The Basque Country is a region where approximately 3 million people identify as Basque and speak the language Euskara, a language which is difficult to understand for people coming from other surrounding regions (or so I’m told). The region consists of the North Basque Country (located in the South of France) and the South Basque Country (located in the North of Spain).
The Basque Country is relatively small in size, meaning you can easily see all of it in a week if you decide to rent a car. Which is what we did. We decided our epicentre will be Bilbao and we’ll simply take day trips to the surrounding cities.
Cantabria: Santander and Altamira
Funny enough the first day started with a trip outside of the Basque Country. Just an hour drive from Bilbao is Altamira, a little city that is home to one of the oldest cave paintings in the world. Most of the paintings trace back to 16,000 bc., while there’s also one painting which is supposed to be over 35,000 years old. How crazy is that?! The painting’s motives include bison, horses, and goats, while there’s also a couple of interesting unexplained symbols and handprints. The paintings were created using charcoal and ochre. Because the paintings attracted many tourists, the CO2 they produced stared having a negative effect on the paintings. Therefore they decided to close off the caves and create a replica, which is what you can see nowadays. The site is now declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. Accompanying the cave’s replicas is also a fantastic historical and ethnographical museum, which was completely for free.
Not far from the caves, there’s also a sea-side city Santander, which is just a beautiful coastal city, definitely worth taking a walk around.
On our second day, we decided to go to San Sebastian, one of the Basque’s most famous city due to its natural beauty and pintxos. Now if you don’t know what pintxos are, listen up! Pintxos (or pinchos in Castellano) are sort of appetizers said to originate from the Basque Country. The food varies, ranging from seafood and meat to vegetables and fruits, usually presented on a small piece of bread. They’re called pintxos a.k.a. toothpicks because that’s what is used to hold the delicacy together. They are most often self-served and when you’re ready to take the check, the waiter or waitress will simply count the pintxos left on your plate and hand you the bill.
San Sebastian is a cute small city, perfect for a walk-around, sightseeing, and treating yourself to some delicious food and wine. We went to Baztan Pintxos and really liked everything, from the food to the wine and service. But in general, I think almost anywhere you go around the Consitución Plaza, you’re bound to find something delicious.
On he third day we decided to visit Vitoria-Gasteiz, which is actually (surprising to many) the capital of the Basque Country. Have you ever heard of it? Me neither, but I’m really glad I got the chance to visit. Victoria-Gasteiz is one of the greenest cities in Europe and was even declared to be the European Green capital of 2012. The reason for this is they actually have a green belt around the city which is full of parks and lakes, ideal for sports, relaxation, and fresh air. It’s also the home of Artium, a word class modern art museum, numerous murals around the city, and old city walls. For lunch, we stopped at Bar Toloño, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone who visits the city. They have a selection of daily specialities and pintxos, which will blow your mind for just a couple of euros each.
By far, the most famous city in the Basque Country in Bilbao, home of one of the two Guggenheim museums in the world. Besides from the one in New York, for a second there they also opened one in Las Vegas, which shut its doors in 2008 as it seemed that people didn’t come to Las Vegas to see world-class art. Who would have thought?
Anyhow, Bilbao was by far my favourite city of the Basque Country. Besides from the really impressive architecture, there are also really good and unique cafés, restaurants, and bars waiting to be discovered. The old city centre, main train station, and the fish market are all really impressive and you can watch the sunset over the city by taking the Artxanda Funicular. If you’re looking for a good place to eat, I’d definitely recommend trying out El Globo, which is one of the oldest Bilbao restaurants. The restaurant prides itself on delicious pintxos but they also have great deserts and beer on tap. We also stopped for a coffee at Pacifico, which has really nice décor and vibe to it. It’s located right next to Azkuna Zentroa, a cultural centre, which I would really recommend visiting. Besides from seeing an incredible temporary exhibition by one of the pioneers in feminist art, Margeret Harrison, we were just really impressed by the building. There are individually designed pillars, a large library, a restaurant / café and more – the perfect hangout spot for cultural geeks like myself.