Northern delights in the Basque region

TravelBy John Donlon
An aeriel view of San Sebastian
An aeriel view of San Sebastian

THEY SAY that the land and the sea has been generous to the Basques.

With its sandy beaches, world-renowned cuisine and its picturesque vineyards, this area in Northern Spain is indeed a land of plenty.

Under Spain’s General Franco the Basque language was banned, their distinctive culture suppressed, and intellectuals imprisoned and tortured.

All that is in the past now and we were lucky to have David Elexgaray from Basque Tourism (www.basquetourism.net) as our guide during a five-day trip that took us to Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gastiez.

We also sampled unforgettable gastronomical experiences, including a wild cider-house dinner, took part in a workshop making the famous pintxos (the local tapas) and learned lots about wine-making − and wine-drinking!

Having landed on an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin our trip started in Bilbao, where the Guggenheim Museum has that ‘wow’ factor. Its breathtaking architecture, the work of world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, won’t fail to leave you impressed.

Opened in 1997, along the Nervion river, it cost $100million and was financed by the city. However, it’s paying its way back in spades, attracting over one million visitors annually and placing Bilbao firmly on the international stage.

Its art gallery contains one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of contemporary art. You will be fascinated by the sheer size of Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time and Jenny Holzer’s Installation for Bilbao.

There is an obligatory photo to be taken alongside the museum’s mascot Puppy, Jeff Koon’s enormous floral dog. 

Bilbao has a vibrant, modern feel to it. ‘Fosteritos’ is the name given to the  attractive structures at the entrances to the underground Metro. The
Avenidada Abandoibarra is the city’s vibrant thoroughfare, where tourists and locals mingle and it gives a clear idea of the regeneration of the city.

  Bilbao is also renowned for shopping. Large tracts of the city are pedestrianised and Abando, Indautxu and Gran Via make up the main axis of the shopping area.

Shopping is thirsty work, so you may have to indulge in a little bar-hopping (txikiteo) or dine in one of the area’s many restaurants.

While in Bilbao we were lucky enough to dine in Etxanobe, a Michelin Star restaurant (www.etxanobe.com), where chef Fernando Canales provided us with a unique demo of his remarkable food. This was a gastronomic delight that began with an olive mousse followed by what appeared to be a tube of red lipstick, but tasted like hot sardines.

 The many courses also included the traditional Basque delicacy kokotxas, the part under the chin of the hake stirred for hours in a pepper sauce.

If Bilbao represents a faster-paced  modernity, San Sebastian offers a more laid-back feel.

With its three magnificent beaches and a summer climate that rarely surpasses 30 degrees, it’s a haven for families. La Concha (the shell) beach was a favourite of Queen Maria Cristina and in 1887 she ordered the construction of royal wooden huts to protect her modesty. If you are looking for a more youthful, lively atmosphere, a good option would be Zurriola Beach, being open to the Cantabrian Sea and therefore perfect for surfing or kayaking.

San Sebastian is one of the culinary capitals of the world, sharing with Paris the distinction of being the only city to have a trio of three–star Michelin restaurants.

We stayed at the beautifully-appointed Hotel de Londres right on the beachfront and whose guests in the past included the spy Mata Hari and Toulouse-Lautrec.

In La Concha bay, at the far end from the fishing port, standing defiantly against the wild waves of the Cantabrian Sea you will find the massive iron sculptures of Eduardo Chillida embedded in the rocks.

A visit to the old part of the city, with its markets and museums, is a must, and where the sampling of either a rioja or the slightly sparkling txakoli makes for a pleasant interlude.

Wine plays a major part in Basque life, as we found out when we visited the Talai Berri txakoli winery (www.talaiberri.com), on the slopes of Mount Talai Mendi beside the sea near the town of Salida.

There, overlooking his 12 hectares of vines, Bixente Eizaguirre Aginaga explained that all grapes had to be picked by hand, and how the process has changed during the five generations of this family-run business.

Wine tours are available for e10, including tasting of typical Basque products.

In the Southern part of the Basque country, between the river Ebro and the Cantabrian mountains, lies the Rioja Alavesa belt, where vines have been grown since Roman times. There, Marta Echavarri took us a on tour of the Cune winery, one of the historic wineries of Rioja, founded in 1879. The new E40million winery, set into the Cerro de la Mesa hill, was designed by Philippe Mazieres, opened in 2004 by King Carlos, and is the most technologically advanced in Spain. It produces an incredible nine million litres of wine a year and its cellars, tunnelled into the mountain, can store 25,000 barrels in one tunnel. It is open daily for visitors for tours and tastings (www.cvne.com)

We also visited the Villa Lucia at Laguardia with its wine museum displaying all the history and rituals connected with winemaking. It is well worth a visit (www.villa-lucia.com).

Laguardia is a walled town, totally pedestrianised because its subsoil is honeycombed with underground tunnels that were used as cellars for the wine-makers.  It would be in danger of collapsing if cars were allowed on to its streets! We toured one of those tunnels used by the tiny El Fabulista winery to store its barrels. It is one of only two wineries that still makes its wine within the walls.

In the wine-making season tourists get a chance to tread the grapes and assist in the wine making.

Laguradia is also home to the Church of Santa Maria with its perfectly conserved 17th century polychrome portico, the only one of its kind in Spain.

Wine does not enjoy a monopoly when it comes to drinking tastes in the Basque region. Cider from the barrel, sausage in cider, cod in a massive omelette, a superb grilled steak, cheese, walnuts and quince jelly... that’s what’s on offer in any of the cider houses.

When you hear the cry of ‘txotx’ take your glass over to the barrel offered by the cider maker. Spurting from the barrel tap will be a stream of local cider. The key is to position your glass at the right angle to catch the golden nectar. Then it’s back to the table  to consume your steak or cod. Repeat the process as often as you like.

We visited the Petritegi (www.petritigi.com) cider house, where cider has been brewed since 1527. A tour and  sampling of chorizo will cost E13.50 and the cider house menu around E50,  including all the cider.

It was a wonderful experience as we  participated in the txotx and listened to the locals burst into an ‘otxote’, a chorus of song that livened the proceedings. ‘As the cider went down, the noise went up’, as one local put it.

A surprise gem for us was the visit to Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque region. This historic city was European Green Capital for 2012 and it offers almost 50km of lanes for walking, cycling, bird-watching or horse-riding. It was here in 1813 that a battle forced Napoleon to flee after his army was defeated. Santa Maria Cathedral is not just an ABC (Another Boring Church). It served as a fortress to defend the city, and you can now visit the restoration work, explore its medieval passages, its parapets and suspended gangways (www.catedralvitoria.com)

In Vitoria we also enjoyed a workshop where chef Josean Merino at PerretxiCo (www.perretxico.es) took us through the preparation of unique pintxos he had created, including a delicious concoction of fried diced duck breast, with peas, onion, apple, truffle and mayonnaise, served on a pancake made from flour, cheese and eggs. Pintxos are available in every bar and cost between E1.50 and E3. A glass of txakoli is generally under E2.

To the south west of Vitoria lies the Salt Valley of Anana, which is undergoing extensive restoration with the hope  that it will gain UNESCO preservation status. Though some 150km inland, the area was submerged under the ocean over 250 million years ago.

On a fascinating guided tour of the valley, we saw how salt is now being produced and tasted the water from the stream which is three times saltier than the sea. The stream is carried along wooden gutters into ponds and then poured on to tile flats where the sun converts it into salt. All processes are by manual labour. Some of the salt is so sought after that there is a waiting list for it among top restaurants.

Last year 50,000 people visited the site for a guided tour, which includes the immersing of feet and hands in the Saline Spa and tasting different gourmet salts.

If you are travelling  around the Basque country don’t miss out on lunch at Viura in Villabuena. Under the guidance of top chef Juan C Ferrando, you are treated to a veritable feast of food and wine. His speciality is mature beef in cubes, prepared by covering for four hours with salt, dill, rice vinegar, soy and olive oil. 

In the fishing port of Getaria we learned all about how anchovies are  processed with a tour of the Maisor artisan factory. Tours and food are from  E25, details at www.maisor.com.

If you do not have a car, you can hop on the Enobus and travel around the Rioja Alvesa in style. This tourist bus will stop off along the way so you can visit the various wineries, towns, hotels, restaurants and bars along this route.

The Enobus links Eibar, Bergara, Mondragon, Vitoria and Bilbao with Laguardia, from where you can admire medieval villages, spectacular landscapes and, of course, enjoy the wine!: