Basque country walking

You won’t find many tourists when you walk in northern Navarre. But don’t blame the scenery, blame a technicality. Though the region self-identifies as Basque, Spain doesn’t see it as part of the official Basque Region. Until very recently, it didn’t get a cut of the marketing budgets.
Georgina Howard has spent the last 20 years running small group vacations from her Pyrenean farmhouse in the Baztan Valley: “Ironically, one of the most quintessentially Basque areas of them all, and the genetic cradle of the Basque people does not lie within the official Basque Country at all, but in the green and misty valleys of northern Navarre. Yes, a state you probably know very little about,”
Sometimes, it’s good to be overlooked; it’s arguably how the charming valleys of the Baztan-Bidasoa region remained untouched by industrial development under General Franco’s rule (1939-1975), how their industrious residents managed to run smuggling lines under fascism, and resistance lines in World War II, and how an unbroken two millennia of Basque tradition and language has managed to survive. If you walk here, you might feel like doing so on tiptoe – just to keep the secret.
For Georgina, the appeal of this secret place was instantaneous:
“Twenty years ago I drove south with an activity list on an A4 piece of paper, a dream and an old Ford Escort and I stumbled upon this Hobbit-like land of xs, ks and zs by sheer accident. As I drove through the tunnels from the south of Navarre my heart stumbled forward onto its knees at the sheer beauty before me.”

The countryside in this area looks comfortingly familiar: there are sheep out at pasture, chestnut trees shading the paths, and drystone walls stacked against gentle hills. But then you’ll see something strange: preparations for an unfamiliar pagan festival, silver thistles nailed to farmhouse doors to ward off evil witches, bracken piled into tottering, russet stacks and words on signs that judder with unexpected consonants. The Bidasoa and Baztan valleys sit in the last ebbs of the Pyrenees, in northern Navarre. The surrounding hills are soft and rounded, with none of the harsh post-glacier severity that makes the high Pyrenees so spiky. It’s a landscape that perfectly suits relaxed walking.
Here, 80% of the land is for communal use. The villages are full of shepherding families who walk their flocks up to the pastures, and centuries of primogeniture mean homesteads remain separate, discreet entities on the landscape, connected by footpaths. A walking vacation is the best way to get to know the area, because walking: through slippery windfalls of acorns and along grassy shepherd tracks, is still the best way to get around. You’ll walk with shepherds and swineherds, not other tourists.
Coming here might feel like an interruption, but tourism is important even somewhere as wealthy and seemingly self-sufficient as the Basque Country. Eco-tourism gives small towns more income. Farmers can run side businesses selling produce to tourists and scale down rather than over-stretch themselves on the land. With more time and money, farmers can maintain the beauty of the landscape, which, in turn, is great for walkers.

What do these trips entail?

Opt for a center-based vacation and you can be car free all week, exploring every tree-lined avenue, until the strange becomes familiar. “From our Pyrenean farmhouse guests have the chance to enjoy a week or more of circular walks, meticulously documented from the village door with a different landscape and village to visit every day,” says Georgina.

There are over 15 different walks ranging from 4 km to 24 kms. Most walks pass by one of eight villages and usually take between four and five hours. It’s very easy to navigate the low-rolling hills of the area – very few top 1,300m or so – so self guided walking shouldn’t be the least bit daunting. Find your way to the famous Camino de Santiago, or the next village and its family-run restaurant.
Small group walking vacations feature guided walks, with no more than 10 people in the group. This is a storied land, and most walks usually have a tale to accompany them – a Basque Country Canterbury Tales – the best part? You can meet the protagonists on the way. “In fact, I am off to take my guests to meet the smugglers today,” Georgina told us, explaining that smugglers once used trails through the forests to bring supplies into Spain – necessities and frivolities like copper and coffee, cognac and condoms. “There are so many amusing anecdotes about how the smugglers evaded the police,” she says. One thing the smugglers didn’t have to bring in, was cider. Sagardotegi (cider houses) make welcome stops in the villages, and these days they also serve tapas. You might visit a watermill, used to grind the grain to make flat, rough-hewn yellow talos, which are similar to tortillas.
Stay in a converted farmhouse that’s thoroughly embedded in the local community. The shepherding neighbours might pop over for tapas, and your hosts will teach you a bit of Basque and Spanish. You’ll probably find words for different local foods the most memorable, since they come with accompanying props (home-cooked dinner from an in-house chef, wine tastings and musical performances). You’ll find Spanish a lot easier to grasp than Basque, but a few words of Basque will go a long way, and are an important way of acknowledging and respecting the region. “It’s a culture that is very much alive,” Georgina says, but she also points out the dangers of ‘language pollution’ that come with visitors. Walking is good – but walking whilst talking in the local language is even better.
Georgina Howard runs specialist walking vacations in the Basque Country with her company, Pyrenean Experience: “In October the colours are changing and everyone is out on the land, mushroom hunting, picking walnuts, making preserves and stacking the bracken. This is a happy time of year as the farmers slowly put the land to bed for the winter months.”

Our top Basque Country Vacation

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Basque country hiking vacation

Be part of the Basque story. Walk, wine & dine in paradise.

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2020: 29 May, 8 Jun, 18 Jun, 9 Jul, 11 Aug, 14 Sep, 28 Sep, 8 Oct
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Best time to go

Walking vacations run when the weather is at its hottest, driest best: from June to mid-October. Northern Spain can be a little rainier than the south (see all that green pasture?) but the summer months, and especially October, can be gloriously sunny. There are authentic pagan village festivals in August, September and October. In June it’s worth coming to see the atmospheric midsummer celebrations, when the smoke from bonfires casts a blue haze over the hills. By October, the orange bracken is cut and stacked in tall russet steeples, to dry and use for animal bedding. Unlike the higher reaches of the central Pyrenees, the trees here are deciduous oak, chestnut and beech and turn lovely colours, you’ll come across foragers and people busy bottling produce for winter.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fresco Tours] [Top box: Valdoria] [Walker with dog: Gadjo_Niglo] [Basque cuisine: Fresco Tours]
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