Our Basque Experience (with kids)

I have a great passion for traveling. Nothing is as fun and exciting as discovering new places, food, people and, yes, stories. Every place has its own stories, some from the past, some from current events, and some from imagination. I love going places, seeing places, and reading or hearing about them.

A while ago, I visited Basque Country, in Northern Spain (and Southern France). With vistas that are beyond stunningly beautiful, friendly people, wonderful food, it was a fantastic experience, both for us and the kids. And the stories, ah, the stories, were plentiful!

Basque Country has a turbulent history, and I do not presume to know the place well, or to fully understand its struggles or know its people. The Basques have their own language and culture, despite being part of Spain (and France). And in case you forgot while being there, the Basque flag is visible in so many places it will quickly remind you that first and foremost, you are in their territory.

Basque Country has so many things to offer—too many for this blog post.  The Camino de Santiago, of course, is famous, and something that is still high on my list of things to do. But for now, my children are too young, so we had to find different entertainment. A beach is always a great place to start. And Basque Country has plenty.

Its northern Atlantic coastline is breathtaking, with sandy beaches, steep rocky cliffs, lush vegetation and scattered old villages and towns waiting to be discovered. One of my favorite trips was to the chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and old chapel on a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a walkway with ~240 steps. The site goes back many centuries, but the chapel has been demolished few times. According to tradition,  when you get to the chapel and ring the bell three times, you can make a wish and it will ward off evil spirits. Let’s face it, we can all use some of that while traveling.

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Fun fact on the walkway: if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the walkway to Dragonstone, where Daenerys Targaryen walked up to the mighty castle. Even though there is no castle, and no dragons either, the walkway is very real!

While exploring some of the villages in the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees, we came across Zugarramurdi, a pretty village tucked in between the hills, where time appears to slow down to a snail’s pace as you wander through the streets. It’s very peaceful now, but has a tragic history. The village was the site of the ruthless persecution of witches, during the time of the Inquisition. There is a small museum dedicated to the women who were taken away, some of them never returning. My kids thought the museum was a little scary, but they did like the witch cave, which is also near the village—presumably the site where the women came together to do whatever it is that witches do. There was a short but appealing hike to the cave itself (many steps, wet slippery rocks and a bridge over a stream), with the cave having plenty of opportunity for them to explore and let their imagination run wild.

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Zugarramurdi

More inland we visited the charming town of Oñati, which means “place with many hills.” The city sports many frog images as logos, and one of the stories in our guide book explaining this referred back to a count from long-ago, who apparently had a black and white checkered tile floor in the entrance of his estate. Annoyed at the villagers, who were muddying up his white tiles when visiting his castle, he ordered them to only stand on the black tiles. Thus, the villagers hopped from black tile to black tile, after which he mocked them and called them frogs. Even so, the town has adopted the frog with pride.

Oñati also has an ancient, extensive and beautiful cave system (the Arrikrutz caves), albeit a very chilly one. An English-speaking guide took us on a tour deep down in the earth, escaping the sweltering heat outside. The caves with all its stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the prehistoric finds, were telling their own fascinating story. Nothing makes a vacation as precious like a good reminder of your own short life-span.

For me, when I travel, it’s the stories that make a place come alive, give it that little extra, and paint my memories more vividly. When I think back of Basque Country, I think of all these places, and many more. But mostly, I think of sitting at the sea-side with my family, eating an unidentified fish-dish with a name I can’t pronounce, drinking a bottle of txacoli, and telling stories to my children. And I hope they will remember.

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