The Basque Country (Basque: Euskadi, Spanish: Pais Vasco) is a region at the north of Spain, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and France. It is defined formally as an autonomous community of three provinces within Spain, and culturally including a fourth province and a small portion of France.
The following Spanish provinces make up the autonomous community of Pais Vasco:
Culturally, the Basque Country also includes the Spanish province of Navarra (Basque: Nafarroa), and the territories of Labord (Basque: Lapurdi), French Navarra (Basque: Behenafarroa), and Soule (Basque: Zuberoa) in southwestern France.
Under the Franco regime all languages other than Castilian Spanish were severely restricted. The Spanish constitution of 1978 established the provinces of Araba, Gipuzkoa, and Bizkaia as the Basque Autonomous Region. The Basque Autonomous Region (Communidad Autonoma Vasca) has a great deal of autonomy from the national government (including the autonomy to recognize Euskara as an official language of the region), but this has not satisfied all factions of the Basque community.
The Basque people have had a stormy relationship with the nation of Spain, and for decades there had been incidents of violence made in the name of self-determination and/or independence. ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna -the Basque terrorist organization) announced a permanent ceasefire at the end of March of 2006, but has since reopened hostilities, killing two people in 2007 with a car bomb at Madrid airport, and in the summer of 2009 detonating bombs in Burgos and Palma de Mallorca.
The official languages of the region are Basque (Euskara) and Spanish. Spanish is the most spoken language, but there are signs in Basque as well. Practically everyone will speak fluent Spanish, while Basque is less widely spoken. 700,000 out of the Basque country's population of 2,100,000 speak Basque. From the region's location, you might expect this language to be a blend of Spanish and French, but Basque is unrelated to either of them or any other language in the world. The Basque language is a language isolate, that is, it doesn't belong to any language family but in effect constitutes its own language family. Some linguists surmise that modern Basque is the last remaining descendant of the stone age languages spoken in Europe before the arrival of the Indo-European peoples several thousand years ago. Grammatically, the Basque language is particularly complex, and is notoriously impenetrable for foreigners; even many Basques who speak Spanish as a first language have extreme difficulty learning the language. Many Basques speak English, and nationalistic types will not want to speak Spanish with foreigners, due to the desire to completely dissociate themselves from anything to do with Spain; however, if you learn even a little Basque, and speak it to the locals, they will FALL IN LOVE with you. If, as a foreigner, you learn enough Basque you can expect locals to offer you drinks anywhere you travel in the Basque Country.
Basque is official alongside Spanish in the entire Autonomous Community, but is much more widely spoken in the provinces of Biscay and especially Gipuzkoa. In Álava it is virtually non-existent as a native language, but is official nonetheless.
Daily connections with Madrid and Barcelona from Bilbo/Bilbao, Donostia/San Sebastian, Gasteiz/Vitoria and Iruña/Pamplona.
San Sebastián-Bilbao - PESA SA - www.pesa.net
San Sebastián-Vitoria - ALSA - www.alsa.es
San Sebastián-Pamplona - LA BURUNDESA SA - www.autobuseslaunion.com
San Sebastián-Barcelona - VIBASA - www.vibasa.com
San Sebastián-Madrid - ALSA
Bus to/ from the airport
-San Sebastián-Hondarribia airport (20 km) - EKIALDEBUS - Bus E21 - www.ekialdebus.net
-San Sebastián-Bilbao Loiu airport (95 km) - PESA SA - www.pesa.net
-San Sebastián-Madrid Barajas airport (450 km) - ALSA
-Bilbao-Loiu airport (12 Km) - www.termibus.es
-Bilbao-Santander airport (95 km) - www.termibus.es
The motorway between Paris and Madrid goes through Baiona/Bayonne, Donostia/San Sebastian and Vitoria/Gasteiz. The tolls between Baiona and Donostia are pretty expensive. Another motorway links Iruña/Pamplona with Barcelona There are motorways between all the main cities: Bilbo-Gasteiz, Bilbo-Donostia, Donostia-Iruña, Gasteiz-Iruña.
Sooner or later people normally stop. It's better to hitchhike at the exits of the towns where the traffic is calmer than on the motorways. So many long-distance truck routes cross the Basque Country it should be quite easy to find someone to take you directly from Madrid or Paris to the Basque Country, and vice versa.
There is an extensive bus and train network, and roads are well signposted. But watch out for occasional monolingual signs in Basque.
Alava, along with its neighbor La Rioja, on the other bank of the Ebro River, produces world-class wines and is especially famous for its robust reds.
Situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, Alava offers an easy rolling landscape, mild climate and vineyards everywhere. It is an ideal place for wineries to multiply, spread, consolidate and, in the process, amass large quantities of money for their owners. As these fortunes grow, new brands need to be created and fresh images must be marketed. One way some wineries achieve this is by using avant-garde architecture for the construction of their buildings.
In the little town of Elciego, the Marques de Riscal winery has one of these futuristic buildings designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry (he also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a hundred miles or so to the north). This time, however, he "pushed the envelope" (so to speak) of the Guggenheim style. He made the Guggenheim convoluted shapes flow more freely as if a storm were blowing on the outer surfaces and making them flap like flags in the wind. The result is absolutely astonishing. The sole purpose for the edifice is to be a temple to Bacchus, the god of wine!
A few miles away, just outside Laguardia, another famous architect by the name of Santiago Calatrava recently created the Isios winery. (He also designed the new Olympic stadium in Athens, Greece, and the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences/Performing Arts Center, in Valencia, Spain) Although not as much "out-on-the-edge" as the Marques de Riscal winery, its soaring, wavy roof set against the backdrop of the blue sky and the green mountain range is a sight to see.
The industrialist Solomon R. Guggenheim was inspired by Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen’s love for modern art. Rebay laid more emphasis on art that is non-objective. Guggenheim is known for his debates on abstract art with Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, and Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky’s Composition 8 was purchased by Guggenheim, which made the entire collection famous
Txakoli: white wine from the regions of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, also now produced in a part of Araba/Alava.
Rioja wines: produced in La Rioja, south of Araba/Alava and southwest of Nafarroa/Navarra.
Cider (Sagardoa in basque): is not like British or Nordic cider, it doesn't have gas and is more similar to the wine. Is mostly produced in Gipuzkoa around Donostia/San Sebastian but also in some parts of Nafarroa/Navarra and Bizkaia. In winter between January and March the cider cellars are open as restaurants where you can have dinner and you drink all the cider you want.
Kalimotxo: low quality wine with coke. Typical drink of teenagers and for parties.
Patxaran: sloe liquor. Typical after dinner. Tastes a bit like the cough medicine 'Night Nurse'.
Beer: if you want a tap beer (normally cheaper) you can ask caña or half caña called zurito. Normally the glass is not filled to the top and depending on the place, the barman or your face it could be a big or small measure.
With a rate of only 33.4 crimes per 1000 inhabitants, the Basque Country has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. Even in big cities, only a few areas (San Francisco in Bilbao, for example) are best avoided. Although violent crime is extremely rare, the usual precautions still apply; avoid being alone at night in side streets, keep an eye on pickpockets, and you should do just fine.
The chances of being affected by ETA are extremely low. The number of ETA attacks has decreased a lot in the past few years ('only' 10 people have been killed by ETA in the past 4 years, 4 of them in the Basque Country), they are usually directed against one person, not many people or any building, and the targets are usually policemen, military, businessmen or politicians. ETA has never targeted visitors to the Basque Country. Furthermore, since the definitive ceasefire announced on October 20th, 2011, no attacks have been recorded.
Although they have also become rarer, there is a chance of seeing acts of vandalism related to radical pro-independence movements, specially if you visit the Basque Country during a big pro-independence-demonstration day or politically relevant dates (the Gudari Eguna, the Aberri Eguna and some city festivals). Don't be alarmed, if you find yourself in the middle of a fight between the police and violent manifestants: do what the basques do, and go to the next street. In 30 min, everything will be probably finished.
It is advisable not to wear any Spanish symbols (Spain's national football (soccer) team T-shirts, Spanish flags or Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid club paraphernalia). Although no assaults on people wearing them have been recorded, some people may find them offensive or disrespectful.
Basque politics are complex, very complex. Basques are divided between those who want full independence from Spain, those who ask for more self-government and those who think that the current union with Spain is just fine. And to this division you have to add the usual right VS left dimension.
Take into account that with a population of just 2 million people there are now 7 different political parties in the Basque Parliament and that one party has been illegal for the last 10 years.
So if speaking to strangers, avoid political topics as it can cause upset or offense.
The charms of southwest France, in particular the beach resorts and town of Biarritz, are a short hop across the border. Or travel due east to explore the rugged Pyrenees. To the west, Spain offers the mountains and coastline of Asturias and Galicia, the terminus of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Head south to Burgos and central Spain.