With stair-stepped rooftops and pastures on different levels on the rolling foothills of the Pyrennies, the Basque countryside near Fuenterrabia, or Hondarribia as it’s commonly known now, are reminiscent of Italian villages near the Alps. But the Basque countryside has its own harshly beautiful character. The people here are fiercely individualistic, and do not take well to being lumped in with the Spanish.
The province Guipuzcoa, where you’ll find Fuenterrabia, is one of the three autonomous provinces of Basque and of the three is the one that retains the purest form of the language and culture.
Because the French side of the Pyrennies generally intercepts rainfalls, the Basque side is surprisingly arid, especially the highlands. The land here is remarkably beautiful, with rivers fed by mountain melt and natural springs from the mountains, and two calm river valleys near three unnavigable rapids. Fuenterrabia is located near the mouth of the river Bidasoa, and has a beautiful bay overshadowed by the mountains.
As in the rest of the Basque region, you may find unexpected language challenges. The common language here is Basque, and the form of Spanish spoke here is not the mainstream and difficult for beginners to understand.
History of Fuenterrabia
Unlike the rest of Spain, the Basque region has maintained much of its original character for over two thousand years. Through wave after wave of invasion — Celt, Roman, Moor, and Christian Spain — the Basques remained isolated and secretive, protecting their unique culture and language. The result has been a region scarcely touched by other cultures, a land of farmers and herders whose way of life has changed little over the millenia. Here you can get a sense of what Spain might have been like even before the Romans.
Remains excavated on nearby Mount Jaizkibel show that Fuenterrabia was already inhabited over five thousand years ago, but most of the older architecture in the town doesn’t date back more than a thousand years. You’ll find these in the old quarter along the Calle Mayor, the Calle Panpinot, and the Plaza de Armas. This part of the town is on a hill and owes much to its military past. The newer part of town is near the port and is focused more on fishing and similar trades.
In the old quarter, you’ll find such treasures as the Zuloaga extea historical archive, the Plaza de Armas, and Charles V’s castle, now a national monument. You should also visit the Parish Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the Apple Tree. Strolling the treets here, you’ll find beautiful old houses, reflecting the unchanging nature of Basque culture.
Fuenterrabia’s old quarter only grows quiet in the evening, while the port neighborhood springs to life. Calle San Pedro is the heart of this quarter, and strolling through here, you’ll find dozens of bright bars and restaurants. On the sea end of the Calle San Pedro, you’ll find the port and the beach, bordering on France.
Though Fuenterrabia has drawn some tourist trade, it is primarily a town for the locals, and it doesn’t feel touristy at all.
What To Eat
One of the regional specialties is apple cider, a deceptively innocent liquor that tastes sweet, but sneaks up on you. You’ll find cider houses throughout the region, and one of the best traditional dinners you can have is a thick char-broiled steak with apple cider, finishing off with cheese and walnuts washed down with yet more cider. Go easy the first time until you know what it’ll do to you.
Most dishes from this region of the Basque are denoted a la donostiarra, in honor of the capital city here. Try txangurro (stuffed crab shells), charcoal broiled besugo (sea bream), kokotxas (hake cooked in garlic and parsley sauce), angulitas al pil-pil (baby eels), and marmitako stew, a fisherman’s favorite with tuna and potato.
Like most regions poor in wealth but rich in imagination, you’ll find dozens of innovations with parts of animals others would throw out. If you’re courageous enough to experiment, you’ll find exotic treats that will delight your palate.
Where To Stay
Though there are plenty of hotels to stay at here, a farmhouse might provide you with a truly unique experience. You can find these throught the tourism bureau.
Map of Fuenterrabia in Spain