Livin’ on the edge in Basque country

Crossing the border from France into Spain was exciting, the countries were seperated by a little bridge where we were crossing with police cars showing presence on the French side and during our first few miles in a new country we immediately noticed a difference. The fuel prices are straight away at least 30cents cheaper, high rise buildings stick out all over the place and it’s the most mountainous we’ve ever seen with its uppy, down, windy roads and actual proper hairpin turns. We have new closing times to get used to. In France, everything closes from midday for at least two hours whereas in Basque country everything closes from 2 until 4 or 5 o’clock. And of course, there’s a whole new language to navigate…or two.

Our first day in Spain we parked in the carpark of a sports center just on the outskirts of the city of San Sebastian. There were a couple of other campervans there, mostly Spanish, some French and a German one. We’ve gotten used to being the only Irish campervan on these sites, we’re always checking the numberplates and on only three occasions in the last two months we were parked beside UK campers, not once have we seen an Irish one. We left the camper in the safety amongst all the others and took the five minute bus ride to the city center. We had been researching Apple shops and I found one in the city. We broke our iPad screen a couple of days previous and we needed to fix it. I was in the middle of watching Ozark on Netflix and was dying to catch up and it’s important for the kids road-schooling too. We had to get it fixed but the Apple shop turned us away saying the repair would be more expensive than a new one and not covered by our warranty but earlier in the day we walked passed a phone doctor type shop in the old town and the owner there fixed our iPad screen there and then for €120 which included a new screen protector. It’s really the only reason we went to San Sebastian as usually we avoid cities at all costs.

Playa La Concha, San Sebastian

After our daytrip to San Sebastian, we got home and had started to cook up some dinner when we saw a UK camper pull into the carpark. We were delighted, people to talk to, we peeked out the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of our new neighbours. Better yet, there were little people too! Oh the excitement, two little girls, Ada age 6, the same age as Ellen and Sylvie, nearly 3 and their terrier dog called Ned. I was nervous of Ned coming over to say hi to our dog Buckie. Buckie has been a bit crankier these days since getting his leg amputated last month. Understandably like so he hasn’t had much patience for other dogs but he actually didn’t mind Ned at all and even played with him for a while. Ellen was super keen to say hi to the girls and went straight over to play, no awkwardness at all, bff’s from the get go. The girls parents were Emily and Steve, our age, an unschooling, van living, vegan couple just like Liam & I. What are the odds, of course we all hit it off straight away and after a few glasses of wine, chats & van life tip swapping we decided to stay another day. We took the bus together the following morning back into San Sebastian where we swam at the famous La Concha beach and afterwards decided as we were in the world capital of the Pintxo, we should search out some vegan ones. Pintxo’s are similar to tapas unique to Basque country. We wandered through the old town passing many Michelin starred pintxo bars in search of a vegan pintxo. The Basques boast that they have more Michelin stars per square kilometre than any other country and our google search of vegan pintxo’s had brought us to two restaurants, both of them didn’t have vegan options so we cut our losses and went to an Irish pub instead and had a few bags of crisps washed down with a little too much wine. It was the best craic we all had in ages and we have yet to try some pintxos.

After a carpark yoga session the following morning, hangover hugs and not saying goodbye as I’m sure we’ll see the Whiting family again soon, we left San Sebastian for a more rural setting. We were keen to visit the smaller Basque villages and towns between the cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao. We drove along the winding, narrow cliff roads along the northern Basque coast, drove through the first two villages of Orio and Zarautz, continued for another couple of winding miles and around a hairpin bend caught our first glimpse of Getaria bay just 25km from San Sebastian. It was so stunning, a little fishing village with a medieval town and a quick search on our motorhome parking app Park4Night brought us to a residential carpark at the top of the village overlooking the whole bay. Up a really steep hill which made us very nervous in our big campervan but we blazed through it in first gear the whole way up we arrived. There was one other campervan there but no services so our stay would be limited to how long we could stretch out our water plus we wouldn’t want to overstay our welcome.

Our parking spot, overlooking the whole of Getaria

The view was incredible from our parking spot, we looked out over a little island called mouse island sticking out off the small town but connected to the mainland via its port with a beach on either side of it. From where we were parked, there were public elevators & escalators to take you down to the town, just to really give you an idea of how steep it was and we arrived all the way back down for a stroll through the prettiest old town which smelled of a weird combination of freshly washed clothes all hanging out the high windows to dry and of grilling fish.

The view from our campervan carpark spot at Getaria

The old town was bustling with locals all chilling, leaned up against old upright wine barrel tables outside tiny bars drinking the local txakoli wine and eating grilled fish cooked traditionally on ancient barbeque like grills which were built into the walls outside the bars. We stayed two days in Getaria, it was lovely, there was free wifi all over the town, a beautiful beach with showers, amazing playgrounds for the children and so much history around every corner.

The town is the birthplace of some very well known people, notably Juan Sebastián Elcano who completed the first circumnavigation of the world in 1522 after a three year voyage and it’s the birthplace of Cristóbal Balenciaga.

It kind of feels weird putting those two names in one sentence, I mean Juan went on his voyage with five ships for the best part of a thousand days to sail all the way around the planet and only one ship and a fraction of his crew returned. Balenciaga was a famous fashion designer & couturian legend. He once was referred to as “the master of us all” by Christian Dior. I’m not really into fashion designers but with this newly built museum on our doorstep and it’s free entry for one hour before closing (otherwise €10 pp), Ellen & I decided to head off one evening and we took a stroll through the museum. The museum is a newly built, massive, modern four storey building located in front of the old town where Balenciaga was born in 1895 to a seamstress mother and sailing father. You can see his house in the old town falling to ruin. The museum was a maze of spread out displays of his creations throughout and we were fascinated to learn about him & his creations during his five decades of designing clothes. He began working with his mother as an apprentice tailor at the age of fourteen and opened his first boutique shop in San Sebastian in 1919 and just kept expanding and growing until he had branches in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and became renowned for designing the tunic and the shift dresses. He also taught a few well known designers such as de la Renta & de Givenchy until he retired in 1968 and died a couple of years later. All in all it was very interesting, Ellen loved looking at the clothes and I enjoyed the history of it.

Balenciaga creations
This 1940’s yellow dress was Ellens favouite
My favourite was this 1930’s wedding dress. I love that wedding dresses in those days weren’t always white. I know my own Great Grandmothers dress was a pastel yellow.

We’ve been looking into the history of the Basques and it’s really surrounded in mystery. What makes Basque country even more fascinating to us is not just its history but its language too and its more recent political struggles. Its language which is very x, y, z’s heavy, it’s really hard to pronounce and listening to them speak in the streets is fascinating. It’s still spoken by many here although the majority speak Spanish also. The language is not related to any other living language and its origin is a mystery. While most European languages including French and Spanish surrounding Basque country comes from Latin, the Basque language itself has no known origin. There are a few theories though. Maybe Basque was already in Europe before the arrival of the European languages. Basque country is thought to have been inhabited by the Basque people long before the Celts and Romans brought their languages to the region.

Basque country situated in the Pyrenees between Spain & France. We’ve travelled all along the northern coast

Our next port of call was another fishing town called Leikitio, a little further on than Getaria and noticeably more political. There was a more visible police presence there, there were Basque flags hanging off the balconies throughout and the walls through the old town were a mosaic of new and old covered up political grafitti which made us interested in the Basque conflict.

In 1959, some nationalists founded ETA, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque Homeland and Liberty. You see ETA grafitti’d in some of the towns and villages. This separatist, leftist, socialist organization conducted terrorist attacks to try to break away from Spain and France and become an independant state. Hundreds of people including innocent civilians were killed in various bombings, many more injured and many Basques have been imprisoned. The majority of Basque people do not condone the violent actions of ETA, and not all Basques want complete sovereignty so it’s quite complicated. Politically, the Basques have a great deal of autonomy though. They control their own police force, industry, agriculture, taxation, and media however, Basque Country is not yet independent.

At first glance I wondered why would they want to be seperate but by actually being here I now realise and appreciate how miraculous it is that the Basques have preserved their heritage, language and culture for this long. The Basques were never defeated by the invading Romans, Moors, Visigoths, Normans, or Franks. However, it was Spanish forces that conquered the Basque territory in the 1500s and the rest as they say is history. Who knows what the future holds for them politically but I know one thing for sure, they will never lose their culture.

Further west, we drove to the town of Gernika which you may have heard of. In 1937, Gernika was bombed under orders of Francisco Franco, the Spanish military dictator, to overthrow the Basque government. It was reported that 1,654 civilians were killed and the whole town was destroyed by the aerial bombing during the Spanish civil war. Pablo Picasso painted his famous anti-war painting “Gernika” following the war.

Gernika, Pablo Picasso

Since almost all of the buildings in Guernica were destroyed, we didn’t find any old town or architectural gems and the town was a very modern array of new buildings, museums and its assembly house. We visited on a Monday knowing that it was market day. Every Monday, farmers and locals from around the region gather to form one of the best markets in the entire Basque Country and we picked up a haul of fresh vegetables.

Monday market in Gernika

We spent a few hours wandering around Gernika, we even found a great bookstore with books in English so we bought loads of new books. There’s only so much town I can take and we decided as it was such nice weather to drive to the coast again and a few more miles of winding coastal roads took us to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. It’s a Basque name that means ‘castle rock’ and it’s a tiny island just 35km east of Bilbao. The island is cone shaped and has a gorgeous man made stone bridge connecting it to the mainland.

The views were just incredible, it was really spectacular. We couldn’t have found this on a nicer day. We started our hike meeting many tourists absolutely bet & sweating on their return but we kept going hoping the kids wouldn’t need a carry on the way back. The island has a tiny church on top that is dedicated to John the Baptist. Someone even carved out footprints in some of the steps and it has been claimed that they are John the Baptists footprints. Lol.

There has been a church here since the 9th century but it has been abandoned, demolished, raided and rebuilt many times. The current structure was built in 1886. Of all the real life drama, attacks, rebellions, hideouts and loots that happened here, the one that sticks out most for me is the role this church played during the Spanish Inquisition in the Basque witch trials when the Catholic Church focused much of its time hunting for witches in the region. Several accounts indicate that many of the women accused were locked up in the caves of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Some 7,000 women were tried here in Basque country during that time and the Inquisition wasn’t completely abolished until 1834. It fought heresy and had a huge backing from governments.

These days, fishermen come out here before every fishing season and ring the bell of the church three times for good luck. We all rang the bell at the top too and made a wish. Why not. The way back was tough & the kids out ran us.

Basque people have survived and preserved their heritage for thousands of years here in the Pyrenees Mountains and we were delighted to have spent a few weeks discovering the northern coast of this beautiful Basque country.

Published by Niamh & Liam Colfer

Niamh & Liam Colfer currently livin' on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford offering yoga and breath-work classes, personal training and hike the Hook walking tours. All about healthy balanced lifestyle, home schooling, travel, outdoor life, sea swims and on the Hook / off the Hook adventures.

2 thoughts on “Livin’ on the edge in Basque country

  1. Love reading your posts Niamh, your having a great adventure.
    I walked part of the Camino earlier this year so I’m really enjoying your adventure.
    Love reading the history bit on all the little towns etc that your visiting.
    We started out from St. Jean de Pied Port to Roncesvallas where we spent the night.
    Next day we walked to Zubiri
    Next day we walked to Pamplona,
    Next day Puente la Reina
    Next day Estella
    & then we got a bus back to Biarritz where we spent the night and flew home next morning for a long soak in the tub and a good sleep.

    1. Wow Joan that must have been some adventure & a lot of walking! We would love to do it some day when the kids are older, the experience would be totally different to campervanning it.

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