The Basque Region, a Tale of Two Countries

Many believe the Basque region is Spanish and a Spanish experience. But 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.

Made up of seven provinces, three of which are in France and four that are in Spain, are an autonomous community, despite being physically located across different borders.

Throughout the Basque region, with their own language (Euskara), their culture is similarly independent. The noticeable differences between the French and Spanish-located cities are the influences of the countries in which these regions are located.

Spanish Euskaldunak (Basque speaking locals) mostly speak Euskara however they may also speak Spanish. The Spanish Basque features modern and industrial areas that are more centered on tourist and resort-driven cities.

The French Euskadi are loyal to France, they speak French, and may also speak Euskara. In the French tradition, they live in rural environments and towns that sit among green pastures and farms.

What is 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. Within this region, you will find attractive villages offering uncrowded pastoral countryside, charming white-washed half-timbered houses, and quaint colorful churches.

Bayonne –

Located just off the coast of France at the confluence of two rivers makes the city scenic and also separates it into 3 very distinct districts.

A mix of Basque and French culture, the Grand Bayonne quarter on the west bank of the Nive river offers 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.

Biarritz –

More of a tourist location than its sister city Bayonne, The Cote de Basque is a sophisticated yet relaxing resort town of cliffside villas overlooking the coast. Offering swanky oceanside hotels beachside and a coastal upscale resort town, you will find the beaches very popular. Biarritz is known worldwide for its surfing attracting bohemian visitors to the seaside town. The town features trendy cafes, great boutiques, and a lively beachside bar scene.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz –

About 15 minutes south of Biarritz and close to the Spanish border is the small seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The family-friendly town features the Grand Plage, a long stretch of sandy beach surrounded by three sea walls with a few small hotels with spas. Off the coast is the downtown region of Donibane Lohizune featuring local rustic cuisine. Here the region is best known for its comfy beach espadrille sandals and coastal-inspired gastronomy that blends the French influence with the New Basque-inspired dishes from the nearby Spanish regions.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port –

Hidden at the base of the Pyrenees mountains is the beautifully scenic village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The small charming town 5 miles from the Spanish border is the starting point for the Christian pilgrimage to the Santiago de Compostela shrine in Galicia, Spain. A stop here is welcome after hiking the Pyrenees and taking in the amazing panoramas from the mountains. 

Southern Basque Region

The Pais Vasco Español is called Hegoalde which means southern in the basque language of Euskara. The majority of the Basque region lies on the Spanish side and is also the most populated. Broken down into two very distinct regions, the coastal Basque and the inland Navarre region.

Pamplona –

An hour and a half southwest of the French Basque across the Spanish border from the Pyrenees is the Navarre region and its capital city, Pamplona. You might have heard of Pamplona’s annual  Running of the Bulls, 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 attracts visitors to its cobble-stoned pedestrian streets that wind throughout the city. At the center of the town is the Plaza del Castillo (Palace Square) here you can find locals and tourists enjoying the best restaurants and cafes of Pamplona.

San Sebastián –

Donostia is a very popular resort town for its white sand beaches and New Basque cuisine. Often referred to as Paris by the sea, its sophistication attracts wealthy beach-goers along La Concha beach. Considered by many Europeans to be the most beautiful beach in Europe. Many don’t just visit San Sebastian for beach luxury, but also for gastronomy. You will find the largest number of Michelin-rated stars per capita than anywhere else in the world.

The locally sourced Pintxos, the backbone of the Spanish Basque food culture, are partially responsible for the famed dining experiences.  Similar to a tapa (but don’t call it a tapa) features small plates in uniquely crafted gastro-pub experiences. Found within Parte Vieja, the old port region and a charming old town feature the largest number of Pintxos bars in the world.

Bilbao –

Considered the heart of the Basque region in Spain, Bilbao is a modern city filled with cosmopolitan buildings, local industry and is the urban hub of Euskadi.

The largest city in the region is the most eastern in the Basque.  It attracts visitors to its contemporary Guggenheim museum and offers a very modern metro system. The old medieval section, Casco Viejo, attracts visitors for culture and historical experiences.

Shopping is a prime attraction at the “El Ensanche” featuring higher-end shops, restaurants, and bars along the Gran Via.

Pintxos play an equally important role in local gastronomy here too where you will find many taverns offering tasty treats to enjoy with a glass of local cider or wine.

The well-known French region of Bordeaux is 3.5 hours from Bilbao and just 2 hours from Bayonne providing a unique travel experience to explore the beautiful Euskadi region of Spain and France and then traveling north for a purely French wine experience.

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