Off the map in Basque Country

Author and playwrite T. S. Learner has travelled extensively throughout northern Spain. Here she reveals the region's highlights and top tips for visiting

8 mins

I first fell in love with Basque country through one of my closest friends who suggested I research the pagan beliefs of the Basques, when I mentioned I was looking at the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for my next thriller. Ana is from Bilbao and is that fascinating combination of intellectual curiosity, direct-speak and bawdy sense of humour that are common traits of the Basque.

My first few visits were taken up with interviewing Basque nationalists who'd lived under the tyranny of Franco, historians who specialised in local witch rites, farmers, and absorbing as much of the beauty and magic of landscape through every pore of my mind and imagination. By the end I was ready to chuck in the writing career and buy an Etxea (farmhouse) and take up goat herding. Pais Vasco Euskadi from the pine-covered mountains up to the coastline is just simply an Eden. It is an extraordinary region that oozes a kind of spirituality inherent in the landscape with a people who are contemporary, political, ancient and deeply traditional.

First tip, either pick up a rental from Bilbao airport with a SatNav or be prepared to use 3G and the navigation on your iPhone as back up, as both the road signs and people's directions are notoriously idiosyncratic. Ana, her new American husband and myself set out from Bilbao towards San Sebastian. There are two choices; the freeway or the local roads. The latter takes a lot longer but winds around the mountains and along the superb coastline. Do it. The panorama is constantly changing; one minute you can be in a beautiful valley covered in pine, with a cluster of farmhouses with their traditional white walls and red tiles roofs, the next in a valley with a canning factory. It's this mix of industry, agriculture and historical architecture that adds to the region's vitality.

Our first stop was at Gernika

Seat of the Basque government, Gernika is famous for the 1937 bombing when Hitler (allied with Franco) used the marketplace as a practice run for Luftwaffe. Much of the city was reduced to a destructive firebomb. I interviewed a farmer in his 80s, who as a teenage watched Gernika burn from his village higher up the valley. The bombing (as well as the hardships and divided loyalties experienced during the Civil War) is still as much of an elephant in the room as Basque separatism.

The Assembly House is open to the public and is worth a visit. The famous oak tree, the symbol of Basque nationhood, survived the bombing and still stands in front of the building. Acorns from the tree are sent all over the world to the Basque disapora so that they too can plant their own sacred oak. A block away we came across a singing club – a group of about 30 or so locals, all wearing kerchiefs, standing outside a bar singing their hearts out in Euskara, the chorus of which finished with We are Basque and You can be too.

Next was Bermea, on the coast

Bermea is a classic combination of working town, medieval fishing port and fantastic bars. At pintxos time(time for Basque tapas), goths appear alongside little elderly ladies and old fishermen. Here you'll see slogans sprayed on the walls: Bring the prisoners home! ETA is a party! as well as the Basque flag and the local football colours hanging from many balconies. Bermea's museum charts the history of whaling and the tradition of naval exploration, there are stories of Basque whalers colonising America and intermarrying with native Americans long before the country was officially 'discovered'.

We then drove along spectacular coastline to the tiny island of Gaztelugatxe and the chapel of Saint John the Baptist. Legend has it that John the Baptist left a footprint in the medieval wall of Bermeo then took three huge strides to reach the island itself. For you and I however, Gaztelugatxe is reached by crossing a stone bridge, with winding stone steps leading up to the top of the island and chapel – but be warned, there is a step for every day of the year.

The chapel is open only for festival days that are part of local pilgrimages, and there is a bell hanging outside that you can ring, once for a blessing or 13 times to cure a migraine. The effort of climbing the steps adds to the spiritual atmosphere of the place and it is stunning – you really feel as if you've stepped into a Peter Jackson set. This atheist left an agnostic.

Laissez faire attitude to time

It was now twilight and Ana was typically laissez faire (in true Basque fashion) about time and directions. The converted water mill we had booked to sleep in was in a hamlet somewhere south of Eibai, beyond Gernika.

We arrived at Caserio Garro with the owner welcoming us like errant relatives late on arrival. The accommodation was absolutely beautiful with old wooden beams, a large reception room with open fireplace, and peppered with a very tasteful collection of sculptures and eccentric antiques. The rooms too, were beautifully furnished, with en suite bathrooms, as well as a sprawling terrace.

By now it was after nine o'clock and the nearest jatetxea (eating house) was booked out with locals. The hotel owner kindly got us a table in Anlesti five kilometres away. A working hamlet shrouded in mist, the sweet smell of pine and faint barking of dogs all added to the timelessness and mystery of the place.

The jatetxea was typical of this region: great sides of jamon hung above the bar and the ubiquitous football match was on the TV up in the corner. The local men turned around sullenly to see who we were then realised we were friendly. This region is famous for its cuisine, not just the pintxos but also the freshly-caught seafood, particularly cod.

We started with a massive mixed salad, then grilled sea bass (the most delicious I've ever tasted), stuffed squid in its own ink, grilled green peppers and a bottle of delicious Rioja. Followed by a Christmas dessert made of ground local walnuts. It looked revolting and tasted fantastic. Other specialities include cider, Txakoli (young local white wine) and Patxaran – an aniseed based liqueur. After the meal the two female cooks came out to greet us, two jovially fat middle-aged women in stained aprons, bemused by Ana's American husband who defiantly wore the Basque black beret.

End of the road

Sunday brought a sparkling frost, the ringing of sheep's bells floating out over the morning mist, a candle-lit breakfast of fresh milk, sheep cheese, local jamon, and a local flat cake made of ground almonds and chocolate. We headed out to a local monastery at Zoirtza and caught the last of the Sunday service resounding out over the sunlit valley. Pure bliss.

T. S. Learner is a playwrite and novelist. She travelled extensively in the Basque region while researching her latest conspiracy thriller, The Map. Her interest in the area was originally inspired by stories told to her as a child by her Russian Jewish grandfather, who was travelling in Spain when the Civil War broke out, and by a long held fascination with Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria. The Map is published by Sphere, order your copy now on Amazon.

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