La Costa Vasca

The Costa Vasca is pure delight for anyone who likes sandy bays, steep cliffs, and picturesque fishing villages with brightly coloured wooden boats.  Never far from the sea are the lush, green hills all dotted with “caseríos” (farmhouses) whose ground floors house the livestock; the owners of the farmhouses live on the first floor.

The capital of the Basque Country (Euskadi) is the inland city of Vitoria (Gasteiz), but the two largest cities are the coastal towns of San Sebastián (Donostia) and Bilbao (Bilbo).  Built around its superb shell-shaped bay, La Concha, San Sebastián has been a favorite summer resort of the Spanish aristocracy and the wealthy since the 19th century. Protected by two high promontories at each end of the bay, and by an island at its mouth, La Concha is the perfect spot for that most Spanish of traditions, the paseo, the evening stroll where people go to see and be seen.  

Some of the aristocratic glitz has now gone, but San Sebastián is nonetheless a lively and cultured city. It hosts a jazz festival in July, a classical musical festival in late August and an international film festival in September.  In addition, local Basque culture is celebrated in August during a week of festivities known as the Semana Grande (Big Week).

The Basques are well known for their cuisine, and you can enjoy superb food in San Sebastián, especially in the Old Town (known as Parte Vieja) nestled under Monte Urgull, the eastern promontory. There are also men only gastronomic clubs where members gather to cook, eat, drink, talk and sing; only on the eve of St Sebastián (January 20) are women invited.

The following quote, from http://www.departures.com/search/all/san%20sebastian/page/1 is an excellent summary of the role of food in Basque life: Food—the cultivation of it, the cooking of it and the eating of it—is a year-round preoccupation in San Sebastián, a small coastal city in northern Spain’s Basque country that boasts more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in Europe. In late November, the town swells with international toques who gather for San Sebastián Gastronomika, an annual congress hosted for chefs by chefs in the Kursaal, a glowing concert hall on the water’s edge.


The distinctive Basque language has long underpinned the region’s sense of identity. Central to that identity is the small town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque) just north of the highway leading to Bilbao. It was under a sacred oak tree in Guernica that the Basque Parliament used to meet and it was here that kings would swear to respect the fueros (local rights) of the Basques. The tree may have changed over time, but the tradition was long lasting and its nationalistic significance considerable. The Basque parliament now has a building in Guernica whose large stain glass window portrays at the top a wide oak tree beneath which are gathered representatives of the people.

Guernica sprang into international prominence in April 1937, when German planes in the service of the Franco Nationalists conducted the first blitzkrieg on a civilian target. The bombers struck on market day when the square was filled with people, mostly women, children and older men (the young men were caught up in the Civil War). Over 1500 defenceless citizens died.  The atrocity was immortalized by Picasso in his large canvas “Guernica” first shown at the Paris International Exposition 1937. It was then sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and only returned to Spain after the death of Franco. It can now be seen in the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Bilbao, Spain’s fourth largest city, is a major financial and industrial centre. Banking and steel mills were its backbone from the mid 19th century and its skyline was dominated by smokestacks spewing pollutants from smelters and furnaces. The late 20th century saw numerous changes and with heavy industry closing down, the smelters and furnaces were demolished to be replaced by lighter technology. Indicative of the change from a heavily polluted urban sprawl to a new, forward looking city are the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum, the new metro subway planned by Norman Foster and the new airport, the work of the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava. 

                    Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum
 © Enric Corbero www.virtourist.com/europe/bilbao/11.htm
But it is the Guggenheim, opened in 1997, that put Bilbao on the international cultural map. In a short time it has become for Bilbao what the opera house became for Sydney, Australia, an immediately identifiable structure suggesting vision, taste and boldness.