Giving it Rockall

Sarah Lyon, 09 February, 2017
Sarah Lyon discovers a geologist’s paradise in the Basque country in northern Spain, with more to offer than rocks alone...

Over 50 million years ago the crashing of the waves against the cliffs created some of the world’s most jaw-dropping geology along the Basque coastline of northern Spain.

This strange, almost other-worldly sight, makes up one of the longest continuous rock strata on the planet.

The rock formations, which are somehow reminiscent of the corrugations in cardboard or a roof, can be found along the eight-kilometre-long stretch between the towns of Deba and Zumaia in the province of Guipúzcoa. It’s an area where time – in stark contrast to the Basque’s cosmopolitan cities of San Sebastián and Bilbao – seems to have stood still.

This area, where mountains reach for the sky and the rocky coves are battered by the worst waves the Atlantic can throw at them, is now officially protected as part of the Basque Coast Geopark. This comes under the umbrella of the European and Global Geoparks Network and, since last year, has been designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark. Until relatively recently, the rocks, known as flysch, were hardly known outside the province. While not quite the secret they once were, any substantial increase in visitor numbers (thanks to the coveted UNESCO listing) is yet to really kick in, so now is a perfect time to explore the area.

Low tide is, of course, the best time to see the rocks. Although there is something rather eerie in the way they can be spotted jutting out of low water. The marine life is rich and varied. There are sea cucumbers which, incidentally, can be used in fresh or dried form in various cuisines. Also starfish and sea slugs, along with many varieties of sea anemone. Many walkers decide to temporarily leave terra firma – there is an excellent network of coastal paths – and take a boat trip to get up close.

The pretty fishing port of Zumaia, heading out across to the chapel of San Telmo on the western side of town, gives great views of the flysch above Itzurun beach. The coast around Sakoneta is also spectacular.

The rocks, eroded by the waves and movements of the land, contain vital elements of the earth’s history. Geologists have long coveted the fossil remains for the vital clues they give to subjects such as the disappearance of the dinosaurs and global warming. The name flysch was introduced by the Swiss geologist Bernhard Studer in 1827. The name comes from the German word fliessen, which means to flow.

There is, of course, much more to the Basque Country than rock formations alone.

It is often said the Basques are a people with a homeland, but without a nation. In fact, it is made up of seven provinces, three of which are in southwestern France. The Spanish part is an autonomous region with a Basque government, while the French part answers to the central government in Paris.

The Basque Country includes the rocky coastline of the Bay of Biscay across to the forests and mountains of the Pyrenees. It is one of Europe’s oldest and most culturally rich regions, famed for both its food and wine. While here, pull up a chair for some pintxos, the local version of tapas. It’s served in bars and cafes in most of the towns and whitewashed villages along the coast. Txakoli, a white wine, goes very well with it and (many other) dishes including poulet à la basquaise, chicken in a spicy sauce of tomatoes and peppers. Other specialities include creamy Brebis mountain cheese, made from ewe's milk, served in the traditional manner with a black cherry conserve. While not strictly in the Basque country, the famous vineyards of La Rioja border the region.

The unique Basque language has been spoken since well before the Romans arrived. Today it has around 800,000 speakers and, unlike all other Western European languages, is not part of the Indo-European family and is unrelated to any other known language. Its speakers are passionate about its preservation, as they are about the region’s music and traditions. But having said this, the Basques aren’t a backward-looking population. Bilbao is a good example. Once full of decaying industry, it is now a mecca for design and architecture. Some of the finest architects in the world have been invited to leave their mark. The Guggenheim Museum was designed by Frank Gehry, described as one of the most important architects of our age, and is now the number one tourist destination in the entire Basque region.

San Sebastián is also redefining the region’s image with its culinary expertise. The city has two restaurants ranked in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Hondarribia is also a hotspot for foodies.

Don’t be fooled into thinking, by the flysch, that the Basque coastline is all rocks and no romance – it includes beautiful beaches and is a region of natural bounty, famed for its lush grasslands, deciduous woodland and rich rural traditions. It's also home to sharp ciders, piquant cheeses and some of the freshest seafood that you will ever taste. Rock on and enjoy…


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