March 2008 issue

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The Basque Country experience

Stunning scenery, historical cities, unspoilt beaches and a delicious range of food and wine point to the Basque Country becoming one of the up-and-coming language travel destinations of the future. Gillian Evans reports.

Summing up the Basque Country – or Euskadi as it called by the locals – Araceli Ruiz de Garibay, Director of Zador Spanish Schools, says, “The whole world is present in this small [region] of Spain”.

The Basque Country is Spain’s northernmost province and boasts 197 kilometres of coastline, 19 principal rivers, rocky mountains, lush valleys and vineyards. “This region offers a varied landscape with stunning beaches and breathtaking mountain views,” states Jose Lopez at Instituto Hemingway in Bilbao. Given the great natural surroundings, language travellers are never short of outdoor activities, including surfing, hiking, cycling, horse riding and playing golf. Covering just 7,261 square kilometres and home to 2.1 million people, the region packs in a lot of attractions.

It is peppered with rural farmhouses, castles, forts, small villages and big cities – the most important being Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gasteiz. It is also an area steeped in tradition. “The Basque Country has a unique culture and history but [also] shares a common history with the rest of Spain,” says Lopez, adding, “The Basque people have a high quality of life in the region which is untouched by tourists.”

Ana Mendikute, Co-Director of Tandem Centro de Idiomas in San Sebastian, agrees that the Basque country remains one of Spain’s best-kept secrets. “[It is] still an unspoilt destination in Spain,” she reflects, “a place that attracts students because of its history, its traditions and the wonderful landscapes and high standard of living.”

Beautifully set against the Bay of Biscay and surrounded by lush green mountains, Donostia-San Sebastian is known as the summer capital of Spain as it is where those who live in inland Spain go during the summer months to escape the heat. Despite its tourist credentials among the Spanish, it remains unspoilt. “San Sebastian is a well known city because of its beauty with the sea and mountains, the great number of three-star restaurants, the international events – concerts, festivals and sports [notably surfing] – that take place during the year, the surfing beaches and the pintxos (tapas) everywhere but especially in the old town bars,” relates Mendikute.

The city’s Parte Vieja, or old quarter, is made up of narrow streets jam-packed with bars and restaurants. San Sebastian also has three city beaches, and a fourth that is on a tiny island in La Concha Bay and is linked to the mainland by ferry during the summer.

In terms of historical architecture, San Sebastian has much to offer, including a 19th-century cathedral with a 75-metre high spire that dominates the city skyline, and the Castillo de la Santa Cruz de la Mota. Tandem takes pride in showing students the city by organising tours, and from this year, the school is offering Basque cooking courses.

Outside of San Sebastian, there is also lots to see and do, and no trip would be complete without an excursion to the breathtaking Flysch at Zumaia, where the sea has eroded the cliffs in unusual layered platforms. But Mendikute’s personal highlight is the Chillida-Leku Museum just south of San Sebastian. Home to the works of Eduardo Chillida, the museum boasts a 12-hectare hillside where trees and magnolias are interspersed with over 40 sculptures.

For a big dose of modern art, however, Bilbao, just 100 kilometres from San Sebastian, is home to the Guggenheim Museum, which houses European and American collections of 20th-century art. But the Guggenheim is as well known for its groundbreaking architecture. Designed by American architect, Frank O Gehry, it is more of a free sculpture than a building, and is made up of curvaceous metal-clad forms. This building, says Lopez, “put Bilbao back on the map”.

Despite the fame of the museum, Bilbao has plenty more to offer its visitors. It is a charming mix of old and new which gives Bilbao the feeling of being both modern and metropolitan and at the same time retaining its old buildings and history, especially in the Casco Viejo (old town).

The best way to see the old town, which boasts a 14th-century cathedral, is on foot. By night the area comes alive with nightclubs and bars where, as Lopez at Instituto Hemingway relates, “most natives spend hours sitting, eating, drinking and talking to friends”.

Indeed, this is a great part of Basque life. Felix Menchacatorre at the University Studies Abroad Consortium, which has programmes in San Sebastian and the small town of Getxo, near Bilbao, observes, “People here like to walk around town or go for a stroll.” As a consequence, the streets are rarely empty. “The most striking differences students find when they come to the Basque Country are that the streets are very lively and crowded; downtown areas are full of life, shops, cafés, etc; and the Spaniards tend to be much more animated and loud when talking to each other, so sometimes it gets really noisy.”

To help students integrate with the locals and improve their Spanish, Instituto Hemingway organises internships and work placements. According to Lopez, they have experienced great demand for their hospitality management programme where students are placed in hotels, where they work and live. “This programme is an excellent opportunity for students to gain experience in the hospitality sector whilst communicating in Spanish with colleagues,” states Lopez.

Despite being “off the beaten track” in mass tourism terms, the Basque Country is well connected, with direct flights to many European cities as well as other cities in Spain. Being just a short drive away from Bilbao airport, Getxo is easily accessible and offers students the chance to experience life in a compact Basque coastal town but close enough to Bilbao to make the most of the city’s attractions. Menchacatorre explains, “Getxo is a small, safe and walkable coastal town of approximately 85,000 inhabitants. The town has a local flavour and offers many cultural and outdoor activities, like rollerblading, surfing, hiking and cycling.”

Just 41 kilometres south of Bilbao is Vitoria, which since the 1980s has been the headquarters of the Basque region’s government. It has plenty of historic architecture, including medieval walls, four gothic churches renaissance palaces, and plenty of squares where people stroll, shop or sit at one the many pavement cafés. Not only is Vitoria a beautiful city in which to study, but it is also safe. Ruiz de Garibay at Zador, which has a school in the city, reports, “[Students] always point out that they feel really safe walking through the city and the streets are always full of people.”

Vitoria hosts a number of festivals including the Dance Month, the Spring Craftsman’s Fair, the International Folklore Festival and a medieval market. But one of the city’s most important events is the celebration for the city’s patron saint, the Virgen Blanca, held at the beginning of August. “There are bullfights, romerias (colourful festivals), processions, fireworks and all sorts of popular celebrations for all ages,” states Ruiz de Garibay.

Food is another reason to celebrate. “Each city district has a special day on which they serve a drink and tapa for one or two euros,” she continues. “In addition, the city organises different [events], such as Tapas Week or the Casseroles Week, in which one can enjoy the typical and not-so-typical Basque gastronomy.”

In fact, Ruiz de Garibay claims that when it comes to food, “the Basque Country is probably the most important tourist destination in Spain”. Lopez elaborates, “The gastronomy in the Basque country is exquisite and varies between the coastal cuisine, which is dominated by fish and seafood, and inland cuisine with its fresh and cured meats, vegetables and freshwater fish and salt cod.”

But the Basque Country has another important asset: its population. Ruiz de Garibay describes locals as “a friendly people with a strong character, who proudly preserve their ancient culture”, and take a healthy interest in finding out where their visitors come from. “We love socialising and talking,” she says. Although they have their own language, called Euskera, the Basque people generally speak Castilian in cities such as Bilbao. “Most students are surprised that, despite [Bilbao] being an important city in the Basque country, Castilian Spanish and not Euskera is spoken,” says Lopez.

The Basque Country certainly offers language travellers plenty of opportunities to immerse themselves in the region’s culture. Ruiz de Garibay insists, “The learning of a language consists not only of learning Spanish grammar and words, but also of seeing life with its speakers’ eyes.”

Agent viewpoint

“The Basque Country is a very special area where any students can see, taste and live every day a very unique and amazing culture, mixed with some very interesting similarities with the bordering lands. We send students to San Sebastian. It is probably the most popular because of the beautiful beaches and natural landscapes. But is also an alive and dynamic town, especially in the summer. Students like the friendly people and the great food and many traditional events all year round. They also enjoy the full immersion in the typical traditions of this land and the excursions, food, sports and many cultural events.”
Silvano Ligurgo, Quality Courses, Spain

“Students like the Basque Country for its regional character, history and gastronomy. We send students to Vitoria because, unlike San Sebastian and Bilbao, there is not so much Basque spoken there. The locals speak a lot more castellano (Spanish). Students are surprised by the diversity of the area and the fact that it is not your typical Spain. Students enjoy visiting the villages and vineyards and tasting the food."
Martin Pickett, Lanacos, UK

“The students who choose to study in the Basque Country like the fact that it is not yet as overcrowded as the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Also, the juicy green mountains and hills and wild Atlantic add to the attraction. San Sebastian is a cosmopolitan city and has a tourism tradition that goes back to 1886. Our students enjoy the bars with their variations of delicious pintxos [small traditional tapas].”
Alex Henzi, STA Travel, Switzerland

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