The Basque Country: Food and Other Sights
The Basque Country, which is called “Euskal Herria” by its nationals, is the most mysterious region of Spain. When we think about this place, a lot of things come to mind: its beautiful nature, unique traditions, curious history or mouth-watering food! Mireia, who comes from the Basque Country, has exchanged her knowledge of the region for our editor’s oven time. She has generously shared tips on what to see in her homeland while feeding the aforementioned and already plump editor with her tasty homemade cupcakes.
How is the Basque Country different from the rest of Spain?
Every autonomous region of Spain has its own character, defined by its history and traditions, and Basque Сountry is one of the most distinctive of them. It’s much greener than the rest of Spain, very rainy and mountainous. The water on the Atlantic coast is colder than on the Mediterranean, so don’t count on swimming off-season! All in all, don’t expect to see a textbook Spain around you if you travel to Basque Сountry. The differences are not only in nature, but also in culture and traditions, and the Basque language is so unique that it doesn’t even belong to any other language family. You’re more prone to hear Spanish in big cities, but don’t expect to catch a word of it in small villages, everybody there speaks only Basque. The nationals of the Basque Country are used to tourists nowadays, and some of them can speak English, but I wouldn’t count on that.
Let’s start with the cities? What would you recommend to an urban tourist?
There are three big cities in the Basque Country: Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria. Bilbao is probably the most interesting and well-known of them all, at least, I, as somebody living nearby Bilbao, am sure of it!
Of course, a totally unbiased opinion is what we need :) So tell us more about your favorite city!
It used to be an industrial center, but about 20 years ago it was cleaned and transformed into an awesome touristic destination. The construction of Guggenheim Museum in 1997 really made the city pop out on the map. A unique outlandish building, designed by Frank Gehry is a must visit not just for its art collection, which is of course pretty impressive, but mostly for its amazing architecture. Apart from the iconic spider in the walking area surrounding the museum, there’s also a cute dog made of flowers, which if rather affectionately called “Puppy”. The space surrounding the museum is a pedestrian area, including a park, cafes, bars etc.
Another outstanding example of modern architecture to admire in the Basque Country is Euskalduna, a conference center and a concert hall, situated close to Guggenheim Museum. The area is one big architectural wonder, and the highlight of it is Campo Volantin Bridge constructed by the famous Santiago Calatrava. There’s a lot of controversies connected to the bridge, as though beautifully designed, the bridge proved to become very slippery during rains of which there are many in Bilbao, as you remember! This led to some necessary modifications in the bridge construction, for which Calatrava tried to sue Bilbao government. The bridge is still breathtakingly beautiful, just watch your step while taking a photo! :)
Bilbao has also a lot to offer to football fans: going to the local team’s match is a treat, mostly because of the all-friendly atmosphere at the stadium. The saying goes that the fans are the 12th player in Bilbao’s team. But even if you can’t recognize a goal when you see it, at least visit the stadium, which is, like so many buildings in the city, an outstanding modern building in itself!
Apart from the modern architecture, there is also, of course, the old quarter called “the seven streets”. Now it’s bigger and occupies much more than just the seven streets it owes its name to, but it keeps the old name. Strolling through the cozy streets surrounding the main square, you’ll discover a lot of shops, cafes and bars where you can have a rest and try pintxos (more on that later!). Although San Sebastian is a better place for that, as it is called the capital of pintxos. Just this reason would be enough to recommend visiting this city, but you can combine gastronomical pleasures with walking along La Concha beach or visiting Aquarium.
And what would you recommend to the nature enthusiasts?
A very nice place for a stroll is Parque Natural de Urkiola. It’s spread over Anboto mountain, where “Mari”, probably the main Basque mythology figure, is believed to reside. Nearby there is another natural park called Gorbea, featuring the highest mountain in the Basque Country. The hike to Gorbea mountain in not too complicated, so anyone can undertake it. Anboto hiking trail is a bit more difficult, but the view from the top is breathtaking. And then there is the Urdaibai estuary, another area more to the south, where you can locate Bosque de Oma. It is a truly unique forest, because the tree trunks have been painted by a famous artist, and these trunks construct different pictures if you look at them from different positions.
If you want to escape to the sea shore, then pay a visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – it’s an island connected to the mainland with a small strip of soil. There’s a bell tower on the top of the island, and if you climb it you should ring the bell three times and make a wish.
I really recommend visiting small villages in the Basque Country to get a taste of rural life there. Lekeitio, for example, is a very nice former fisherman’s village, and now a beautiful town on the coast. Elantxobe, Bermeo or Getaria are other cute fisherman villages worth visiting.
If you are into surfing, Basque county has a couple of places with good waves, Mundaka being one of them.
I’ve understood that the weather is not always perfect in the Basque Country, so when is the best time to go there?
The best time to go is summer, the normal temperature is about 24, so it’s very comfortable. But expect some rain anyway, regardless of the time you go :) There are not too many tourists in the region, so don’t worry about the crowds. Summer is also a great time because of the festivals. There are festivities in every city, most of them happening in August. You can go around and visit festivals in small villages if there’s nothing in the big cities at the moment. During a festival week, there’s no lack of different activities: popular dances, music, txaranga (people going around the streets playing on traditional instruments)… Traditional basque sports are all somehow connected with countryside: they test the competitors’ farming skills and strength. Some of the most popular are wood cutting, weight lifting (with rocks instead of weights) and tug of war. The fun doesn’t stop at the sunset: there are parties and concerts at the night, and you can hang out until sunrise. For cultural junkies festivals also mean higher concentration of theater and music performances. And the firework competitions won’t leave anyone unimpressed! Traditional costumes are very much cherished in the Basque Country, and a lot of people have a traditional dress at home and wear it on the festival.
Great! And now to something that’s very important to any tourist: food! What are Basque specialties and what’s especially worth trying?
In the Basque Country, people love eating and eat a lot! So prepare for some awesome gastronomic experiences! The most characteristic dish in the Basque Country is pintxos (read “pinchos”) – a small snack on a stick or on a plate, that goes with your drinks. Pintxos are usually on display in bars and you can choose everything you want to try. An average portion of pintxos is somewhere between 1 and 2 euros. They are made from different ingredients, some are vegetarian.
A nice option to wash down your pintxos is Txakoli, a traditional sweet white wine from the Basque Country. Or if you’re tough enough, you can try Patxaran, which is a much stronger alcoholic drink
Fish is omnipresent in Basque cuisine, and one of the most famous dishes with it is bacalao al pil-pil, which is codfish slowly cooked in oil sauce. And for meat lovers I recommend trying chuleton, which is just a very big and very tasty steak.
It you’re a bit of a sweet tooth, try carolina – a Basque dessert which is a meringue with a little bit of chocolate. You can find it in every sweet store in Bilbao, it’s very popular. Bollo de mantequilla, another famous pastry, is just a bun with buttercream inside, but it’s very tasty!
If you are in the Basque Country in summer, try walking into one of the ciderias. They are usually open from January until May, a cider season. Inside, all the visitors sit at one big long table and have self-served cider from huge barrels.
I got hungry just from listening to your descriptions! But before I run away to eat ALL THE FOOD, my inner linguist wants to learn more about the Basque language. I know it’s very unique, right?
The Basque language, Euskera, is so special because it’s an isolate language, meaning there are no languages sharing the same language family with it. It was forbidden during Franco’s regime, and now the local government tries to restore it and keep it alive. Basque is taught in all schools, and most schools have classes primarily in Basque. There are some differences between the official language and the one spoken in the streets. The language taught in schools if built as an average mix of all the dialects, which in real life are quite diverse. Some dialects compress words, some invent new ones, and even the grammar differs! Sometimes people from different villages even have difficulties understanding each other. Of course, people learning Euskera in school like me would be the ones having more difficulties, native speakers manage much better.
Can you teach the readers some phrases in Basque?
Of course, here are some of the basic ones:
Hi – Kaixo (k’aisho) / Aupa (aopa)
Thank you – Eskerrik asko (eskerric asko)
My name is – Nire izena ** da (nire isena ** da)
Goodbye – Agur / Aio
Thanks, Mireia, now we’re totally prepared to visit this amazing country!
P.S. If you’re curious to see what cupcakes Mireia did for our interview, here’s a pic!