Nestled between Spain and France, the Basque Country is undeniably one of the most unique regions in the world. To pique your interest, we’ve selected 10 surprising facts about the Basque Country.
The Basques are thought to be one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe, and with such a historic lineage, there are bound to be many unique traditions, cuisine, and locales.
If you’re considering a trip to the Basque region, we would love to invite you to our Basque Country Food & Wine tour! Embrace the essence of the Basque country, complete with local delights, remarkable Rioja wines, splendid towns, and the crown jewel: a meal at an exclusive gastronomic society.
1. The Languages and Regions of Basque Country
Let’s start by getting acquainted with the Basque region. When it comes to location, about 85% of the Basque Country is situated in Spain, while the other 15% is in France. The region is divided into seven historical provinces: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba, and Nafarroa (Navarra) in Spain, and Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea, and Zuberoa in France.
Thanks to the unique position between two countries, it’s common to hear both Spanish and French being spoken in the Basque region. However, that’s just half of the story!
The region has its own language which is known as Euskera (or simply the Basque language), with about one million native speakers. However, what’s really surprising is that Euskera is the oldest language in Europe! The Basque language’s origins date back to the Neolithic era and was already used before Indo-European languages arrived in the area.
2. Txoko: The Exclusive Gastronomic Clubs
It’s no secret that the Basque are very fond of food — so much that there are even private gastronomical societies centered around cooking and socializing!
These societies are called txoko (in Bilbao) or sociedad gastronómica (in San Sebastian), and can be found all around the Basque region. Some statistics say that there are over 1,000 of these txokos! While the origins are murky, many believe that the first society began in Bilbao as a social club.
Typically, a txoko is a members-only club where friends gather at the club headquarters and prepare traditional home-cooked meals. Each club has its own rules regarding to become a member, how often they can meet, and if guests are allowed.
While the origins are murky, many believe that the first society began in Bilbao after the First Carlist War in 1840, although the first ‘official’ txoko was actually La Fraternal, which opened its doors a few years later in San Sebastian. These gastronomic societies were also pivotal during the Franco years, as txokos were one of the only places where discussions around politics were banned and where people could freely speak and sing in the Basque language.
Txokos have been credited in enriching and preserving the Basque Country’s traditional culinary heritage, and it’s no secret why: great things happen when you take locals who express their love for food and put them together!
3. The 4 Distinctive Basque Sauces
Pil-pil, vizcaína, salsa verde… At first sight these look like random words, but to locals, they’re an integral part of Basque gastronomy. There are four distinct Basque ‘mother sauces’, each with its own characteristics and localized twist.
For example, salsa vizcaína is a product from Vizkaya (the province where Bilbao is located) and has a base of pureed red onions, choricero peppers, and olive oil. Watch: even if the sauce is red there isn’t any tomato in it. Salsa tinta, which is often nicknamed ink sauce, is made by cooking an onion in squid ink and then adding tomatoes, bread, white wine, and fish stock, giving it a rich dark color.
Salsa pil-pil is one of the most recognizable sauces in Basque cuisine, as it takes the region’s most popular products (cod), cooks it confited in olive oil, and works the sauce into an emulsion that gets a mayo texture using the fat from the olive oil and the protein from the most jelly parts from the cod fish. The name pil pil is the sound that the bubbles make when they burst out of the oil!
Last but not least, salsa verde (green sauce) consists of frying garlic in olive oil and adding fish stock — but gets its name from the fresh parsley that’s added to the mix.
Thanks to the gusto of these essential sauces, the Basque country is consistently voted as one of the top food regions in Spain!
4. Getaria: The Town of Celebrities
The sleepy fishing village of Getaria, which sharply juts out from the Urola Coast, looks like any other town in northern Spain. However, don’t let its quaint atmosphere fool you — this town was home to plenty of famous residents over the years!
The first man who successfully circumnavigated the Earth, Juan Sebastián Elkano, was born in Getaria during the late 1400s. Over the years, this fearless explorer gained acclaimed status in his hometown, and there are several monuments across the village.
Juan Sebastián’s legacy doesn’t end there. His surname now graces Elkano restaurant, which was recently named the 16th best restaurant at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. True to Getaria’s fishing heritage, the restaurant masters the art of grilling and has two signature dishes: Kokotxa (fish neck), which is smothered in the region’s famous pil pil sauce, and Turbot fish, which originally put the restaurant on the map.
Getaria is also the hometown of Cristóbal Balenciaga, one of the most influential clothing designers and the founder of the Balenciaga fashion house. He learned how to sew from his mother, a seamstress by trade, but got his lucky break when a noblewoman from Getaria sent Cristóbal to Madrid for formal training during his teenage years.
5. The First Whalers in the World
While we’re on the topic of fishing, did you know that the Basque were one of the first people to carry out commercial whaling?
The Basques began whaling sometime in the mid-1000s and dominated the industry for nearly five centuries. Thanks to their techniques and prowess, Basque whalers controlled the far corners of the North and South Atlantic!
The Basque typically hunted North Atlantic Right Whales, which could be found as far as Canada. There are even rumors that Basque whalers ‘discovered’ North America before Christopher Columbus, although evidence is scant.
Despite the decline of whaling in the 17th century, the tradition of whaling lives on in other ways.
The word harpoon comes from the Basque word arpoi, and at least six Basque towns have whales on their coat of arms. To learn more, we suggest you visit the Albaola Museum in Pasaia, Europe’s main whaling port.
6. Cod Fish: A Basque Essential
During early whaling expeditions, the Basque came across another fish that would become essential in the region’s history: the legendary cod! It was cured in salt to preserve the meat and thus became a key source of proteins for navigators. Once in Spain, the salted cod would travel across the Iberian Peninsula and fish became available in a time where no refrigeration existed.
Cod has been a staple along the Iberian Peninsula for hundreds of years, and the Basque region is no different. The locals have dozens of dishes that use bacalao. The most well-known is Bacalao a la Vizcaína (cod stew), but other popular variants include Bacalao al pil-pil (cod in pil pil sauce) and Ajoarriero (cod with peppers and tomato sauce).
7. The Remarkable Rioja Wines
Besides being famed for its maritime traditions, the Basque country is also a leader in producing world-class wines!
One of the most prominent wine regions in northern Spain is Rioja, which is a DOCa (denominación de origen calificada), the country’s highest category in wine regulation. The wine region is made up of two communities: La Rioja and Álava.
While Rioja wines have traditionally blended fruit from all three communities, there is an upward trend of creating single-zone wines in recent years. Álava wines are especially favored by wine connoisseurs, as the wines have a fuller body and higher acidity.
There are four red and three white varieties that have been traditionally used since Rioja’s early years. They include Tempranillo, Garnacha tinta, Mazuelo, and Graciano for reds, plus Viura, Malvasía, and Garnacha blanca for whites.
8. Bilbao: The World’s Biggest Urban Transformation Project
Split by the Nervión River and full of energy, Bilbao is the flourishing de facto capital of the Basque country. However, it wasn’t always this way.
During the 1990s, the city was in a desperate predicament: the two biggest industries were quickly approaching exhaustion, and local governments feared that Bilbao would end up as a gray ruin of its former glory. Thankfully, Bilbao’s big break happened when the Guggenheim Foundation teamed up with Frank Gehry, a prominent architect, to expand the foundation beyond its New York headquarters.
In 1997, the Guggenheim Museum opened to much fanfare and quickly became the star jewel of Bilbao, resulting in the city’s renewal — and the so-called Guggenheim Effect. Bilbao’s success story has resulted in hundreds of inconspicuous towns being transformed into up-and-coming tourist destinations.
9. The Irreplicable Basque Cheesecake
When cooking, one rule of thumb is to not burn your food — unless it’s this famed cheesecake.
The Basque Cheesecake’s origins go back to the 1990s, when Chef Santiago Rivera set out to make a new type of cake every day for his San Sebastian-based cafe. Through trial and error, he created one of the most indispensable desserts of the Basque region — the Basque Cheesecake! — which has inspired cafes all across the world.
Unlike a New York cheesecake, the Basque version breaks all the rules: it doesn’t have a graham cracker crust, yet is light, airy, and slightly scorched. The secret? The cheesecake’s center needs to be slightly undercooked to get that soft texture, while the 200 C temperature gives the cake its signature ‘burnt’ appearance.
10. Biarritz: The First Surfing Capital of Europe
While most people think that surfing became popularized in the 1960s, its history goes back much further — and the Basque region played an integral part in its rise to fame!
Despite its extraordinary surf breaks and picture-perfect waves, surfing was virtually unheard of in Europe until the 1920s. The first surfers found their paradise in Portugal, but it wasn’t until World War II when American troops formally introduced the sport to France. Biarritz, a dreamy enclave in the French part of the Basque country, quickly became the prime destination for surfers — a title that it holds to this day.
Besides Biarritz, the Basque region is a paradise for surfing thanks to its surf breaks and year-round swells. Other popular cities include Mundaka, Zarautz, and Bakio.
Do you need any more reasons to plan your next trip to the Basque Country? Ikusi arte!