The Spanish Basque Country will delight any visitor. It is famous for its colorful fishing villages, sandy beaches and dramatic scenery along its coast as well as for cities such as Bilbao, with Frank Gehry’s striking architectural landmark, the Guggenheim Modern Art Museum. With its own flag, language and culture, the Basque Country has a different feel than the rest of Spain and should be put on your “must see” travel list.
The rugged Basque coastline on the Bay of Biscay in Northeast Spain, with cliffs that plunge into the pounding surf, is dotted with traditional small villages as well as resort towns known for their spectacular beaches and some of the best surfing in Europe. During our cruise aboard the Seven Seas Explorer, we had an over night stay in the port city of Getxo, a lovely seaside town about 15 minutes from Bilbao, Spain. Over the course of a day and a half, we visited Bilbao and several other nearby towns in the Spanish Basque Country.
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Riding along the coast, our first stop was to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a small chapel perched on top of a tiny island. For the physically fit, you can reach the chapel by crossing a long stone footbridge and then climbing a couple hundred steep steps up the rocky island. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you might recognize it as “Dragonstone”.
Bermeo is one of the Basque Country’s most important fishing ports. The picturesque old port has colorful narrow houses that overlook the boats in the harbor. Many are now bars where the locals stop for a drink and a pintxo (similar to tapas). In the main square, there is a pretty gazebo, the town hall and the Santa Maria Church. At the top of town, you find the Ercilla Tower which is now the Fisherman’s Museum.
The former capital of ancient Vizcaya, Gernika/Guernica was our next stop. Unfortunately it is best known for a tragic bombing event that destroyed a large portion of the town during the Spanish Civil War. Casa de Juntas, its assembly house, and an oak tree survived the bombing and are now symbols of Basque’s political history. The bombing was later immortalized by Pablo Picasso in one of his most famous paintings, the huge black and white mural called “Guernica”.
After our tour, we visited 1000 Kolorau, a restaurant that specializes in fresh fish. We sat outside on the shaded terrace and enjoyed glasses of Txakoli de Vizcaya, the most popular white wine in the Basque region along with pintxos of grilled octopus, bread topped with potatoes, bacalao and jamón and delicious olive rolls stuffed with jamón. While tapas are common in other parts of Spain, pintxos, which are generally smaller, are traditional snacks in the Spanish Basque Country.
The following day we toured Bilbao. Our first stop was the Great Biscay Transporter Bridge built in 1893 by a student of Gustave Eiffel, the construction of which my husband found to be very interesting. It was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War but was rebuilt. It carries people and cars, across the river in an open gondola that hangs suspended from the bridge.
From there we drove up to Mount Artxanda, one of the two mountains within the city limits, that offers wonderful views of Bilbao from its park. There is a huge fingerprint sculpture called “Huella Dactilar” which honors the many victims that were killed during the Spanish Civil War.
Then it was on to the celebrated Guggenheim Modern Art Museum which is constructed of shimmering titanium, stone and glass. The museum is the most photographed structure in Bilbao. Outside the museum, the other popular spots for a photo is the enormous sculpture of “Puppy” which is covered in living flowers and the giant spider “Maman”.
Although the Spanish Basque Country is not visited as much as other regions of Spain, it should be. With spectacular scenery of lush green mountains, rolling countryside and pristine beaches, good wine and delicious food found at both small pintxos bars and world famous Michelin starred restaurants, there is something for everyone. We loved the Basque Country and would love to return for a longer visit. The resort town of San Sebastian is at the top of our list as we missed it on this trip to Spain due to a last minute port change and it is a favorite of visitors to this region.