The ancient, spirited land of the Basques is a complex and beautiful place. Spanning two nations along 100 miles of the Atlantic coastline, Basque Country sweeps from Bilbao, Spain to Bayonne, France, thus encompassing an eclectic range of surfer beaches, modern architecture, pintxo cuisine, and feisty locals, the likes of which won’t be found elsewhere.

Known to Basques as Euskal Herria—“the land of Basque Speakers”—this region has been dealt a great dose of autonomy from the national government, including the ability to recognize Euskara, or Basque, as its official language. Don’t let this fool you, however. Only about one-third of the region’s population actually speaks Basque, and those who do will fall in love with you if you can keep up. Given the region’s location, you might expect Basque to sound akin to Spanish and French, but it is in fact wholly unrelated to any other language in the world and is considered by some to be the last remaining descendant of the ancient Stone Age languages.

On the Spanish side of Basque Country, the arty atmosphere of Bilbao to the west and the glistening beaches of San Sebastián to the east draw the most visitors. Bilbao, the largest city of the region, houses one-third of the Basque population and is most easily recognized for its titanium fish complex, Museo Guggenheim, a feat of contemporary architecture and modern art designed by Frank Gehry. The city itself may be rather unremarkable in appearance, but its character is nothing short of exciting, as best exemplified by its throngs of art groupies and the annual electrifying Aste Nagusia jubilee. On the other end of Basque Country is San Sebastián, an elegant and prosperous beach town curved around the moon-shaped Concha Bay and bookended by twin cliffs. Considered a culinary capital of Spain, San Sebastián has been showered with Michelin stars for its restaurants and pintxo (tapas) culture and has frequently been named one of the world’s best places to eat.