If I could take at least one trip to Europe each year for the rest of my life I’d be happy. In just a few days, these trips are a learning experience, and an investment in myself. There’s nothing like travel to give you a totally different perspective on life. And if it’s an international trip, that newfound perspective will happen quickly.
When I visited San Sebastián, I immediately realized I’d entered a very old part of the world with a distinctive culture and history. This is Basque Country, and the culture here predates most of those we know today. The Basques have their own unique language, and customs in this region include those of Northern Spain and South West France, starting near Bayonne in France and reaching down to Bilbao in Spain. And The Basques also invented beach resorts – including Biarritz, which was one of the first in the world – so you can consider a visit an incredibly fun history lesson.
The language here (called Euskera) sounds more like a form of Hungarian, although the locals all speak Spanish as well. The food and culture are also unique. Gastronomic societies, each known as a txoko – or a private men’s cooking club – have existed here since the 19th century. First started in San Sebastián in the 1870s, they began as regular men’s clubs, but today, they take cooking, quality and the sourcing of food to a whole new level by treating cooking as a competition. Yes, they are traditionally for members only, but tour groups and well-connected private travelers can still score invitations.
Pintxos, the ubiquitous tapas in just about all the bars there, are a delicious Basque tradition. Pintxos (pronounced “peen-chos”) are unique to Basque Country, and are generally available in a large array of fresh bites made from local ingredients. You pay only for what you eat, so they’re great for either a snack or a meal. I tried various kinds of fish, veal cheek, anchovies and an array of other local specialties during my visit. Every night literally hundreds of locals and tourists venture from bar to bar, each of which serves its own specialties.
And of course, there are local drinks. While feasting on pintxos, you’ll want to wash them down with the local cider, or my favorite, Txakoli (a local white wine). I have fallen in love with this light, almost bubbly white wine. Txakoli (pronounced cha-co-lee) is perfect with fresh fish, but it also makes a great aperitif.
The small villages on the coast were, and still are, fishing villages. They built wealth during the times of the whale trade, and you can see many of the fishing relics in the old villages today. The local fishing still consists of many small operations, and you’ll see plenty of traditional fishing boats along the coast that go out to sea in the mornings and evenings. Fish is a large part of the Basque diet, and one of the foods you’ll most enjoy while there. This charming landscape also makes for beautiful waterfront dining.
I had no idea this fascinating culture existed before I came, but in San Sebastián and the surrounding hill country, the Basque culture is alive and well.
Here are some places to learn more about Basque culture and cuisine:
San Sebastián, Spain
The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky
The Basque Country by Paddy Woodworth
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