The Basque Country – Is It Really A Country?

Justin Posted on 20th March 2017 by Justin

No it isn’t but I decided not to end my article there.

You won’t see ‘Basque Country’ on any Atlas (showing my age, there) or on Google Maps. You won’t see it at a meeting of EU or NATO members either. Nor is the Basque Country represented at the Olympics or the World Cup.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you may decide that this corner of western Europe really does tick enough boxes to earn ‘country’ status. So, let’s investigate a little further...

But before I consider the case for, I will set the scene with some essential background information.

Firstly, where is the Basque Country? Very good question because if you do some ‘light’ Googling you will be confused. It’s in Spain, right? Well, yes, but not exactly. It’s a region of France, right? Hmmm, well, yes it is, but not officially.


Map of Basque Country


Google ‘where is Basque Country’ and the first answer returned is this: “The Basque Country is an autonomous community of northern Spain”. True but a bit misleading.

Read on down page 1: “The Basque Country (Basque: Euskal Herria; French: Pays Basque; Spanish: Vasconia or País Vasco) is the name given to the home of the Basque people in the western Pyrénées​ that straddles the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast”. Thank you, that’s much better.

So, how exactly is the Basque Country defined?

  • The Basque Country does overlap Spain and France but ask people where it is and you are likely to hear "Spain" not "France".
  • It’s the Bay of Biscay side of Spain and France that we’re talking about – where the two countries meet on the western side of the Pyrénées.
  • There are 7 provinces making up the Basque Country: 4 are in Spain and 3 are in France.
  • The 4 provinces in Spain are Vizcaya, Alava, Guipúzcoa and Navarra. However, the Spanish administrative region Pais Vasco (i.e. Basque Country) comprises only the first three!
  • The 3 provinces that make up French Basque Country are Labourd (the coastal strip), Basse-Navarre and Soule, the latter being the most off-the-beaten-track. Bear in mind that in France, ‘French Basque Country’ is not an official region. In fact, it is not even one of the 96 administrative départements of France. French Basque Country is half of the départment Pyrénées-Atlantique (the other half being the resolutely Gascon province of Béarn) which in turn forms part of the administrative region of Nouvlelle-Aquitaine!

Phew. And that was the easy bit.

Now that we’ve established the Basque Country isn’t a country, let’s consider 7 reasons why the Basque Country is a country.

1. The Basque Country has its own language. The Basques pre-date the Romans; they are said to be the oldest race in Europe. The language certainly bears no resemblance to any other. Whereas the Celtic languages of Wales, Cornwall and Scotland have eroded over time, the Basque language - Euskera - remains strong. And before you think about taking night classes, not only is it the oldest language in Europe it is also considered one of the most difficult to learn!


Basque Country flag


2. The Basque Country has its own flag. This is another Celtic theme; Cornwall, Devon, Brittany – they all have a strong sense of independence and a flag is a highly visual reinforcement of that identity. When the Tour de France or Vuelta de Espagna reaches the Pyrénées or Picos, you’ll see the Basque flag in abundance.

3. The Basque Country has its own architectural style. Often described as Swiss-style chalets, Basque Country homes are characterised by their white-washed thick stone walls and painted half-timbering and shutters. The colour of the paint is strictly controlled by each parish. Traditional Basque farmhouses - etxes – are built facing east to catch the rising sun and feature a stone lintel over the main door bearing the builder’s name and year of construction. There are beautiful examples all over the region but one of my favourite places is Ainoha in French Basque Country.



4. The Basque Country has its own TV channels. Admittedly, I have never sat down and watched an episode of Goenkale (a Basque soap opera that ran for over 20 years until 2015) but Euskal Telebista, or ETB for short, runs six channels, two of which are entirely in Basque language (it also runs five radio shows). Now, I know you can pick up Radio Cornwall down here in the south west but there are certainly no Cornish language channels.



5. The Basque Country has its own cuisine. No surprises that food is a serious business here. On the Spanish side of Basque Country, San Sebastian is considered one of the world’s culinary capitals – this small city of 186,000 inhabitants boasts 16 Michelin stars (a ratio of 12,000 people per star compared to 112,000 people per star in London). Of the seven 3-Star restaurants in Spain, three are located in San Sebastian. The Basques don’t do tapas, they do pintxos, the Basque equivalent. Roaming from bar to bar with a band of friends, staying only as long as it takes to down an appetiser and glass, is very much the way of life. It’s known as txikiteo. The peppers of Espelette and ham of Bayonne are famous the world over.

Basque Country pintxos peppers


6. The Basque Country has its own unique sports. The Basques have pioneered a bunch of outlandish pursuits that really are unique to their culture - and if you saw them in action you'd probably want it kept that way for your own safety. The principal one is pelota of which there are many variations. I’ve seen it live. It involves launching a hard ball against a wall and trying not to be decapitated. It’s squash for psychopaths and therefore great fun to watch. Every Basque village/town has its fronton (wall), in fact you will see this in many parts of Latin America wherever the Basques have migrated over the centuries.

The Basques love their road cycling; there’s a Tour of Basque Country as well as a pro-cycling team, Euskadi Basque Country-Murias.

Football is a passion too and to play for Atletico Bilbao the club will only sign players who were born or raised in the Basque Country, or who learned their football skills at a Basque club (this is an unwritten club rule - thank you, Wikipedia). Anyone remember Bixente Lizarazu? Well, this Basque legend enjoyed great success at Bayern Munich and France. Then there’s rugby which really is even more popular on the French side. It’s a rugby heartland producing some world class players such as Imanol Harinordoquy. Some of those farm boys are brutes!

Talking of brutes one mustn’t forget force basque, the Basque Country's Highland Games equivalent. Every village takes a turn hosting a 'show of strength' festival in summer. 


Basque pelote, Force Basque


7. It has its own items of clothing. Sure, that’s probably my weakest argument. The beret is of course a symbol for the whole of France but Basque gentlemen have been donning their txapela since the early 19th century. The red neck scarf is a compulsory complement. Do note that Basque Country clothing is not to be confused with Basque lingerie but I hope you enjoy Googling this to untangle your confusion. Basque linen is an important product of the region and is currently very fashionable; the modern variety featuring some striking colours and designs.


Basque beret, Basque linge


So, there’s the evidence.

Is it a country or simply a free-spirited land?

What’s your verdict? 


Justin Ashby is a Co-Founder and Director of Alternative Aquitaine, a villa rental agency specialising in SW France and now part of the Simpson Travel family. Justin first visited the Basque Country 20 years ago and has returned many times since and returns several times each year - and not just for the gâteaux basque. 

Basque Country holiday villas
Basque Country Wikipedia

Basque Country flag

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