The Basque region, Spain
The Spanish autonomous region of the Basque Country borders the Bay of Biscay and France. It is made up of three provinces: Vizcaya (Bizkaia) (capital Bilbao), Guipuzcoa (San Sebastian) and Avala (Vitoria, capital of the province and the region).
Its one of the smallest regions(7000sq km), has a population of 2.1million(5% of Spain), but with the second highest density(after Madrid).
The location is a place of contrasts: mountains, rugged cliffs, fine beaches and productive countryside - all as distinctive as the people and their unique language – euscera.
The contribution of art to heritage in the Basque Country spans history, from the earliest dolmen at Arrizala and paintings at Santimamine to the contemporary scultures of Eduardo Chillida.
The Romans bequeathed the bridge of Trespuentes, the settlement at Iruna and the ruins of Feloaga at Oiartzun. From the romanesque period special mention should be made of the church of Lemoiz, San Pedro of Abrisketa and the sanctuary of Estibaliz.
Outstanding buildings in the gothic style include the cathedral of Santa Maria(Vitoria), the cathedral in Bilbao and the parish church of San Salvador in Getaria. Fine examples of Renaissance building include the palace of Bendana, the university of Onati and the college of Cenarruza.
Some of the more interesting baroque buildings are the church of Santa Maria in Donostia and the sanctuary of San Ignacio de Loyola in Azpeitia. The best example of neo-classical construction is, without doubt, the plaza de Espana in Vitoria.
Twentieth century building worth seeing are the basilica of Nuestra Senora de Arantzazu, the Casa de Juntas de Gernika, the new cathedral of Vitoria and the Colgante bridge at Bilbao – without forgetting the many types of authentic basque style homes that are forever popular.
Special mention must be made of the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, completed in 1997, which was designed by the American Frank O Gehry as a huge sculpture against the backdrop of the city.
A different element of heritage is the unique basque language, euscera, which predates the indo-european expansion of the sixth century BC and seems to have no confirmed connection with any language elsewhere.
Festivals traditions and cooking
Basque folklore reflects the strong personality of the
eople. The greater part of their traditions derive from a life of hard agricultural work. For example, events at fairs often include the aizlolariak(chopping logs), the arijasolzaileak(lifting rocks), the segalariak(cutting hay), the gizon proba(hauling of boulders), the soka tira(tug-of-war) and the idi proba(pulling of rocks with bullocks).
The folksongs, such as the Gernikako Arbola, Agur Jaunak and the Boga Boga combine with dances like the aurresku, ezpatadantza, brokeldantza and the bordondantza. This rich inheritance is completed by their own instruments such as the Txistu and the Tamboril.
For the Basques cooking is a way of life encouraged by the fine quality of the products used . The variety and wholesomeness of the dishes is elevated by the large number of high quality cooks. Among all the products it is fair to say fish, of all kinds, define basque cooking. But one must also mention lamb and beef roasted or stewed with a vast range of greens and vegetables. All of the above must be accompanied by fine wines such as the rioja alavasa, the pujanza del txakoli(a young fruity wine produced mainly in Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa)and the rich, and still little known, cider.
The first written record of the Basque country is in Pliny the elder. The roman influence however was not strong north of Pamplona. Then the Basques spent a lot of time resisting the Visigoths, and took advantage of the arrival of the Moors in doing so, until they eventually succeeded at the beginning of the eighth century. They were then able to form their own political institutions culminating in the kingdom of Pamplona, which only later came under the influence of Castile.
From the beginning of the sixteenth century they successfully developed their maritime trade(Consulate of Bilbao in 1511), a tradition strong until today.
An important part of Basque political tradition is their¨fueros¨ akin to the English common law, which in turn is linked to charters of rights. These they managed to retain even when subject to Castile and later Spain, until 1876. Ironically, the suppression of these rights gave rise to the Basque Nationalist Party inspired by Sabino Arana.
In 1936 the first ¨Lehendakari¨(President) and Basque parliament was elected, only to be suppressed by Franco during and after the civil war. But, it arose again in 1978, since when the development of Basque identity and autonomy has continued actively until this day.
Countryside and wildlife
The Basque country is one of contrasts; in part industrialised and heavily populated(Bilbao 1 million residents) yet defiantly green and unspoilt. Both types are to be found within a stones throw of each other and ecosystems can still be found in their undisturbed condition. The importance given to parks and reserves creates many choices for outings, sports and relaxation.
Among the many designated protected natural sites there are seven country parks: Aiako Harria, Pagoeta and Aralar in Gipuzcoa, Izki and Valderejo in Alava, Gorbeia and Urkiola in Alava and Vizcaya.
Other protected areas include the biosphere reserve of Urdaibai, the lakes of Laguardia, the river Leitzaran, San Juan de Gastelugatxe, Itxina and Inurritza.
Coastline and beaches
The Basque coast is characterized by limestone cliffs at the base of which are beaches of fine sand and coves, each distinct in form and colour. The brilliant blue of the sea contrasts with the green of the cliff top pastures and the limestone rocks.
The province of Vizcaya has twenty eight beaches and that of Guipuzcoa sixteen.
The Vizcayan coast extends from Onarroa to Punta Covaron and contains steep cliffs, extensive beaches which lead into beautiful river valleys and picturesque fishing villages, such as Ea Elantzobe and villages like Lekeitio.
The Guipuzcoa coastline stretches from Hondarribia to Mutriku and is one of the most striking of the Cantabrian corniche. Among the many superb beaches these stand out : Hondarribia, Orio, Mutriko, Zumaia, Saturraran Ondarreta and Concha
Activities and sports
There are over a dozen golf courses where serious and leisure golfers can enjoy their sport.
Among a diverse coastline and countryside there are many opportunities for more adventurous sports, such as: bungee jumping, abseiling, ravine descending, hydro-boating, hang-gliding, paragliding, climbing and caving.
Activities like hiking and horse riding are especially appropriate to discover the real treasure of the countryside and parks.
There are many options for water sports in the rivers and sea such as – sailing, windsurfing, scuba diving and canoeing.
Traditional Basque sports are all about strength – like the rowing regattas, log-chopping, stone-lifting and, slightly different, and perhaps best known – pelota, the Basque ball game.
Getting there and about
The Basque country has three airports at – Bilbao, Santander and Vitoria.
Bilbao and Pasajes are the two major ports for both passengers and commerce.
Additionally, there are fifteen minor ports, many of which are developing their facilities for fishing and sport along with other tourist activities.
There is an extensive rail network connecting to all the major cities of Spain as well as local lines serving the Cantabrian corniche and the inland towns and city
There are good motorway connections to the European road network through the A68, A8 and the N1 that link Bilbao to Zarogoza and the Mediterranean coastline, to Burgos and Madrid and along the Atlantic coast to France.
Additionally there are some 2500 miles of local roads giving easy access to all the towns and villages of the region.