Basking in the Basque Country

Basque Country

They say a lot of things about the Basque Country in the northeast corner of Spain.  For one, it always rains – but I was very lucky with the weather.  The other is a stern reminder that you are not in Spain, but in the Basque Country – a different place entirely.  And that, my friends, I can definitely agree with.  How is it different?  Oh, let me count the ways.

basque country

(Feel free to insert your cheeky comment about the above sign’s grammar and/or punctuation here)

Lush and Green

San Sebastian Coast

I couldn’t help but notice the stark difference between the lush green Basque countryside and the dry, desert-like landscapes I saw on my daytrips from Madrid.  It looked more like Scotland than Spain.  Rolling hills and winding strips of road, compared to the flat roads that are straight as an arrow to the south.  In the mornings, everything was shrouded in a cloud of mist – and some places, caught in a spot without sunlight, managed to stay that way most of the day.

The above photo was taken on a coastal walk out of San Sebastian.  There’s lots of hiking and walking in the Basque country which is a totally different experience than you’d have outside the Basque country.  The trail was well maintained although the route markings a bit difficult to spot so best to understand your planned itinerary before you set out or otherwise end up totally off course.

The Basque country also, of course as you can see, has one of the nicest strips of coast in Spain.  The turquoise waters stretch out as far as you can see.  There’s just something about the sea, isn’t there, that is refreshing and invigorating – I just can’t get enough of it.  When I think of our new slogan, travel more, this is what I imagine.

If you can manage, be sure to hire a car while in the Basque country and do some driving around.  The small villages (both seaside and inland) have great food, historic architecture, and unique things to see and do.  And did I mention the great views?  Just stunning.

A hot tip for a countryside must-see: Arantzazu Church.  It’s so weird, bizarre, unusual, and just cool.Arantzazu

San Sebastian – An Urban Paradise

San Sebastian

Although the capital of the Basque Country autonomous region is Vitoria-Gastiez and its largest city is Bilbao, the crowning jewel is San Sebastian.  With a nothing-short-of-glorious inner city bay and charming old historic quarter, what’s not to like?  Well, the price tag, maybe – it’s the 3rd most expensive city in Spain to live in.  But that doesn’t stop folk from coming in droves to soak up Basque culture, San Sebastian style.

I fell in love with all the adorable shops here selling Basque souvenirs.  They were mostly household linens, cutlery and crockery, stickers, and stamps.  Nothing out of the ordinary, but there’s something about the hand-made quality and attention to detail in some of these very Basque products.

That’s something you see a lot in San Sebastian – the Basque influence.  Not just the dual-language signs, but something deeper.  It’s a feeling.  I don’t suppose it hurts that we ended up in the middle of a separatist rally at one point! (Don’t worry – it was most certainly not violent or disturbing in any way.)  It’s Spain, but different.

If you go to San Sebastian, be sure to:

  • Walk along the shore, “la concha,” and admire the simple yet iconic railing along the beach
  • climb both Mount Urgull and Mount Igueldo to admire the views – different, but both amazing
  • explore the streets of the old town, both by day and by night

Europe’s Other Gastronomic Capital


San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per square metre than anywhere else in the world, but you don’t have to break the budget to have a good meal.  In fact, some of the nicest treats we had were simple pizza shops and low-key bakeries, especially in/around the old town.   The heart of the system:  pintxos

Pintxos (pronounced “pinchos” and also sometimes spelled that way) are the Basque version of tapas.  But in the Basque country, they certainly take things to a new level.  From croquettes to mini-pizzas to foie gras, they do it better than anywhere else in the country.    And you’ll not want to forget drinks; the red wine here is to die for, but if it is Sunday brunch — or any other time, really — then be sure to order Txakoli, a basque white wine that’s slightly bubbly and is poured from a great height into an oversized glass.  An experience for sure.

For reference, when you go for your pintxos adventure, here’s  how it works:

  1. Enter an extraordinarily crowded pintxos bar.  Push and nudge your way to the bar.
  2. Order a round of pintxos and drinks.  You’ll be directly handed your cold pintxos; hot pintxos will be prepped so be sure to listen out for them shouting your order
  3. Eat up your tasty treats
  4. Toast your fellow pintxos-mates with a “ching-ching”
  5. Head to another pintxos bar.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

It can be a little exhausting and headache-inducing, but it’s a fun way to try out all the best Basque foods.

Special thanks to Alex Fayle, our lifestyle columnist, and all of his friends (especially Notae!) for all the hospitality and travel tips while I was in San Sebastian.

Photos by Andy Hayes except for pintxos photo by Rinzewind

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