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Basque Country

The Basque Country in northern Spain is one of Europe’s most distinctive regions. Divided by the mountains of the Pyrenees, its idyllic interior is a land of steep green hillsides dotted with grazing sheep and low whitewashed farmhouses, their doors painted a dramatic oxblood ...

The Basque Country in northern Spain is one of Europe’s most distinctive regions. Divided by the mountains of the Pyrenees, its idyllic interior is a land of steep green hillsides dotted with grazing sheep and low whitewashed farmhouses, their doors painted a dramatic oxblood red. The coastline alternates among wave-sculpted cliffs, broad beaches, pretty fishing ports and stylish resort towns. The area first became fashionable in the second half of the 19th century, and today the region is regaining popularity thanks to a mix of cultural attractions and world-class cuisine. ETA, the Basque separatist movement, has declared an end to hostilities. Consequently, American visitors need have no worries about their personal security. Bilbao, the region’s largest city, has been famously transformed from a dour industrial port into a popular cultural destination by Frank Gehry’s magnificent titanium-paneled Guggenheim Museum. 

Basque restaurants are some of the most inventive in Europe and boast a constellation of Michelin stars. The indigenous cuisine is influenced by the abundance of seafood and the splendid produce from the fertile Ebro Valley. It includes meats and fish grilled over green oak coals, marmitako (stews with tuna or lamb), cod, bean dishes, paprikas from Lekeitio, pintxos (Basque tapas), Idiazabal sheep’s cheese and Txakoli sparkling wine.

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A Perfect Day in Bilbao

Aside from the Guggenheim, Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes (Museo Plaza 2) contains notable works by Goya and de Zurbarán. The city’s main food market, the bustling Mercado de la Ribera (Calle Ribera and Calle Artekale), is housed within a handsome 1930s building on the edge of the Casco Viejo (Old Town) and is a colorful and fragrant place through which to wander. After tapas (known as pintxos in Basque) in the Casco Viejo, stop for a drink at Café Iruña (Colon de Larreategui 13. Tel. (34) 944-237-021), one of the grandest old cafés in Europe. 

Refreshing Afternoon Wines

The wines of Rioja, just to the south, overshadow those of the Basque region both in terms of quantity and quality. Nevertheless, a glass of white Getariako Txakolina or Bizkaiko Txakolina — low-alcohol wines with bright acidity and some pétillance — is wonderfully refreshing on a warm afternoon.

Speak Like a Local

Locals usually look pleasantly surprised to hear a little of their native tongue. “Kaixo” is “hello” (with the “x” pronounced as “sh”), and “eskerrik asko” is “thank you.”

Free Wi-Fi

A welcome new initiative in Euskadi, as the Spanish Basque country is known locally, is a free five-day Wi-Fi pass that lets you use your cell phone without incurring catastrophic roaming charges. You just download the Euskaltel WiFi app, which works for both Android and iOS (iPhone) operating systems, enter your cell phone number, and you’re online.

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