The Basque Country, a cinematic destination for mainstream and auteur filmmakers

Inspiring and versatile, the Basque Country offers ideal settings regardless of the climate (atmospheric or emotional) required by the film shoots that choose the region. From the popular comedy Ocho apellidos vascos (Emilio Martínez-Lázaro, 2014) -the highest-grossing Spanish film, with more than 56 million Euro in revenue-, to the more recent Maixabel (Icíar Bollaín, 2021) and 20,000 species of bees (Estíbaliz Urresola, 2023), outstanding auteur social and political films, and the series Intimacy, about the anonymous and merciless violation of private life, the Basque Country has hosted a variety of different types of productions. Start your cinematographic journey through the three provinces of the Basque Country.

The coast of Guipúzcoa in Ocho apellidos vascos

Official trailer for Ocho apellidos vascos

If you’re among the fans of Martínez-Lázaro’s comedy, travel along the coast of Guipúzcoa to discover the fictional Argoitia, the town where Amaia and Rafa (Clara Lago and Dani Rovira) and Koldo and Merche (Karra Elejalde and Carmen Machi) live out their respective stories. Released in 2014, with a screenplay by Borja Cobeaga and Diego San José, the film confronts the cultural differences between people from the Basque Country and Seville, north and south, to poke fun of themselves without fear of anything or anyone.

The coastal towns of Getaria and Zumaia, in particular, give shape to Argoitia. Starting in the romantic, cinematographic and elegant San Sebastian, the 30-km route will first take you through Zarautz, where the film crew stayed. The town’s police station (the headquarters of the Ertzaintza) served as the scenery for Rafa’s arrest. Zarautz, together with Getaria and Zumaia, form an ideal triangle along the coast of Gipuzkoa for an ideal holiday. In Getaria, the fishing dock is a must-see, where the sailor Karra Elejalde has a few encounters with his daughter, played by Clara Lago. You can get there through an 18-metre-long passageway known as Katrapona, a remnant of an ancient wall, which is located under the church of San Salvador. From the port itself you can see Mount San Antón, linked to the coast since the 16th century in a group that gives shape to what is popularly known as Ratón de Getaria (Getaria’s mouse). The route includes must-see sites including the historic quarter, the beaches of Malkorbe and Gaztetape as well as the museum dedicated to Balenciaga, who is one of the most illustrious sons of this coastal town, along with Juan Sebastián Elcano.

Port of Getaria / Agatha Selgas

In Zumaia, the San Telmo chapel, on the edge of the cliffs above Itzurun beach, is one of the iconic locations in Ocho apellidos vascos, the setting for the main characters’ wedding. The same goes for the fountain of San Juan, where Dani Rovira’s character gives his hilarious pep talk. The fountain is located in a square overlooking the Olazabal palace. In addition, the Gothic church of San Pedro, with a view over the mouth of the Urola, the convent of San José, the Zumaia tower-house, the Ubillos house, and the Foronda palace are some of the town’s other landmarks.

Between Guipúzcoa and Álava: Maixabel and 20,000 species of bees

Official trailer for Maixabel

In 2021, director Icíar Bollaín released one of the most emotional and difficult stories in the Basque Country’s recent political and social history, Maixabel, which tells the story of when the widow of the socialist politician Juan Mari Jáuregui met the terrorist who murdered him. To make the film, the crew – with Blanca Portillo, Luis Tosar and Urko Olazabal in the main roles – moved to several locations in the provinces of Álava and Guipúzcoa: the Nanclares de la Oca prison in the town that bears the same name in Álava, the Legutio reservoir (also in Álava), and Tolosa and the natural environment surrounding Legorreta, both in Guipúzcoa.

The film is shot in many indoor settings. Grey, cold and damp days accompany a story in which nature appears as a window to a kinder future. We should keep an eye on the historic town of Tolosa – the former capital of Guipúzcoa  on the road between Castile and France – whose streets in the historic quarter, as well as the Casino, reconverted into the Frontón restaurant for the filming, were settings for Maixabel, which even sought to recreate Lasarte (Guipúzcoa). Rebuilt at the beginning of the 16th century after a great fire, Tolosa preserves six streets with their perpendicular intersections of the village from that period and the interior of the mediaeval arch of the Gate of Castile, the only one that remains of the five that the town once had. Other places to visit include the General Archive of Historical Guipúzcoa, the Euskal Herria and Town Hall squares, the church of Santa María, the Tinglado market, overlooking the river Oria next to the bridge of Navarre, where every Saturday you can buy the best local produce, and the Verdura square, another charming place for food lovers. The latter square, with its glass roof, is built on the site of the old grain exchange and every Saturday vendors come to sell vegetables, plants, and flowers. On the other side of the Navarra bridge is the convent of Santa Clara.

Of course, we can’t forget the natural space we mentioned above, the Legutio or Urrúnaga reservoir, on the border of Álava and Vizcaya, between the municipalities of Legutio and Otxandio, with the Gorbea mountain in the background, which has areas for family recreation and also for water sports such as regattas or water skiing.

Official trailer for 20,000 species of bees

One of the most critically acclaimed films to have appeared at festivals in the last year was also shot between the provinces of Álava and Guipúzcoa in 2022: 20,000 species of bees. Its director, Estíbaliz Urresola, expertly reflects how the same rural environment can become a room with prison bars or a paradise of freedom. The stories of personal discovery and growth are portrayed by the young Sofía Otero as well as Patricia López Arnáiz, Ane Gabarain and Itziar Lazcano.

Filming of 20,000 species of bees / Vitoria-Gasteiz Film Commission

Most of 20,000 species of bees is filmed in Llodio (Álava), on the way up to the sanctuary of El Yermo (which dates back to the 15th century). In the credits, Urresola explicitly thanks the residents of the Gardeagotxi streets and the neighbourhoods of Galmaka, Isusi and Delika “for their patience”. Other locations in the film include Ereñozu, part of the municipality of Hernani and Bayonne (French Basque Country), which appears fleetingly at the beginning of the film. For your visit to Llodio, also note the Tower-House of Ugarte, Lamuza Park, the old gardens of the Marquis of Urquijo which today features, in addition to the cultural centre, a pond and a pelota court, the Anuntzibai Bridge, and the Katuxa Palace.

Vizcaya in “Intimacy”

Official trailer of Intimacy

Following the Cantabrian coast of Euskadi to the west, you’ll arrive at the setting of one of the titles that has best portrayed Bilbao, its architecture and urban planning. The series Intimacy (Netflix) was filmed in June 2021 in the centre of the capital of Vizcaya in some of its most emblematic spaces, which are some of the city’s best calling cards for tourism today. The violation of privacy and social harassment of two women in two very different work environments are the epicentres of a story magnificently portrayed by the actresses Itziar Ituño, Verónica Echegui, Patricia López Arnaiz, Emma Suárez and Ana Wagener, among others. 

Before reaching Bilbao, in the municipality of Ibarrangelu, you can stop at Laga beach, at the beginning of the coast of the Urdaibai biosphere reserve. The reserve was the filming location for   the love affair between one of the series’ main characters Malen (Itziar Ortuño) and her lover César (Eduardo Lloveras). In the series, the leaked video of the affair shook the life of the aspiring mayoress.

Urdaibai river / Paco Nadal

If you’re familiar with Bilbao, you will easily recognise the settings of Intimacy. If not, you may have just discovered your next destination. In addition to the city’s architecture, you can enjoy a wide range of leisure and culture, as well as cuisine. You can tour spaces such as the old grain exchange, now the Azkuna Zentroa cultural centre, with a unique 43-column hall – in which Malen (Itziar Nuño) suffers the public humiliation of seeing an intimate video projected – and its semi-transparent swimming pool on a raised platform- where we see her swimming – is one of the series most famous shots. In addition, the Guggenheim Museum -which ushered in a new era of transformation and openness to tourism in Bilbao-, the magnificent City Hall building, the University of Deusto and its spectacular auditorium and the City Hall Bridge, which connects the Abando neighbourhood with Etxebarría Park, which also hosted some outdoor shots in the end of the series, are part of the must-see sites of the Biscayan capital. Unless you have a long distance to cover, Bilbao is one of the best cities for walking, with plenty of excuses to stop. In the city’s old quarter, for example, you’ll be tempted by dozens of invitations to step into a pintxo bar or grab a table for lunch.

Filming of Intimacy in the Azkuna Zentroa/ David Herranz / Bilbao-Vizcaya Film Commission

Outside the city centre, the mountain scenery is also a great example of the natural environment of Vizcaya. Kepa (Jaime Zatarain), Anne’s (Verónica Echegui) partner, lives in a farmhouse near Mount Anboto. 

If you’re thinking of travelling around the Basque Country because a good film or a series has opened your eyes, you’ll discover a powerful land of contrasting natural landscapes, coastal and mountain villages and capitals with different but complementary personalities. Ongi etorri Euskadira!

By Carmela Fernández and Paco Nadal

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