Spain: A trip through the Basque region

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San Sebastian, Basque Country
A view from Monte Igueldo in San Sebastian. Photos by C H Kwak

By C H Kwak—

Madrid’s museums, Barcelona’s nightlife and Andalucia’s architecture attract throngs of tourists to Spain. The Basque region, on the other hand, has curiously remained off the tourist radar outside of Europe.

Gorgeous landscapes, sumptuous food and unique cultural heritage are but just a few of the reasons to trek up north. I spent two glorious weeks in September traveling through the Basque country. Here are a few highlights.

The harbor in San Sebastian

San Sebastian’s harbor

Donostia/San Sebastian

The stunning seaside town of San Sebastian is a true gem that deserves every praise it gets. The city of 180,000 radiates from the conch-shaped bay filled with crystal-clear water. Delightful green squares dot the narrow streets and pedestrian zones.

Getting around is a breeze, as the city has a good public bicycle rental program and extensive paths. When you’re ready to take a break, take the funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo, from where you’ll have a breathtaking vista of the sea, city and surrounding landscape.

Bilbao

What used to be a gritty industrial town is undergoing a cultural, economic and culinary renaissance. The famed Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is a must-see, but so is Bilbao’s lovely city center.

Pintxos

Cod croquettes or shrimp brochettes go perfectly with a drink of txakoli, the region’s sparkling wine.

Even if you’re not a public transportation geek like me, it’s worth taking a ride on its one-line tram that traces the waterfront from the bus station, past the Guggenheim and to the historic old town. You’ll see how marvelously the futuristic experiments interact with Bilbao’s traditional cityscape.

Coastal villages

There are so many reasons to brave the jagged roads and drive along the region’s sapphire coast. The delightful port city of Lekeitio boasts a fairytale center and a postcard-perfect beach. Zarautz, once an exclusive playground, is now an affordable surfing destination.

Guernica, infamous for the brutal air raids by Hitler and Franco, is immortalized by Picasso’s painting (installed at the Reina Sofia in Madrid) and the town continues to draw visitors.

Mutriku, Spain

An annual festival in Mutriku

Plenty of other towns like Bermeo, Mutriku and Zumaia are also great places to spend an afternoon eating good pintxos and enjoying the sound of Euskara (Basque), Europe’s only language isolate.

St. Jean de Luz

If you want a break from Spain, hop on a train from San Sebastian. An hour later, you’ll find yourself in the lovely French town of St. Jean de Luz.

A traditional fishing port, it is also hailed as the capital of French Basque cuisine. Don’t forget to try gateau basque, a buttery cake filled with cherries or cream. Though it has its share of tourists (mainly from France and Spain), there’s plenty of space on the calm beach. It’s also a great place to shop for foodstuffs to take home as souvenirs.

About the author

C.H. Kwak is a translator in Berlin.

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