The Basque Country is an autonomous community in northern Spain, bordering France — here, the locals have their own language, culture, traditions and food. Here’s a quick guide to the three provinces: Bizkai, Guipúzcoa and Álava. By Tamsin Wressell.
In the westernmost part of the region, this province lies on the shores of the Bay of Biscay and is the most populated of the three provinces in the Basque Country. It has a mix of built-up cities (Bilbao is its biggest), towns and remote villages. The coastline stretches for 93 miles with beaches, cliffs and small fishing villages dotted throughout. The Unesco site of the Hanging Bridge of Vizcaya, covering the mouth of the Ibaizabal estuary, can also be found along the coast as well as the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve and the wild peninsula of San Juan de Gaztelugaxte.
The capital, Bilbao, is best known for its modern architecture, being home to Frank Gehry’s avant-garde creation, the Guggenheim Museum. The titanium building is an incredible feat, with a giant flower-covered dog statue outside and over 250 works of contemporary art inside. The museum sits on the banks of the Estuary of Bilbao — walking along the river also takes in other galleries and museums. Elsewhere in the city, there’s a great design and gastronomy scene. Much like the rest of the Basque Country, the food in this province is strongly centred around seafood, given its proximity to the sea, with popular dishes including grilled sea bream and bacalao a la vizcaína (cod with olive oil, onions and red peppers).
In the province’s interior, the towns of Durango, Elorrio, Balmeseda, Otxandio and Orduña are also worth visiting to get a real feel of the area.
In the eastern part, this province borders the region of Navarra to the south and France to the east. Like Bikzai, it’s also along the coastline of the Cantabrian Sea, with its main city Donostia-San Sebastian being along these shores. As well as having beautiful beaches (the crescent-shaped La Concha being the most popular), San Sebastian is renowned for its food. Pintxos, the small plates of ‘haute cuisine’ that are native to the Basque Country, were invented here and the city has more Michelin-star restaurants per square kilometre than any other place in the world, bar Kyoto in Japan.
Further along the coast from San Sebastian, the coastal towns of Getaria, Zarautz, Hondarribia and Mutriku also have some beautiful beaches and attractions. There’s also unusual geological formations of the cliffs of Deba and Zumaia in Geoparkea, which has heralded UNESCO Global Geopark status. It’s scenically wedged between the mountains and coast, covering 90 kilometres. The layers of rock formation in the cliffs here show more than 60 millions years of history on Earth, dating back to the extinction of dinosaurs.
More inland, there’s valleys, mountains and nature reserves, like Aioko Harria and Aralar which are worth visiting. Throughout the province is a mix of architecture, too, mostly showing examples of Romanesque and Baroque styles. The shrine of La Antigua in Zumarraga and the Loiola basilica in Azpeitia are worth checking out for their architectural styles that are typical of the region.
The most southern province of the Basque Country is Álava — unlike the other two, it doesn’t border the sea. It’s predominantly a hilly region, with chalk and limestone mounds that are in between Ebro River and the Cantabria mountains. Álava borders La Rioja and its landscape makes it ideal for supporting wine-making. Rioja Alavesa in the province has a number of vineyards producing the infamous Tempranillo wines (some of which are aged in medieval caves) and bodegas (wineries) which can be visited.
Given its scenery, this province is great for mountain hiking — the medieval town of Laguardia, which sits atop a hill in the middle of the valley — is great for panoramic views of the area. It’s also an important place for Paleolithic and archaeological remains, as well as medieval and Roman artefacts, with the whole town being enclosed in walls built in the 13th century.
There’s four national parks and nature reserves to explore as well as several reservoirs, which offer a range of adventure activities and outdoor sports to visitors.
Elsewhere, the main city of Vitoria (which is also the capital of the Basque Country) is best known for its Gothic cathedral of Santa Maria de Vitoria, its well-preserved Old Town and its surrounding green grounds, plus its art galleries and history museums.
Like the rest of the region, Álava is a great spot for its gastronomic culture, also serving up local pintxos, with its towns and cities holding regular food festivals throughout the summer.