The Basque Country - Part One: Green Spain


By Hilarie Larson

On Big Blend Radio, travel writer Hilarie Larson discusses her visit to the Basque Country of Spain that blends a mysterious past with a re-energized eye to the future.

The Basque Country of northern Spain has always had its share of mystery.  From their unique language to the ‘sirimiri’ mist that clings to the verdant green hillsides ‘Euskaudi’ is at once intimidating and hospitable. It’s a land that transverses national boundaries and treasures its ties to the sea.  The binding quality is pride – in their unique culture, history, and love of life.

Spanish Basque Country lies along the coast of the Bay of Biscay in the northern reaches of the country. Dramatic, emerald-green mountain slopes cascade down to the rugged coastline resulting in beautiful sandy beaches and spectacular rock formations. It’s no surprise that the culture revolves around both the sea and fertile valleys of the Basque mountains.

The Basques have been in this part of the world longer than anyone knows with certainty, perhaps back to the Cro-Magnon era, around 30,000 years ago. They survived invasion by the Romans and the Visigoths, numerous wars and conflicts plus the fascist regime of Ferdinand Franco. The Basque Country is now one of seventeen autonomous communities as outlined in the Spanish Constitution of 1978. It has its own government, parliament, and judiciary. 

Many of the early New World explorers were Basque, including Juan Sebastián Elcano who was the first to circumnavigate the globe. They also take credit for discovering North America before Columbus when Basque fisherman followed schools of cod to the Outer Banks region. And as far back as the 7th century, the Basque’s became the first commercial whalers, pursuing the creatures as they wintered in the Bay of Biscay. Basques even invented the modern rowing regattas – a tribute to the heroism of the early whalers.

The language, known as Euskara, is linguistically distinct from any other European dialect and scientists now think it may be linked to Armenian, adding to the mystery. There’s a multitude of ‘tx’ and ‘tt’ (pronounced like English ‘ch’) along with abundant use of ‘z’ which sounds like the soft hiss of a snake. Although villages may have their own individual vernacular, the Euskara language is a unifying force for the Basques.  They don’t have a word for ‘Basque,’ calling their land ‘Euskal Harria’ – the land of the Esukera Speakers.  Outlawed during the Franco era (1939-75) many who grew up in those years only learned Spanish with, perhaps, a smattering of Basque spoken by their elders.  Today, Euskara is the official language and proudly taught in schools – some exclusively.

While geographically small Spain’s Basque Country has much to see and explore.

The city of Bilbao is the largest in the Pais Vasco (Basque Country) and a must for any visitor to the area.  Founded in 1300, Bilbao became the main port for the export of Merino wool and other Spanish products making the city vibrant and wealthy. During the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, Bilbao maintained its importance mostly due to the vast iron deposits mined nearby.  Smelters lined the river Nervión lighting up the night sky.  At the end of the Franco era in 1975, the mines were exhausted, and the docks began to close.   Thousands were without work, and the once dynamic Bilbao was a polluted, grimy shadow of its former glory.

The Basque Nationalist Party wanted to revitalize the city and pursued the Guggenheim Museum who was looking for a European home.  Opening in 1997, the building designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry was both controversial and beloved, becoming the focal point of the ‘new’ Bilbao – a center of art and investment.

The titanium, stone and glass structure sits on the banks of the river, reminiscent of the ships that plied their way through the waters for centuries. 

Outside, you’ll find some of the museum’s most iconic works. Jeff Koon’s ‘Puppy,’ a 12 meter ( 39.5 ft) sculpture of a Highland Terrier, completely carpeted with live flowers, graces the street level entrance. Along the riverside, you can see the colorful ‘Tulips,’ also by Jeff Koons, perched above a reflecting pool which showcases Yves Klein’s ‘Fire Fountain,’ ‘Fog Sculpture’ by Fujiko Nakaya and ‘Tall Tree & Eye’ and stainless and carbon steel sculpture consisting of 73 reflective spheres. One of the most towering sculptures in the world, giant spider ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois watches over the La Salve Bridge, itself partially a work of art with the Red Arch by Daniel Buren.

A short walk from the Guggenheim, the Fine Arts Museum reveals the true spirit of the Basques and Bilbao.  Displays are organized according to the Basque Alphabet and will lead you into this most intriguing and mythical culture.

Bilbao is an incredibly walkable city with numerous bridges crossing the River Nervión.  The Zubizuri (white bridge) is, if not the most famous, the most contentious.  It was designed by Salvador Calatrava one of Spain’s most lauded architects who also designed the controversial Bilbao airport known as ‘La Paloma’ (The Dove).  The original glass tile floor proved slippery – not surprising in a city that gets 128 days of rain each year – and has been covered with non-slip carpeting.

The Casco Viejo or Old Town rose up around the historic center – the 7 streets of Bilbao.  It’s the perfect spot to ramble, explore, and soak in the daily life of the city.  You’ll find numerous restaurants and bars serving the Basque version of tapas, known as Pintxos.  While tapas are small plates meant to be shared, Pintxos are small bites, often served with a toothpick skewer or piled artistically atop a slice of baguette.  Locals will stop in for a pintxo or two with a small glass of wine, cider or beer, whenever the need for a little snack arises. With over 3,000 different types to try, you’ll never be bored.

Add in scores of beautiful parks, pedestrian avenues, fabulous restaurants, shops, galleries, and museums, and you’ll realize Bilbao is a city that can capture your heart.

Traveling by bus, train or car between the main cities of Bilbao and Donostia-San Sebastián reveals the ties that bind the Basque to the sea.

The distinctive coastline will be familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones.  ‘Dragon Isle’ was filmed at the hermitage of San Juan de Gazelugatxe, located between Bermeo and Bakio just east of Bilbao. These types of incredible rock formations continue eastward towards the resort beaches of Ondarrao and Mutriku, to Zumaia and Zarautz, part of the Santiago de Compostela trail.

The vineyards of Getaria, one of the three sanctioned DO (Denominacion de Origen) in Basque country, cascade down the hillsides towards the sea. The vines are mostly Hondarrabi Zuri -an indigenous variety used to create the area’s local wine, Txakoli.  For a long time, this light, spritzy, and refreshing wine was considered just local ‘plonk.’  In recent decades local winegrowers and producers have banded together to improve techniques and quality controls. Increasingly, the world is discovering this distinctive, delicious wine that tastes of the sea.

The town of Getaria is also famous for anchovies – not those little bony things familiar to most, but small, delicate fish preserved in olive oil.  They are the perfect start to a meal enjoyed in a harbor front bistro alongside impeccably fresh, grilled turbo or hake.  Here, you can still dine like a Basque fisherman.

As well as being the hometown of Juan Sebastién Elcano, Getaria was the birthplace of famous clothing designer Cristóbal Balenciaga.  A small museum in the village highlights his incredible career and influence on 20th-century couture while his gravesite overlooks the vineyards and the sea.

If Bilbao is art and industry, San Sebastián (aka Donostia in Euskara) is all about cuisine, culture and the sea. The River Uremea which runs through the city was once considered a significant transportation artery, ensuring that throughout history, San Sebastián was a coveted prize.  From the Romans to the Castilians and on to Napoleon, the city was sacked and burned numerous times.  In 1863 the original walls were demolished so that the city could be rebuilt and expanded.  San Sebastián became a chic summer playground for the Spanish nobility and diplomatic set when, in 1885, Queen Maria Christina decided to make the city her annual summer residence.  Her home, Miramar Palace, faces Playa de la Concha and is considered one of the world’s most beautiful city beaches.

When it comes to food, San Sebastián has the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, and it’s where the ‘New Basque Cuisine’ movement took hold in the mid-1970s.  A group of Basque chefs returned home after studying the ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ of France.  Their philosophy – fresh, local, seasonal ingredients prepared to showcase quality – has proved the cornerstone of modern cuisine.

The Parte Vieja or Old Town is a wanderer’s nirvana.  You’ll find colorful flower and vegetable stalls, the ‘Pescadaria,’ an incredible indoor fish market, intriguing one-of-a-kind boutiques and miles upon miles of Pintxos bars.  After all, many believe this is where the idea of pintxos began, although some would beg to differ. Order a glass of Txakoli, and they’ll pour it into a glass tumbler from an awe-inspiring height, adding ‘Bizigarri’ – a bit of fizz and ‘that something special.’

Where to stay:

Miró Hotel – Gracious hospitality from the moment you arrive at this charming, modernist boutique hotel steps from the Guggenheim, Fine Arts Museum and everything you could want. Breakfast with locally sourced honey, jams, eggs, and organic bread is a ‘must-do’ whether you stay here or not.

Hotel Abando – Modern accommodation on a quiet side street near the Casco Viejo (Old Town), the Gran Via shopping district and charming Jardin Albia park.  A perfect location for those who love to ramble.

Gaintza Txakolina – Sleep among the vines at this tiny winery hotel located above the seaside village of Getaria.  The rooms are spacious with views of the vineyards and the Bay of Biscay.  Join the Lazkano family for a tour, tasting, and traditional foods and experience genuine Basque hospitality.

Learn more:

Txakoli – the ‘other’ Basque Wine –

Donostia-San Sebastián Tourism –

Read Part Two of Hilarie Larson’s Basque Story Series – Please see From Sea to Vine.

The author was hosted by Wine Route Rioja Alavesa and the International Wine Tourism Conference.  All observations and opinions are her own.

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries.

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