The Biscayan stretch of coastline is arguably the most spectacular in the entire Basque Country. This is an area of dramatic beauty, where the force of elements can be experienced at its most: the fierce waves of the Atlantic crash violently against the sheer cliffs and islets that line the coast, where only some estuaries of great scenic beauty provide for shelter. A few incredibly picturesque fishermen towns dot the coast.
This is also the area where one of the important parts of the Basque soul was forged: the arrantzaleak, or Basque seamen who crossed the Northern Atlantic for centuries in search of fish and whales and reached as far as Newfoundland, fighting the terrible storms the Bay of Biscay is known for. Galernas are, in truth, violent and sudden storms with very strong winds that occur in the Bay of Biscay mostly in Spring and Autumn. These disturbances have claimed thousands of lives among the fishermen and are part of the regional folklore.
Curiously enough, Spaniards only call Bay of Biscay to the southeast portion of what in English is referred to under that name. The Bay of Biscay (in its English meaning) is called in Spain after the neighbouring region of Cantabria (Mar Cantábrico).
There is a scenic road which runs the length of the Biscayan coast, starting in Getxo, on the mouth of the Bilbao estuary, towards Matxitxako Cape, the Northernmost point of the Spanish Basque Country, and then onwards to Ondarroa, on the Guipuzcoa province line.
Gipuzcoa is the smallest province in Spain (about the size of the Island of Mauritius), and the only province in the Basque Autonomous Community to have a border with France (a few kilometres in the last stretch of the Bidasoa River).
Nestled between the Pyrenees and the last ranges of the Cantabrian Mountains, Guipuzcoa enjoys an Atlantic weather with minimal temperature oscillations and abundant precipitation throughout the year. Thus, the verdant valleys, surrounded by jagged peaks, are covered by velvety pastures and crammed with small historical towns. It is in these towns that the Basque culture and language have been best preserved and chances are that you hear people speaking Euskera on a daily basis. On the other hand, the capital, San Sebastian, in spite of its small size, is one of Spain's finest cities, with pretty beaches, an active cultural life, and an old-fashioned turn-of-the-century elegance to it.
Several scenic areas dot the the province, including the majestic Aralar Sierra, which separates Guipuzcoa from Alava, where the summit of the Basque Country - the Aitzkorri - is located.
Guipuzcoa was annexed by Castile in 1200 and has ever since kept a special status within the country, thanks to its territorial chart or fuero. Since 1981, it makes part of the Basque Autonomous Community.
Vitoria-Gasteiz is the administrative capital of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country and of one of the Province of Alava (Araba). Traditionally viewed as a grey city of army men and priests, Vitoria has reinvented itself in the last decades to offer a vibrant cultural scene and innovative solutions for its social issues.
Located in an important crossroads, Vitoria was founded by King Snacho VI of Navarre on a former village located on a small hill that dominates the plane, known as Gasteiz. Its Medieval core has preserved the original structure of narrow streets that still bear the names of the professions that were established there since the birth of the city.
The city started its expansion beyond the Old Town in the 19th century, when architect Olaguíbel designed grand and classical squares and colonnaded streets that communicated the hill-top Old Town with the surrounding plain (pictured here, Spain Square).
Since it was chosen as capital of the new Autonomous Community of the Basque Country in 1979 (probably to reinforce the Basque identity of a mostly Castilian city), Vitoria has more than doubled its population and has become one of the Spanish cities with a highest quality of life.
Alava, even if small by Spanish standards, is the largest of the three Basque Provinces, similar in size to the State of Rhode Island. It is, however, the least populated of them, with less than half the population of Gipuzkoa. In addition, most of the population lives in the capital, Vitoria, which also happens to be the administrative capital of the entire Basque Country.
In spite of its small size, Alava is a very diverse territory, although it is the only Basque province which does not have a sea coast. The Mediterranean influence is clearly palpable, with a much more arid climate than the Northern areas. It is, in truth, a transition territory between Castile and Navarre, between the Atlantic and the Spanish Central Plateau.
The Northern regions are very similar to the neighbouring provinces, mountainous and wet. In the capital and the flat central and southern regions, where the Basque language has not been spoken for centuries, the Castilian influence is much stronger than in the rest of the country. The south border is marked by the river Ebro, which flows through the famous wine growing region of Rioja (North of the river belonging to Alava and south of the river a different Autonomous Community).
Historically, Alava has been a County and then a Lordship closely linked to the Kingdom of Navarre, until it was annexed by Castile in the XIV century, together with Gipuzkoa and the Duranguesado region.
San Sebastián, or Donostia in the local language, (pop. ca. 200 000) is an irresistible city: the beauty of the shoreline is beyond description; the atmosphere that it oozes is sophisticated and aristocratic; and last but not least, Donostiarras have cultivated the art of gastronomy with so much fervour and devotion that they have turned their city into one of the culinary capitals of Europe.
Be it haute cuisine in the numerous Michelin-starred restaurants in the city and its surroundings (San Sebastián has the highest concentration in Spain), the popular pintxos, elevated in the capital of Gipuzkoa to the category of gastronomic jewels, or in the sociedades gastronómicas (eating clubs where men gather to cook, eat, and discuss on virtually anything), gourmet food is always present in San Sebastián and one of the main draws for the tourist.
Luckily, it is easy to burn out all these calories in San Sebastián, and hardly possible to imagine a more pleasant way to do it than taking long promenades along the pretty urban beaches, particularly along the shell-shaped La Concha Bay, and the small Urumea river, which meets the Bay of Biscay in the centre of the city. Apart from the beauty of the 19th and 20th century architecture, the natural backdrop is among the finest in Europe.
Climbing one of the two hills that flank La Concha, Urgull and Igeldo, is a much more demanding challenge (well, the latter has a funicular which will take you to the top), but the views of the bay with the rocky Santa Clara island in the middle, are well worth the effort.
The Very Noble and Very Loyal Town of Elorrio is truly a hidden gem. Although not very well known beyond the boundaries of Biscay, it is the most monumental urban ensemble in the Duranguesado region (Durangoaldea in Basque). This region, with its capital in Durango, was a formerly independent lordship, only annexed to Biscay in the 13th century, as a gift from the King of Castile in return for the help given in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa against the Moors. This annexation was not documented until the 17th century, though.
The old town of Elorrio is entirely composed of urban palaces and historical buildings which have been delightfully renovated. In the pedestrian-friendly centre, the sturdy stone buildings, often embellished with coats of arms, bring you back to the 14th century, when the town was founded by don Tello, Lord of Biscay and of Aguilar de Campoo, as a defensive post against the neighbouring Guipuzcoa, and as an urban counterpoint to the power of the rural noblemen.
The entire Old Town is actually listed as a Historic-Artistic Monument. Most of the stately buildings are due to the fortunes made in the trade with the American territories. Among the most impressive buildings, the Palaces of Estéibar–Arauna, Arabio, Arezpakoetxea, Olazábal, Laríz and Urkizu, and the Town Hall will certainly attract your attention. Finally, the Church of Saint Augustin, built in the 15th century, is one of the largest and richest in the Basque Country
Bilbao, with a population of more than 350,000, is the largest city in the Basque Country and the eleventh in Spain. It is also the centre of one of the main industrial poles in the country, which covers a large area on both sides of the Nervion estuary and comprises a population of almost one million, making of it the fifth largest metropolitan area in Spain.
Bilbao is one of the youngest Spanish cities, as it was founded only in A.D. 1300 by don Diego López de Haro on a former settlement on the Nervión river. The city strived thanks to its port and the exploitation of the nearby coal mines, becoming eventually the capital of Biscay in detriment of Bermeo. Since then, it has been a pioneer in Spain's industrial history and one of the economic engines of the country.
Industry, mines, banks and business have been associated to Bilbao for many decades, and the huge fortunes that were amassed in the years of prosperity have left an indelible mark in the city in terms of quality architecture and refined gastronomy. Nevertheless, the severe industrial crisis in the 1980s left a desolated landscape of abandoned factories and polluted grounds that affected the image of the city very negatively.
In the last years, Bilbao has tried very hard to convince travelers from all over the world that the industrial image of the city is a thing of the past and that, after a big effort of renovation and revamping, the city now offers charm, avant-garde and innovation. The best known aspect of this renovation is the world famous local branch of the Guggenheim Museum and its astonishing architecture by Frank Ghery, but that is not but a piece in a larger puzzle of invigorating projects which have made of Bilbao one of the most interesting city destinations in Spain.
You can see more Bilbao pictures in my Bilbao page.
Biscay was born in the Middle Ages as a sovereign Lordship within the Crown of Castile, after noblemen and landowners sought to consolidate their holdings under Castilian feudal Law in detriment of the ambitions of the Kings of Navarre. It was the House of Haro (a town in Northern Rioja) who was granted the rule of the Lordship in return for the support given to Castile. In the 14th Century, the title of Lord of Biscay fell by inheritance in the King of Castile, but even then, Biscayans managed to maintain their sovereignty, as the Kings of Castile, and later of Spain, kept on swearing to defend and maintain the fuero (Territorial Chart) under the oak of Gernika.
Today, Biscay is the second smallest province in Spain, with an area equivalent to the one of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, and one of the most densely populated, especially on the banks of the Bilbao estuary (Greater Bilbao accounts for about 80 % of its population). In spite of its small size, Biscay has much more to offer than urban sprawl and industries: most of the territory is made up of quintessentially Basque landscapes ranging from a wind-swept coast of high cliffs, secluded beaches and picturesque fishing villages that have kept ancestral traditions, to pastoral yet precipitous hills dotted with the traditional Basque dwellings (caseríos), where herds of sheep graze nonchalantly.
Its capital, Bilbao, has recently become a world-class city. Gernika, a small town made famous by the homonymous painting of Picasso, is an iconic town for Biscayans and all Basques, as here was the big oak under which the Lordship's assembly traditionally met. Gernika is also one of the gates to the exuberant Urdaibai estuary, a UNESCO Biosphere reserve whose beaches have become a Mecca for European surfers. Finally, the Natural Parks of Armañón, Gorbeia and Urkiola (the two last shared by Alava) are perfect places to evade from the urban rush among abrupt peaks of sheer beauty.
Well known as a pro-independence stronghold, Hernani is one of the largest towns in the surroundings of San Sebastian. It has preserved an interesting old town, with several monumental buildings and picturesque alleys. This picture shows the town's main square (Gudarien Enparantza), with the Town Hall and the Baroque Church of Saint John the Baptist.
Together with Astigarraga and Usúrbil, Hernani is one of the centres of the thriving cider industry in Guipúzcoa. During the season, from February to May, people from the entire province come to the sidrerías or sagardotegiak of this region to taste huge steaks and cod omelettes prepared in the traditional way, all accompanied by large quantities of cider and the local wine, txakoli.
Hernani is also the title of one of the plays by the French writer Victor Hugo, which inspired the famous opera Ernani by Giuseppe Verdi. Hernani is, however, not set in this Guipuzcoan town, but the name of the main character, a bandit from the mountains of Aragon. Probably the only connexion between this town and the play is that Hugo had visited the Basque Country and found inspiration here to name the character of the play.
Tolosa was founded on the banks of the Oria River in the 13th century by Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile, who named it after the French city of Toulouse. It made part of a series of defensive posts on the border to the Kingdom of Navarre (Segura, Ordizia and Tolosa). The settlement was encouraged with a territorial charter which granted generous privileges to the town. The original street pattern from that period has been admirably preserved.
Tolosa was the capital of Guipuzcoa for a short period in the 19th century, until it passed the honor to the city of San Sebastian.
Tolosa celebrates the best-known and most traditional Carnival in the Basque Country (Tolosako Inauteriak) and is also particularly famous for the black beans produced in the region, with an exceptional quality, and a base for many of the local dishes.
The Trapaga valley runs off the main valley of the River Nervion, emerging behind Barakaldo.
The valley has long been a centre of mineral exploitation, but such activity has now ceased.
Get the train from Bilbao on the Muzkiz line (about 2 trains an hour - a 20 minute journey) to Trapagaran, then a 15 minute walk brings you to the Furnicular Railway up to the top of the valley.
At the top of the valley are many walking routes, as well as small villages La Reineta and La Arboleta.
The views from here down onto the port of Bilbao are impressive.
No visit to the city is complete without a visit to the old quarter (Parte Vieja) where most of the traditional local life takes place. Its narrow streets are packed with bars and restaurants. The Plaza de la Constitucion is where you will find the library, once the Town Hall. The square was once used as a bullring. The Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro, patron saint of the city can be found on the only street that remains from the 1813 fire, the Calle 31 de Agosto. The old quarter opens out to the sea at the harbour, home to the fishing fleet as well as the pleasure craft. Here you will find the Naval Museum and the Aquarium.
Situated in the very southwest of France, Biarritz became famous in the 19th century when Empress Eugenie (the wife of Napoleon III) fell in love with this part of the Basque country and built a Palace on the beach (which is now the world class Hotel du Palais) and a centre with natural springs at Eugenie les Bains. The resort became popular with aristocracy from all over Europe - Queen Victoria came here regularly over a period of 30 years, Edward VI stayed in the Hotel du Palais days before his death and in the 1930s Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were regular visitors.
Donostia-San Sebastian was once a small fishing village and the inhabitants lived facing the sea. They were known to have hunted whales and fished for cod. At one point it was a thriving port, importing wines and oil for France and England. Over the centuries the city has undergone many seiges and in 1808 it was occupied by Napoleon´s soldiers who stayed here until 1813. The city fell into decline in the 19th century but was lifted in 1845 when Queen Isabel II arrived in the city to spend the summer there., a tradition that continued for decades.
Just 21km west of the French border, within the Basque Country, lies Donostia-San Sebastian, the summer capital of Spain. It lies against the Bay of Biscay, surrounded by green mountains. During the summer months the population here swells as the Spanish head here to escape the inland heat. It has about 180,000 inhabitants.
Autopista A-68 Km 36, Area De Altube , Zuia (Vizcaya), Alava, Vizcaya, 01139, Spain
Good for: Couples
This hotel is one of my favourite parts of this vacation. The rooms were amazing, like most...more
The stay here was incredible. The staff was amazing. The room and view was excellent. The only...more