World Heritage in the Basque Country
When UNESCO declares a property a World Heritage Site, it recognises its outstanding value in cultural, natural or historical terms. This designation implies a global commitment to preserve and protect the property and to transmit its significance to future generations. However, it also implies a responsibility to manage it in a sustainable manner and to ensure that the property does not deteriorate.
There are four World Heritage Sites in the Basque Country: the Bizkaia Suspension Bridge and the cave paintings of Altxerri, Ekain and Santimamiñe. The region also has the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, recognised by UNESCO as an area of biodiversity and sustainability. However, it does not hold the title of World Heritage Site, but rather that of valuable Biosphere Reserve.
Vizcaya Suspension Bridge
The Vizcaya Bridge crosses the Nervión estuary, linking the Biscayan towns of Portugalete and Getxo. It is the oldest ferry bridge in the world and is still in daily operation. It is a testament to the Industrial Revolution and a masterpiece of engineering of the time. This led to its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006. In addition to its historical and architectural importance, the bridge remains a vital part of the transport system in the region and an iconic landmark of the Basque Country.
Visitors can enjoy the experience of crossing the estuary on the ferry and enjoy the breathtaking panoramic views of the area.
Work on this great colossus lasted from April 1890 to July 1893, the year in which it was inaugurated. As an example of its complex construction, it took 21,041 screws, 88,248 kg of steel cables, 10,629 rivets and 728,447 kg of laminated iron to complete it.
Cave of Santimamiñe
The Cave of Santimamiñe, located on Mount Ereñozar, in the Urdaibai basin, Bizkaia, has been a reference point for decades. Although it has been closed to the public since 2006 to protect its cave paintings, a guided tour is offered that includes a visit to the vestibule with archaeological excavations. This cave houses human remains dating back more than 14,000 years, making it the most important archaeological site in Bizkaia. The cave paintings, which date from the Magdalenian period, are not accessible, but can be viewed virtually in the interpretation centre of the San Mamés hermitage. In addition to the paintings, the cave is notable for its impressive geological formations, such as stalactites and stalagmites that form majestic columns.
Altxerri Cave, in Aia (Gipuzkoa), is an archaeological treasure that houses engravings and cave paintings from the Magdalenian period (13,000 BC – 12,000 BC). Although the engravings are well preserved, the paintings have suffered damage.
Although humidity has deteriorated some of the paintings, Altxerri remains an important archaeological site and an invaluable testimony to life in prehistoric times.
Ekain, in the Sastarrain valley of Zestoa (Gipuzkoa), is home to one of the most outstanding prehistoric sanctuaries in Europe. Discovered in 1969, this site contains 70 cave figures, 64 painted and 6 engraved. The representations, mostly of horses, stand out for their uniqueness and the meticulous attention to avoid superimpositions.
Alongside the horses are paintings of salmon, bison, bear, deer and goats in predominant colours of ochre and black. Although the original cave is not open to visitors, a replica called Ekainberri was built and has received 170,000 visitors since its opening. This large-scale replica allows visitors to discover and appreciate this prehistoric artistic wealth. In 2008, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site, and the Aranzadi Science Society has been crucial in its preservation since its discovery in 1947.
The four sites in the Basque Country that have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO are cultural treasures of great value. The conservation and responsible management of these sites ensure that future generations will be able to know and understand their historical significance. It is therefore everyone’s job to preserve these landmarks of the past, as they are an intrinsic part of our roots.