The Sunny Glow of France and Spain
The Basque Region is made up of four provinces in two countries: the southwestern corner of France (one province) and the North of Spain (the remaining three.) The entire region is known as having the last remaining pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe called Euskera. The language is only part of the Basque's fiercely independent identity. The culture is proud, strong and hearty – just as the food, which is considered some of the tastiest in the world whether on the French or Spanish side.
There are hundreds of charming towns, shanty fishing villages and prime surfing spots within the Basque region. With a Eurail France-Spain Pass, you'll easily zip across the region. Here are some highlights – starting with a city made famous by a hunk of twisted titanium.
Bilbao was never the prettiest city. Some have described it as dank and industrial (thanks to being a center of coal production.) But that all changed in 1997 with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum. One of the most celebrated buildings in modern history, the graceful curves evokes the ships that used to dock along Bilbao's shore. Visit during the third week of August during Semana Grande - a festival that brings over 100,000 revelers to the streets of Bilbao. With strongman games, bullfighting and nightly fireworks, it's an eye-popping parade of color.
Sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, Santander boasts exotic seafood, historic buildings, a casino and beautiful beaches. The town became the favored summer residence of King Alfonso XIII, who built the Palacio de la Magdalena as the royal family residence during the holidays. Today, one need not be an aristocrat to enjoy the subtle beauty of Santander. Stroll along the tree-lined boulevards and stop at a street cafe for a plate of pintxos (tapas) and a glass of sagardo, the signature Basque apple cider.
San Sebastián is where you'll see the best-preserved Basque customs. The old quarter – La Parte Vieja – has wide boulevards, hidden plazas and an air of elegance. In the summer, the sophisticated population swells along the sandy shore. La Concha is the city's most famous beach, where the topless and taut sit under shady canopies. Catch a ride on the funicular for a spectacular view of the city.
From here, take a 30-minute train to Hendaye on the French side. This is the furthest point in Southwest France that you can go. It's the end of the line – not just geographically, but also for the SNCF train system. Bordered by the Pyrenees and the Atlantic Ocean, Hendaye is a popular seaside resort on the Côte Basque. It's defining emblem, the Jumeaux – two high rock stacks carved out of the cliffs by wave action.
Waves have also helped carve out a surfer's paradise in Biarritz. One of the most famous and fashionable beach resorts in the world, the town was once a little fishing village, until Napoleon III came for a visit with his wife, Empress Eugenie. They built a palace on the beach – now the Hôtel du Palais, and more royalty followed. Now it's a hub for the European jet set and world-class wave riders. The annual Biarritz Surf Festival is one of the premier surf events on the calendar.
Ten minutes away by train, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is known more for its blend of Moorish, Spanish and Andalucian architecture, the sandy bay and its beautiful light. At the mouth of the Nivelle that opens onto the Bay of Biscay with the gorgeous Pyrenees in the background, it's a sight to behold. No wonder tourists have flocked here since the 19th century when H.G. Wells "discovered" the town. And the seafood here is some of the best on the entire Côte Basque.
With incredible beauty, cuisine, sand and surf, one begins to understand why the people of the region want to create their own autonomy. To secure the Basque identity and all its splendor.
Contributed by: Melanie, Marketing Project Manager, French American with Swedish and Italian origins, who comes from the Entertainment business and truly believes that traveling by train is the best entertainment experience ever!