FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Kick Back in Basque Country

by Felicity Long

Jul 1, 2017
July 2017

THERE WAS A TIME NOT SO LONG AGO when the Basque region, which straddles the border between northern Spain and France, was better known as a hotbed of separatist activities than as an inviting tourism destination. Fast forward to today, when a vibrant culinary scene, charming villages and cities and an authentic local culture have made the area a magnet for international visitors looking to go beyond the more traditional destinations like Barcelona and Paris.

Be aware that locals, while welcoming, are fiercely proud of being Basque, and the language reflects that independence of spirit. First-time visitors might at first be bewildered by the names of streets and buildings, often written in two languages — Spanish or French and Basque Euskara, which bears no obvious relation to other Romance languages. Many Basques are bilingual, however, and some speak English in the more touristed areas, especially those working in the hospitality industry.

The first thing to consider when planning an itinerary is that Basque country is extensive — about 8,000 square miles, mostly in Spain — so for the best experience, it’s a good idea to focus on a few highlights.

A jewel in the crown is Bilbao, Spain, a formerly gritty industrial city that leapt into prominence in the late 1990s with the much-ballyhooed grand opening of the Guggenheim Museum, created by famed architect Frank Gehry. Those unfamiliar with Gerhy’s work are likely to be dumbfounded by the arresting architecture, which has since become an icon of bold, contemporary design. The structure, which comprises an edgy mix of titanium and glass, is best viewed from the Zubizuri or white footbridge that spans the Nervion River. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the museum, whose debut sparked a renaissance throughout the city and whose fame is so widespread it attracted some 4 million tourists in its first three years. Exhibitions change often and have included such big-name artists as David Hockney and Richard Serra.

From here, you can explore Casco Viejo, or Bilbao’s Old Town, and stop for pintxos, a Basque take on tapas, at one of the many bars that line Plaza Nueva. Other highlights include St. James Cathedral, known for its beautiful windows, and the Arenal gardens near the river.

Pintxos from San Sebastián © HANMON | DREAMSTIME.COM

Pintxos from San Sebastián © HANMON | DREAMSTIME.COM

The next must-see in Spain’s Basque region is the resort town of San Sebastián along the beautiful beaches on the Bay of Biscay. More pintxos bars and gourmet restaurants await, and oenophiles can enjoy wine pairings with some of the celebrated varietals of the region.

Visitors typically take in Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta, and those with a little more time can get the best views of the Bay of Biscay from the top of Mount Urgull, which also boasts the 12th-century La Mota Castle with its fortifications, cannons and massive Sacred Heart statue.

Perhaps no Spanish Basque city has quite the notoriety of Pamplona, thanks to its headlinemaking annual running of the bulls during the San Fermín festival in July. Forever immortalized by Hemingway’s description of the event, the city nonetheless has other attractions, including a 14th-century Gothic cathedral and many beautiful parks.

The Spanish Basque region is also known for its celebrated Rioja wines, and visitors can sample the local vintages on their own or embark on wine tours from a number of locations, including Bilbao and San Sebastián. A real highlight is the medieval walled village of Laguardia, which boasts more wine bars than you can probably hit in one visit as well as recently unearthed ancient ruins under the city.

Basque countryside © FELICITY LONG

Basque countryside © FELICITY LONG

Travelers looking for a little spiritual refreshment — or just a great walking tour — can explore parts of El Camino Ignacio, running some 430 miles from the medieval town of Loyola in Basque country to Manresa in Catalonia. The pilgrimage trail, an alternative to the massively popular (some say too popular) Camino de Santiago, can be tackled in bite-sized pieces — the entire trail takes about a month to hike — and offers a glimpse of some of the area’s prettiest, if challengingly hilly, countryside.

One of the joys of exploring the greater Basque region is it also includes a particularly picturesque part of France, called Iparralde in the Basque language.

Bayonne, the capital of French Basque country, is a medieval city at the junction of the Nive and Adour rivers whose roots probably go back as far as the first century. Nowadays the city’s claims to fame include gastronomy, such as first-rate chocolate and just-caught oysters; architecture that spans the centuries; and historic museum collections. The Basque and History of Bayonne Museum, for example, whose exhibitions include weapons, art and ship artifacts, is especially interesting for visitors trying to grasp the complicated history of the French Basque people and their culture.

Biarritz, another star of French Basque country, is a posh oceanfront resort where you are as likely to see surfers carrying their boards as shoppers carrying Chanel bags.

The statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Rock of the Virgin Mary, Biarrtiz © ALAN GARDINER | DREAMSTIME.COM

The statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Rock of the Virgin Mary, Biarrtiz © ALAN GARDINER | DREAMSTIME.COM

Take in the dramatic Rock of the Virgin Mary, which dominates the skyline, and slip on your walking shoes for the uphill trek — nearly 250 steps in all — to the Phare de Biarritz lighthouse for some of the best views in town. Architecture buffs can take in the Art Nouveau Gare du Midi train station, now a concert venue, and the Eglise St. Martin, which hosts an annual festival of gastronomy and dance every fall.

Basque Country Info to Go

The logical place to start in the Spanish Basque region is Bilbao Airport, less than six miles from the city. Boasting a new terminal by favorite son Santiago Calatrava, the airport is served by most major international airlines, although expect to connect through a European hub. A bus leaves the airport for several stops in the city every half hour for about $2. Most car rental companies have branches at the airport, or hop in a cab for about $20.

In France, more than a dozen European carriers serve Biarritz Pays Basque Airport. Buses are available from the airport to the Biarritz main train station about five miles away for about $1, or take a taxi for about $13 to central Biarritz, $16 to central Bayonne.

Where to Stay in Basque Country

HOTEL CARLTON The 141-room, 5-star property recently underwent a complete renovation and is known for Basque cuisine and tapas. Plaza Federico Moyúa 2, Bilbao, Spain $$

HÔTEL DU PALAIS IMPERIAL RESORT & SPA The grande dame hotel with 154 rooms dates from the Napoleonic era and offers proximity to the beach, gourmet dining, two swimming pools and even a playground. Ave. de l’Impératrice 1, Biarritz, France $$$$

HOTEL MARQUÉS DE RISCAL Frank Gehry designed this 43-room Luxury Collection Hotel, an over-the-top masterpiece whose pink and mauve exterior is said to have been inspired by the surrounding vineyards. Calle Torrea, Elciego, Spain $$$$

Restaurants in Basque Country

AÑOTA CIDER HOUSE Sample local culinary specialties served alongside delicious varieties of hard cider, brewed on site in massive barrels. Barrio Elosiaga 434, Azpeitia, Spain $$$

HOSPEDERIA LOS PARAJES CALADO WINE CELLAR This 18-room boutique hotel offers three eateries, but the 16th-century wine cellar is the place to enjoy an atmospheric pairing of Rioja wines and tapas. Calle Mayor 46-48, Laguardia, Spain $$$$

LE KAIKU A historic location and a Michelin star distinguish this Saint-Jean-de-Luz restaurant in French Basque country. Rue de la République 17, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France $$$$$

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