Robust, hearty, and proud, the Basque region is said to have a mind of its own. By some accounts, it enjoys more autonomy than any other region in Europe. Officially, it comprises Spain’s undulating farmland and jagged hills that roll from the famed Rioja region north to the Bay of Biscay. Unofficially (that is to say, historically), it is much larger, hopping the French border into the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department.
Our Discovery Tours small group has the privilege of experiencing one Basque culture in two different countries when we cross the border from San Sebastian, Spain, to Biarritz, France.
San Sebastian: A Coastal Retreat Fit for Spanish Royalty
So stunning is the setting of San Sebastian—squeezed between mountains and sea and boasting one of the most beautiful sand crescent beaches in Europe—the Spanish queen-regent Maria Cristina proclaimed it the royal summer home. La Concha Beach, watched over by elegant 19th-century architecture, fronts the city like a horseshoe as misty mountains rise on either side. Throughout San Sebastian’s inviting streets, Belle Epoque resort buildings grace the cityscape.
The city, just 12 miles from the French border, has had a long and turbulent history, some of it owing to its strategic location on the Bay of Biscay. But today the “Pearl of Northern Spain” has emerged as a revered center of Basque culture and cuisine. Locals here embrace their Basque heritage with more verve than their Spanish traditions. Look no further than the city’s street signs, dutifully printed in Euskara, the Basque language. Residents even call their city “Donastia,” its Basque name. You’re sure to fall for its many charms: gorgeous architecture, tree-lined green spaces, and young athletes playing pelota (an early form of jai alai, which was invented in the region) in parks.
Biarritz: French Seaside Glamour
Biarritz has long relied on the sea. From the 12th century, whaling was a major industry. It lasted about 300 years until the whales migrated to coastal Canada. In the 18th century, area doctors claimed the ocean here held curative properties, which lured those seeking good health. Napoleon III caught on to the town’s popularity and built a villa here for his Spanish bride, Empress Eugenie. British and Russian nobles followed, cementing Biarritz’s reputation as a luxury resort. Victor Hugo himself regaled, “I have not met in the world any place more pleasant and perfect than Biarritz.”
Today, Eugenie’s villa is the elegant and massive Hotel du Palais, the glittering centerpiece of Biarritz. Europeans flock here for the casinos as much as they do for sunbathing time on La Grande Plage, the largest beach. Even surfers find the bay’s conditions favorable; in fact, it was here that Europe saw its first surfers. The story goes that the American director of The Sun Also Rises was filming here in 1957 when his California friend visited, surfboard in tow. As he took to the waves, the French had never seen anything like it.