Common Ground Travel

The Weird and Wonderful Basque Country

If you travel extensively in Spain, you’ll be struck by the remarkable variety in its geography, climate and subcultures. Spain is a fascinating country spread across multiple continents, with multiple languages, and many more types of terrain and weather.

To the European who visits Spain only for the beaches and sun in the south east, this might sound perplexing. Isn’t Spain just one vast, flat terrain? Isn’t it hot all year round? Spain is so much more weird and wonderful than you can imagine.

If I included everything in this article, it would get long, fast. So let me focus on the greatest cultural shock I’ve experienced in Spain: my visit to the Basque Country.

The Basque Country

If you believe Spain is a uniform, monocultural country, a visit to the Basque Country will quickly debunk your fantasies. The Basque Country is one of Spain’s autonomous communities and occupies a thin strip on the north coast between San Sebastian and Santander, next to the French border. Its population is just over 2 million, so it’s among the smallest autonomous communities in terms of population and size.

The regional capital is San Sebastian, or Donosti in Basque, which is well worth a visit for its excellent pintxos and stunning architecture. Two other major cities are Bilbao and Victoria, though San Sebastian is far more impressive.

I stayed with a family for a few weeks in the Basque country, and immediately I was shocked by the language, the flag, and the weather. Though all the locals speak Spanish to a native level, the predominant language at work and home is Basque, AKA Euskera.

Here’s the weird part: fluency in Spanish gives you zero competence in Basque. Zero. It’s not a dialect or a sister tongue, but a totally separate language with different sounds and writing. I found it almost Slavic. This alone is a shock, and I had to constantly remind myself I was in Spain and not in Eastern Europe.

Don’t worry, if you visit the Basque Country, you can use Spanish just fine, and TV is usually in Spanish. I wouldn’t bet on their understanding your English, though, particularly if you go off the beaten track.

What’s more, the regional Basque flag is more visible than the Spanish national one, particularly in small towns and villages. Again, it looks nothing like the red-and-yellow national flag. You can quite easily forget that you’re in Spain.

And then there’s the weather. I was there in July, and though there were plenty of hot days, there was also days of rain and mist, and plenty overcast spells. Watch the Spanish weather on TV and you’ll see that the Basque country has a unique microclimate. Add to that its geography, full of green hills and valleys, and you realise that this is a unique region, unlike most others in Spain.

The people are also quite different to your average Spaniard, who tends to be warm, outgoing, relaxed, yet loud. The Basque people are strong, serious, a little rebellious, and generally a bit colder than the average Spaniard, yet also much more authentic than the average European. The skin is fairer and the eyes and hair are jet black.

Then we have la pelota vasca, a sport you’ll only find in the Basque country. It’s similar to squash, except there’s no rackets, and the ball is softer. Your goal is to rebound the ball off the wall and make it bounce twice, before your opponent can return it to you via the wall.

There are pelota courts all over the place. Walk around any small town in the Basque country, particularly in summer, and you’ll find groups of kids congregated to take part. It’s on TV. There are even local teams, and once I took in a formal kids game. They wore white uniforms and used chalk to improve the ball-to-hand contact. It was very serious. Unfortunately, the kid we were supporting was on the losing side.

Put all these factors together: the language, climate, people, geography and sport, and you realise that this is a highly unique culture. Many of them consider themselves firstly Basque then Spanish, and I don’t begrudge their ongoing desire for independence.