Autonomous Community of Euskadi comprises the territories or provinces of Alava, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. The capital cities are Vitoria-Gasteiz, Bilbao and Donostia-San Sebastián in the same order.
- Nafarroa, the Autonomous Community of Navarre. The capital is Pamplona-Iruña.
- Iparralde ("the northern part") or continental Euskal Herria, the French Basque Country in Pyrénées-Atlantiques, includes the territories of Lapurdi (French: Labourd), Zuberoa (French: Soule) and Behenafarroa (Lower Navarre; French: Basse Navarre). The capital cities are Baiona, Maule and Donibane Garazi (French: Bayonne, Maule, and Saint Jean Pied de Port, respectively).
Two of these administrative regions (A.C. of Euskadi and the A.C. of Navarre) are in Hegoalde (literally, the southern part in the Basque language) or peninsular Euskal Herria. The southern and northern Basque Country are divided into two states: Spain and France.
Euskal Herria is therefore the combination of seven historical territories divided into these three administrative regions.
Although today the term Euskal Herria defines a historical and cultural entity rather than a unified political or administrative region, it does share a significant amount of common heritage, culture, language, history and identity.
Often the term Basque Country is used to refer only to the autonomous zone (Euskadi), but mostly it refers to all the Basque region (Euskal Herria), including Navarre and the Basque territories in France.
The official languages of the Spanish region are Basque (Euskara) and Spanish. Spanish is the most widely spoken language, but there are Basque speakers as well. Practically everyone speaks fluent Spanish and Spanish is the language of choice in the larger cities like Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz, or San Sebastian, while Basque is more spoken in the countryside and again, most are bilingual in Basque and Spanish. 700,000 out of the Basque country's population of 2,100,000 speak Basque. From the region's location, you might expect this language to be a blend of Spanish and French, but Basque is unrelated to either of them and in fact, seems to be unrelated to any other known language.
Basque's large collection of grammatical cases, agglutinative morphology, and extensive use of suffixes to construct simple sentences make it a notoriously difficult language to master. Although the average traveller can get by with Spanish, any attempts to speak Basque or learn a few phrases will go a long way. The Basques are well aware of the fact that their language is difficult for foreigners and they don't expect you to be fluent in it.
In terms of foreign languages, the Basque Country is a bit of an anomaly in Spain. While the rest of the country is not known for its fluency in languages other than Spanish, Basques are more likely to be polyglots. English is not widely spoken, but staff members in major hotels and tourist areas will definitely know a few essential sentences, and most young people can carry a decent conversation. This also applies to German and French, the latter being widely spoken and understood in the areas bordering France.
- Bilbao-Bilbo: Airport is the largest in Basque Country, with a stunning terminal building designed by Santiago Calatrava. It has cheap flights with Easyjet to London and with Vueling to Barcelona and Malaga. There are many connections to other European cities with other companies as Iberia, Lufthansa, Bruxelles Airlines.
- Vitoria-Gasteiz: (VIT IATA)
- Biarritz: it has cheap flights with Ryanair from Dublin, London(Stansted), Shannon (Ireland) and Frankfurt, and with Sterling Airlines from Oslo and Copenhagen.
Daily connections with Madrid and Barcelona from Bilbo/Bilbao, Donostia/San Sebastian, Gasteiz/Vitoria and Iruña/Pamplona.
The motorway between Paris and Madrid goes through Baiona/Bayonne, Donostia/San Sebastian and Vitoria/Gasteiz. The tolls between Baiona and Donostia are pretty expensive. Another motorway links Iruña/Pamplona with Barcelona There are motorways between all the main cities: Bilbo-Gasteiz, Bilbo-Donostia, Donostia-Iruña, Gasteiz-Iruña.
Sooner or later people normally stop. It's better to hitchhike at the exits of the towns where the traffic is calmer than on the motorways. So many long-distance truck routes cross the Basque Country it should be quite easy to find someone to take you directly from Madrid or Paris to the Basque Country, and vice versa.
There is an extensive bus and train network
The roads are well signposted, but watch out for occasional monolingual signs in Basque.
- Guggenheim Museum. in Bilbao is world-renowned for its contemporary architecture and modern art. It was designed by Frank Gehry, and opened in 1997.
Alava, along with its neighbor La Rioja, on the other bank of the Ebro River, produces world-class wines and is especially famous for its robust reds.
Situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, Alava offers an easy rolling landscape, mild climate and vineyards everywhere. It is an ideal place for wineries to multiply, spread, consolidate and, in the process, amass large quantities of money for their owners. As these fortunes grow, new brands need to be created and fresh images must be marketed. One way some wineries achieve this is by using avant-garde architecture for the construction of their buildings.
In the little town of Elciego, the Marques de Riscal winery has one of these futuristic buildings designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry (he also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a hundred miles or so to the north). This time, however, he "pushed the envelope" (so to speak) of the Guggenheim style. He made the Guggenheim convoluted shapes flow more freely as if a storm were blowing on the outer surfaces and making them flap like flags in the wind. The result is absolutely astonishing. The sole purpose for the edifice is to be a temple to Bacchus, the god of wine!
A few miles away, just outside Laguardia, Santiago Calatrava, another famous architect, has created the Isios winery. (His work includes the modern Olympic stadium in Athens, Greece, and the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences/Performing Arts Centre, in Valencia, Spain.) Although not as much "out-on-the-edge" as the Marques de Riscal winery, its soaring, wavy roof set against the backdrop of the blue sky and the green mountain range is a sight to see.
The industrialist Solomon R. Guggenheim was inspired by Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen's love for modern art. Rebay laid more emphasis on art that is non-objective. Guggenheim is known for his debates on abstract art with Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, and Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky's Composition 8 was purchased by Guggenheim, which made the entire collection famous
- Come in mid-August for Bilbao's annual week-long festival.
- Sun, sea, sand and surf at numerous beaches along the coast from France towards Bilbao.
- Hiking, there a lots of possibilities all over the country.
Txakoli: white wine from the regions of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, also now produced in a part of Araba/Alava.
Rioja wines: produced in La Rioja, south of Araba/Alava and southwest of Nafarroa/Navarra.
Cider (Sagardoa in basque): is not like British or Nordic cider, it doesn't have gas and is more similar to the wine. Is mostly produced in Gipuzkoa around Donostia/San Sebastian but also in some parts of Nafarroa/Navarra and Bizkaia. In winter between January and March the cider cellars are open as restaurants where you can have dinner and you drink all the cider you want.
Kalimotxo: low quality wine with coke. Typical drink of teenagers and for parties.
Patxaran: sloe liquor. Typical after dinner. Tastes a bit like the cough medicine 'Night Nurse'.
Beer: if you want a tap beer (normally cheaper) you can ask caña or half caña called zurito. Normally the glass is not filled to the top and depending on the place, the barman or your face it could be a big or small measure.
With a rate of only 33.4 crimes per 1000 inhabitants, the Basque Country has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. Even in big cities, only a few areas (San Francisco in Bilbao, for example) are best avoided. Although violent crime is extremely rare, the usual precautions still apply; avoid being alone at night in side streets, keep an eye on pickpockets, and you should do just fine.
The ETA, which regarded itself the Basque national liberation army, declared a permanent ceasefire and cessation of armed activity in 2011, and surrendered its weapons to the French authorities in 2017. It never targeted visitors.
Although they have also become rarer, there is a chance of seeing acts of vandalism related to radical pro-independence movements, specially if you visit the Basque Country during a big pro-independence-demonstration day or politically relevant dates (the Gudari Eguna, the Aberri Eguna and some city festivals). Don't be alarmed, if you find yourself in the middle of a fight between the police and violent demonstrators: do what the Basques do, and go to the next street. In 30 minutes, everything will be probably finished.
It is advisable not to wear any Spanish symbols (Spain's national football (soccer) team T-shirts, Spanish flags or Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid club paraphernalia). Although no assaults on people wearing them have been recorded, some people may find them offensive or disrespectful, especially those who are supporters of Basque independence.
Basque politics are noted for being very complex, as the Basques are divided into several opposing camps – some who desire full independence from Spain, some who desire more autonomy, and some who are happy with the area's current status in Spain. Tread on political discussions carefully – Know the position that being a visitor puts you in.
The charms of southwest France, in particular the beach resorts and town of Biarritz, are a short hop across the border. Or travel due east to explore the rugged Pyrenees. To the west, Spain offers the mountains and coastline of Asturias and Galicia, the terminus of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Head south to Burgos and central Spain.
Other towns in the French Basque Country include Bayonne (Baiona), Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Donibane Garazi) and Mauléon-Licharre (Maule) – today bucolic places that combine the purest Basque tradition with French finesse. For centuries were sites of battles.
Pamplona (Iruña) is the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Navarre, where kings reigned all Basques. Today famous for the holidays and San Fermin festival that Ernest Miller Hemingway helped spread worldwide.