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  • Hi. I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in for a stunning

  • array of cultural treats - and it's more than just great food.

  • This is the Land of the Basque people.

  • The land of the Basque people is one of Europe's "nations without a state." Its territory is

  • split between France and Spain. With a stubborn spirit and an industrious nature, the Basques

  • celebrate their rich heritage while embracing the future.

  • We'll enjoy the classic Basque experiences in the classic Basque places - sunny beaches,

  • spectacular modern architecture, tasty tapas, charming villages, venerable men's clubs,

  • a dramatic coastline, and a lightning-fast sport.

  • When they drew the national borders of Europe, the Basque nation was left out. While you

  • won't see this country on standard Europe maps, Basque people define their land like

  • this, bounded by the Pyrenees Mountains and the Atlantic coast. We start in San Sebastián,

  • tour Guernica and Bilbao, and finish in the French part of Basque Country, visiting Bayonne

  • and St-Jean-de-Luz.

  • The independent-minded Basques are notorious for being headstrong. But, as a culturally

  • and linguistically unique land surrounded by bigger and stronger nations, the Basques

  • have learned to compromise while maintaining their identity.

  • Much unites the Spanish and French Basque regions: They share a striking Atlantic coastline

  • with communities reaching far into the Pyrenees. They have the same flag, similar folk music

  • and dance, and a common language, spoken by about half-a-million people. And both, after

  • some struggles, have been integrated by their respective nations. The French Revolution

  • quelled French Basque ideas of independence. And in the 20th century, Spain's General Franco

  • attempted to tame his own separatist-minded Basques.

  • But in the last generation, things are improving. The long-suppressed Basque language is enjoying

  • a resurgence. And, because the European Union is interested in helping small ethnic regions

  • as well as big countries, the Basques are enjoying more autonomy.

  • So, just who are the Basques? Sure, you can still find a few beret-capped shepherds that

  • fit the traditional cliché. But the vast majority of Basques are modern and relatively

  • prosperous city dwellers. Widespread Spanish and French immigration has made it difficult

  • to know who actually has Basque ethnic roots. Locals consider anyone who speaks the Basque

  • language to be Basque.

  • If you know where to look, Basque customs are strong and lively...perhaps nowhere moreso

  • than in one of their favorite sports, called jai alai. Players use a long wicker basket

  • to whip a ball, smaller and far harder than a baseball, off walls at more than 150 miles

  • per hour.

  • For less adrenalin but just as much Basque culture, there's the institution of the men's

  • gastronomic club. These clubs are common throughout Basque Country and range from the more working

  • class communal kitchen type of place to the fairly highbrow more exclusive version with

  • extensive wine cellars, and gastronomic libraries.

  • The clubs serve several functions: Traditionally, Basque society is matrilineal - women run

  • the show at home. These provide a men's night out. It's also a place where friends who've

  • known each other since grade school can enjoy quality time together, speaking Basque, and

  • savoring traditional ways in an ever faster world. And, it's a place where men cook together

  • and celebrate the famed Basque culinary traditions.

  • While much of Basque region is in France, most of the land, industry, and people are

  • in Spain. And many consider Spanish Basque culture to be feistier and more colorful than

  • that of the more integrated French Basques.

  • The leading tourist destination in Spain's Basque Country is San Sebastián. Shimmering

  • above its breathtaking bay, elegant and prosperous San Sebastián - or Donostia as locals call

  • their town - is your best home base for exploring Basque Country.

  • With its romantic setting on the sea, lively Old Town, and its soaring statue of Christ

  • gazing over the city, San Sebastián has a mini-Rio de Janeiro aura.

  • Its shell-shaped Playa de la Concha, the pride of San Sebastián, boasts one of Europe's

  • loveliest stretches of sand. While sunbathers pack its shores in the summer, the elegant

  • promenade is pleasantly devoid of commercialism.

  • For a century, the promenade's wrought-iron balustrade has been a symbol of the city;

  • it shows up on everything, from headboards to jewelry.

  • In the 1840s, Spain's Queen Isabel II was a regular here on the beach. Her doctors recommended

  • she treat her skin problems by bathing here in the sea. Spain's aristocracy took note,

  • and soon San Sebastián was on the map as a seaside resort.

  • By the turn of the 20th century, San Sebastián was the toast of the belle époque, and a

  • leading resort for Europe's beautiful people. Hotels, theaters, and casinos flourished.

  • Even the anti-Basque dictator of Spain, Franco, enjoyed 35 summers here in a place he was

  • sure to call not "Donostia," but "San Sebastián."

  • Huddled under its once-protective hill, is the Old Town. This is where San Sebastián

  • was born about a thousand years ago. Its port, while sleepy today, has long hosted the town's

  • hard-working fishing boats. Because the town was almost entirely rebuilt after an 1813

  • fire, its architecture is generally Neoclassical and uniform. Still, the grid plan of streets

  • hides surprises: ornate Baroque and Gothic churches, delightful plazas, and shops offering

  • fascinating insights into this culture.

  • Local guide Itsaso Petrikorena is joining me so my window shopping will take on some

  • meaning, such as the importance of salted cod.

  • Itsaso: This shop is all about cod. It's very, very important for the Basque culture. Salted

  • cod has been part of our culture, economy, and daily food. Historically, sailors used

  • to have it in their boats. Now it's a very, very big part of our cultural heritage as

  • well as our gastronomy. Rick: What is the word in Basque?

  • Itsaso: Bakailu. Rick: Like Spanish, bacalao.

  • Itsaso: Bakailu. Rick: And what is the recipe?

  • Itsaso: The recipe, you have to soak it in water for 48 hours.

  • Rick: So I can't just take it now and eat it.

  • Itsaso: No, I'm afraid not. Rick: Have to wait.

  • But there are plenty of taste treats you can eat right now. Shops show how, with the fertile

  • land, Basque cuisine is rich and varied.

  • Itsaso: You are going to love this. Rick: Why?

  • Itsaso: The cheese, idiazabal cheese, mixing with walnuts and apple jelly. Altogether.

  • Rick: Altogether? Itsaso: Beautiful flavor.

  • Rick: Let's have some. The three things together here?

  • Itsaso: Yes. A piece of these. Some walnuts. And we finish with some sweet, in this case

  • is apple jam. Rick: So it's sheep cheese from the mountains,

  • walnuts, and... Itsaso: Apple jam.

  • Rick: Altogether? Itsaso: It's a good combination. This is a

  • very traditional dessert here in the Basque land.

  • Rick: You have the salty and the sweet and the Basque cheese. How do you say "delicious"

  • in Basque? Itsaso: Oso ona.

  • Rick: Oso ona. Mmm, that's very good.

  • Rick: So tell me about this marijuana store. Itsaso: Well, in Spain, it is illegal to sell

  • it, but you can grow it at home, but only for your own personal use.

  • Rick: Okay, so this shop would sell seeds and tools to help you grow at home.

  • Itsaso: Yes.

  • As is the case in more and more countries, low key shops cater to the needs of locals

  • who enjoy marijuana legally by growing it at home. If this variety of plant appeals,

  • just ask for the proper seeds...and some grow lamps... maybe a handbook for this new niche

  • in the gardening market... and then perhaps get the latest on just the right liquid fertilizer.

  • The Old Town's main square, lined with inviting café tables today, is where bullfights used

  • to be held. Balconies still sport their seat numbers. Above it all the seal of San Sebastián

  • shows a merchant ship - a reminder of the Basque Country's rich seafaring heritage.

  • Itsaso: People say the best food in Spain is in the Basque Country, and from the Basque

  • Country, the best food is here in San Sebastián. Let's go in. Let's go!

  • Rick: I can hardly wait!

  • San Sebastián is famous for its many bars offering a dazzling array of tapas. They're

  • called pintxos in Basque. Basically, you belly up to the bar, point to what you like, and

  • munch away.

  • Rick: Txangurro caliente. Bar server: Caliente.

  • Zurito is a small beer in Basque. Don't worry, they'll keep track of what you eat and drink.

  • It's rude to put dirty napkins on the counter; they belong on the floor. No matter how much

  • you like a place, save room for the next bar. You want to be mobile...that's part of the

  • fun.

  • Itsaso: San Sebastián, we have so many bars that I cannot even count them. We go bar hopping

  • and every bar has its own specialty. Rick: Its famous little treat.

  • Itsaso: Yes. Rick: Oh, good.

  • This bar is loved for its txangurro - that's spider crab - and its mushrooms. This one's

  • a town favorite for shrimp. And they all serve txakoli - fresh white wine. Poured from high

  • to aerate it, which adds sparkle, it's good with seafood and, therefore, pairs well with

  • Basque cuisine.

  • Bars display their pintxos mid-day and again in the early evening. And keep your eye out

  • for bars with empty counters. The best tapas are often not the ones on display but the

  • hot ones advertised on blackboards and cooked to order.

  • The specialty here: melt-in-your-mouth beef cheeks in a red wine sauce, pulpo (or octopus),

  • and foie gras - grilled goose liver with apple sauce. Tasty delights - all coming out of

  • a tiny kitchen.

  • Wandering the streets, you see there's a political edge to the graffiti. This poster shows Basque

  • separatists doing time in Spanish prisons for violent activities.

  • Rick: So, tell me about the separatist group, the ETA.

  • Itsaso: I'm proud to be Basque. However, we have three different mentalities. The first

  • ones, ones that are very proud to be Spaniards or French citizenships.

  • Rick: So, Basque people content to be Spanish citizens or French citizens.

  • Itsaso: Some of them. People who want independence without violence.

  • Rick: So, the peaceful ones that want independence. Itsaso: Yes, and the ones that are fighting

  • for independence. Rick: Okay, so, people who are willing to

  • fight to make an independent, free Basque state.

  • Itsaso: Yes. Rick: And that group is the group supported

  • by the ETA. Itsaso: Yes, exactly.

  • Certain pubs have separatist sympathies. You'll know by the photos of prisoners and political

  • murals on the walls. While the struggle for Basque independence is in a relatively calm

  • stage, with the vast majority opposing violent tactics, there are still underlying tensions

  • between Spain and those among the Basques who aspire to more autonomy.

  • Traveling on, we enjoy pastoral scenes along a rugged coastline. Overlooking the Bay of

  • Biscay the countryside here is green and lush.

  • An hour's drive takes us to Guernica. The market town of Guernica has a workaday feel

  • - typical of this region, which is one of Spain's most industrial.

  • Visiting its stately parliament building you sense the importance of this town to Basque

  • culture. Historically, leaders would gather in the shade of an old oak tree. And this

  • new oak tree - supposedly a descendant of the original one - reminds the Basque people

  • of their unique clan traditions.

  • In the adjacent assembly chamber, historic portraits of Basque lords surround today's

  • representatives. And high above, a medieval lord swears allegiance to the almost sacred

  • book of Basque laws.

  • In the next room, a stained glass ceiling causes Basque hearts to stir. A sage leader

  • standing under that venerated oak tree holds the "Old Law," which provided structure to

  • Basque society for centuries. Around him are groups representing the traditional Basque

  • livelihoods: sailors and fishermen, miners and steelworkers, and farmers. And it's all

  • set in a classic Basque landscape.

  • While it does have deep-cultural roots, most people know Guernica for a horrific event

  • in the years leading up to World War II.

  • Guernica was bombed flat in 1937. Because it was long the symbolic heart of Basque separatism,

  • the city was a natural target for the dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His ally,

  • Hitler, wanted a chance to try out his latest technology in aerial bombardment. The result:

  • the infamous bombing raid that Picasso immortalized in his epic work, Guernica.

  • Picasso's mural, considered by many to be the greatest antiwar work of art ever, tells

  • the story. It was market day. The town was filled with farmers from the countryside.

  • First, a single German warplane bombed bridges and roads leading out of the town. Then, more

  • planes arrived. Three hours of relentless saturation bombing followed. People running

  • through the streets were strafed with machine-gun fire. By sunset, the planes had left, leaving

  • thousands of casualties and Guernica in rubble.

  • Nearby, the city of Bilbao has recently been transformed from a gritty steel town to a

  • happening cultural center like no other Spanish city. Entire sectors of the industrial city's

  • long-depressed port have been cleared away to allow for new construction. This bridge

  • is part of what's now a delightfully people-friendly riverfront.

  • Bilbao's Old Town is well worth a stroll. You'll find tall buildings and narrow lanes

  • lined with thriving shops and tapas bars.

  • A modern light -ail line conveniently laces the Old Town with points along the river to

  • the sight which spearheaded Bilbao's urban renaissance: the Guggenheim Museum.

  • While its art collection is impressive, it's the building - designed by Frank Gehry and

  • opened in 1997 - that's created a stir in the world of architecture and put Bilbao on

  • the traveler's map.

  • Gehry's groundbreaking design helped set a new standard for architecture. Using cutting-edge

  • technologies, unusual materials, and daring forms, he created a piece of architectural

  • sculpture that smoothly integrates with its environment. With the bridges, pedestrian

  • promenade, and art all complementing the building, it's an engaging ensemble.

  • Gehry was inspired by a variety of visions. For instance, to him, the building's multiple

  • forms jostle like a loose crate of bottles.

  • Guarding the main entrance is Jeff Koons' towering West Highland Terrier - made of 60,000

  • living plants, which blossom in a carefully planned visual concert. A joyful structure,

  • it takes viewers back to their childhood. "Puppy," as it's known to locals, was meant

  • to be temporary, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with Puppy, so they bought it.

  • Stepping inside, you naturally flow to the museum's atrium, which acts as the heart of

  • the building, pumping visitors in and out of various rooms on three levels. The glass

  • and limestone panels overlap each other like fish scales...each is unique, designed by

  • a computer.

  • Joyful as the building is, the art it holds is even more fun. While the museum's audio

  • guides give meaning to the abstract art, my hunch is that the artists are entirely happy

  • for us to simply wander, interact, and play with their creations. This is art that welcomes

  • you in. Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum makes you smile.

  • From here, we leave the coast, and head inland. Within an hour, we cross into the French part

  • of Basque Country. Traditional village settings reflect the colors of the Basque flag - red

  • and white buildings nestled in the green of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Spared the

  • beach scene development of the coast, these villages offer a more rustic glimpse of Basque

  • culture.

  • Compared to their neighbors across the border back in Spain, the French Basques seem more

  • integrated into French culture. You hear the language less on this side of the border.

  • But, still, this area blends the French and Basque influences into its own distinct style.

  • It seems that every small French Basque town has two things in common: a church and a court

  • called a frontón. These courts, where Basque-style pelota (or handball) is enjoyed by experts

  • and beginners alike, dominate town centers and add a unique ambience.

  • The inviting town of Espelette is worth a short stop. It's famous for its red peppers

  • - with strands of them dangling like good-luck charms from many houses and storefronts.

  • Higher in the foothills of the Pyrenees is the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Like many

  • of these villages, it's a hit with hikers. Most are simply on vacation, trekking between

  • Basque villages or heading from the villages higher into the Pyrenees. But, since the Middle

  • Ages, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port has been the historic departure point for pilgrims bound for Santiago

  • de Compostela - 500 miles away in the northwest corner of Spain.

  • With its mix of day tripping families and determined pilgrims using the town as a spring

  • board for the time-honored pilgrimage, St-