The name Euskal Herria is how the natives of the Basque Country refer to their land. It simply means, “land of the Basque speakers.” And Basque has been spoken by the feisty inhabitants well before the Romans ever arrived. Their full history as well as the origins of their language have long been shrouded in mystery. However, their identity is very evident. This can be seen in the plethora of Basque music, dance, sports, festivals and food – all of which are celebrated with great fervor by the Basques.
Even with this strong identity, a new image of the Basque Country is emerging. Bilbao, which is now a mecca for design and architecture was, until some decades ago, a city full of decaying industrial complexes. The city underwent a transformation and some of the finest architects in the world were invited to leave their mark. The Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry is the most well known example and it’s now the number one tourist destination in the entire Basque region.
San Sebastian is also redefining the Basque image around the world with its extraordinary cuisine. The city has two restaurants ranked in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and in addition, has 15 Michelin stars spread across 7 restaurants. It is also one of the best places to eat pintxos – culinary creations in miniature form, similar to Spanish tapas but better. San Sebastian isn’t the only place to eat amazing food. Located just 20 minutes up the coast, the beautiful town of Hondarribia is quickly becoming a hotspot for foodies. And once you’ve eaten all that tasty food then a trip to Spain’s best wine region – la Rioja – is not far off.
Bilbao is the beating heart of the Basque Country as well as the region’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Bilbao’s main draw for visitors is, without a doubt, the Guggenheim Museum. This impressive building designed by the architect Frank Gehry, is considered to be one of the most important structures of contemporary architecture. The construction of the Guggenheim marked an important turning point in the history of Bilbao. Over the past several decades, the city has undergone a huge transformation. The old decaying industrial complexes along the river have been ripped up and a new modern Bilbao has emerged. Countless world class architects have since left their mark on the city. Today, in addition to the Guggenheim Museum, there is a timeless Metro system designed by Sir Norman Foster, an airport and a bridge from Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and a community center (Alhondiga) designed by Philippe Starck. The list goes on and on.
San Sebastián, or Donostia as it is called in Basque, is a majestic city with beautiful beaches and an impressive culinary scene. The city was first made famous during the Belle Époque era and is where Queen Maria Cristina established her royal summerhouse. Since then, San Sebastián has attracted wealthy beach-goers in search of sun and sophistication. And it’s no wonder why. The city’s main beach, called La Concha, is for sure the most beautiful urban beach in Europe. Luxurious beachside mansions run along La Concha, as well as the famous spa called La Perla (The Pearl) and its boardwalk is lined by an ornate white railing that has become a symbol of the city. If that already weren’t enough, there are two additional beaches in San Sebastian, one of which is also very popular with surfers.
In more recent years, San Sebastián has gained significant press for its cuisine. The city alone has 15 Michelin stars spread across 7 restaurants and famously boasts more stars per capita than anywhere else in the world other than Tokyo. Restaurants Mugaritz and Arzak have been ranked numbers 6 and 8 in the world and Martín Berasategui number 34 (2014 World’s 50 Best Restaurants). It is in many ways like a mini Paris, except in Basque style.
Gernika is known throughout the world due to the painting by Pablo Picasso that bears the same name (although spelled the Spanish way, “Guernica”). It was this town that was bombed in 1937, the events of which inspired Picasso’s most famous piece of art. The bombing by German and Italian air forces took many lives and left the town utterly destroyed. The destruction of Gernika was ordered by Francisco Franco in an attempt to overthrow the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War.
San Fermin – Running of the Bulls
The San Fermín festival and the legendary running of the bulls, attracts over a million visitors every year to Pamplona. The festival starts the 6th of July at 12:00 PM with the “txupinazo,” a small firework that is fired from the balcony of the City Hall. During the week of San Fermín, Pamplona is flooded with party-goers from all over the world each donning a white t-shirt and a red handkerchief. The activities and events of the festival consist of concerts, rural sport competitions, Basque dance and music, nightly fireworks shows and much more.
The Basque Country has its own unique food culture that revolves around the bar. Pintxos (bite-sized appetizers, similar to tapas) can be found in nearly every bar. Often the bar counter will be filled with plates of all different varieties. They range from being rather traditional to very experimental in nature. It is typical to find the locals out enjoying a drink while sampling different pintxos and then going on to the next bar to do the same thing all over. This is sometimes done before a meal as a kind of aperitif or it can take the place of a normal meal. In addition, every city and town has yearly competitions for the best pintxos and the winning trophies are proudly displayed within the bars.
The Sagardotegi (sidrería in Spanish), is another special Basque tradition. It is a type of cider house that is found within the Basque countryside. These restaurants serve a traditional set menu with their highlight being the enormous txuleton steak. This mouth-watering slab of un-adulterated beefy goodness weighs in at around one kilo and like the other plates are shared by those at the table. The other highlight of the sidrería is the endless supply of cider from giant wooden barrels (kupelas in Basque). The sidrería is a great chance to experience something uniquely Basque and eat like a king.
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