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 semi-autonomous Basque Country—with its steady drizzle (onomatopoetically called the siri-miri), verdant landscape, and rugged coastline—is a distinct national and cultural entity.
Navarra is considered Basque in the Pyrenees and Navarran in its southern reaches, along the Río Ebro. La Rioja, tucked between the Sierra de la Demanda (a mountain range that separates La Rioja from the central Castilian steppe) and the Ebro, 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). You may have heard of the terrorist organization ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning "Basque Homeland and Liberty") and their political killings in the name of Basque independence. Conflicts have died down in recent years, and they have not affected or targeted travelers. Basque culture is truly fascinating and unlike any other region in Spain. 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 their 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.