You must visit BOTH sides of the border (Spain and France) to get the best Basque country experience. Spanish and French Basque regions are similar but they are also different.
The Basque Country
Culturally, Basque country is made up of regions inhabited by people who speak Euskara. The Basques call it Euskal Herria (literally "land of the Basque language"). Basque Country is made up of seven provinces, three of which are in France and four are in Spain.
While the Euskara language and culture are similar, the Spain Basque region is more modern and tourist focused while French Basque is more laid back and pastoral.
For an average tourist, the differences are only in the signboards and pintxos. The Bilingual signboards on French side sport Euskara and French, while the ones on Spanish side sport Euskara and Spanish. Arguably the pintxos on the Spanish side are full of flavour and delightful.
Planning Basque Itinerary
The transit between the French Basque country and Spanish Basque country is easy. Tourists should not care about the differences and just plan an itinerary that includes both sides of Basque country.
A good Basque country itinerary at a minimum will include
- The famous beach resort of Biarritz and Bayonne from the French side.
- Bilbao, Rioja wine region, and San Sebastian from the Spanish side of Basque country.
Modern day Basque politics is quite complex. French Basque people are firm in their affiliation to France. Basque people in Spain are divided into two camps – those who want nothing less than full independence from Spain while others are happy with little more autonomy. Given the strong polarised views, there is a fair amount of differences between French Basque people and those on Spanish side of the border. However, much of these differences are not decipherable by average tourists.
However, if you dig deeper, you will see stark differences. The French Basque Country did not suffer the ruthless rule of the dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, who curbed Euskal language and forcefully made Basque region adopt his model of development. Today, the Spanish side comes across as more industrialized and less distinct while the French side is more pastoral with less of ‘modern buildings’.