I am as guilty as most, I believed the Basque region was Spanish and a Spanish experience. What I have come to learn is that Euskadi (land of the Basque) is the warm oceanic region located on Bay of Biscay along the western Pyrenees mountain range that straddles the northern coast of Spain but it also includes the eastern coast of France. The Euskadi is made up of seven provinces, three of which are in France and four that are in Spain (Basque Country and Navarre region), despite being in separate countries they are an autonomous community.
With their own language (Euskara), the culture is autonomous throughout the Basque region. The noticeable differences between the French and Spanish cities are related to the influences of the countries in which the regions are located. Spanish Euskaldunak (Basque speaking locals) mostly speak Euskara, as many Spanish Euskadi want autonomy from Spain and may also speak Spanish. Here you will find larger modern and industrial areas that are more centered on tourist and resort driven cities. Comparatively French Euskaldunak are loyal to France, will speak French, while some may also speak Euskara. In French tradition, they live in more relaxed rural environments and towns that sit among green pastures and farms.
Basque weather is typically maritime being warm, humid and rainy along the coast and the interior regions have a Mediterranean climate with temperature differences between seasons.
There are many reasons to explore both regions of Basque Country, we will highlight the uniqueness of the key towns and cities of both regions that you will want to visit.
Northern Basque Region
The Pays Basque Français is called Iparralde which means northern part in the basque language. The region lies in the Pyrenees – Atlantiques department of France. Within this region you will find attractive villages worth visiting for the uncrowded pastoral country-side, charming white-washed half-timbered houses and quaint colorful churches waiting to be explored.
Located just off the coast of France at the confluence of the Adour and Nive rivers makes the city not only scenic but also separates it out into 3 very distinct quarters. Most noticeable when visiting is the red, green and white colors that are almost uniformly seen throughout the town. A mix of Basque and French culture, you will want to head to the Grand Bayonne quarter on the westbank of the Nive river where you can wander the narrow cobblestoned pedestrian streets amongst the half-timbered houses, visit the 11th Century Chateau Vieux, the gothic Bayonne Cathedral and enjoy some local farm to table cuisine.
More of a tourist location than sister city Bayonne, The Cote de Basque is both a sophisticated and yet relaxing resort town of cliffside villas overlooking the coast and swanky oceanside hotels beachside. Being a coastal upscale resort town, you will find the large beaches popular during the summer. Biarritz is well known worldwide as a prominent location for its surfing which will also attract many daytime bohemian visitors to the seaside town during the warmer summer months. The town itself offers many trendy cafes to relax at and enjoy a local meal, great boutiques to visit and a lively beachside bar scene that offers a continuation of the daytime beach party to pair with your beachtime tan.
About 15 minutes south of Biarritz and close to the Spanish border is the small seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The central town features the Grand Plage, a long stretch of sandy beach surrounded by three sea walls that is more family centric with a few small hotels with spas and nearby local campsites. Off the coast is the downtown region Donibane Lohizune to enjoy the local rustic cuisine, regional products and espadrilles. Yes, the region is best known for their array of comfy beach espadrille sandals which can be found throughout the shopping area. Don’t miss enjoying the coastal inspired gastronomy that blends the French influence with the New Basque inspired dishes from the nearby Spanish region.
Hidden at the base of the Pyrenees mountains is the beautifully scenic village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The walled capital of Basque is a small charming town on the Nive river just 5 miles from the Spanish border. Most known as the starting point for the christian pilgrimage to the Santiago de Compostela shrine in Galicia, Spain, it is also the perfect stop after taking one of the most beautiful hikes in the Pyrenees for the amazing panoramas from the mountains. Walk the small town that is surrounded by green countryside with a backdrop of mountains.
Southern Basque Country
The Pais Vasco Español is called Hegoalde which I am sure you can guess means southern part in the basque language. The majority of the Basque region lies within the Spanish side and is the most populated with two very distinct regions, the coastal Basque community and the inland Navarre region.
An hour and half southwest of French Basque and across the Spanish border from the Pyrenees is the Navarre region and its capital city, Pamplona. You most likely have heard of Pamplona from its annual weeklong San Fermín Festival. Better known as the “Running of the Bulls” that occurs along Estafeta street annually. It is one of the largest fiesta events in Spain attracting over 100,000 visitors. Iruña as Pamplona is called in Basque is a medieval town that also attracts visitors to explore her cobble-stoned pedestrian only streets that wind throughout the city to the historic palaces and churches. At the center of the town is the Plaza del Castillo (Palace Square) where you will find the locals as well as tourists who are visiting the best restaurants and cafes with the best people watching.
San Sebastián –
Donastia as it is known by the Basque in the region is a very popular resort town for its white sand beaches and New Basque cuisine. Often referred to as Paris by the sea for its sophistication that attracts the wealthy beach-goers who have beach mansions along La Concha beach. Here is considered by many Europeans to be the most beautiful beach in Europe. Notable is that many don’t just visit San Sebastian for the beach luxury, but also for the gastronomy. You can find the largest number of Michelin rated stars per capita than anywhere else in the world with 9 restaurants. The locally sourced pinxtos are partially responsible for the famed dining experiences. Pinxtos are the backbone of the Spanish Basque food culture, similar to a tapa (but don’t call it a tapa) the small plate offers uniquely crafted gastro-pub experiences. Parte Vieja, the old port region is the charming old town with the largest number of bars in the world, a big draw for visitors.
Considered the heart of the Basque region in Spain, Bilbao is a very modern city filled with cosmopolitan buildings, industry and is also the urban hub of Euskadi. The largest city in the region attracts visitors to its famed contemporary Guggenheim museum and offers a very modern metro system compared to other Basque regions. But the old medieval town, Casco Viejo, like in San Sebastian attracts visitors for its culture and historical experiences. Shopping is also a prime attraction at the “El Ensanche” across the river from the old town, which is home to Bilbao’s wealthy residents offering higher end shops, restaurants and bars along the Gran Via. Yes, pinxtas play an important role in local gastronomy here too and you will find many taverns offering the tasty treats to enjoy with a glass of local cider or wine.
Worth noting is the well known French region of Bordeaux is 3.5 hours from Bilbao, the most eastern city in the Basque Country and just 2 hours from Bayonne, the most northern city of the Basque region. This offers a unique travel experience to explore the beautiful Euskadi region of Spain and France and then head north to Bordeaux for a purely French wine experience.
Learn more about Bordeaux with a 7 night river cruise experience to fully immerse in both left and right banks of Bordeaux.