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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
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
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-Jean-Pied-de-Port has an endearing energy.
To feel the urban pulse of French Basque Country, visit Bayonne, back down on the Atlantic coast.
In the town's old center, tall, slender buildings, decorated in Basque fashion with green and
red shutters, tower above narrow streets.
Bayonne's cathedral, funded by its former whaling industry, stands bold and tall amid
quaint lanes. We're here on a Sunday, when the streets are quiet, but surprises reward
those who poke around. This group is celebrating its cultural roots. While we're in Basque
Country, these dancers made it clear to us that rather than being Basque, they were of
Gascony descent - from a time when the English ruled this bit of France. Just another reminder
of the ethnic complexity of Europe.
For a dose of French Basque sporting culture we're checking out a jai alai match. While
kids play on the village courts, the pros take the game to another level. And the audience
takes the sport just as seriously. The mascot is cute, the crowd's revved up, the sport
is lightning-fast, and the rocketing ball clearly holds everyone's attention.
The nearby port town of St-Jean-de-Luz is my favorite home base here in French Basque
Country. Cradled between its small port and gentle bay, today it thrives on tourism. The
days when whaling, cod fishing, and pirating made it wealthy are long gone.
St-Jean-de-Luz feels cute and non-threatening today, but in the 17th century, it was a home
port to the fearsome Basque Corsairs. These pirates looted and plundered with the French
government's blessing.
And the wealth they brought home is evident in the town's fine timbered buildings. The
main square, Place Louis XIV, is a hub of action and serves as the town's communal living
room. It was named for King Louis 14th, who was married here in a small church just down
the street.
In 1660, in this beautiful church, little St-Jean-de-Luz hosted one of the greatest
political marriages of all time. The king of France, Louis XIV, married the daughter
of the king of Spain. This helped to end a long period of fighting and forged an alliance
between Europe's two greatest powers. Why here? Well, one of the reasons is it's about
half way between Madrid and Paris.
But today, 350 years later, it's all about fun in the sun. Holiday goers fill the cobbled
streets. A high embankment is ideal for a lazy stroll. And the soft, sandy beach, which
is lovingly groomed every day, is the playful haunt of sun-seekers and happy children alike.
In the heat of the summer, St-Jean-de-Luz tempts travelers to toss their itineraries
into the bay.
The Basques - even though split between France and Spain - remain a vital culture. And a
visit here provides a vivid look at the resilience of Europe's smaller ethnic groups. I'm Rick
Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
It's hot. It's hot. Sorry Karel, it's like burning hot.
And before long San Sebastián was a regular on a big-time beach resort map.
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Basque Country

3231 Folder Collection
Jane published on April 22, 2015
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