Saturday 21 April 2018

Basque Country: Surprises, sunshine and 'the pinnacle of civilised life'

Spain, and then some...

The Guggenheim in Bilbao.
The Guggenheim in Bilbao.
San Sebastian
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with La Salve Bridge, Spain. Museum of modern and contemporary art designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Pintxos at Bar Ganbara, San Sebastian. The family-run bar is a favourite with locals.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Whether you’re into art, food, nightlife, art or just chilling out, Darragh McManus can't recommend the Basque Country highly enough.

“Travel broadens the mind” goes the saying, worn out by time and over-use.

I was never sure if I believed that: the same narrow-minded idiot could traipse around the world ten times and come back utterly unchanged... and often has done.

I must confess, though, that a trip to the Basque Country really did open my eyes. Besides making for a fantastic visit, it also educated me on the rich, often troubled history, and distinctive culture and way of life, of over two million people.

Prior to departure, I’d more-or-less assumed that Basques were Spanish, except they spoke a different language. I’d read about ETA, of course, and knew that there was a Basque separatist movement. But I categorised these people as essentially Spanish.

Not so.

Considered the earliest inhabitants of Europe, they look different to people in the rest of Spain, for starters. Basques are, in general, taller, with a narrower build and lighter skin: their colouring is that lovely olive tone you associate with southern French (France, of course, has its own Basque region, though culturally it’s quite different). A surprising amount of fairish hair, though most have dark eyes. And such a handsome people, male and female: slim, trim, healthy-looking, attractive.

The Basque Country is also much wealthier than I’d thought.

Again in my ignorance, I’d assumed they couldn’t survive economically if they moved from the current status as autonomous region (which raises its own taxes) to full independence. And again, not so: this is the richest part of Spain, made so mainly by cutting-edge industry: precision-engineered machine parts, aeronautics, energy, electronic appliances. Their GDP is 40% above the EU average.

And the native language really is unique; unrelated to any Indo-European tongue, which places it further from Irish or English than Punjabi or Farsi on the linguistic tree. It’s so fundamental to their sense of identity that even the name of the place, Euskadi, translates as “those who speak Basque”. Franco and the Fascists “strongly discouraged” the use of Basque, but now it’s enjoying a resurgence, especially among young people: most are bilingual, road-signs too, and none of that annoying Irish post-colonial self-consciousness about embracing your own language.

Politically, too, it’s not quite what I’d imagined: the Basque Country seems to have reached – in double-quick time – a very admirable place, wherein they hold little resentment for their Spanish former overlords. Support for armed secession is practically nil. They’re a proud people, and quick to extol the virtues of Basque society, art, industry and seafaring. But it’s a positive thing: progressive, productive and hopeful. In Irish terms, think GAA more than INLA.

But that’s enough socioeconomic history – what’s it like for a holiday?

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with La Salve Bridge, Spain. Museum of modern and contemporary art designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum

In short, absolutely smashing. Genuinely: that sounds simplistic or facile, but it’s true. I can’t remember the last time I liked a place so completely; if you haven’t gone there yet, get yourself to Dublin Airport ASAP. Whether you’re into architecture, food, wine, nightlife, art, heritage or just chilling out by lounging on the beach or strolling the streets, I couldn’t recommend the Basque Country highly enough.

My trip took me in a triangle, from the largest city Bilbao in the north-west, along the Atlantic coast to San Sebastian, down to the capital Vitoria-Gasteiz, and back to Bilbao. (They all have Basque names too, but let’s not overcomplicate things.) The country is relatively small: about an hour by motorway from city to city, with stunning views of forested mountains along the northern half, then rolling hills covered with vines and olive trees as you go further south.

Bilbao is large (c. 350,000 in the city proper, about a million in the greater urban area) but doesn’t feel it – the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. For tourist purposes, we can divide it into three parts: the original medieval town, the modern/20th century city which grew to surround that, and the post-millennial architectural explosion in the city centre, which has replace what used to be the docks area with a forest of spectacular new buildings. All are equally charming and interesting in their own way.

The Guggenheim Museum, located slap-bang in the centre, is the highpoint of Bilbao for me.

One of the global “franchise” of abstract art galleries, it was famously designed by Frank Gehry in a series of titanium curves and loops, making the building look like part of some Cubist masterpiece (appropriately enough, they’re currently running a brilliant Braque retrospective). The “Guggy” is home to much more incredible modern art, but even if that’s not your thing, the place itself is breath-taking.

I also loved the Bizkaia Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the coolest piece of ironwork you’ll see this side of the Eiffel Tower. It dates from around the, too: a massive bridge spanning the river, carrying a gondola back and forth, towering above the city like some valiant statement of fin-de-siècle optimism.

San Sebastian is smaller (around 190,000) but even prettier, particularly because the city curves around a bay so gorgeous, it almost feels like being on the set of a Bond movie. And the views from Igeldo Mountain are beyond description, or indeed capture by camera.

They love their pintxos in San Sebastian – basically the Basque equivalent of tapas – and we got to make some with Gabriella Ranelli, an Italian-American chef with Cavan roots (really). They also love pelota, the collective name for a number of games played in a hardwood court with various sticks, bats and clubs. Think hurling, crossed with squash, but indoors, and with the added possibility of getting whacked in the eye by a flying hard-rubber ball. Needless to say, then, great fun to try (those old hurling skills came in handy).

San Sebastian

San Sebastian: Getty

Vitoria-Gateiz is the administrative capital, but it’s lovely too; while Irish scenery compares to anywhere, they really have it over us on the continent, in terms of beautiful buildings and elegant thoroughfares. There’s a superb Gothic cathedral, a magical Old Town – they all seem to have these – and a little outside the city is Salinas de Añana, a salt-mining operation which has been going since Roman times and was fascinating to a most surprising degree.

Outside the cities, we also visited Rioja Alavesa, the Basque Country’s wine-growing area. Personally, wine is just another drink to me, but I’d imagine this is hog-heaven for oneophiles. The Marqués de Riscal winery is very swanky, mixing ancient cellars with a new hotel designed by Frank Gehry (yes, him again). Pagos de Leza is sleek and modern, nestled beneath mountains that, under scorching blue skies, resemble the Sierra Nevada we remember from old cowboy flicks.

Quick mention too to the fishing village of Getaria, which is picturesque of itself and also home to the Balenciaga Museum, dedicated to the great fashion designer. Again, not my thing, but fashionistas will love it.

And a quick mention to the mouth-watering, belly-enlarging cuisine, which was simple and subtle flavoured but delicious. Be warned if you don’t eat meat or fish, though; I joked that vegetarianism was more-or-less considered a mental illness here, and the rebuttals were unconvincing. And one last quick mention to La Guardia, a small and ancient town which marks the southern border of the Basque Country and is surpassingly gorgeous. Even by the standards here, this place is dreamlike.

In fact, sitting in a La Guardia square on our last full day, enjoying an excellent coffee and open-air smoke, gazing on the people strolling by, the happy families and cheerful tour groups, I think I was as perfectly content as I’ve ever been in a foreign country. This, I thought – this is the pinnacle of civilised life. Nothing could have been added to that place to improve it.

I finished my smoke and drained my coffee and thanked my lucky stars that I got to see it.

And you can too: the Basque Country is but a short flight away.

Need to know:

Aer Lingus ( flies Dublin to Bilbao once daily. Flights are a little under two hours. My trip was courtesy of and the Spanish Tourism Office, which is based in 1 Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2 (01-6350200,

Three Must-Do's:

The Guggenheim, Bilbao: Amazing, instantly iconic Frank Gehry-designed building – an artwork in itself – housing a fabulous collection of modern art, including a breath-taking George Braques collection

San Sebastian: A beautiful city, large enough to have an electric vibe but small enough to feel stress-free, with incredible views overlooking the bay

The Old Town of La Guardia: Like stepping back in time, this is everything you think of when you think about continental European towns: winding streets, ochre-yellow brickwork, outdoor cafés, the sense of history and heritage almost physically palpable

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