The Basque Country is an autonomous community in northern Spain where locals have their own language, culture, traditions and food. Here’s a quick guide to its three provinces, 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 that make up the Basque Country. It has a mix of built-up cities (Bilbao is its biggest), towns and remote villages. The coastline stretches for 150km, with beaches, cliffs and small fishing villages dotted throughout. The UNESCO site of the ‘hanging bridge’ of Vizcaya, crossing 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 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 and a walk 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 Bikzaia, it’s also along the coastline of the Cantabrian Sea, with its main city San Sebastián (known as Donostia in Basque) being along these shores. As well as having beautiful beaches (the crescent-shaped La Concha being the most popular), San Sebastián 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-starred restaurants per square kilometre than any other place in the world, bar Kyoto in Japan.
Further along the coast from San Sebastián, the coastal towns of Getaria, Zarautz, Hondarribia and Mutriku also have some beautiful beaches and attractions. There are also the unusual geological formations of the cliffs of Deba and Zumaia, which make up the Geoparkea, awarded UNESCO Global Geopark status in 2015. It’s scenically wedged between the mountains and coast and the layers of rock show more than 60 million years of history, dating back to the extinction of dinosaurs.
Further inland, there are valleys, mountains and nature reserves such as Aioko Harria and Aralar. Throughout the province there is a mix of architecture, mostly in Romanesque and Baroque styles. The shrine of La Antigua in Zumarraga and the Loiola basilica in Azpeitia are good examples of each that are worth visiting.
The southernmost province of the Basque Country is Araba. Unlike the other two it doesn’t border the sea, being a predominantly hilly region between Ebro River and the Cantabria mountains. Araba borders La Rioja and its landscape makes it ideal for wine-making. Rioja Alavesa has a number of vineyards producing the infamous Tempranillo wines, some of which are aged in medieval caves, and there are bodegas (wineries) that you can visit.
Given its scenery, this province is great for mountain hiking; the medieval town of Laguardia, which sits atop a hill in the middle of a 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 are four national parks and nature reserves to explore, as well as several reservoirs, which offer a range of adventure activities and outdoor sports for visitors.
Elsewhere, the main city of Vitoria – known as Gasteiz in Basque and also the capital of the Basque Country – is best known for its Gothic cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, its well-preserved Old Town, plus its art galleries and museums.
Like the rest of the region, Araba 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.