Northern Spain is a misty land of green hills, low russet rooflines, and colorful fishing villages; it's also home to the formerly industrial city of Bilbao, reborn as a center of art and architecture. The semiautonomous Basque Country—with its steady drizzle (onomatopoetically called the siri-miri), verdant landscape, and rugged coastline—is a distinct national and cultural entity.
is considered Basque in the Pyrenees and Navarran in its southern reaches, along the Ebro River. La Rioja, tucked between the Sierra de la Demanda (a mountain range that separates La Rioja from the central Castilian steppe) and the Ebro River, is Spain's premier wine country.
Called the País Vasco in Castilian Spanish and Euskadi in the linguistically mysterious, non-Indo-European Basque language Euskera, the Basque region is more a country within a country, or a nation within a state (the semantics are much debated). The Basques are known to love competition—it has been said that they will bet on anything that has numbers on it and moves (horses, dogs, runners). Such traditional rural sports as chopping mammoth tree trunks and lifting boulders reflect the Basques' attachment to the land as well as an enthusiasm for feats of endurance. Even poetry and gastronomy become contests in Euskadi, as bertsolaris (amateur poets) improvise duels of sharp-witted verse, and gastronomic societies compete in cooking contests to see who can make the best sopa de ajo (garlic soup) or marmitako.
The much-reported-on Basque separatist movement is made up of a small but radical sector of the political spectrum. The terrorist organization known as ETA, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty), has killed nearly 900 people in almost four decades of violence. Conflict has waxed and waned over the years, though it has never affected travelers. When ETA declared a permanent cease-fire in April 2006, hope flared for an end to Basque terrorism until a late-December bomb at Madrid's Barajas airport brought progress to a halt. In 2009 Basque lehendakari (president) Juan José Ibarretxe and the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) lost, albeit narrowly, the Basque presidency in favor of Patxi López of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party) in coalition with the PP (the right-wing Partido Popular), reflecting voter weariness with the nationalist cause. In October 2011, ETA declared a permanent renunciation of violence, received by the Spanish government with some skepticism, and two years later the Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights ordered the release of many long-term ETA prisoners, much to the dissatisfaction of the Spanish government and victim’s rights associations. But overall there is hope that Spain's greatest post-Franco tragedy is nearing an end.