From wine-tasting and mouth-watering local cuisine to some of the greatest scenic views in the world, here’s what Travel Extra writer Shauna McCrudden experienced on her trip to Basque Country
I told you all about my trip last week here, where I had my mini-holiday on-board Brittany Ferries’ Salamanca ship. I travelled from Rosslare, and I was finally ready to say hello to Euskadi (the Basque name for the region) as I stepped foot in Bilbao which was my first stop.
Spain continues to be the top destination for Irish people. In a recent survey conducted by iReach Insights, nearly 40% of adults in Ireland chose Spain as their holiday destination this year. The thought always invokes images of sun, sea, and sand. But one area that might be overlooked when booking, is the Basque region in northern Spain.
Basque Country, also known as Euskal Herria in the Basque language, is a region located in the western Pyrenees that spans northern Spain and southwestern France. Basque Country is known for its unique Basque culture, language, traditions, music, and cuisine, as well as its breathtaking landscapes that include rugged mountains, lush forests, and picturesque beaches. Even just looking out of the bus window, I could see the lush green landscapes passing us by.
Arriving in Bilbao, I met our group’s tour guide for the trip, Ana Rodriguez. She was incredibly knowledgeable about all things Basque and put up with lots of questions with so much patience!
From Bilbao, we transferred to San Sebastián, where we stayed at the very cool, movie-themed Zinema7 Hotel. Every room is themed after a particular star, actor or film director who has passed through the San Sebastián Film Festival. My room was Dennis Hopper-themed, and I even got my picture taken with Alfred Hitchcock in reception (he’s very kind to fans!).
A walk across the City Centre brought us to the promenade along La Concha beach and I was luckily there in time to witness a sunset. The sunset at La Concha Beach is particularly special because of the beach’s horseshoe shape and the surrounding hills, creating a picturesque backdrop for stunning pictures!
But my first day was about to get better when we transferred to the Altzueta traditional cider house. I had never even heard of a cider house before, but believe me, I will never forget the experience! Open during the txotx season (January to April), it is a must-visit for those looking to experience the region’s unique gastronomy and cider culture. The cider house is a traditional farmhouse that produces and serves its own cider.
When I entered, I was welcomed with the aroma of freshly made cider and the sight of the giant barrels that hold it! Guests are seated at long wooden tables and served a traditional meal, which consists of various Basque dishes, such as salt cod omelette, grilled steak, and walnuts and cheese with apple jam.
The food was intensely delicious, but the main highlight of visiting is the unique way in which cider is served. Guests are invited to participate in a cider-pouring ‘ceremony’ called ‘txotx’ (pronounced as CHOCH). Once someone says txotx! at a table, everyone stands to line up with their glasses and is served cider straight from the barrel. The cider is poured from a height, so you have to catch it in your glass, as this allows it to mix with the air, enhancing the flavour. I finally got the hang of it after my third try!
The relaxed and jovial atmosphere in a cider house is next to none, as everyone is chilled out, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company over cider. It’s a unique cultural and culinary experience and I couldn’t recommend it more!
Wine and dine
The next day (despite some sore heads!) we got a panoramic tour of San Sebastián. We checked out Miramar Palace, overlooking the bay of La Concha, built for Queen María Cristina of Austria in the 19th century. We also visited Mount Igueldo which offers panoramic views of San Sebastián and is home to an amusement park. San Sebastián has some very upmarket stores too if you want some shopping time instead.
But it was time to leave the city and delve into Basque wine culture in Rioja Alavesa, a sub-region within the larger Rioja wine region, around an hour and a half away from San Sebastián. I enjoyed a tour of the vineyards at Bodegas Amador García Family Winery in the village of Baños de Ebro. This family-owned and operated winery produces traditional and modern wines and even Basque Country’s top-selling whites.
Visitors can take guided tours of the vineyards, winery, and cellar, and learn about the winemaking process from grape to bottle. The winery offers tastings of their red wines, which are aged in oak barrels for varying lengths of time to create complex flavours and aromas. And of course, you can take home as many bottles as you like with bottles for as little as €6 or a dozen bottles for under €50!
Although if you brought your car on the ferry and are driving, be sure to save the wine until later after you have discovered the rest of the wine region along the wine trail! Walking along Laguardia Medieval Village, right in the heart of the region, is an experience you need to discover. The little village is surrounded by vineyards and a medieval wall.
As I walked through, I found narrow streets and alleys lined with traditional Basque architecture, including stone houses with wooden balconies and red-tiled roofs. The town is home to several historic churches for architecture lovers, including the Church of Santa María de los Reyes. Base yourself at Silken Villa de Laguardia Hotel and you will be within walking distance of this beautiful town.
This includes being able to walk less than five minutes to the Villa Lucía Wine Museum, where we had our delicious evening meal expertly paired with the right wines. One of the highlights of the Villa Lucía Wine Museum is their multi-sensory experience that takes visitors on a journey through the history and culture of winemaking. The experience includes a 4D film, wine aromas, and special effects, allowing visitors to fully immerse themselves in the world of wine. If you are a wine connoisseur, or just someone who enjoys a tipple, this is a great stop.
Walking through Bilbao
The next day, we transferred back to Bilbao to stay at the Vincci Consulado Hotel. This modern hotel has beautiful rooms and is in a perfect location to explore the city. Not only is it close enough to the city centre so you can shop to your heart’s content, but it also overlooks the incredible Guggenheim Museum.
You don’t even need to enter the museum to be awed by art as the iconic titanium-clad building, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, is considered a masterpiece of modern architecture. The museum has become a symbol of the city of Bilbao.
It’s also known for its ‘Puppy’ sculpture right outside, which has become one of the museum’s most popular attractions. Created by American artist Jeff Koons, ‘Puppy’ is a 43-foot-tall sculpture of a West Highland Terrier covered in 38,000 colourful flowers. There were hundreds of people taking pictures here or at the iconic ‘Maman’ spider sculpture by the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois measuring over 30-feet tall!
All of this is before you even set foot inside where the collection has featured works by some of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including Pablo Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor and so many more.
‘The Matter of Time’ installation by American sculptor Richard Serra is something that needs to be experienced in person. The installation consists of a series of eight monumental steel sculptures that create a pathway through the museum’s largest gallery, covering an area of approximately 4,300 square metres. I walked between the massive sheets of steel and it shifted my senses of scale and perspective as I walked round and round, ending up in a cavernous circle. I think I experienced art in a way I haven’t before.
But it’s the food in Bilbao which really blew me away. Tucking into local cuisine including lamb chops, chorizo, and pintxos (Basque-style tapas). In Bilbao, there are numerous pintxo bars scattered throughout the city, each with their own specialties and unique flavours. One of the best places to try pintxos in Bilbao is in the Old Town. Here, you can wander through narrow streets lined with pintxo bars and sample a variety of traditional and modern pintxos. Try the ‘gilda’, which is made with pickled peppers, olives, and anchovies, the ‘tortilla de bacalao’, a type of cod omelette, and the ‘txangurro’, a stuffed crab dish.
Ending the day with dinner outside in a covered area belonging to Zurekin Restaurant was the perfect way to finish not only my time in Bilbao, but the whole trip. If you’re a Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine lover, the tasty pintxos, cod and tapas here won’t disappoint.
We cheered to the beautiful city, the beautiful food and wine, and toasted to the end of a beautiful trip.
For more information on the region and where to go, visit tourism.euskadi.eus
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