This is Green Spain. Nowhere in Spain is the countryâ€™s overall topography better illustrated than along the north coast where within a few kilometres the land rapidly rises up to the central plateaux of Spain at 600 metres [1,850 feet] or thereabouts. The scenery, climate and environment change dramatically. Lying along the northern slopes of the Sierra Cantabria that reaches from Galicia, in the northwest corner of the Peninsula, to the Pyrenees in Navarra, there are inevitable comparisons with mountainous European regions further north. The cooler, wetter climate, lush green pastures, wide roofed chalet style houses coupled with the tinkling cowbells in the hills are alien to most visitorâ€™s image of Spain, yet these are a few of the features in the unique Basque Country.
Tucked into the corner of the Bay of Biscay at the border with France and the Pyrenees is a group of 3 provinces in Spain and an area of South West France that form the Basque Country. The Spanish sector is an autonomous government region combining Vizcaya, GuipÃºzcoa and Alava, the last of which reaches as far as the Rioja and Navarra wine regions, and the main cities in each province are Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria.
This cross border region has been a thorn in the side of the authorities for centuries as a core faction has fought fiercely to reinforce the proud individual identity of their people. It is good news indeed that peace now holds sway and talks are opening with Madrid to establish a peaceful way forward. The history of the Basque Country is too long and complex for these pages but suffice it to say that evidence of the peopleâ€™s existence dates back to the Palaeolithic age. Significantly the Romans never penetrated as far as the Basque Country proper [Navarraâ€™s position in all this is confusing] so the language retained its uniqueness, whereas in the rest of Spain and most of Europe the Latin influence is clear.
Having fought off several invasions through the early centuries, whether Romans, Visigoths, Vandals or Moors the Basques remained fiercely independent for nearly 2 millennia until they surrendered to end the 1st Carlist War in the 19th century. They lost the second war also and reluctantly fell under the rule of Madrid. Behind the scenes the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was formed and in 1931 sought independence, which was granted in October 1936. But Civil War followed almost immediately and within the short space of 4 months 2,200 people were slaughtered at two battles in 1937 including the notorious bombardment of Guernica by the Luftwaffe following which Bilbao was occupied 2 months later.
150,000 Basques fled to exile in Paris and with this was born the foundations of the Basque Terrorist movement ETA who were to terrorise the nation for 40 years until a truce was called in 2006. Anybody who knows this wonderful region well will be praying the talks with Madrid to succeed and bring a permanent end to the cruelty and tragedy brought upon both its own people and others.
Aside of its port, heavy industry and terrorism few knew much about the Basque Country until the Burghers of Bilbao bravely commissioned the Guggenheim Museum. This superb and original construction not only focussed the eyes of the world on this, until then, rather grubby city but was also the basis for further massive investment. It drew attention not only to Bilbao but the whole Basque region.
The origins of the extraordinary Basque language are widely argued, and one of the most convincing propositions comes from an English professor, Paul Preston who believes that its roots are unique, rather like Hungarian. He argues that there are no obvious origins for the language, certainly not Latin nor Greek, nor anything Northern European because it was established before any invasion came from there, though other ideas have been advanced.
Clearly the language has a powerful influence on Basque culture and the personality of the people, a proud yet phlegmatic and cheerful bunch, who certainly know how to enjoy life in style. Very difficult to learn for anybody more and more Basques are applying themselves to acquiring at least a working familiarity of the language. It will be helpful to know a few names if only to cope with major road signs, such as Bilbo â€“ Bilbao; Donostia â€“ San Sebastian; Gasteiz â€“ Vitoria; IruÃ±ea â€“ Pamplona; Pais Vasco â€“ Basque Country; Bizkaiko â€“ Vizcaya; Getariako â€“ GuipÃºzcoa; Arabako â€“ Alava and Euskadi â€“ Basque language.
San Sebastian is well known for the annual International Film Festival, while both it and Vitoria hold big Jazz Festivals. In Bilbao the Guggenheim overshadows everything and justifiably, yet there is a very fine and recently refurbished traditional art museum, the Belles Arts [Fine Arts] and a new Concert Hall where the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra performs. These are just a few of the wide-ranging cultural events that take place in the Basque region.
Despite being an industrial and densely populated region along its craggy coast, the Basque Country boasts some wonderful beaches, none better than La Concha at San Sebastian or the surfers paradise at Zarautz. The glorious, golden sands washed by the ebb and flow of the fast running Atlantic seas are perfect for a relaxing summerâ€™s day.
Along more deserted parts of the coast there are extensive areas of Nature Reserves and National Parks that lend themselves to the flourishing flora and fauna. One such is the Urdaibai Reservation, on the coast east of Bilbao, which is a large marshland in the estuary of the River Oca that flows down from the hills above Gernika to the sea at Bermeo. Nearby are the caves of SantmaminÃ© with prehistoric paintings.
Inland in the mountains are more Reserves, notably the Forest of Orma where the famous artist AgÃºstin Ibarrola created many different and picturesque shapes in harmonised colours. Meanwhile in the middle of the Rioja Alavesa wine land are the Lagos de Laguardia near the hilltop town of that name where rare species of algae, herbaceous plants and reeds have adapted to the salt water. With the many migratory breeds 118 varieties of birds can be found here between September and March including Herons, Cormorants, Egrets, Mandarin Ducks, Ibis and Grebes. Along the edge of the Prao de Paul lake are a number of hides for birdwatchers.
In the heart of the Spanish Basque region is a Reserve called Urkiola with wonderful landscapes of rugged limestone peaks towering over meadows and woodlands of Pyrenean oaks, conifers, chestnuts and beech. Urkiola is a favourite place for rock climbers and hill walking while there are several areas to picnic. The Sanctuary of Urkiola is a destination for Pilgrims and also provides a refuge for anyone wishing to overnight in the Reserve where camping is forbidden. Surrounding villages offer traditional Basque cooking and accommodation at reasonable prices.
Proud people though they are, few in Spain will dispute the fact that the best cooking in the country is probably to be found in the Basque region; indeed professionals rate the cooking here as some of the best in the world. Quality and simplicity are the keys to the local cocina (cooking) rooted in tradition where abundant quantities of seafood from the bountiful Bilbao market, tuna not least, plays a significant part, but not at the expense of the superb, locally farmed beef and cheeses. Pintxos (Tapas) are a speciality here with the huge variety of morsels presented on small slices of baguette with a wooden toothpick that you keep for the barman to count when you come to pay.
In the 1970s a New Basque cocina emerged leading to the emergence of several new leading chefs, many of whom have become famous outside their own country. New and different aromas and flavours were created by preparing and cooking the dishes differently, which excited gastronomic critics and consumers alike. But men cooking in the Basque Country was not a new phenomenon as can be witnessed through the many Gastronomic Societies that exist as a basis of social relations for men to entertain friends and relations.
The Cider Houses of this part of Spain are also a unique feature when they open from January to April during the season and allow you to drink as much as you like of the local cider while eating rustic dinners at long communal tables. The skill is to press the side of the wooden vat while you hold your glass to a hole in the side without spilling a drop; hard enough when you are sober.
Communications are good and arriving at the stylish and well run Bilbao airport (there are airports at San Sebastian and Vitoria also), by train, motorway from France, Madrid, Pamplona and Santander, or ferry from Britain, you will find this a wonderful region to visit. True the roads are crowded along the coast and if not then they are quite tortuous as they weave through the mountains and hills, but this is all part of the charm. Certainly it will be an experience that you will treasure for years to come.