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A different country: exploring the Spanish Basque

The Lonely Planet guidebook author Stuart Butler explains why he has made the Basque Country in Spain his home base.
Mount Anboto. Getty Images
Mount Anboto. Getty Images

It’s just 20 metres to the summit, but it’s up. Near vertically up. If looking up is bad, then looking down is worse, and my vision seems to tumble several hundred metres down the sheer rock face. My head spins from the vertigo. “You said you’re not scared of heights. You go first,” I say to one of my hiking partners, Gui. “Hmm, well I thought I wasn’t scared of heights”, he replies, “but now I’ve decided that I am.”

Myself, Gui and our other hiking partner, Elsa, are just shy of the summit of Mount Anboto in the Spanish Basque ­Country. ­Anboto, and the Parque Natural de Urkiola in which the mountain takes centre stage, means more to the Basques than a mere sweaty-palmed final ascent. Somewhere, perhaps in a difficult-­to-access cave, lives Mari, the Basque goddess, a beautiful, feminine personification of the Earth. The caves in which she makes her home are said to contain secrets, but she’s temperamental and doesn’t like to be disturbed. She can supposedly protect her Basque secrets by arousing storms, rolling in fogs and inflicting disaster.

But before we delve too deeply into the mood swings of old Basque goddesses, it’s time for a little lesson in history, ethnology and geography. When I say Spain’s Basque Country, I obviously don’t mean that it’s a separate country. The Basque Country is a small pocket of land encompassing a scenically blessed corner of the far north-east of Spain and south-west of France.

In some ways, though, it is a different country to France and Spain. The people themselves, the Basques, are certainly different to their neighbours. They’ve lived in their mountain- and ocean-guarded fortress seemingly forever. Nobody really even knows where or when they originally appeared here. Some say they are the descendants of the earliest Europeans. The language they speak, ­Euskara (almost everybody also speaks Spanish or French), is the oldest language in Europe and has no known connection to any other Indo-European language. Even their genetic make-up is different from that of their ­neighbours.

Whatever their origins, the Basques are nothing if not proud and independent. This trait has often cost them dearly at the hands of more powerful groups, and they’ve sometimes (including until quite recently) found their culture and language suppressed. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that in the past many Basques would have liked an independent Basque state. Until just a few years ago, some Basques even used violence and terrorism to try to achieve this. Today, though, all is peace in both the Spanish and French Basque Country.

In the end, Gui, Elsa and I decide that another 20 metres isn’t going to make much difference, and we agree to pretend we got all the way to the summit. The view was going to be much the same. And what a view it is. On one side a slate-grey, angry ocean tossing around waves powerful enough to crush giant ships against weathered cliffs. In the opposing direction, the folds, wrinkles and crags of an unusually green and fertile mountainous interior. Below us, just to the north-west, a narrow river runs past the docks and tower blocks, plazas and galleries of Bilbao, the area’s biggest, grittiest and most culturally exciting city.

It’s Bilbao’s artistic effervescence that first brings many visitors to the Basque Country. Or more exactly, it’s one particular gallery, one architectural wonder, that made headlines when it first opened in 1997. The Museo Guggenheim, a ­shimmering, titanium dreamscape designed by Frank Gehry, has become one of the landmark architectural wonders of the modern age, and has done much to help haul Bilbao out of its 1980s post-industrial depression, and slap it firmly onto the ­European art trail. Although you could spend hours admiring the building and the way its texture and form seem to melt into something new with the rising and falling of the sun and the passing of clouds, when it comes to actual content, its nearby neighbour, the stately Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts ­Museum), surpasses the Guggenheim in many eyes. For another, altogether more daring take on art, head to overlooked Vitoria, the official capital of the Spanish Basque Country, which is home to the Artium, a gallery where the art is designed to shock.

The art of the Basque Country doesn’t just have to be enjoyed in a gallery, though. It can also be eaten. Spain and France are rightly renowned for their food, and it’s in the Basque regions that many people would say that food has become art. Internationally, San Sebastián garners the most praise. It claims to have more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else on Earth, and is home to a couple of restaurants that are frequently at the summit of World’s Best Restaurants lists. Impressive stuff, but what might really have led the Catalan super-chef ­Ferran Adriá to famously describe San Sebastián as “possibly the best place on the entire planet in which to eat” are pintxos. These dainty mouthfuls that line each and every bar top in San ­Sebastián are the result of giving a humble Spanish ­tapas to a Basque chef with the imagination of Dalí and Gaudí ­combined.

Good food isn’t the sole preserve of San Sebastián, either. No matter where you travel in the Basque Country, you can always be assured of a memorable meal at the end of the day. From a traditional chocolate shop in ­Bayonne to charcoal-grilled, fresh-from-the-boat seafood in Getaria or St-Jean-de-Luz; to multi-Michelin-starred temples of nouvelle cuisine in the cities or rural restaurants in quiet-at-noon villages serving such earthy, traditional Basque fare as spicy peppers, baby trout and thick steaks.

As Gui, Elsa and I sit admiring the view almost atop Mount ­Anboto, we talk about what made the Basque Country so appealing to us. The answer, we decide, is sheer variety. Seven provinces, two countries, one people, three languages. The Basque Country has it all: urban excitement, fabulous beaches, an idyllic climate, a beautiful mountain range or three, some of the best surfing in the world, winter skiing and, let’s not forget, a lot of very good food.

With all that on the table, it’s perhaps no surprise to hear that many people come here for a two-week holiday then never leave. I certainly didn’t. I first came here on holiday with my parents 28 years ago, and as has happened with so many people before and since, the Basque Country wove a fast spell over me. About the age of 18, when going on holiday with parents just wasn’t the done thing, I continued to visit the region with friends (during which time I would do my utmost to avoid bumping into my holidaying parents – unless I needed more money or food).

Finally, though, there came the day when, at the end of another Basque summer holiday 15 years ago, I realised I just couldn’t leave. I’ve been here ever since. Originally it was the beaches and surfing that attracted me. I doubt that few who’ve enjoyed the perfect half-moon bay and fun-filled sands of San Sebastián’s Playa de la Concha would argue when I say that it’s among the planet’s most breathtaking urban beaches. But over the years, my appreciation of the region has spread beyond the heady pleasures of sand and surf, and I now like nothing more than lacing up my hiking boots and setting off on a misty and quiet mountain trail that wends its way through beech forests where the autumnal leaves turn the mountain slopes a fiery orange and precipitous peaks give rise to huge vistas. For all its art, beach culture and culinary expertise, it’s here, in this rumpled hinterland – where the villages are perfectly manicured in red and white, shepherds with sheepdogs greet passing walkers in Euskara, vultures circle the thermals looking for a scavengers’ dinner, and prehistoric dolmens and stone circles pock the landscape – where I feel that the true Basque soul can be found. And it’s this knowledge that’s perhaps the secret hidden deep inside the cave home of Mari.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Updated: October 8, 2015 04:00 AM

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