29 March 2021
A country within a country
The Basque Country is an autonomous community spread mainly across northern Spain, but also a bit of southern France (not many people realise that). On the Spanish side, lie the vibrant riverside city of Bilbao, the picturesque resort town of San Sebastián and the de facto capital Vitoria-Gasteiz. And on the French side, lies the seaside town of Biarritz and the medieval city of Bayonne.
Before we get sucked into the delightful details of Basque culture, it’s important to understand how the Basque Country came to be. As you might know an autonomous community is an area of a country that has some freedom from an external authority. In this case the external authority is Spain, who granted relative economic and political autonomy to the Basque Country in 1978, and acknowledged a separate Basque identity.
So, what triggered this push for autonomy? I’ll do my best summarising a long and complicated history into a succinct answer. Here goes...
For centuries, the Basques have felt different from their geographical neighbours. In fact, studies have shown that the genetic patterns and makeup of the Basques is different to that of their neighbours. For example, the Spanish have been shown to have North African DNA, stemming from the Moorish rule of the country for over 700 years, while the Basques do not. It’s believed that the geography of the region holds the answer to this. The Basque Country is surrounded by the sea and a wild, rocky coastline on one side, and high soaring mountains on the other. Because of this terrain, the region was difficult to conquer and relatively unaffected by migration.
The result is a unique community and culture that stands in stark contrast to those around it. This feeling of difference amongst the Basque people led to a centuries-long, and at times violent, struggle for independence. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Francisco Franco forbade the Basque language, stripped rights from the Basques, and ordered the destruction of their cities. Then in 1959, a group of Basque separatists formed Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), running a decades-long terrorist campaign that ultimately killed over 800 people. They continued to fight for complete independence until 2011 when they called a ceasefire. And finally, in 2017, they officially disbanded and handed over their weapons. Today, most Basques have stopped the call for a fully autonomous nation.
But, don’t let this fight for independence put you off visiting. The region is safe and the locals are welcoming!
What makes the Basque Country, Basque Country?
1. Its truly unique culture
Every place that we put under the spotlight in Culture Curious has its own idiosyncrasies, but the Basques have stronger cultural traditions than most:
Their one-of-a-kind language
Basque, or Euskara as it’s known locally, is one of the oldest spoken languages in the world! However, unlike Spanish or French, it’s not related to any other Latin language. For example, here are a few typical Euskara phrases:
For when you’re mixing with the locals say urte askotarako (oortay askottaddakoh), which means “it’s nice to meet you”. An essential phrase wherever you’re travelling is bi garagardo, faborez? (bee garagardoh, fabboddes?), which is “two beers, please”. One you’ll be saying a lot is ez dut ulertzen (es doot oolertzen) or “I don’t understand” :) Finally, to really impress them say you’re avoiding uztarria erosi, idiak erosi aurretik which literally translates to “buying the yokes before getting the oxen first.” The Basque equivalent of “counting your chickens before they hatch”.
As the language was banned under Franco’s regime and everyone was forced to speak Spanish, or Castellano, the number of speakers has decreased from its peak at the end of the 19th century. But in recent years, Euskara has been making a revival with around 750k speakers.
Folklore is big here
Folklore is very important for the Basques, and many of its myths and legends are still celebrated. Basque mythology is similar to the Romans or the Greeks in that they have Goddesses representing different things, namely the elements. But uniquely, they only have female Goddesses, no Gods.
One of the most important is Mari, Goddess of the Earth, who can morph into different shapes. They also believe in Lamia, a mermaid-like being that can be half fish, goat or cat, depending on the area.
They have their own sports
Football may be the national obsession throughout Spain, but the Basque’s national sport is pelota. Pelota is similar to squash or handball, and can be played with racquets, bats or curved baskets. It’s one of the fastest ball sports in the world and extremely dangerous. Most Basque villages have a pelota court, known as a fronton, where locals practice and play.
But, the unique sports don’t stop at pelota. Rural sports such as aizkora (woodchopping) and harrijasotze (stone lifting) are also popular with the Basques.
2. The contrasting architecture
When you think of Bilbao, you’ll most likely think of the striking Guggenheim Museum. Back in 1991, the Basque government proposed to the Guggenheim foundation that they build a museum in Bilbao’s dilapidated port area, once the city’s main source of income. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the museum opened in 1997 and almost immediately began drawing visitors from around the world.
Gehry, who beat two other architects in the competition to design the building, recalls what he was asked to design: “They said: ‘Mr Gehry, we need the Sydney Opera House. Our town is dying.’ I looked at them and said: ‘Where’s the nearest exit? I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee anything.’” Well, his best was incredible. The now iconic building he came up with revived belief that architecture could be ambitious, beautiful and popular all at once.
Also in the museum’s grounds is the Maman. Designed by Louise Bourgeois as a tribute to her mother, it’s an impressively huge spider shaped sculpture, portraying a mother's role as both predator and protector.
But, the Guggenheim Museum only tells a part of the Basque architecture story. Not too far away is the city’s Old Town. Often known as the Casco Viejo, but sometimes also called Las Siete Calles (in Spanish) or Zazpikaleak (Basque). These latter two nicknames, meaning “Seven Streets,” refer to the medieval streets that make up the core of the neighborhood. Despite having to be restored after terrible floods in 1983, the atmospheric old quarter is full of charming and colourful streets, boisterous bars and quirky shops.
Rural Basque Country has its architectural delights too. One of the region’s most unique and ubiquitous sites are the rural dwellings that dot the mountainsides. With their red-roof tiling, stone corners and white-washed walls, they are an enduring symbol of the rural traditions here. They’re known as Baserri, from the Basque words basa and herri meaning ‘wild’ and ‘settlement’.
Such is their importance, that people were named after their baserri before it was mandated that they take the names of their parents. The names were toponymic, meaning they referred to the place where the baserri was. So, people were named things like Goikoetxebarri, meaning the ‘new house up there’ or Uberuaga meaning ‘place of hot water’. Imagine that on your birth certificate!
There are variations in style, but some basic features are common to nearly all baserri. For example, the stables are always housed within the building, there are three floors and the entrance typically points to the south-east to shield against the weather.
We’re staying rural for our last example of Basque architecture. Fans of Game of Thrones will know this place as Dragonstone, but in the real world it’s Gaztelugatxe. It’s an island located just off the Bay of Biscay, 35km east from Bilbao. The bridge and jagged walkway is 241 steps long (just ask Danaerys) and takes you up to a small church called San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. A hermitage has stood in this impressive spot since the 9th century and is well worth a visit and hike up the steps.
3. The world-famous food scene
Basque gastronomy is a symbol of national pride. With its diverse terrain allowing for a variety of fresh and local produce, the region has everything from rustic farmhouses to Michelin starred restaurants.The Basques also like to eat. No, they LOVE to eat. For example, txokos are a pillar of Basque social life. The name literally means ‘cosy nook’ or ‘corner’ and they refer to secret dining societies where friends and family gather to cook for another, often experimenting with recipes and trying new things in a fun, informal and intimate setting.
Another backbone of Basque cuisine is pintxo. Not to be confused with tapas, pintxo are meat, fish, cheese or vegetable pieces skewered onto a piece of bread with a toothpick (hence the name). They’re serious business in Basque Country. Go into any bar and you’ll find the entire counter lined with plates of various pintxos. They range from traditional pintxos of tortilla de patatas (potato and onion omelette) to mini haute cuisine experiments such as a grilled foie gras with a cream of white beans and a fruity sauce.
It’s typical to enjoy one or two with a glass of wine. Or, better yet, a glass of txakoli (pronounced ‘cha-ko-lee') which is a slightly sparkling, dry white wine of the region. After sampling the first pintxos of the evening, locals typically head onto the bar around the corner to see what they have to offer. So, the bars and taverns fight over coveted trophies that are given out annually for the best pintxos in their respective village or city. The bars are constantly trying to one-up the competition and in doing so, come up with avant-garde specialties to satisfy the demanding public.
But, the jewel in the Basque cuisine crown is San Sebastián. Located on the coast, near the border with France, the city has more Michelin stars per square kilometre than any other city in the world, besides Kyoto in Japan.
Three of San Sebastián’s restaurants have been awarded one of the highest honours there is in the world of food – a prestigious three Michelin stars. One of them, Arzak, was named at number 21 on the list of the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants‘ in 2016. Its classic Basque kitchen has been serving the people of San Sebastián for four generations and is headed up by chef Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena Arzak. The restaurant’s motto is that it’s a place to eat, to know and to experiment.
Being right on the coast along the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián also, understandably, has access to the freshest seafood. So, some of the city’s most iconic dishes are based around seafood. They include bacalao pil pil (cod fried in olive oil until the skin becomes crispy and the juices emulsify), percebes (goose barnacles), squid in its own ink, and kokotxas (cod or hake cheeks).
Beyond its seafood and pintxos (obviously), the desserts here are excellent too. Pastel Vasco is a kind of tart, with sponge-like pastry wrapped around a vanilla or almond cream (cherries are sometimes added too). Pantxineta, is another speciality, made from puff pastry, filled with custard and topped with almonds. Try both if you’re ever eating yourself silly in San Sebastián.
Basking in Basque Country
In case we haven’t been clear enough, the Basque Country isn’t like the rest of Spain. Proudly perched on the northern Atlantic coast, it has its own language and culinary traditions, and a distinctive geographic and cultural landscape. From Games of Thrones worthy landscapes, to modern architectural landmarks, to world-class food and wine, make sure you add it to your list.