Aragon & The Basque Country: A Beginner’s Guide
Spain’s far north gives a pair of very good reasons to come calling – it plays home to not one but two of the World’s Best Driving Roads. The road from Escalona to Río Bellos (ranked 15th) sits just a few hours from the drive between Zumaia and Zarauz (ranked 13th), and factoring them into a single trip is relatively straightforward.
For all their proximity, however, they form part of two proud but very different areas. One sits in mountainous Aragon, the other in the coast-fringed Basque Country. Both lands offer plenty to entice road-tripping travellers. With this in mind, here’s what you need to know about two of the Iberian Peninsula’s most individual regions.
Ben Lerwill is a freelance travel writer based in Oxfordshire. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveller, The Times, The Independent, Wanderlust, BBC Countryfile and Time Out.
Banner Image Credit: iStock.com/nonimatge
Aragon: Despite covering more than 18,000 square miles of northern Spain, Aragon is still classified as an autonomous community. It was once a medieval kingdom in its own right, and has close historical links with Catalonia to the east. Life tends to move slowly here, particularly in the ravishingly pretty pueblos (villages) that dot the countryside.
Basque Country: Known in the local tongue as Euskal Herria, the Basque Country is renowned for its fierce sense of independence and its desire for self-rule. Many residents don’t consider the region to be a part of Spain, a view in place ever since autonomy was grudgingly ceded to Madrid in the 1500s.
Image Credit: iStock.com/Elzbieta Sekowska
Aragon: Sitting hard against the French border, northern Aragon is blanketed by the raw mountain peaks of the Pyrenees. Further south, various other sierra ranges keep the topography varied, while the Rio Ebro – Spain’s second longest river – runs across the entire region on its journey towards the Med.
Basque Country: The region’s long and wild Atlantic coastline is the main focal point – there are some gorgeous bays and beaches, particularly around San Sebastian – while elsewhere green mountains and valleys add to the overall allure. In the far northeast, it even has its own snow-capped section of the Pyrenees.
Image Credit: iStock.com/Mimadeo
Aragon: Occupying the geographical centre of the region is its capital, Zaragoza, which accounts for more than 50% of Aragon’s population. A graceful riverside city that remains mercifully unsullied by mass tourism, it’s also notable for its buoyant nightlife, and tapas bars. The classic regional architecture ranges from Roman ruins to a Moorish palace.
Basque Country: The region has two urban hearts: Bilbao and San Sebastian. The former is a vibrant valley city best known for its labyrinthine Old Town and its outstanding Guggenheim Museum. But the latter, a beautifully located old coastal city that draws big crowds in July and August, is, if anything, even more lovable.
Image Credit: iStock.com/danileon2
Aragon: The region’s cooking is known for being no-nonsense – which in Aragon’s case is a compliment. You’ll find lamb, pork and local cheeses featuring heavily, as well as some excellent olive oils. River trout, black truffles and wild mushrooms are further specialities. For something a bit more out-there, try the surprisingly good perdices al chocolate (partridge in a chocolate-thickened sauce).
Basque Country: The words “San Sebastian” are generally enough to send gastronomes weak at the knees. Home to ten Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s the undisputed epicentre of Basque cuisine, which benefits from the fruits of the sea in one direction, and the meats and vegetables of the Ebro valley in the other. Leave room too for pintxos, snacks similar to tapas.
Image Credit: iStock.com/redgreenblueag
Art & Culture
Aragon: Two of the region’s most obvious cultural attractions are the mesmerising old monasteries of San Pedro de Siresa and San Juan de la Peña, both of which reach back more than 1000 years. Zaragoza, meanwhile, was once the home city of revered Aragon artist Francisco Goya.
Basque Country: Two different strands of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route run through the region, but to specifically explore Basque heritage you’ll find everything from palaces and tower-houses to theatres and watermills. Bilbao itself has a UNESCO-listed 19th century bridge, not to mention the Guggenheim Museum.
Image Credit: iStock.com/jc_cantero
Aragon: The best known of the region’s annual shindigs is the pulsating Fiestas del Pilar, which takes place each October in Zaragoza. Nominally held in honour of the Virgin Mary (who is said to have once appeared in the city atop a pilar, or pillar), it features everything from fireworks and funfairs to concerts and folk dancing.
Basque Country: For sheer scale, nothing beats the Aste Nagusia (Big Week) festivities in Bilbao each August. The nine-day celebration of Basque culture draws heavy crowds with traditional music and a parade of gigantes (giants). The region is also home to Pamplona, famed for the “Running of the Bulls”.
Image Credit: iStock.com/mmeee
And of course, those driving routes…
Aragon: The drive from Escalona to Río Bellos is just shy of 17 miles in distance, yet manages to pack in a remarkable 73 bends. Expect craggy scenery, roaring rivers and the kind of toppling views emblematic of the eastern Pyrenees.
Basque Country: Shorter in length but no less noteworthy, the 7.5 miles of ocean-hugging road that runs from Zumaia to Zarautz give astounding views over the cliffs and sands of the Basque coastline. The beach at Zarautz is the largest in the Basque Country.
Image Credit: iStock.com/clodio