The Basque Country


GEOGRAPHY

Situated in the extreme South-West of France, the French Pays Basque is part of the “départment” of the Pyrénées Atlantiques, which also includes Béarn. Much of the population is calling for the creation of a recognized Pays Basque “département”.

The Basque Country is nevertheless a cultural entity which goes far beyond the French part, further south in Spain, the Basque Country on the south side is made up of 4 other provinces, which grouped together with the north side in France, forms the Basque Country whole.


The Basque Country in France and Spain

The Pays Basque stretches to the South of the Adour River, along the Atlantic Coast, the Pyrénées mountains and the Béarn, three former provinces. They are:

Le Labourd (875 km2 and 220,000 inhabitants) which includes the famous port of Bayonne (40,000 habitants) in Hendaye.

La Basse Navarre (1,345 km2 and 30,000 inhabitants) and its capital, Saint Jean Pied de Port (1,420 inhabitants).

La Soule (845 km2 and 17,800 inhabitants) and its mountains of Mauléon (3,350 inhabitants).

The Côte Basque (Basque Coast): after the large beaches of Les Landes, the shoreline becomes very steep and jagged from Biarritz and further south. The Basque Coast has a succession of cliffs until you reach Hendaye rising to 50 metres in height.

The Basque Mountain is located in the Western part of the Pyrénées where the peaks are less steep; Pic D’Orhy in Soule is the highest peak in the Basque Country at 2017m. Generally the highest peaks are situated to the East of the region, towards Béarn and to the South along the Spanish border.

On the south side, the Basque Country is made up of 4 other provinces:

  • Navarre (The Kingdom of Navarre) with an area of 12,100 km2, the capital of which is the city of Pamplona, known for its Saint Firmin celebrations.
The 3 remaining provinces make up the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country:
  • Guipúzcoa, a territory bordering on France, which extends the coasts of the Basque Country north side in France. Its area is 1909 km2 and the most important cities are San Sebastian and Irun.
  • Biscay, on the Cantabrian Sea and with an area of 2217km2, the main city of which is Bilbao
  • Alava, an interior territory of 3,037 km2, the capital of which is the city of Vitoria Gasteiz


The Basque Country on the south side of the border is divided between its coastal territories popular with Hispanic tourists, but also French with beautiful seaside resorts, miles of beaches as far as the eye can see, dynamic and modern cities, lively, like Bilbao and San Sebastian and a hinterland with more landlocked interior territories. To travel in the Basque mountains of this great region is to touch the heart of the Basque Country, its customs, its gastronomy, its legends, its men and women with a powerful and generous character at the same time. More confidential, tourism outside the coasts is however in full expansion and the amateurs of nature, sport, small picturesque villages, are each year more numerous to leave to its discovery. Alava remains in particular a beautiful gem to polish ...

Passaia Bay

CLIMATE

The Basque Country climate is temperate and mild. The yearly average temperature stays around 13°C thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream and the natural barrier protection of the Pyrénées mountains. Autumns and winters are mild and pleasant; spring is rather mild but wet and summers do not see excessively high temperatures. Rainfall makes the Basque Country a green landscape all year round.

In the southern part of the Basque Country, Navarre, which is a large territory, enjoys several types of climate: the north and the border with France and the west are rather humid and cool, with significant rainfall and in the south from the region on the contrary, we come across an ecosystem of the desert type. The Bardenas Reales region has cool but mild winters and very hot summers, it is dry all year round like in the Elbre Valley. You will enjoy visiting the north in summer or the first half of September and the south of Navarre in June and September, or even in October and spring depending on the year.


San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Guipuzcoa is a small territory, mainly coastal, which has a warm oceanic climate with significant rainfall throughout the year. You will feel good there in all seasons, even if June / July and August remain the most pleasant and lively moments! Biscay, which enjoys the same type of climate, but a little more temperate, is pleasant from April to October.

The Alava, which is a land without coasts, is however temperate hot, that is why there are many vineyards in the most southern territories. September and October are the driest and pleasant months, moreover it is also the period of the grape harvest, a good reason more to go to visit Vitoria Gasteiz and the rest of this province.

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HISTORY OF THE BASQUE COUNTRY 

Various ages define the history of the Basque Country.

PREHISTORY

The history of the Basque Country starts with the Palaeolithic period. It is also believed to be one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe, even if many hypotheses are still unresolved regarding its origins ...
The first vestiges are traced back to 100,000 years BC and some significant cave paintings have been found dating back to before 35,000 years BC. They were discovered for example, in the Isturitz cave.

The Neolithic period sees the building of the first villages and the development of agriculture and herding, the Basque Country then had 10,000 inhabitants. 

THE INFLUENCE OF CELTS AND ANTIQUITY

It is believed that the Celtic people had a considerable influence on the birth of the Basque culture, perhaps part of the language and the work of the various materials used at that time. Walking through the southern part of the Basque Country, in the remote mountains of Navarre and in the southern part of Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya, we find Cromlechs, sites with alignments of menhirs and dolmens, characteristic of this influence Important and ancient Celtic on the Basque culture.

Romans founded the camps of Bayonne, Haspparen and Saint Jean le Vieux and used the Basque ports. They built the Roman road between Bordeaux and Astorga. During Roman times, trade prospered, the vine was introduced and ore was extracted. The "Vascons", the biggest ethnic Basque group, took refuge in the mountains; they only came down after the collapse of the Roman Empire and raided the towns. They were not lead by any particular leader, which shows that, even at that time, there was the emergence of an independent and egalitarian society. 

It was also during that period that Christianity gradually penetrated the Basque Country. With the Goth invasion, the region was under the authority of the Bishop of Toulouse, Saint Saturnin. From the arrival of Christianity in the Basque Country all its Saints emerge later in the traditional Saint celebrations of the Basque summer!

Dolmen de la Sorginexte

Roncesvalles and Roland's song

The battle of Roncevaux is known by the features (not always very Historical) of the Song of Roland, which opposed Charlemagne to the Basques and the Muslims then settled in the Basque Country. The famous battle which took place in the north of Spain, in Navarre at Roncevaux was the end of the Count Roland, lieutenant of Charlemagne.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the 3 Basque provinces were dominated by various groups.The most significant was based on the Spanish principle of the “Fueros” (local laws and privileges extended to towns, provinces, or particular groups) providing them with a political and administrative economy ahead of their time. Navarre was the best example, the kingdom of Navarre was then at its peak.  

19th and 20th centuries: NATIONALISM and TOURIST development

The French revolution and the abolition of a privileged society brought an end to the Fueros system, the King of France and Navarre became King of the French. In 1792, the deputies of Labourd could not for long oppose the creation of the department of the Basses Pyrénées, during the proclamation of the Republic and the restructuring of the new administrative areas of France; Pyrénées Atlantiques consequently incorporated Béarn and the Basque Country

It is from that time that the Basque people felt they wanted autonomy. The translation of all official French texts was rejected by most Basque inhabitants who requested that they be published in Euskera, the Basque language, in order to be understood by the whole Basque population. Now everything is in place for the development of Basque nationalism on both sides of the boundary, France and Spain. This seemed the only way for the society, caught between two countries, to defend their language and their “country”.

The policies of General Franco’s regime in Spain, the bombings of the Spanish Basque villages, including the infamous Guernica, and the wall of silence reigning all over Spain, regional identity was ignored. This led, on the Spanish side, to the radicalisation of the movement towards independance resulting in the creation in 1959 of two simultaneous activist movements: Enbata in the north and ETA in the south. Their slogan was "Euskadi Ta Askatasuna" - "The Basque Country and its freedom".

Guernica's tree

It was only in 1975, when General Franco died, that Juan Carlos, King of Spain, legalised the Basque language in the same way as Catalan, Galician and Castillan were recognised. The autonomy in the south is on its way but it will not be an easy process, the northern activist movement Iparretarak ("Those of the North") also joined ETA. The independent community, Euskadi, south of the boundary, was created in 1979. The political military branch of ETA gradually changed into a political party with Herri Batasuna who wanted "popular unity " participating in elections. The new Basque parliament was instituted in Vittoria in 1980. 

The eighties are not all peaceful. During the time of the socialism of Felipe Gonzales in the south and François Mitterrand in the north there were a number of extremist acts carried out by the separatist group, Groupes Armés de Libération (GAL). There were the arrests of violent protesters in France. Basque political refugees were arrested by the Spanish police in public places such as bars in Bayonne or Hendaye. The promises of François Mitterrand to create a Basque department in the north never happened and did not help to calm the situation. 

It was only in the nineties that the peace process on the Spanish side started paying off. But extremism is still present and claimants for autonomy are now showing a tendency to radicalism, even if ETA (separatist group) shows some signs of weakening and prefering to talk about the political management of the conflict. The new Spanish government of Zapatero has played a key role in reducing tensions but the decommissioning of weapons is not totally finalised. On the French side, the situation is closely monitored, especially as Corsica was given some concessions. This has not gone down well with the French Basques who always claimed independence which was rejected by the French government. The History of the Basque Country is not quite finished yet. 

Despite all this turmoil, during the 20th century the Basque country became a very trendy tourist destination.Balneo therapy tourism developed, especially around cities such as Biarritz which was a luxury resort with tailored amenities. Hotels and Thalasso therapy centres sprang up along with golf courses and casinos. There was a trend towards fitness tourism with the development of surfing and other activities. 

The Basque Country managed to take advantage of its identity and make it a trendy “brand”, its traditions and popular fairs, the art of the “good life”, the quality of a protected architectural environment....

Discover the PAYS BASQUE

the three PROVINCES of the PAYS BASQUE NORTHERN, FRENCH COAST:

Presented in our chapter “Visiting the Basque Country” you will discover the highlights of the historic, architectural and natural treasures for each of these former provinces :

  • Le Labourd, the French Basque coastline, from, Biarritz, Bayonne and Anglet to Saint Jean de Luz and Hendaye There is fishing, balneo therapy, spas, luxury hotels and casinos, surfing as well as some typical smaller villages in the countryside, their churches and their traditional Labourdine houses.
  • La Basse Navarre was caught between France, Navarre and England, The Basse Navarre underwent many influences which is evident in its architecture. Visit Saint Jean Pied de Port, Irouleguy and its wines, Saint Etienne de Baigorry, Saint Palais, grasslands and forests...
  • La Soule, the smallest and the most ingrained in its traditions. You will see the peaks of the Basque Country, the dense forests, the gorges, the shepherds and their herds, Mauléon, Larrau, Sainte Engrâce... 

The 4 provinces of the Basque Country, south side, in Spain


The Basque Country also extends south of the border between France and Spain, it is even there that it is the largest. Discover the 4 Basque provinces, south side. Don't hesitate to click to discover our detailed guide to these regions, subdivided for clarity.

  • Navarre: In the south of the Pyrenees, it is the Kingdom of Navarre, a large territory which capsizes between mountains, marvelous forests and desert territories with captivating reliefs.
Discover the north of Navarre , with its valleys, its bays and its parks dotted with caves. Here we are in the heart of the Basque Country and the legends are almost palpable! Take a vacation near a blue lake, walk through history in Roncevaux, taste the wonderful cheeses made with milk that breathes pasture. Real "slow" vacations.
Discover the Pamplona region and this festive city which comes alive in July at the Saint Firmin celebrations. The largest city in Navarre has a rich historical and cultural heritage. Moving there for several days is a good idea to explore the interesting and varied region that surrounds it.
Discover the center of Navarre, its medieval villages, its mysterious, sacred atmosphere ... Do you take the road to Santiago de Compostela? Will you be tempted by a festive evening in a bodega? Gastronomy is another reason to stop in this territory, between two hikes in the gorges and in search of waterfalls and vultures, you will eat delicious succulent dishes ...
On the way to the Bardenas Reales desert! Have you always dreamed of seeing the great American desert spaces? No need to cross the Atlantic, because the Bardenas are just as breathtaking! A unique territory, sometimes inhospitable but so attractive ... It is a dream place for a getaway of several days, far from crowded, far from civilization ... Guaranteed retirement!
     
Pampelune and Olite
  • Guipuscoa: In the extension of the French coast and Hendaye, there is the Guipuscoa and the famous city of San Sebastian, where many French people come every weekend to get drunk on the electric and authentic atmosphere of the pedestrian alleys . There is also Irun, which beyond its stores has so much to offer ...
The coast of Guipuzcoa is attractive: Full of sunny seaside resorts, a relaxed way of life escapes, contagious and addictive ... Walk around Hondarribia and its beautiful palaces, the whole bay of Passaia has surprises in store for you. hinterland is the kingdom of hiking and apples!
Inland from Guipúzcoa is the kingdom of natural parks: Aizkorri, Aralar, as well as small villages with still vivid medieval history, nestled in the hollow of the mountains. It is the ideal place for a road trip from village to village, to taste good homemade dishes with fresh products between visits and culture breaks.

   
Fontarrabie and San Sebastian
  • Biscay: It is dotted with coastal villages, superb beaches and small gargottes of fishermen. Inland, it's a bit like in Guipuzcoa, with more relief. Mountaineering enthusiasts meet there, as well as hikers.
The coast of Biscay : The fishing port of Ondarroa, next to smaller and more intimate like Lekeitio. Guernica made famous with Picasso’s painting, we then get closer to the Ria de Bilbao by following the coast which is crisscrossed by a multitude of coastal villages, perfect for a road trip. In Mundaka, will you be surfing? In Bakio, will you taste wine? Gorliz, Sopelae and Getxo is perfect for family vacations, and finally you will come to the vibrant Bilbao! Its museums will appeal to lovers of art and culture, take long walks in this beautiful city to appreciate it from every angle. Then continue, not forgetting to see the Metallic Bridge of Biscay, along the coast towards the small fishing villages.
The mountains of Biscay : Ancient medieval villages, geological curiosities or vestiges of a distant Celtic past. Between natural parks and religious heritage, there are many things to see. Ziortza-Bolibar, Durango, and the whole mining region towards Balmaseda is home to caves and villages with more cows than inhabitants!
  
Bermeo and Balmaseda

  • The Alava: The only territory in the Basque Country on the south side, without access to the sea, the Alava has a lot of charms to take away from whoever takes the time to explore it.
Northern Alava  is conducive to relaxation with its dam lakes which are pleasant recreational areas. This is also where the Gorobe Massif is located, there are some of the highest peaks in the Basque Country, exceeding 1000m above sea level. Towards Laudio, you will go to do some shopping perhaps?
The center and Vitoria Gasteiz are surprising because you might not expect, in the middle of the countryside, to see the emergence of a city so modern and well organized as Vitoria Gasteiz. Very ecological oriented, it is really a pleasant place to discover. Stroll through the city to see its frescoes, pedestrian streets, a very peaceful atmosphere
South of Alava , there is one thing not to miss the hectares of vines of the Rioja Alavaise, which gives birth to generous wines to discover absolutely if you are lovers of this beverage. In Laguardia, a beautiful medieval town, there are not far from the lagoons for bird watching fans

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TOURIST ATTRACTIONS:

The Basque Country offers many treasures: castles, churches, priories, caves, museums and beautiful countryside…many reasons to stay in the region. 

See our chapter "Tourist Attractions".

FROM THE treasures OF THE LOCAL PRODUCT...

Pays Basque products are renowned, the highlights include: 

See our chapter Basque Gastronomy

... to the best local dishes and basque cuisine

Basque gastronomy is very rich, with the influences of Gascony and Les Landes to the north and Spain to the south. Enjoy fish and pork dishes as well as tapas! There are many good restaurants in the Basque Country, do not hesitate to stop and taste the local cuisine.  

Visit our chapter “Restaurants” 

ACCOMMODATION

In our chapter "Accommodation" you will find all the options you would expect: campsites, guesthouses, self-catering accommodation, holiday villages, Bed & Breakfast and hotels of all ratings. From the most luxurious room to the most basic one, you will find something to suit you in the Pays-Basque.

SPORTS AND LEISURE activities

To help you discover the treasures of the Basque Country, many activities are on offer: strolls along the Corniche Basque (Basque Coastal Road) or the mountain trails (mountain biking, rock climbing). There are seaside activities (surfing, parasailing, fishing and boat rides) and all white-water activities (rafting, etc). Discover the activities that make the culture of the Basque Country: the different games of Basque pelote (Cesta Punta, Main nue, Chistera) and the games of “force Basque” (Corrida, golf and of course rugby)! 

Visit our chapter "Sports and activities"

festival, FAIRS, exhibition and shows in PAYS BASQUE

All year long, the Basque Country is at the centre of numerous Saint celebrations and country fairs, festivals, cultural and culinary shows. These include:

  • Les Fêtes de Saint Vincent, Ciboure and Hendaye: End of January
  • La Fête du Cidre, (Cider Festival) Bayonne: End of March or end of May.
  • La Fête de la Mer, (Sea Festival) Guethary: last Sunday in May 
  • La Fête de la cerise d'Itxassou (Itxassou Cherry Fair): June
  • Les Fêtes de la Madeleine à Saint-Palais (Madeleine Fair): 23rd to 27th July
  • Les Fêtes de Bayonne (Bayonne Fair): first Wednesday in August  
  • Le Festival de Force Basque, Saint-Palais (Force Basque Festival): End of August.
  • Les Fêtes Patronales d'Urrugne: beginning of September.
  • Les Fêtes Patronales de Sare: Mid-September.
  • La Fête du Piment, Espelette (Espelette Pepper Festival): last Sunday in October  
  • Fête du Gâteau Basque (Gateau Basque Fair): 1st October
  • Les Fêtes de la Saint Martin, Biarritz: November.
  • La Foire aux Pottocks, Helette (Pottocks Fair): End of November.
  • SanFermines celebrations in July in Pamplona
  • La Semana Grande in San Sebastian in August
  • San Martial celebration in Irun at the end of June
  • The Virgen Blanca celebrations of Vitoria Gasteiz in August
  • The Tolosa Carnival in March
  • Olentzero, in the big cities of the Basque Country on the south side, as Christmas approaches, he is the icon of local Santa
  • Harvest festivals in Alava mid September
  • The San Sebastian Drum Parade on January 20
  • The concha banderas in early September in San Sebastian



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THE PAYS BASQUE… IN the BOOKS AND IN THE MOVIES

The Pays Basque has an extended list of historical and visitor guides, below are some of them:

Tourism, Culture, History and Gastronomy:

  • "Histoire générale du Pays Basque"- Éditions "Elkar Lanean"
  • "Le Pays Basque" by Pierre Loti - Éditions "Aubéron"
  • "Les Basques" by Roger Collins - Éditions "Perrin"
  • "La Question Basque" by Denis Laborde" - Editions "L'Harmattan"

Literature:

  • "L'Homme seul" by Bernardo Atxaga - Éditions "Bourgeois"
  • "Obabakoak" by Bernardo Atxaga - Éditions "Celesa"

Recommended Visitor Guides:

   

  •  "Guide Vert Pays Basque, France, Espagne et Navarre "- "Editions de Voyages - Michelin"
  • "Le Guide du Routard" Pays Basque France et Espagne
  • "Les Guides Bleus" Pays Basque chez "Hachette"
  • "Pays Basque" encyclopédies du Voyage - Éditions "Gallimard"
  • "GEOGUIDE" Pays Basque - Éditions "Gallimard"
  • "Un grand week-end à Biarritz, Bayonne, Saint Jean de Luz." - Éditions Hachette.
  • Le "Petit Futé Pays Basque.
  • Various publications and documentations from the Pays Basque Tourist Offices.

Crédits Photos ©Fotolia