Planning your trip to the País Vasco
The capitals of the three Basque Provinces of Spain are San Sebastián-Donostia in Gipuzkoa, Bilbao-Bilbo in Bizkaia and Vitoria-Gasteiz in Álava. Euskadi is the politically correct term for the Basque Country, but some prefer the more historically inclusive Euskal Herria, which means the Basque Lands or home of the Basque people, which includes Navarra and the three French Basque provinces of Basse-Navarre (Nafarroa Beherea), Labourd (Lapurdi) and Soule (Zuberoa). The police force in the País Vasco is called Ertzaintza and they wear blue dress shirts and snappy red berets, but there is no equivalent Basque police force in the French Basque country. The Navarran police are called Nafarroako Foruzaingoa (Basque), Policía Foral de Navarra (Spanish), and are similar to the National Police, but with more responsibilities.
About The Language
The Basque language of Euskara, or Euskera, is an incomprehensible (to non-Basques), non-Indo European language of unknown origin spoken for more than 4,000 years and now by roughly 1,000,000 people on both sides of the Pyrénées, the Pays Basque (French Basque) and País Vasco (Spanish Basque.) On the Spanish side, in the last twenty years, the percentage of Basques who speak Euskera has increased, now more then 30% of the population is considered Basque speaking. The Basque language existed in this part of the world before the Greek, Latin, Slavic, Germanic, or Celtic languages appeared. When the Romans arrived, they told of encountering a people who had lived here “since the dawn of time”. The Basque language is extremely difficult to learn as an adult, and it has a spelling with mostly consonants that looks like a typing exercise gone wild, has twenty cases, twelve declinations, but pronunciation is phonetic. It has many different regional dialects as well. An euskaldun is a speaker of the Basque language.
As a traveler, all the Euskara you really need to know are the Basque names for the towns and cities you plan to visit, as you’ll see signs written in Euskara, replacing the Castilian names: Donostia rather than San Sebastián, Irunea or Iruña rather than Pamplona, Gasteiz rather than Vitoria, Biasteri instead of Laguardia and Hondarribia in place of Fuenterrabía. Bilbo for Bilbao is the easy one.
How to Arrive
The Spanish Basque Country’s main airport, designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava, is located 12 kms outside of Bilbao, where it is served by flights to/from Alicante, Amsterdam-Schiphol, Barcelona, Berlin, Bristol, Brussels, Dublin, Dusseldorf, Edinburg, Istanbul, Frankfurt, Dublin, Hondarribia, Geneva, Gran Canaria, Ibiza, Jerez, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Malta, Manchester, Menorca, Milan, Munich, Palma de Mallorca, Paris, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Sevilla, Stuttgart, Tenerife, Valencia, Viena, Vigo and Zurich, a total of 44 destinations.
There is also a smaller airport in nearby Hondarribia, the San Sebastián airport, 20 minutes drive from San Sebastián-Donostia, with flights to and from Barcelona and Madrid.
The Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne airport in the Pays Basque (France) is 25 minutes away.
The Spanish Basque Country has train service from Madrid to Bilbao, Barcelona and Madrid to San Sebastián-Donostia, and from Paris to San Sebastián-Donostia. There is also a narrow-gauge railway, the Metro Donostialdea, locally known as the “Topo”, connecting San Sebastián with Bilbao and the villages along the coast, as well as the train station in Hendaye (France).
Traveling by Bus
There is long distance bus service to and from Madrid and Barcelona, plus excellent regional bus service provided by PESA and ALSA makes it fairly easy to reach most destinations along the Basque coast, the principle towns and villages that lie inland in the País Vasco and Pamplona (Navarra). There is regular bus service between San Sebastián and the airport in Hondarribia on the Lurralde Bus, which leaves from Gipuzkoa Plaza in San Sebastián-Donostia.
Getting around by Car
Day trips from San Sebastiá-Donostia, Hondarribia or Pamplona are easy for exploring the provinces of Laboure and Basse-Navarre, but if you are interested in experiencing the province of Soule’s capital of Oloron-Sainte-Marie and the Jurançon, Madiran, Béarn, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, Tursan and Saint Mont wine regions around Pau (Béarn), and to the north, and possibility the fortified villages Larressingle and Bassouès (Gascony), then you should plan on spending a few days, using the Pays Basque as a base.
Police in the País Vasco and Navarra
The police force in the País Vasco is called Ertzaintza, created in 1980 after the restoration of democracy and the creation of the autonomous state. They normally wear dark blue shirts and pants, or red coats and snappy red berets when dressed more formally, and are the main police force in the País Vasco. There is no equivalent Basque police force in the French Basque country.
The Navarran regional police, created in 1929 as traffic police, are called the Policía Foral de Navarra in Spanish, or Nafarroako Foruzaingoa in Basque, and are similar to Spain’s National Police but with more responsibilities. Their standard uniform is red and gray, and the traditional red Basque beret.