For many, the only thing that comes to mind upon hearing "Basque country" is Spain. In other words, there's much to learn about this region. For one thing, Basque country refers to both an autonomous community within Spain, as well as a larger cultural area. From language to food to unexpected traditions, here are a few facts that only begin to scratch the surface of this fascinating land.
The Basque Language Is Older Than Other European Languages
Though you'll be able to get by with Spanish while you're visiting, Basque country actually has its own language — and it's one of the oldest in the world. Because the Basque region was never conquered by the Roman Empire, the language spoken by residents remained intact while many of the other languages of southwestern Europe were lost.
Called Euskara or Euskera, the language is spoken by approximately one million people. Although there are a few dialects of Euskara, speakers generally understand each other.
One of the Most Visually Interesting Museums in the World Is Here
The Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, is one of a few museums around the world that are works of art themselves. Situated in the port city of Bilbao, the museum's curved lines resemble a ship, while its industrial aesthetic — with an outer skin of titanium panels — reflects the urban grit of the surrounding area.
The museum has been credited with revitalizing all of Bilbao, thanks to the visitors it attracted immediately upon opening in 1997. It is one of the largest museums in Spain, and today it is home to modern works by both native Basque artists and international names like Jeff Koons and Mark Rothko.
Basque Country Is Packed With World-Class Food
In addition to its art, Basque country is also known for its delectable cuisine. San Sebastián — a Basque resort town just west of the French border — is second only to Kyoto, Japan, for Michelin stars per square kilometer. The region is home to 38 Michelin-starred restaurants.
If you're worried about getting thirsty from all that delicious food, fear not: Basque country is also known for its wines, from the traditional dry and white Txakoli, to the Rioja reds. Take advantage of your time there and visit a vineyard, tour a winery, or, at the very least, sample a few of the local varieties over dinner.
It Is the European Capital of Surfing
Basque country is a veritable mecca for European surfers, thanks to its extensive coastline and gnarly waves. While locals and visitors alike can take advantage of the surf along the Basque coast on a daily basis, the region also hosts a number of international surfing competitions. These have included a top-ranked contest in the small beach town of Mundaka, which is known for having one of the best left-hand waves in the world.
It Has Its Own Version of Finger Foods
Speaking of tapas, you won't find those Spanish appetizers in Basque country. Instead, you'll treat yourself to pintxos, which are snacks traditionally served on a slice of bread, with a skewer or toothpick holding the various ingredients together.
Though each pintxo is an individual bite in itself, they are served communally, like tapas. In fact, depending on the restaurant, you may find you are free to serve yourself from trays of pintxos on the bar, and you'll be responsible for holding onto your skewers to let your server know how many you've had when it's time to pay.
Cider Is a Basque Tradition
You now know all about the Basque wines, but did you know they are famous for their ciders as well? The region is dotted with cider houses. As with food, San Sebastián is acknowledged as the epicenter of Basque cider, though you can find the drink offered all throughout the area.
'Game of Thrones' was Filmed Here
Basque country is home to a number of locations used in the HBO show Game of Thrones. The most recognizable is likely that of Dragonstone, the castle belonging to Daenerys Targaryen, which was shot at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
Muriola Beach, just a short drive from the city of Bilbao, was featured as King's Landing in one particular scene. Other locations included Itzurun Beach and Bardenas Reales, the latter of which constituted the otherworldly Dothraki Sea.
Basque Country Isn't Only in Spain
While we've talked almost exclusively of Spanish Basque country so far, the region actually includes areas of both Spain and France. French Basque country is separated from the Spanish region by the Pyrenees Mountains, but the two areas share an extensive history of culture and language.
The French Basque country includes all the glitz of the coastal resort town Biarritz, as well as the medieval beauty of nearby Bayonne, known for its cobblestones and cathedral. Closer to the mountains, visitors can explore the caves of Grottes de Sare — and, as in the rest of Basque country, mouthwatering food and drink are rarely more than a stone's throw away.