Rick Steves

The Allure of Basque Country

While you won't find it on any standard map of Europe, the Basque Country -- sprawled out between Spain and France -- has a rich heritage and culture all its own. And with its unique language, traditions and mindset, this intriguing "nation without a state" is worth exploring.

Travel guide Rick Steves takes us there on this episode of "Rick Steves Europe." Starting in San Sebastian, he leads us through the many charming stops on both the Spanish and French sides to give us an overview of Basque charm, history, and unique traditions. Here are some of the things we picked up from the show that'll give you reason to add Basque Country to your European travel plans.

See all the places Steves visits in the episode here. For more European travel ideas, keep watching Steves' show as it airs weeknights at 7:30 p.m.

Delicious Cuisine

The Basque region is famed for is culinary traditions...and rightfully so. In San Sebastian, with its array of bars, restaurants and tapas joints, you'll get a taste of the best Basque food. In Basque Country, tapas are called "pintxos," and many bars display theirs mid-day and again in the early evening. At any given place, you might find tasty traditional delights made from pulpo (octopus), txangurro (spider crab), shrimp, cheeses, bread and many other ingredients. Seafood is a staple in Basque cuisine.

For drinks, order a "zurito" for a small serving of beer, or try txakoli -- a fresh white wine. Most bars will pour this one from high up, usually with one arm held way up in the air to aerate it. Watching them do this is a cool sight, and the wine itself pairs nicely with seafood.

To get the full Basque culinary experience, Steves suggests taking a gastronomic tour. Some will get you into the exclusive eating clubs in the area, and others offer organized pintxo tours, where you'll do some tapa barhopping at some of the best spots in San Sebastian.

Sunny Beaches

Food isn't the only thing attracting tourists to San Sebastian. In fact, one of the city's main prides is its Playa de la Concha -- which is also one of Europe's most beautiful stretches of sandy beach. This shell-shaped beach is lined by an elegant two-mile promenade, perfect for a seaside stroll.

St-Jean-de-Luz, located on the French side of Basque Country, is home to another beautiful beach. With its soft sand, this well-kept beach is popular among travelers and sun-seekers in the summer.

Spectacular Modern Architecture

Bilbao is another Basque city worth adding to your travel itinerary, due mostly to one intriguing building: The Guggenheim Museum. The art collections there are impressive themselves, but if you're not much into modern art, the building alone is a must-see. Architect Frank Gehry designed and opened it in 1997, using cutting-edge technologies, unusual materials, and daring forms. His groundbreaking design helped pave the way for new architectural standards. Words and photos don't do this unique structure any justice.

Charming Villages and Cities

Leaving the coast and crossing over to the French side of the Basque region, Steves shows us some remarkable little towns and cities nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. Each small French Basque town has two things in common, he says: a church and a handball court. These towns seem to have more French influence, so hearing the Basque language is less common. Still, each is inviting and charming. Towns worth visiting there include Espelette (famous for its red peppers), St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (where many pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago pass through) and St-Jean-de-Luz. On the Spanish side, check out Guernica.

Whether you stick to one side or explore both, your visit to Basque Country will give you a better understanding of one of Europe's most spirited ethnic groups.

San Sebastiàn | Photo: dynamosquito/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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