At a mere two hours flight from the United Kingdom, to which it is connected through all the major budget airlines, the Basque Country is often overlooked by tourists who crowd the better known South of Spain. Yet, the Basque Country has anything a traveler may be looking for, if not more.
One thing that makes the Basque Country even more special for those looking for a unique experience is that this is the first area of Spain through which the Northern route of the Camino de Santiago (which starts in Irún, France, and also goes through Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia and is only one of the many pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela) goes.
As I explained in my previous post, Walking the Camino del Norte to Santiago de Compostela, I was particularly keen to follow this pilgrims’ route as it promised to go through some beautiful coastal towns and villages; to offer some very scenic views and challenging hikes (from those going along the coast, to those that go deep into the mountains); to put me in contact with a unique culture and way of life; to make me taste some of the best food Spain has to offer and to be significantly less crowded than the rest of the country.
The Basque Country actually exceeded my expectations: I can confidently say I fell in love with it and I wholeheartedly recommend visiting and spending a good amount of time there.
Of the infinity of places worth visiting and things worth doing in the Basque Country, there are some that I particularly enjoyed. Here they are.
Bilbao is the lively capital of the Basque Country. It is a vibrant city packed with young people and the occasional pilgrim on his way to Santiago, as I am reminded by the yellow scallops that throughout Spain point the way to Santiago. Here, old meets new and next to the beautifully preserved old city, with its cobbled streets, traditional shops, gothic style buildings and churches such as the Basilica de Begoña, there are various example of state of the art modern architecture, such as the Guggenheim museum and the 17 bridges that span the banks of the river, among them the pedestrian bridge designed by Calatrava.
San Sebastián is one of the cities I enjoyed visiting the most and it is one of the many places that the Camino del Norte goes through. It is a pleasant coastal town, and in fact there are several gorgeous beaches with incredibly clear waters where multitude of locals head to to cool off in the hottest days of the summer. They actually are some of the nicest urban beaches I have ever seen! In particular, one of them receives a consistent amount of waves that make it a favorite among surfers.
The coast of the Basque Country is scattered with beautiful fishing villages. Of the many, I was captured by Pasai Donibane and Pasai San Pedro, whose narrow cobbled streets create a cozy environment where walking around is very pleasant. These are the kind of small coastal towns where life goes by slowly, everyone knows each other and always has a kind word for visitors. People stroll around with their dogs; children and younger crowds enjoy the summer and make a good show of it as they jump in the clear waters, using the balaustrades as diving boards.
Getaria is another charming fishing village on the coast. It is located at about 25 km west of San Sebastian. Famous for its many restaurants where it is possible to savor the delicious local fresh fish, it is wedged between two lovely beaches and there is an islet that is lovely to hike and from which there are incredible views. It is linked to Zumaia (another lovely fishing village) via a fantastic coastal hike.
Not far from Pasai San Pedro, Albaola, the Sea Factory of the Basques, is a great place to learn about the history, culture and traditional way of life of the Basque Country. This isn’t just a museum and a research centre: this is where historical whale ships are built, with the aim of recovering and showcasing the nautical craftmanship and technology which made the Basque Country the biggest trader in whale oil in history. In Albaola, I learned that ships built in the Basque Country sailed all the way to Newfoundland, in Canada, and after months of whale hunting the ships where filled with barrels of oil and made their journey back.
Another place I appreciated is the Zenarruza Collegiate Church, a national monument of the Basque Country. According to legend, the monastery of Zenarruza was built in the exact spot where an eagle dropped a skull, at the top of a hill from which there are beautiful views. When I visited, only a few pilgrims where there, thus making the experience very solitary.
Hikes, nature and wildlife
A great component of the northern route of the Camino de Santiago consists of lonely hikes (I have met very few pilgrims on this part of the country) through the untouched nature of the Basque Country. I often walked along the coast: for example, on the walk from Getaria to Zumaia I enjoyed splendid views of the coast and the countryside.
Something I didn’t know before visiting is that the Basque Country is along the migrating routes of various species of birds. It is with the idea to research and monitor the migration and reproduction cycles of birds that the Urdaibai Bird Centre was founded. This has stunning views over the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve (which was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984): from the centre, it is possible to observe various birds – including ospreys – that live and feed in the reserve.
Food and drinks in the Basque Country
Food in this part of Spain is particularly good, and eating is not only a physical necessity but also a social and cultural event. Most of the traditional food in the Basque Country is fish and seafood based – with tuna, cod and codfish (baccalao) being the main ingredients.
Hamaiketako – supposed to be just a snack to keep people going between breakfast and lunch (which is served much compared to the rest of Europe) – is a good reason to gather around a table, have a chat with locals and pilgrims alike, have a drink and savour some local specialties.
In Pasai San Pedro, the Taberna Muguruza is a great place for hamaiketako and strictly serves the catch of the day. When I visited, I had some delicious deep fried squid and a tuna and tomatoes salad, all accompanied with a glass of clara con limón, a refreshing beer and lemon soda drink.
Pinxtos are the Basque version of tapas and are a common way to have lunch on the go. They are served on a small slice of bread and a toothpick pierces them in the middle to keep all the ingredients together – in fact, the name pinxto comes from the Spanish “pinchar” – to poke, or stab. Common pinxtos include the Spanish tortilla (a potato and onion omelette) and small ham and cheese sandwiches, but there are also more elaborate ones that are real examples of haute cuisine.
Txokos are incredible places to eat, provided that one manages to actually get into. A txoko is literally a gastronomical society where members meet to cook, eat and experiment on food. The most traditional ones are only open to men. Txokos work by invitation only. I was lucky enough to be able to eat at a txoko and it was a memorable experience: I was able to poke around in the kitchen as the men cooked, and the cooking crew actually sat at the table to eat with me and the lovely guide (also a member) who brought me there. Needless to say, the food was delicious and the company truly enjoyable.
Basques are serious about their drinks too. Txacoli is a light, sparkling white wine that has been produced in the Basque Country for centuries but which in recent years has become a common drink to accompany (especially traditional) food.
Have you ever been to the Basque Country? What did you enjoy the most about it?
This article is written in partnership with Spain Tourism Board and the local tourism board of The Basque Country, and in cooperation with The Travel Mob as part of the #InGreenSpain and #VisitSpain campaigns. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.