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Guide to Pais Vasco

The beautiful Basque Country(Pais Vasco) is blessed with stunning landscapes, a coastline untainted by mass tourism and a rich cultural heritage which sets the place apart from the rest of Spain and Europe.

But sadly Spain's most unusual region is probably better known as the home of Basque separatists whose terrorist activities have blighted the reputation of this lush, green land since the early 1960s.

In fact it's the region's uniqueness which has given rise to the nationalist cause championed with violence by the terror group ETA – Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Euskadi Homeland and Freedom). During Franco's repressive regime the Basque language was banned and local activists were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture and exile.

Such brutal repression spawned a militant nationalist movement demanding an independent Euskadi state consisting of four provinces in Spain and three in France.

As it stands the Basque Country consists of the three Basque provinces of Guipuzcoa, Biscay and Alava which together form one of Spain 17 autonomous regions. The region has its own highly distinctive language, Euskera, which bears no relation to Castilian Spanish or indeed any other language in the world.

And it's not just the mysterious language which sets Pais Vasco apart from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, almost everything about the place – its cuisine, art, music, sport – is highly individual reflecting the special character of a people whose ancient roots span five millennia. Genuine Basques are regarded by anthropologists as the last surviving representatives of the aboriginal tribes which once populated Europe. Everything from their blood group to their physical features binds them as a unique group and sets them apart from their Spanish neighbours. Small wonder that those of true Basque blood don't regard themselves as Spanish at all.

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The opening of Frank Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 1997 put the Basque Country in the world spotlight, fuelling its development as a cultural tourism destination. Discerning tourists, unimpressed by the country's package holiday hot spots, began discovering the wealth of attractions to be found in this Northern corner of Spain.

The region's nature reserves, hills and mountains attract hikers, rock climbers, cyclists and adventure sport enthusiasts. Culture and history buffs delight in the Renaissance palaces, Gothic cathedrals and myriad of museums which abound in Bilbao and the capital city of Vitoria or Gestaiz in Basque.

Meanwhile gourmets, the smart set and those seeking to soothe away their aches and pains in mineral rich thermal waters make a beeline for the swish seaside resort of San Sebastian.

San Sebastian boasts one of the world's most beautiful bays and in the early part of the 20th century gained a reputation as the favourite summer retreat of the Spanish court and European aristocracy. Today it's still one of Spain's most elegant cities, drawing an upmarket clientele to its many fine restaurants which are renowned for serving the very best of Basque cuisine.

Cities of the Basque country

Bilbao

Although the region's largest city is specially recognized as an important industrial and economic centre, it conserves a beautiful historic quarter with the Gothic cathedral among its major attractions.

San Sebastian

The famous aristocratic beach resort of great reputation during last century still conserves its exclusive and cosmopolitan ambience. Its beautiful buildings and excellent beaches still today make it a privileged holiday destination.

Vitoria

The capital of Euskadi is worth a visit due to its well-preserved historical centre and its active cultural life with several festivals of international importance.