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Tuesday, 31 July 2012 20:43

Basque Country

Basque Country

Basque Country: Culinary mecca, Art center (incl., Guggenheim Museum), French and Spanish coastal and Pyrenees walks!
The Basques have often been described as a mysterious people: Where did they come from? What’s the source of their language? How did they survive as a people despite waves of invasion of Celts, Romans and Christian settlers?
Arguments of geographical isolation seem to hold little water leading some to conclude that there must be something special about Basque character which has allowed them to endure and thrive in their enchanting corner of south-west France and mid-northern Spain where the sea meets the great Pyrenees mountain range.

The Basque Country (Euskal Herria in the Basque Language, País Vasco in Spanish and Pays Basque in French) is made up of seven historical provinces (Bizkaia, Alava, Guipuzcoa, Navarra, Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule) stretching on both sides of the border. In our days, Bizkaia, Alava, Guipuzcoa make up the Spanish autonomous community of Euskadi, while Navarra has its own autonomous region status and the rest are part of the French State.

Map of the Basque CountryThese hilly and coastal lands have been farmed, havens for shepherds and exploited for their mineral wealth for centuries and centuries by the Basque peoples who share a common language - Euskera. Euskera is a pre-Indoeuropean language and believed to have been in use since the pre-Roman era. Basque folklore, games (hand ball, pelota, jai alai), cuisine, dance, and a profound relationship to the land and homestead are deeply cherished in this fertile region and we’ll learn more about these ways of life and being as we walk the area’s paths and ways.

On our tour we will explore the roots of Basque history and the legacy of 19th C unbridled nationalism, born in the industrial age, on contemporary society (oftentimes in conflict with itself). We’ll sample their world famous cuisine, visit their coastal fishing villages from which innumerable voyagers launched off into the unknown in search of discovery and opportunity or to land an enormous whale, walk along their old smuggler’s trails as we cross the border connecting France and Spain on two ancient Basque passes all the while being exhilarated by their most beautiful natural resources - the densely forested Urkiola Nature Park, the coastal Flysch Trail (a geologist’s paradise) and the rolling txakolí vineyards set between the coast and mountains. We’ll not only stay in some of the Basque country’s most beautiful coastal and mountain villages, we’ll also enjoy the vibrant cities of Bilbao (visiting the Guggenheim Museum) and San Sebastian (a city perfectly interfaced with its coastal and hilly setting and justly famous for its cuisine).

Tour duration: 7 days & 7 nights

Level: Medium-Hard. The Basque Country hikes are medium to medium-hard level due to the continuously hilly countryside with several hard sections on sometimes steep, and potentially very slippery limestone trails over the course of the hikes on some of the days. Expect elevation gains/losses of 500m/1500feet over the course of the day’s walk with successive steep ascents and/or descents. Hiking lengths range from 9 to 16km/ 5.5 to 10 miles. While the distances are not long, the walking conditions require care, stamina, concentration and being comfortable on uneven and irregular walking surfaces. The surfaces range from easy forest and farm track to challenging sandstone and limestone (ie, slippery if wet and very irregular rocks) descents on ungroomed mountain hiking trails. Walking sticks are highly recommended.

Most of the hikes are designed to start in one location and end in another (ie, vehicle drops us on one side and picks us up on the other) and once you are on the trail, you are committed to the end. Most of the walks do not lend themselves well to shortening or providing easier alternatives. While the hiking trails have many very, easy straightforward sections they also have difficult sections which could be overly demanding for someone with balance, stamina, stability or vertigo issues. Training by playing tennis, bicycling or walking on asphalt only is not adequate for this trip. Keep in mind that this is a guided trip and the group needs to stay together due to the nature of the trails and the large number of alternative pathways that we will be frequently encountering. Please let us know if you have any questions.

Walking Days: 7 Total

Distance: 38.5 mi/60.5 km With optionals add-ons 48.1 mi/ 77.6 km

On the tour we book standard double rooms. You can also choose to upgrade to view rooms on a couple of nights for an extra fee. Please contact us for more information.

Single Supplement: The single supplement fee is €340 for this tour. This is much higher than most of our other tours as the hotels discount very little for single occupancy or use double rooms for singles.

Groups: If you have a group of four (4) or more and the dates are not available when you would like to travel, contact us and we can try and schedule a tour adapted to your dates.

Weather: The Basque Country’s driest months are from July to September but be prepared for the unexpected rain shower at any time of the year. Summer temperatures oscillate between 15-30ºC / 60-85ºF

What is and isn’t included:

Trip price includes accommodations (double occupancy), meals (all breakfast, lunch and 5 of 7 dinners), all entry fees except where noted in the itinerary, pre-departure information, experienced guides (Nancy & Jose), support vehicle, all transportation during the trip. Airfare to Spain is not included nor is trip & health insurance or transportation to the starting point (Bilbao) and from the ending point (San Sebastián).

Daily Itinerary

Day 1 - Bilbao
After a brief introduction and presentation of the week’s program we’ll take a walking tour of Bilbao, a city founded 700 years ago. We’ll set off from the hotel and walk back in time through Bilbao’s different districts representing its different eras – growth and wealth of the Industrial Revolution, the narrow, twisting streets of the historical quarter nicknamed the Siete Calles district (named for the seven streets that divide the area). We’ll walk the winding streets passing the gothic Cathedral of Santiago. We’ll then walk along the Nervion River to the Guggenheim Museum. En route we pass the pedestrian Zubi Zuri bridge designed by the world-famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
At the Guggenheim we give you free time to explore architect Frank Gehry’s fascinating building and its collections which have given a completely new face to Bilbao’s waterfront. We’ll enjoy our first sampling of Basque Cuisine at dinner tonight. Walking distance: 2.8miles /4.5 km

Day 2 - Axpe

AxpeWe shuttle to the center of Euskadi to the Urkiola Nature Park located in the mountains around Durango. Nicknamed the little Switzerland, the park boasts a stunning limestone range of green pastures and majestic, craggy peaks whose crowning glory is Anboto (1330m/4362ft), the mythic dwelling place of the Basque country’s most important pre-Christian deity, Mari, aka the Dama de Anboto.
Today we’ll cross this enchanting range inspired by the legends and its magnetic beauty and walk to our lodging, a beautifully restored caserío (traditional Basque farmhouse) in the small village of Axpe.
There is one steep, hard descent in this section. This picturesque village is set within a deep and narrow, wooded valley at the foot of the Urkiola mountain range.
Tonight’s fare will emphasize the inland farmers’ hearty meals. 7 mi/ 11.5km With optional add-on 9.3mi/15km

Day 3 - Axpe

AxpeFrom our lodge we’ll set off to explore the wooded countryside around the village.
We walk to another caserío to learn about the life of a local shepherd and spend the morning with him and his sheepdog ‘Hari’.
We’ll learn about production of local cheese and cuajada (junket).
After our morning’s visit, you can choose to return to the hotel and enjoy a quiet afternoon in this valley famed to be Donde el silencio se oye (Where silence is heard) or continue hiking a very scenic, aerial walk through the park and along the base of two peaks visible from our hotel.
Dinner on your own tonight.
You might want to try the Michelin rated Casa Exteberri famous for its grilled foods down in Axpe. 1.9mi/3km With optional add-on 5.6mi/9km

Day 4 – Deba
ZumaiaWe head north from Axpe to the impressive coast with its memorable seaside roads hugging the abrupt coast interspersed with small towns and beautiful sandy beaches.
We start from the seaside town of Zarauz and we’ll walk east up into the coastal hills through the highly scenic txakolí district. Txakolí is the wine par excellence of the Basque Country – a fruity, young white wine. We’ll walk through the high hills enjoying fantastic views of the coast and inland mountains as the trails wind through the vineyards. En route we stop in a family-run winery where we’ll visit the winery, learning about the history of wine production in this area and have a tasting. We continue walking to our picnic. Afterwards you’ll have the option of continuing the coastal route to Zumaia (and then shuttle to the hotel) or returning directly to the hotel. Dinner tonight at the hotel. 5.9mi/8km With optional add-on 7.1mi/11.5km

Day 5 – Deba
ZumaiaToday we will take a fascinating coastal hike along one of the geological wonders of the world called the Flysch Trail. To orient us to the route we’ll start our visit in the Flysch Museum and then set off on the hilly route (with several steep ascents) that takes us back into millions of years of geological time opened up to us on the exposed cliffs like the pages of a book. During part of the route we coincide with the thousand year old Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s trail which led European pilgrims along the coast on their long journey west towards Santiago de Compostela. After the picnic you have the option of walking back to the hotel in Deba or to return by van. You have the rest of the afternoon and evening to relax on your. 6.5mi/10.5km With optional add-on 9mi/14.5km

Day 6 – Along the Bidasoa River

French Basque CountryEn route to our trailhead in Sare, France, we'll drive through lovely French Basque villages and get a taste of the Basque Country on the other side of the border. Today we make an exciting journey into the past passing three sets of caves as we walk from France over the border to Spain.
Over the course of thousands of years, the caves have been whittled out of the limestone massif that forms this stretch of the Western Pyrenees.
We’ll walk through rolling farmland along ancient smuggler’s paths that were used most recently to help Jews flee from Nazi occupied France. We pass the Sare caves which were occupied some 45,000 years ago by human ancestors.
Sheep and semi-wild horses, pottoks, graze in these hills as the wooded trail heads over the border to the Spanish caves at Zugarramurdi (Navarra) where a witch hunt in the 1620s left the local populations of Urdazubi and Zugarramurdi with only one-fifth of its residents.
The supposed witches were said to meet in the caves for their covens (akelarres). The last caves in Urdazubi overflow with natural sculpture - stalactites and stalagmites formed by the process of karstification - water acting upon limestone. We enter the earth’s innards and witness the work of water on stone over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.
After our walk we’ll shuttle back along the Bidasoa River and spend the night in our charming restored historical building and enjoy more delicious regional cuisine. 6.2 mi/10km

Day 7 –San Sebastian
San SebastianWe’ll drive to one of the Basque Country’s most beautiful natural ports, Pasai Donibane. Oozing historical charm, with its galleried waterfront homes, this attractive village is where Victor Hugo lived and wrote 'Alps and the Pyrenees' in 1843. From here we’ll take a magnificent coastal trail which leaves the village along a steep, ascending trail past a picturesque lighthouse which protects the entrance to the harbor.
The undulating trail enters forests, soars along the cliffs and transports you back in time to the days when the hillside, Uliamendi, was used by local whalers to spot the great sea beasts approaching the coast.
Our destination is the beautiful city of San Sebastian arguably Spain’s most attractive and romantic urban setting. Among its charms are: three spectacular beaches, its expansive bay leading out to the ocean, the hilly contours framing the city, the wooded Monte Urgull crowned with the ruins of a castle and its very appealing early 20th century architecture funded by turn-of-the-century nobles who came here in droves to enjoy the temperate climate.
On our way into town we’ll wander the streets of the old quarter, enjoy its maritime walkway, look for the more than 100 types of lamp posts decorating the city and then wind up at our hotel. Here we’ll find the Basque cuisine at its best ! We’ll enjoy our farewell dinner in this culinary mecca ! 6.2mi/10km

Published in Itineraries
Tuesday, 31 July 2012 20:31

Reading List


To make your journey more enjoyable you may wish to read about the areas we’ll be visiting and about Spain in general. If these are not available in your local library or bookstores most are available via the internet at www.amazon.com, Adventure Travel Bookstore (1800 282 3963 in US and Canada) or Mountaineers Books (1800 553 4453 - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). Also look for the website: www.wild-spain.com for information and interesting articles on outdoor Spain.


Walking in SpainWalking in SpainWalking in Spain (Lonely Planet, 1999, 2003). Miles Roddis, Nancy Frey, Jose Placer, Matt Fletcher and John Noble.

On Foot in Spain owners, Nancy Frey and Jose Placer, have chapters on Galicia, Cordillera Cantábrica (Picos de Europa), the Basque Country and the Camino de Santiago. The 2003 book covers all of Spain but not the Canary Islands.

Foster, Nelson and Linda S. Cordell, ed. 1996. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. University pf Arizona Press. Kerper, Barrie. 2003. Northern Spain. The Collected Traveller. NY: Three Rivers Press.

A good collection of articles covering parts of Spain hard to find information about in English including Galicia, Asturias, the Basque Country and Cantabria

Measures, John. 1992. Wildlife Travelling Companion: Spain. Wiltshire: Crowood Press.

A general guide on flora and fauna of Spain good if your travelling across the country but not a specialist’s guide.

Hooper, John. The New Spaniards. Penguin. 1997.

Hooper manages to provide a well-balanced accounting of Spain as it is today and why.

Lalaguna, Juan. A Traveller’s History of Spain. 1996

Excellent, compact summary of Spain’s complex history.

Crow, John A. 1985. Spain. The Root and the Flower. Berkeley : UC Press.


Barlow, John. 2008. Everything But the Squeal: A Year of Pigging Out in Northern Spain.
Barlow, a native of England, has a great time exploring Galicia’s food traditions focusing on pork with his Galician vegetarian wife. A funny read. We won’t be eating nearly as much pork as he!

Borrow, George. 1842. The Bible in Spain.

19th century English Bible salesman George Borrow relates his experiences, in an often humorous fashion, in this excellent volume on mid-19th C Spain. There are accounts of areas we’ll pass through including Finisterre.

Casas, Penelope. 1997. Spain’s Green Corner. New York Times Travel. April 27, p. 12, 29.
Good general overview of Galicia’s coastal highlights.

Frey, Nancy. 2004. Galicia. Coastal Corner. Spanish Magazine. June (Issue 5), pp. 16-25.
Now find the article HERE!
An article describing Galicia and its highlights from Nancy’s perspective as someone who has lived in the region since 1997.

Frey, Nancy. 2003. Serra do Courel: Galicia’s Wild Frontier. Originally published on www.wild-spain.com.

Now find the article HERE!
Here I describe the beautiful range south of the O Cebreiro pass with an emphasis on the geology, flora and fauna.

Gemie, Sharif. 2006. Galicia. Histories of Europe Series.
A good general overview of the region with a strong focus on modern history.

Kerper, Barrie. 2003. Northern Spain. The Collected Traveler. An Inspired Anthology & Travel Resource.

The author presents a very comprehensive annotated bibliography of themes not just related to northern Spain but Spain in general in addition to good selected articles about each zone of the north including Galicia.

Michener, James. 1968. Iberia. Spanish Travels and Reflections.

While everything else in the book is terribly outdated, his chapter 13 – Santiago de Compostela offers a great read with solid historical information.

Jenny Chandler and Jean Cazals. 2005. The Food of Northern Spain: Recipes from the Gastronomic Heartland of Spain.

Beautiful photography and delightful prose in this lovely book on food in northern Spain.

Rivas, Manuel. 2003. Vermeer’s Milkmaid: And Other Stories

Rivas is a contemporary Galician author who writes about his region and this is just one suggestion to introduce you to his work.

Rosalía de Castro.
Considered to be Galicia’s finest 19th C poet, her work is full of nostalgia and strong sense of landscape and place. Follas Novas(New Leaves) is a good start.

Also check out the following website which has many resources about Galicia:


Ena Alvarez, Vicente. 1996. In the Picos de Europa (Translation from Spanish). Leon: Edilesa.

General book on the Picos.

Browning, Frank. 1998. The Apple of Spain’s Eye. San Francisco Examiner. Travel Section. Sept 13, pp. T-1, T-4, T-5. Travel article on Asturian sidra



Clissold, Stephen. 1974. Saint James in Spanish History. History Today 24 (10): 684-92.
Excellent general overview of the development of the pilgrimage and cult of St James.

Coelho, Paolo. 1995. The Pilgrimage. A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom.

One of the most popular and controversial contemporary Camino books. Brasilian best-selling author, Coelho takes us on his mystical journey along the Camino in search of wisdom. He provides spiritual exercises.

Egan, Kerry. 2004. Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago. Doubleday.

Personal account written by a Harvard graduate student of theology. After her father died of diabetes she walked the Camino.

Follet, Ken. Pillars of the Earth
Masterpiece novel set in 12th C Britain during the period of transition between Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Follet develops a fascinating human and historical journey that even coincides w/ the Camino.

Pilgrim StoriesFrey, Nancy. 1998. Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago. Berkeley: UC Press.
Nancy’s anthropological study on the contemporary pilgrimage which brings to life the multitude of experiences of the modern traveler along the Camino based on her hundreds of interviews with pilgrims from 1992 to 1997.

Gitlitz, David and Linda Kay Davidson. 2000. The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago. The Complete Cultural Handbook. St. Martin's.

The title says it all. The guide covers art, architecture, history, folklore, flora and fauna.

Hitt, Jack. 1994. Off the Road. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Humorous and irreverent personal account of Hitt's 1993 walk to Santiago.

Hoinacki, Lee. 1996. El Camino. University Park: Penn State Press.
Deeply felt personal account with a strong spiritual emphasis by an older man who walked to Santiago.

Jacobs, Michael. 2003. The Road to Santiago. Pallas Guides.

Architectural guide for travelers along the Camino.

Lack, Katherine. 2003. The Cockleshell Pilgrim: A Medieval Journey to Compostela.

In the late 1990s, while an English cemetery was being moved, a 14th C pilgrim was discovered buried with his scallop shell. Lack, a historian, attempts to reconstruct his journey and 14th life on the road.

Laffi, Domenico. 1997 (1681). A Journey to the West. The Diary of a Seventeenth Century Pilgrim from Bologna to Santiago de Compostela. Trans. James Hall. Leiden (Netherlands): Primavera Pers and Santiago: Xunta de Galicia.
Delightful account and translation of Laffis 17th C journey. His eye for detail leaves us with a memorable legacy and Hall has added excellent illustrations to accompany the text.

Maclaine, Shirley. 2001. The Camino. Journey of the Spirit. Atria Press.
People either love or hate this book. Maclaine walked to Santiago in I994 and then wrote about her spiritual, physical, other-worldly and celebrity experiences along the way.

Melczer, William. 1993. The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela. NY: ltalica Press.

First English translation of the 12th C pilgrimage guide Codex Calixtinus that helped popularize th pilgrimage route. His translation and first-rate historical background and extensive notes, bring to life this fascinating and invaluable document.

Michener, James. 1968. Iberia. Spanish Travels and Reflections. NY: Random House.

While everything else in the book is terribly outdated, his chapter on the Camino (Chapter 13 - Santiago de Compostela) offers a great read with solid historical information.

A food lover's pilgrimage to Santiago de CompostelaMoore, Tim. 2005. Spanish Steps. Travels with My Donkey. London: Vintage Press.
Funny account of this Englishman’s trials and tribulations walking with his donkey to Compostela.

Mullen, Robert. 2010. Call of the Camino. Myths, Legends and Pilgrim Stories on the Way to Santiago de Compostela. Findhorn Press.
Mullen blends issues of mind, body and spirit in this engaging account of his walk along the Camino.

Newman, Sharon. 1997. Strong as Death (Catherine Levendeur Mysteries). Forge Books.

Murder stalks Catherine and her husband Edgar on their 12th C journey to Compostela. She must use her wit to figure out who among the assorted traveling companions did it!

Nolan, Dee. 2010. A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Penguin
A journalist and olive oil producer Dee fulfilled a dream walking the Camino with us and then wrote this exquisitely beautiful book in which she let her heart and palate be her guide.

Nootebaum, Cees. 1997. Roads to Santiago. Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain. NY: Harcourt.

This popular Dutch writer takes you with him on his long journey through Spain to Santiago covering many, many topics.

O’Marie, Sister Carol Anne. 1993. Murder Makes a Pilgrimage. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Modern day murder mystery set on the contemporary Camino with a septuagenarian nun Sister Mary Helen as the protagonist and unlikely crime solver.

Rudolph, Conrad. 2004. Pilgrimage to the End of the World.
Very good and thoughtful, compact travel essay by an art historian who walked to Santiago.

Rupp, Joyce. 2005. Walk in a Relaxed Manner. Life Lessons from the Camino. USA: Orbis Books.
Rather than the typical diary account Joyce, a 60+ walker, focuses on the basic messages she took from the pilgrimage: Live in the Now, Listen to Your Body, Don't Give Up, Trust in a Higher Power, Humility.



Camoes, Luis Vaz de.16th C. The Lusiads. Oxford University Press.
Considered to be the greatest epic writer of his time, Camoes writes nostalgically about the age of oceanic discovery just as Portugal’s golden age was dimming.

Gomes, Tania. 2006. Flavors of Portugal. Thunder Bay Press.

Provides interesting recipes including unusual family ones in this bilingual edition.

Hermano Saraiva, Jose. 1998. A Companion History of Portugal. Carcanet Press.
Good historical overview of Portugal’s fascinating history.

Kaplan, Marion. 1998. The Portuguese: The Land and its People. Viking Press
Kaplan is a photo journalist and her writing is strongest when discussing the art and architecture.

Russell, Peter. 2001. Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ : A Life. Yale University Press.

Deals with this key figure of Portuguese history toppling many of the legends surrounding his personage and giving excellent contextual material surrounding his life and age.

Saramago, Jose

He is a Portuguese Nobel Laureate who has published many works including the non-fictional: Journey to Portugal: In Search of Portugal’s History and Culture, and the wonderful, haunting work of fiction, Blindness (Harvest Press).



Barrenechea, Teresa and Mary Goodbody. 2005. The Basque Table: Passionate Home Cooking from One of Europe’s Great Regional Cuisines. Harvard Common Press. he Lusiads.
Wonderful introduction for foodies.

Gallop, Rodney. 1970. A Book of the Basques. University of Nevada Press.

Excellent collection and analysis of Basque folklore from song to dance to witchcraft.

Kerper, Barrie. 2003. Northern Spain. The Collected Traveler. An Inspired Anthology & Travel Resource. Three Rivers Press.
Great collection of articles by well-known writers on a variety of topics covering all of northern Spain.

Kurlansky, Mark. 1999. Basque History of the World.
A very readable but incredibly biased description of the Basque people from pre-history to the present day. It can’t be taken seriously as a historical account as many of his outrageous claims are not backed up. His take on the current situation with the Basque terrorist organization ETA is misinformed and one-sided and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Laxalt, Robert and Joyce. 1999. The Land of My Fathers: A son’s return to the Basque Country. University of Nevada Press.
Memoir written by the son of a Basque immigrant who returned to visit his father’s village in Spain. Laxalt is considered to be one of Nevada’s finest writers and has written several books set in the Basque country including the award winning A Cup of Tea in Pamplona.

Sevilla, María Jose. 1990. Life and Food in the Basque Country. New Amsterdam Books.
Discover the Basque Country and its people through its food culture. Good, leisurely read.

Woodworth, Paddy. 2007. The Basque Cultural History. Signal Books.

Irishman Paddy Woodworth has been writing about the Basques for thirty years and is most well known for his take on the Basque terrorists, ETA, in his Dirty War, Clean Hands. The book provides good background information on the Basque Country in general.

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