Spanish “Puente” (long weekend) is always a good excuse to take a car and travel. Our destination: the Basque Country, visiting the two most important towns, San Sebastian and Bilbao.
It’s a really fascinating country, for its complex and convulsive history, for its mysterious and difficult language, for its innovative gastronomy and its land where industries, nature and culture mix together in a perfect balance.
SAN SEBASTIAN (or DONOSTIA)
Our trip (by car from Madrid) stops firstly in San Sebastian. One of the most famous Spanish beach is here: called La Concha (the Shell) due to its oval shape that gives to the town a perfect cove that repairs it from the strong and rather violent ocean. It’s also called La Concha probably because San Sebastian is its pearl inside. Perfectly conserved, its buildings, the street and the shops especially in the modern city center give San Sebastian a bourgeois atmosphere.
Having a nice walk all along the Concha is one of the 3 things-you-can’t-miss-in-SanSebastian. Walk till the Peine del Viento (Comb of the Wind) and discover the reason why it’s called like this: you should go during that half of the day when there’s high tide, bear in mind that if the ocean is in tempest it will probably be closed since it’s dangerous because the waves can reach the terrace. From this point you can see some modern sculptures that metaphorically represent the combs of the wind, be brave and take a picture near the edge of the terrace and try not to be poured by the waves! Then look over the small holes in the ground and you’ll be completely brushed by the wind!
Finish your walk (if the day is fine) by taking the funicular and reach the top of the hill Igueldo (there is an attractions park on the top that works only in summer and on Sundays), from there you’ll have an amazing view of San Sebastian.
Go back to the old harbor and after such a long walk you’ll probably need to rest and get energy! Here is the second- thing-you-can’t-miss-in-San Sebastian: go for a pintxo! Pintxear o txacoliar is the national sport of the Basque Country: it consist of entering a bar, ordering a glass of wine or txacolí (a famous young white wine produced in this territory) and then after a look at the bar full of plates with different pintxos you choose one, if you are able to choose it, or. you try all you can eat! Pintxos is not the same as a Tapa. Firstly a Pintxo is not for free or isn’t included with the drink you buy, usually it costs between 1-3euros, and generally it is always a mix of different flavors, tastes, textures that reflect an hard job and a strong gastronomical research behind a pintxo. The pintxo is the symbol of Basque gastronomy and it’s probably the antecedent of the modern and innovative basque cusine of nowadays.
The old city center of San Sebastian is overwhelmed by bars, restaurants and pubs…it’s so difficult to decide and you’ll leave the town with that feeling that you have to come back to try all of them! In this post I would like to point out two of them (believe me we tried more!!):
– TXEPETXA – C/ Pescadería: it’s a bar that serves pintxos with anchovies in thousands of ways!!!
– LA CUCHARA DE SAN TELMO – C/31 Agosto- Carrer de San Telmo: on the right side of the Church of Santa Maria. It serves different pintxos every day and well elaborated! Wonderful experience for your mouth! I recommend you should go before 1pm for lunch and before 9pm for dinner, it’s usually very crowded.
After a “tapeo” we had lunch in a restaurant. Ok, you probably need to know that San Sebastian is the town with the highest concentration of 3-stars-Michelin in the world and it’s not a chance. If your wallet is full enough maybe you can choose here where to go:
– ARZAK http://www.arzak.info/index.html
– Mirador de Ulía.
– Miramón Arbelaitz.
If you are not willing to spend 400 euros to have a lunch for 2 persons, you can decide to go in one of the several restaurants in San Sebastian. Our advice for lunchtime is to go for the daily menu that the restaurant offers and you like most..the price is standard almost everywhere (around 25-30euros p/p). We ate at Munto Restaurante– C/Fermín Calbeton, 17- Food is not stars Michelin but is well presented and of good quality. We ate well and pretty a lot.
During the afternoon go for a stroll in the modern city for shopping, there are several nice boutiques and the quality and standard of the items they sell are usually high, in accordance with the bourgeoisie atmosphere you breathe.
The third-thing-you-can’t-miss-in-San Sebastian is definitely the market! You have two choices: the old Bertxa Market and the new one, San Martin. Just stroll around the stands, smell the freshness of fish, vegetables, flowers, and cheese. We stop to buy Idiazabal, a sheep cheese made in the Basque country and the black beans from Tolosa. However, even if you don’t need to buy anything visiting a market is always an experience that completely reflects the traditions and the habits of every culture and regions.
As for sleeping I can’t avoid recommending you probably the best hostel of San Sebastian run by the kindest person, Iñaki: Pension Regil http://www.pensionregil.com/es/index.php . Located in the modern area, it’s in a very quiet district but 5 min walking from the busy historical center. The rooms are small but very clean and warm. There’s free WIFI. Only the bathroom maybe is too small but for 2 nights it’s something you can get used to it easily. It’s probably one of the cheapest hostel of the town (around 45 euros per night). The only problem is the parking if you came by car, parking is pretty expensive in San Sebastian (around 30 euros for a day). If you go like us during a weekend the parking in the street is free.
FROM SAN SEBASTIAN TO BILBAO
After 2 nights in San Sebastian, we took the car to reach Bilbao. The distance is pretty small, less than an hour with the highway. We decided to skip the highway and drive all along the coast on the national street stopping whenever we found an interesting place to visit. We took the street N-634 direction Orio-Zarautz. Our first stop was in Getaria, famous for the Balenciaga museum (http://cristobalbalenciagamuseoa.com), its anchovies and its restaurants that are famous for grilling the fish outside in the street. I recommend you visit the gothic cathedral is really nice and has a very original shape. There are several souvenirs’ shops in the small historical center, but we bought anchovies in a shop just in front of the harbor (http://www.maisor.com/).
We continued on the national street (BI-3438) passing from Mutriku, Ondarroa and stopping for lunch in Lekeitio. The street goes all along the coast and the landscape is totally breathtaking. In Lekeito we stop for lunch in front of the harbor (C/Txaco Kaia Kaia) where we had a good daily menu for just 10 euros each.
The last stop before reaching Bilbao is undoubtedly Gaztelugatze and its hermitage in the middle of the Cantabrian Sea, it stands on a headland, connected to the mainland by a steep, narrow causeway of 231 steps leading up to the hermitage. This dominant crag resembles a castle in the sea. Its name can be given two different meanings: Gaztelu-aitz (castle crag) y Gaztelu-gache (rugged or difficult castle). If you are lucky and the weather is good, park your car near the restaurant Eneperi (a little bit expensive but the sights from there are absolutely overwhelming) and then walk down till the seaside (if it rained before the path can be really muddy so it would be better to wear trekking shoes) and then take the steep steps to reach the small church.
BILBAO (or BILBO)
We stayed in Bilbao at Artetxe Hotel http://www.hotelartetxe.com/ , a nice hotel on the top of Artxanda hill of Bilbao, here the car is unavoidable but the hotel is really well connected. Its rooms are clean and it is rather cheap. We decided to stay there since parking lots in Bilbao are really expensive and we didn’t want to spend money for that. The view of Bilbao here is stunning, the place is very quiet and well connected by the funicular that runs every 15 minutes and brings you downtown, near the Guggenheim museum, the one-way ticket only costs 84 cents.
We were just disappointed by the breakfast offered at the hotel: it cost 7 Euros, pretty expensive for a 2stars hotel and if the hotel is full you need to book it in advance. However we found a really good cafeteria with amazing croissants just before the funicular station at Cafeteria El Txacoli.
During your stay in Bilbao you need to plan a visit at least in one of the two most important museums of the city: the Guggenheim Museum (basically Modern and Contemporary Art http://www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/ ) and The Museum of Bellas Artes (the collection is wider in terms of period http://www.museobilbao.com/ ). We went to the latter since there was an incredible temporarily collection by Fernando Botero.
Divide your visit into two parts: the first dedicated to Art and Architecture by visiting one of these two museums, taking a stroll along the river looking at the amazing structure of Guggenheim museum, the bridge of the Spanish Architect Calatrava, the Iberdrola Skyscraper..take the Abondoibarra street and if it’s not pouring down it’s a very nice walk.
The second part consists of visiting the old historical center with its famous seven streets that start from the cathedral and reach the river. The old and historical shops over there will bring you back to the 70’s it seems that time stopped here. Old boutiques, gozotegias (pastry shops, don’t forget to buy the famous turron), food shops… all shops that seem that didn’t suffer the burst of shopping malls.
You can’t miss the visit of La Ribera Market http://www.mercadodelaribera.net/
If you get hungry you can go for pintxos to Plaza Mayor which is full of bars.
We also decided to visit the Alhondiga Cultural center for two reasons: it’s the former wine warehouse of Bilbao and therefore the architecture of the building is very original that worth a visit. Secondly, it’s a very busy cultural center that offers a wide variety of exhibitions. http://www.alhondigabilbao.com/ After the visit you definitely need to go to the pastry shops next to it: Pasteleria Don Manuel (C/ Alameda Urquijo nº 39) www.pasteleriadonmanuel.com.
For dinner very near the Alhondiga Center there’s a famous street for locals full of bars: Calle Licenciado Pozas, you’ll have a wide choice to start here a gastronomic night in Bilbao.
For dinner we went to a restaurant on Artxanda hill near our hotel: this area is basically a place for big restaurant that organize weddings and large events. We were a little bit skeptical but actually we had a nice dinner (30 Euros each) at Euskal Sena http://www.abaroa.net/restaurante.asp?ID=1, the menu that costs 30 Euros, grilled meat is its specialty.
Before leaving Bilbao and going back to Madrid, take a couple of hours to visit Getxo, a nice, old town on the sea and in front of the main industrial harbor of Bilbao. Visit the old harbor of the town with its nice white and green and red houses.
Take a look at the stunning villas on the coastline and then go to see the famous hanging bridge or Bizakaia bridge: a transporter bridge which immediately draws attention through its iron design and its own singular beauty. Designed by Alberto de Palacio (1893), it dates from the same time as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to which it bears a great resemblance. We took the bridge to cross the river and from there we took the highway to Burgos and then to Madrid.