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Basque Country Travel Guide

San Sebastian, Basque Country (© Yvann K - Fotolia.com)
San Sebastian, Basque Country.

Introduction

Land of Western Europe's only native population of non-Indo-European speakers, the Basque Country (Euskadi in Basque), as its name suggests, feels like a different place from Spain altogether. A wooded, mountainous region with an oceanic climate, the Basque Country has one of the most unique and well-established regional cultures in Europe. This has led many Basques to believe that they ought to be an independent nation of their own. Culturally and ethnically, the greater Basque Country (known as Euskal Herria in Basque) also comprises the autonomous community of Navarre and the French Basque Country in southern Aquitaine.

Basque people are believed to be descended directly from the Mesolithic and/or Neolithic inhabitants of Iberia. Genetic studies did indeed confirm the Basques as a population isolate, but also revealed considerable admixture with neighbouring populations. What is almost certain is that their language (Euskera) predates the arrival of Indo-European speakers in Western Europe in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

The Basque Country has a population of 2.1 million, similar to Slovenia or the U.S. state of New Mexico. Third smallest autonomous community in mainland Spain, it has a land area of 7,234 km2 (2,793 sq mi), bit smaller than Corsica, and slightly larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.

The Basque Country is by far the wealthiest Spanish region, with a GDP per capita at PPP 30% above the national average and comparable to that of Denmark or the Netherlands, and above that of France or Germany. The biggest Basque company is the Mondragon Corporation, the world's largest worker cooperative, active in finance, industry, retail, and education.

Famous people from the Basque Country include (chronologically): the explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano (the first man to circumnavigate the world), the conquistador Lope de Aguirre, the religious leader Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), the celebrity chefs Juan Mari Arzak and Martín Berasategui, and the composer Alberto Iglesias.

Cuisine

Basque cuisine, and particularly the new movement influenced by the French nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy, is highly praised by gourmets on the international scene. The Michelin Red Guide awarded a total of 15 stars for restaurants in San Sebastian in 2012, placing it in the top 10 of European cities. More amazingly, three restaurants obtained the highest gastronomic accolade of 3 Michelin stars, a feat only excelled by Paris.

Basque culinary specialties vary considerably in each of the three provinces, with fish and seafood being omnipresent in Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, while meat and cheese is the norm in landlocked Álava.

Noteworthy dishes include the marmitako (tuna pot), txangurro a la Donostiarra (stuffed spider crab), bacalao a la vizcaina (cod with dried peppers and onions), bacalao al pil-pil (cod with pil pil sauce), almejas en salsa verde (clams in green sauce), enguinar (stuffed artichokes), goxua (liqueur-soaked cake with custard and caramel sauce), and talo (corn tortilla). Among other notable culinary products, let's note the Idiazabal sheep cheese, the Rioja Alavesa wines, the Txakoli (a very dry sparkling white wine with high acidity), and sagardotegi (Basque cider). Bilbao is famous for its canutillos (custard horns). Tapas are called pintxo in the Basque Country.



Attractions

West

Bilbao (Bilbo)
Teatro Arriaga, Bilbao (© B.F. - Fotolia.com)
outstanding Bilbao
Portugalete
Vizcaya Bridge, Portugalete (© B.F. - Fotolia.com)
very good Portugalete

Centre & East

San Sebastián (Donostia)
Harbour of San Sebastián (© Yvann K - Fotolia.com)
must-see San Sebastián
Vitoria (Gasteiz)
Wall of Vitoria-Gasteiz (© ALCE - Fotolia.com)
very good Vitoria-Gasteiz

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