The complete guide to the Basque Country

Straddling the Franco-Spanish border but boasting a unique culture that pre-dates both its neighbours, the Basque Country offers visitors the best of the bucolic and the urbane - from its wild Atlantic surf and forested uplands to Bilbao's cosmopolitan temple, the Guggenheim Museum.

WHERE IS THE BASQUE COUNTRY?

WHERE IS THE BASQUE COUNTRY?

The Basque Country is a thorn-shaped slice of land that cuts into both Spain and France along their Atlantic seaboard. It roughly describes the land between Spain's Ebro River and France's Adour River and is widest between Bilbao and Bayonne in the west before thinning to a point at Tudela in the east. The 8,000sq miles in between are made up of seven provinces: the three French chunks are Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule; the four in Spain are Navarra, Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa and Alava.

SO IT'S BITS OF FRANCE AND SPAIN THEN?

Yes and no. While the "Pays Basque" is part of France and the "Pais Vasco" part of Spain, the Basque Country is considered a separate nation by most of the 2.4 million people who live there. The Basques call it Euskal Herria (literally "land of the Basque language") and it is through their distinct language, Euskera, and ancient traditions, that the region defines itself.

Despite being the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe, Euskera is quite widely spoken. Few visitors attempt Euskera's improbable splutterings of Ks, Xs and Zs or verbs as complex as "iparsortalderatu" ("to head in a northeasterly direction"). Thankfully, French and Spanish are widely spoken.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE BASQUES

Euskera's mysterious origins have fuelled debate about whether it is the oldest living European language and, hence, whether the Basques can boast the oldest European culture. Signs of an established Basque culture certainly existed before the Romans arrived in 216bc and the Basques apparently lived uninterrupted despite waves of Roman, Visigoth, Arab, French and Spanish invaders. In fact, it wasn't until well into the last millennium that Basque autonomy faltered, first in the Pays Basque following the 1789 French Revolution and then, almost a century later, in the Pais Vasco during the Carlist Wars in Spain.

The real low point for the Basques came in the last century when General Franco began closing down their schools and newspapers and prohibiting the use of Euskera. As Basque nationalism inexorably gathered pace towards the end of the Fifties, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or "Basque Homeland and Freedom") became increasingly politically focused. Nationalist fervour reached a peak in 1973 with the assassination of Franco's chosen successor, Luis Carrero Blanco.

As Spain made the transition to democracy following Franco's death, things began to cool off a little. Basque nationalists successfully secured the three provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa and Alava as a self-governing region, and in the years since, have continued to increase their autonomy. But despite these gains and a Basque majority who favour a peaceful way forward, sporadic violence continues.

HOW SAFE IS IT FOR VISITORS?

Visitors are unlikely to find evidence of ETA outside the odd newspaper report and scrawls of graffiti. More evident is a region enjoying something of a cultural renaissance. Euskera is flourishing and traditional Basque sports, in particular, are as popular as ever. You'll find a variation of the Basque game pelota, whether it's the fast and furious Cesta Punta or its handball equivalent, played in most towns and villages across the region. Open ocean rowing regattas are also popular - a legacy of Basque whaling days - along with Force Basque, which involves immense men lifting stones, chopping logs and dragging weights in a contest of raw strength.

SO WHAT'S IT ACTUALLY LIKE?

It is no wonder the Basques have fought so stoutly to keep their territory to themselves. It's a land of thickly-wooded mountains and deep, fertile valleys in which you'll find whitewashed, shuttered villages and a quiet rural way of life. Its key cities, Vitoria (the capital), Bilbao and Pamplona all have much to amuse the visitor, especially the latter two which boast the world-famous Guggenheim Museum and San Fermín fiesta respectively. Add to this miles of spectacular coastline, filled with ancient fishing ports, beaches pounded by surf and the cosmopolitan resorts of Biarritz and San Sebastián. And then there's the food...

GO ON THEN

Basque cooking is based on age-old recipes and an abundance of local produce. At its best, Basque cooking is simple - no lavish sauces or challenging combinations, just fresh ingredients, prepared in a way to best extract the flavours.

The sea has provided well for the Basque plate. The delicious aroma of grilling sardines and sea hake baking with garlic wafts irresistibly from restaurants in the fishing ports along the coast, particularly Getaria and St Jean-de-Luz. And, among the eateries in Biarritz are a couple of excellent paper-plate-and-plastic-chair style tapas joints down at the fisherman's harbour that dish up a simple menu of seafood and local wine or cider. It is San Sebastián, however, that carries a reputation as the Basque capital of cuisine. Here is a huge choice of eateries, from the simple tapas bars lining the streets of the old town to chef Jaun Mari Arzak's Michelin-starred restaurant, Arzak.

But there's equally good fare out in the pretty Basque villages, particularly in the Pays Basque where, even in touristy places like St Jean-Pied-de-Port, the standards are superb. Don't forget to try the ubiquitous Gâteau Basque. It's especially prevalent in the pretty village of Sare, where all shops and restaurants will try to tempt you with a slice of this crumbly, butter pastry cake filled with almond cream or, sometimes, black cherries - incurable sweet tooths should head straight for the Musée de Gâteau Basque, also in Sare.

One notable exception to all this fresh food is bacalao (dried cod), which is used in the traditional Basque dish Pil Pil, along with a sauce of olive oil thickened with the juices from the fish and flavoured with garlic. You'll find it on many menus.

WHAT CAN I DO TO WORK ALL THAT OFF?

There are fine stretches of sand all along the Basque Country's rugged coast. Cooler and cleaner than the Mediterranean, the Atlantic rarely laps gently against the shore, and therein lies its appeal. Any decent swell washing about in the open Atlantic is free to roll in through the deep trench in the floor of the Bay of Biscay, arriving as some of the best surfing breaks in Europe. Even if you aren't interested in surfing, it's hugely romantic to spend the last hours of daylight watching the waves pump in across the bay and crash into the shore. The downside is that these aren't the kind of beaches where you'll want to take your children swimming.

But, if you are a reasonable swimmer and feel comfortable out in surf, it's easy to have a crack at surfing. Every coastal town with a wave has at least one surf shop where you can hire equipment (£8-15 per day) and book lessons (£15-30 per hour). Regular surfers will be familiar with the superb breaks at places like Mundaka, Guértáry, Lafitenia and Anglet, but not all beaches are suitable for beginners. Biarritz is the centre of surfing activity in the Basque Country and is one of the best places to organise lessons.

AND, OUT OF THE WATER?

If you like a sporty holiday but don't see yourself surfing or indeed lifting immense weights and chopping logs, don't dismay. Golfers will have a great time in the Basque Country since there are courses all over the region and 11 within Pays Basque alone (more information at: services.golfweb.com/basque.htm or www.touradour.com/golf/golfsouth).

Cycling is also a serious business here. At weekends especially, Basque men of all ages slip into gaily-coloured Lycra and set off at speed. If you are a serious road rider, join them to tackle the steep, wooded hills which hide some gruelling switchbacks and exhilarating descents. Occasional peddlers will also find two-wheeling a rewarding way to explore the country. Just remember that this isn't Holland.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The quickest, and often cheapest, way to reach the Basque Country is to fly. Go (0845 6054321; www.go-fly.co.uk) leaves twice a day from Stansted for Bilbao with return tickets for the two-hour flight from £70. If you're heading for the Pays Basque, opt instead for Ryanair (0870 1569569; www.ryanair.com) which makes the 90-minute hop from Stansted to Biarritz once a day, with return tickets from £99.

If you prefer the romance of travelling by sea, and you have the time, take the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao. P&O Portsmouth Ferries (0990 980 555; www.poportsmouth.com) makes the 35-hour sailing twice a week and trips cost £185 return including berth (for foot passengers) or £700 (for a car and four passengers). P&O also offers short breaks with accommodation (hotline 0870 9000212).

Driving down with a caravan or roof-rack piled high with camping equipment is still a popular option with Brits. On a good run, using the motorways, you should count on it taking you 12 hours to reach Bayonne from leaving the ferry in northern France.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

Camping is the most popular accommodation in Basque Country, especially along the coast where there are hundreds of sites. Particularly well-located are those clustered along the coast at Plentzia, the last stop on Bilbao's new metro.

At the other end of the market, and the coast, the Hÿtel du Palais (0033 559 416 400; www.cotebasque.tm.fr/palais) in Biarritz sits on the site of the original "Villa Eugénie". Although gutted by fire at the beginning of the century, the hotel was re-built in the original style of the palace and offers five-star accommodation and all the formalities associated with this famous hotel. Prices from £205 per night.

If you like your home comforts without the formalities of a grand hotel, seek out one of the excellent family-run guest houses. Arguably the best of these traditional Basque-style houses is La Maison Tamarin overlooking the breakers between Biarritz and St Jean-de-Luz. Run by a friendly Scot, this eight-bedroom farmhouse is popular with golfers and prices start from £50 per night with breakfast (00 33 5 5947 5960; e-mail: enquires@lamaisontamarin.com).

If you want to get out in the sticks, staying on a farm is a popular way to go rural. For full details contact Agrotourism (0034 902 130031; e-mail: agroturismo@nekatur.net). Alternatively, try www.basqueexplorer.com for ideas on a good range of accommodation from campsites to gîtes.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Despite the Basque Country's relatively small size, renting a car is the most practical option, and an enjoyable one when you are pottering along the shady lanes that wind their way round and through the Basque Country's undulations. That said, traffic can be awful during the summer, especially along the coast between Bayonne and San Sebastián. Expect to pay between £110 to £130 for a week's rental.

If you have the legs to match the terrain, cycling is a great way to get around. Despite some alarming local driving practices, cyclists tend to be respected and given room on the roads. A reasonable mountain bike will cost between £6-£10 per day.

If you want to take your own, Go will fly your bike to Bilbao for free if packaged, boxed or bagged; if it isn't there's a £20 charge. Ryanair charges £15 each way on the Biarritz flight.

There is a comprehensive network of bus routes between all the major towns and cities and a couple of good rail links. The coastal train route between Bayonne and Bilbao via Biarritz and San Sebastián is perhaps the most useful, and also gives you a great view of the countryside. The old Roman town of Bayonne is also at one end of a picturesque journey following the gentle meanderings of the river Nive through the heart of the Pays Basque to St Jean-Pied-de-Port.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Whichever way you get there, there's a good chance you'll arrive at either Bilbao or the combined conurbation of Biarritz, Anglet and Bayonne (BAB), about a two-hour drive away. Both are a good base from which to explore.

The French provinces, despite making up only a fraction of the Basque Country, have much to offer visitors. A whiff of grandeur still lingers in the resort town of Biarritz from when Napoleon III's wife, Eugénie, decided she'd like their summer palace built at the edge of its crescent-shaped bay. Thereafter, the town became the fashionable place to be seen, hosting wealthy Britons, the Royals and a string of celebrities. Today, Biarritz is a likeable and friendly town, and while it does have some splendid stretches of sand, it's a place where you find yourself endlessly strolling between the promenade and the boutiques and eateries that line its hilly streets.

Inland, the Pays Basque becomes more beautiful the further you venture in towards the foothills of the Pyrénées. Along the way there are cheese farms, fois gras farms, cideries and some absurdly pretty villages to distract you. Famously good looking are Sare and Ainhóa whose streets are lined with fabulous old Basque houses, all whitewashed with red or green timbers and shutters. One of the highlights of the area is the 13th-century town of St Jean-Pied-de-Port, just shy of the border with Spain. It's a lovely place to spend a day wandering the streets, lunching in one of the restaurants along the river Nive and then walking it off with a hike in the hills.

Those arriving at Bilbao will find Spain's fourth largest city in flux. Since the doors of the new Guggenheim Museum swung open in 1997, this city of ornate 19th-century buildings, slightly blackened from a century of heavy industry, has been gradually shedding its industrial demeanour for a more urbane look as tourists have arrived in their droves.

Although it is the Guggenheim that has been drawing the crowds, the museum is just part of a major programme of urban renewal. New architecture is starting to grace Bilbao's skyline; there's a swanky new Norman Foster-designed metro system and plans to clean up the Nervión river running through the heart of the city. In the wake of this new optimism, a host of new bars, cafés and attractions have sprung up across the city and this summer the Cirque du Soleil have set up camp in the city centre.

Yet the new sits comfortably with the old and it's great to be able to walk out of the Guggenheim Museum, jump onto Foster's concrete and steel metro and travel a few stops down to what was the old walled part of town to spend the evening sampling the many traditional taverns and tapas bars around the Casco Viejo.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Currently, none of the big guide publishers has a separate guide to the Basque Country. Given this, the weighty combination of Insight Guide's Northern Spain, the Rough Guide to the Pyrenees and Lonely Planet's Southwest France prove good travelling companions.

The area does have an official website (www.euskadi.net), although, despite being a useful resource, it focuses more on Basque culture, politics and economics. Geared more towards tourism, the website www.basqueexplorer.com is also quite good. For an in-depth insight into the Basques, Mark Kurlansky's excellent book, The Basque History of the World (Jonathan Cape, £15.99), makes fascinating holiday reading.

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