Category Archives: Culture

It´s Carnival Time in the Basque Country, too…

(this post was on, I´ve brought it to this blog as we are  now celebrating this special festivity)

This was a land of pagans in the old times, and was christianized late compared to other territories. It´s also a very mountainous land and full of (formerly) isolated valleys – one of the reasons for the seven varieties of Basque language in such a tiny territory -. Thus, there are a wide variety of rituals specific to one area only, even one town, that make this country so attractive and misterious in many ways.

One of the rituals most celebrated (as in many places around the world) is Carnival (Inauteria or Aratuste, in Basque). There are some traditional and very picturesque ones, like those celebrated in Tolosa, Lesaka, Mundaka, Ituren and Zubieta (video of the carnival at Ituren) or those in Lantz (Navarre), accompanied by a variety of mythological characters (Ziripot, Miel-Otxin, Markitos, etc) . for a sample of the carnival at Lantz.

Many other towns celebrate their pagan rituals during carnival time, but I wanted to show you those above as quite peculiar and very linked to our land.

There´s a Museum of the Basque Beret (Txapela), and It´s Fun!!

101_6283Last Saturday I went to visit the Museo de la Boina La Encartada – Museum of the Beret (or “txapela”, in Basque), in Balmaseda, Bizkaia. It´s on the former factory that has been making berets for exactly 100 years (1892-1992). The museum – a classic , beautiful XIX century Industrial Revolution building- , surrounded by well kept gardens and a river, has been recently opened  and offers a very comprehensive and thorough visit (available in English on demand).

They show the whole process, as some of the machinery is still in good working condition. All the machinery has been restored and, as the power they use to make them work comes from just WATER (thrusted from a turbine moved by the force of the water of the river), it´s constantly in motion. A very good guide shows you how  wool is converted through a series of processes into a classic Basque beret, there´s a very instructive video (well, there are two, one is for kids and the other is for adults) and you also visit the home of the owners, kept as it was in early XX century. Entrance fee is very small and they offer berets for sale, at very reasonable prices. Nearby, the beautiful village of Balmaseda, full of beautiful churches, convents and a marvellous mediaeval bridge. A different kind of visit.101_6293

The web page is, it´s just 30 kms from Bilbao and it´s off the beaten path, but worth the visit.  Not far from Ferrería (ironmongery) El Pobal and the Rolls Royce Museum.


And this is me with the txapela I bought that day…

Castles in the Basque Country I. Castle of Butrón

The castle of Butrón corresponds to the romantic idea of a castle. Located in Gatika, 20 miles from Bilbao, it was a mediaeval fortress built on the XIII century, that served as defensive tower in the fights that took place for centuries between Oñacinos and Gamboinos, the two big families that dominated the Basque Country in the Middle Ages. On the XVI century another castle was built on its place, and then it was abandoned for many years until the Marqués de Cubas recontructed and gave its present shape on the XIX century.butrón 1

At present, it belongs to a private company, it has served as restaurant for some years but it´s currently closed for visits. In any case, the views and the pictures you can take are spectacular. It is surrounded by a luxurious tree garden, with exotic species, and the visit is really worth it.

Cider Houses, Sidrerías, the season has just started

It´s now the start of the new “cider season”, meaning that the cider that was produced last year will be drunk during the next few months, before the season ends again at the end of April. It´s natural cider, made with just apples and nothing else, with a low alcohol content (4º), fresh and still, no artificial anything added.

Most “sidrerías” are concentrated around Donostia-San Sebastián, in the Gipuzkoa province, although you can find them now in many other places in the Basque Country. Season begins with the traditional opening of the Kupela (huge cider barrel) by someone locally famous, and following the expression (in Basque) “The new cider has arrived!”, the season is officially opened. All sidrerías offer a closed menu for around 25-30 euros, including cod omelette, peppers, t-bone steak, walnuts and cheese (with slight variations). It´s typical to have this menu standing or in long shared tables, and you can have AS MUCH CIDER as you want, it´s included in the price. Sometimes there´s singing of traditional songs and maybe some dancing.

For more info,, also in English. It describes the process, the rites and lists the names of the most popular sidrerías.

San Miguel de Arretxinaga, a very peculiar church

san miguel arretxinaga1Located in Markina-Xemein, the town considered the University of Jai-Alai (Basque ball game), this is a very odd church. It´s part of my childhood memories, when it was a place just known to locals and you had to ask for the key to the lady living in the caserío (Basque farm) next door. The present church is relatively new, XVIII century, and has no particular artistic value. The interest comes from within the church, a natural megalitic construction formed by three huge stones that are the remains of a mountain of the tertiary period. People in the area thought that the Basajauns (Lords of the Forest, according to Basque mithology) had brought these huge stones to this place, and considered it a magical place, where they performed pagan ceremonies. Later, when the Basque country was christianized, they built a church (not the present one) and dedicated it to San Miguel, and placed a statue beneath the arch formed by the three stones. It´s now the main altar. In summer, and thanks to the great sonority of the place, they held music festivals inside the church.

Enkarterriak/Encartaciones, the Western Valleys

On the west of Bizkaia there exists the land known as Encartaciones, “The Chartered Towns”, a succession of green and mountainous valleys that hide beautiful places with a long mediaeval tradition, and that have always been a “different” part of Bizkaia. They had their own Casa de Juntas de Avellaneda, an ancient way of ruling themselves, parallel to the one in Gernika, and still there. But, once again, you will see no tourists at all on this area, probably the least visited in Bizkaia, despite its enormous offer of interesting attractions for those that seek the “untouched” areas. Basque is hardly spoken on this area.

Among its several attractions, the town of Balmaseda, with its mediaeval bridge  and the amazing church of Saint Severino. They hold a magnificent live recreation of the Passion of Christ on Easter (Holy Week). Not far, the best and biggest Rolls Royce museum in the world, already mentioned on this blog. Also, the Ferrería del Pobal, a faithful recreation of how ironworks were made in the past centuries, using just the force of watermills and fire. This land used to be full of iron mines and has a long tradition of ironworks, as most of the Basque Country. In Karrantza you have the Pozalagua Caves, the biggest cave in the world in its part known as Torca del Carlista (500 mt long, 240mt wide and 135mt high), with the highest concentration on earth of unique excentric stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes, even the weirdest ones.

For fun, Karpin Abentura,, a place where wild animals are treated from injuries and live  in its spacious areas and also where kids will enjoy the “live” dinosaurs. Also, a great place for families is Sopuerta Abentura,, fun in the trees…

Regarding food and accommodation, I can recommend Hotel Amalurra (, a different experience, it offers a complete Spa service and great food in its nice restaurant. Perfect for relax and to enjoy nature, it has huge gardens and children are most welcome. Also, the very new Hotel Ibaia, luxuriously located on an ancient convent in Gordexola, beautiful town full of palaces and manor houses (and where my grandpa was born, by the way), Also, a very special place is, a balneary run by the Palotinos Fathers, Catholic priests, for those that look for relax and meditation in a romantic scenery. And almost any restaurant in the area of good, honest food at unbeatable prices.

Useful info on the area on and

Those Basque Names and Surnames…

As you all well know, in the Spanish Basque Country, Navarra and Basque French Country (complicated, uh!) there are three languages spoken, Spanish, French and Basque (and the latter, with 7 dialects!!). And that most signs are written in both languages (Basque and Spanish or Basque and French). Now I´ll deal with Basque people´s names, since they are also a particularity that make of us a rarity in the Iberian Peninsula…

Traditional names in the Basque Country were very common in the past: Jesús, María, José, Antonio, Francisco, Ángel, Ángeles, Piedad, …Yes, many people are called Jesus in Spain (without any religious connotation!!) And what´s more, they are called in many cases Jesús María (for a man) or María Jesús (for a woman). Or José María (man) or María José (woman). The custom was to put the name of the saint of the day to the newborn, or a biblical name. By the way, those called José are called Pepe (coming from P.P., short for Pater Putativo, a father that really isn´t), those called Jesus Maria are called Txusma or Jesusmari…Spanish names have a lot of “diminutive” alias.

In the 80´s there was a strong current in favour of  Basque names, based on Basque mythology or on nature. Hence, we got many “Aitor” (father of the Basques), “Amaia” (the mother), Garikoitz, Aritz (oak), Harri (stone), Eder (pretty), Garazi (special), Gorka (translation for George), Ibai (river), Odei (cloud), Ainara (swallow),  Oihane (scream), Irati (a virgin and also a forest),…These names have nothing to do with Spanish ones and are a clear sign of the origin (and sometimes, of the political views) of the parents. Also, many names are based on Virgin´s names, for instance, Arantza (from the Virgin of Arantzazu) or Begoña.

Basque surnames are also different. In many cases, they show the place of origin of the person. Etxebarria (or Echevarria) means “New House”, Madariaga (Place with Pear Trees), Ibarra (Valley), Urrunaga (Far Away Place), Arizmendi (Oak Mountain), etc. There are very long Basque surnames, with long meanings (Agirregomezkorta, Atxalandabaso, Aguinagalde, Uriberrementeria, Bedialauneta, Ocerinjauregui,…). An interesting place to visit and see the extraordinary long names in the tombs is the Markina cemetery, beautiful area and beautiful cemetery.

Last, in the Basque Country, as in Spain, we always use two surnames, the father´s first and then the mother´s. For example, a girl named Ainhoa, with a mother Ana García and a father David Zubizarreta, is named Ainhoa Zubizarreta García. Women don´t lose their maiden´s name when they marry. Now you can put the mother´s name first (as they do in Portugal, where they say that you always know who is the mother, but not so sure about the father…it makes sense!).

Yes, I know, what the heck has this to do with Basque tourism…but I thought you may find the above interesting!!



Wine, wine and more (of the very best) wine in the Basque Country…

101_6027I´ve just returned from a 7 day trip around the Basque Country, (Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastián, Hondarribia, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, French Basque Country,…), mixing culture, food and drink, in the company of two very nice people from Atlanta, GA (pictures here). The last three days were intensively dedicated to wine, vineyards and wineries. We stayed in Laguardia (Biasteri in Basque), the capital of the Basque Rioja region, on the south of the province of Araba. A visit to the outstanding Marqués de Riscal winery, with its absolutely unique hotel101_5992 designed by Frank Gehry, was a must. Then we visited the Museum of Wine Culture Dinastía Vivanco, in Briones (Rioja), in my opinion the best and most comprehensive wine museum in the world. Of course, we had some glasses of wine and some Idiazabal cheese to go with them…Next day, we went to CVNE Viña Real winery, the building is not much known but it´s really amazing. It was the surprise of the trip, a really neat building in the shape of a giant wooden barrel. The afternoon ended with a visit to Heredad de Ugarte, with its Nichos and Txokos, where you can keep your bottles of wine in a kind of  “cells”, waiting for you to drink them in one of the txokos with friends and food. Last day we went to El Fabulista winery, named after the famous Samaniego fable writer, as it´s excavated right under his place of birth in Laguardia. A very instructive visit to one of the 5oo wineries that are underneath the streets of Laguardia…

Oh yes, we also visited other interesting places, like the incredible XIV century timpane of St Maria de los Reyes church101_6059, in excellent condition, or Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country, whose beautiful mediaeval Old Town is shaped as an almond, or Labastida and its two churches, the one on top also a defensive fortress…

A great trip, even if we missed so many places that we didn´t have time to visit…It was nice to see how my guests found the Basque Country a place full of unexpected treasures…

The Salt Valley of Añana-Salinas de Añana, Araba

Salinas de Añana2Following with those places that you normally won´t visit when coming to the Basque Country, there´s a very special valley located in the province of Araba. It´s an inner “salt valley”, where locals have been obtaining pure salt from the ground  for the past 1200 years. Abandoned for decades, it´s being recovered by a new Foundation that pretends to preserve and to recover its former activity. It can be visited in small guided tours, the surrounding landscape is just amazing and the whole area is full of towns with a historical past and beautiful buildings. The salt obtained is excellent for cooking and considered one of the best in the world. Much unknown, though…Salinas de Añana

To visit their web page, click here,  Salt Valley. And if you type “salinas de añana” in YouTube (no “ñ” in your English keyboards, I´m afraid), there are some very decent videos showing this spectacular result of the action of nature and human activity.

Cozy and Comfy Rural Lodging

For those of you visiting the Basque Country and that don´t care much about accommodation in the town center, the sensible alternative is rural lodging. By “rural” I mean “out of town”, but it may also imply closeness to nature, farm life and beautiful and idyllic surroundings. If you decide on a stay in the Basque Country on a rural home, you´ll get very good accommodation with all your primary, secondary and even tertiary necessities covered, a very good price, wonderful homemade breakfasts and all the peace and tranquility you long for, but also nice talks with the house owners, local and ecological products at hand, horse rides, beautiful trekkings,…

Some houses are better prepared than others, some have swimming pool, others offer their kitchen for private use, you may have a jacuzzi or not…but all of them pass a quality certification every year to make sure that the accommodation level is keep high.

I´m very fond of this kind of tourism, perfect to get a better understanding of our particularities. The evental language barrier will be quickly overcome by a warm welcome and a sense of immediate belonging to the place. I make my reservations through two webs, and (this one, just for the province of Bizkaia), but you sure know how to google using the right words…