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Basque in glory Spain's Basque country has so much more than just beautiful beaches

From contemporary art to high-tech wineries, there’s a lot more to northern Spain than bulls and beaches

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Deirdre overlooking La Concha beach in San Sebastian

Deirdre overlooking La Concha beach in San Sebastian

Deirdre overlooking La Concha beach in San Sebastian

IT’S one of the minor regrets of my life that I don’t have a ‘hat head’.

Pill box, beret, those big floppy straw ones: nothing sits quite right. It’s a fact I was forced to accept after being immortalised in a mortarboard on graduation day.

And so, standing in the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum in Getaria on a clear Sunday morning all these years later, I can but gaze in envy at the array of exquisite headwear that helped the Spanish designer get ahead in the world of fashion from the roaring twenties onwards.

Now who goes to the beautiful Basque Country, all undulating vineyards and Atlantic-kissing coastline, to look at hats, you might rightfully ask.

But ‘The Elegance of the Hat’ exhibition, continuing in the couturier’s birth town until May, perfectly illustrates how there’s far more to northern Spain than big, bold reds and running with bulls.

Our whistlestop group tour of Euskadi, as it’s known in Basque, began four days earlier though, when the city of Bilbao, where we had flown direct from Dublin in a little over two hours, showed off with a spectacular double rainbow following an equally dramatic downpour.

Of course, as home to the iconic Guggenheim Museum set by the vivid La Salve Bridge, the skyline has long since been a canvas for some of the world’s most eye-catching creations.

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Deirdre at Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum with La Salve Bridge as a backdrop

Deirdre at Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum with La Salve Bridge as a backdrop

Deirdre at Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum with La Salve Bridge as a backdrop

We were meant to be getting lost in the thousands of contemporary works like Richard Serra’s enormous The Matter of Time steel spirals inside, but spent just as long in thrall to architect Frank Gehry’s traffic-stopping building on the banks of the Nervion River.

There it was again next morning, awesome as ever, as I drew back the heavy bedroom curtains of the five-star Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao, so close that you can admire Jeff Koons’ colossal flower Puppy without even crossing the road, and from the dramatic foyer to museum-view bathtubs, practically a work of art in itself.

It’s a common thread in the port city, where you’ll also find food you might as well frame as eat. I decided to send the arty dish filled with a spicy chocolate mousse fizzing with gold nuggets back to the kitchen at La Despensa del Etxanobe empty in a bold act of minimalism to rival Miró.

And, coincidentally, because it was one of the most divine things I’ve ever tasted.

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Traditional pintxos, like the fat, green piquillo peppers and salty cod we sample the following day at El Portalón further south in the history-steeped Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz are the most common fare in the autonomous community, though it’s near impossible to resist front-loading on the fresh, crunchy slabs of bread that appear to herald every meal.

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Some of the region’s famed pintxos

Some of the region’s famed pintxos

Some of the region’s famed pintxos

With its rustic brick rooms, wooden beams and entrance wide enough for a horse and cart, the 15th century tavern transports you right back in time, and just across the street, we get another glimpse into the way things were in a world long before live online mass during a tour of the Cathedral of Santa Maria.

The Gothic-style Roman Catholic church is currently in the thick of a painstaking restoration, but cleverly has launched an ‘Open for Work’ project, allowing visitors from near and far to don a hard hat and explore from the bowels of the building right up to its cloud-grazing bell tower.

It’s told that the walled medieval town of Laguardia, under an hour away in the heart of Rioja country, was built as a defence for the Kingdom of Navarre - after all, the name comes from ‘La Guarda de Navarra’, literally meaning ‘the guard of Navarra’.

But I’m not convinced that they weren’t just trying to keep all the best wine to themselves, and honestly, I couldn’t blame them.

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Historic Laguardia village by dusk

Historic Laguardia village by dusk

Historic Laguardia village by dusk

An estimated 300 wine caves, otherwise known as bodegas, lie underfoot as you stroll around the perfectly preserved municipality, many of them still producing wine today.

Leave the snobbery at the fortress gate though, as winemaker Carlos San Pedro tells us during a subterranean tour of his family’s 600-year-old bodega that the best wine is simply the wine you like best. Mine’s a 2016 tempranillo.

As a comparatively small fish in a big boozy pond, Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre produces around 40,000 bottles of wine per year the squashy, old-fashioned way.

Stitched seamlessly into the landscape of nearby Samaniego, at the more modern Bodegas Baigorri, famed for its oak-aged Crianza, that figure is closer to 500,000.

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Sampling the wine at Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre

Sampling the wine at Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre

Sampling the wine at Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre

Despite the winery’s endless vineyards and vast 600-litre barrels, which some lucky sod later has the job of climbing into to clean, quantity never supersedes quality, with every single grape examined – and in the case of premium wines, even scanned – one by one before making the grade.

Made from local white grapes, sparkling Txakoli (pronounced ‘chackoli’) flows freely in Basque Country, but it’s the ciderhouse ritual of ‘txotx’ (pronounced like ‘church’ without the r) that feels like one of those bits of trivia that’s some day going to make me seem well-travelled at a pub quiz.

Sadly, due to Covid, we didn’t get to try the madcap centuries-old practice of grabbing our glasses and dashing to a cask erupting with freshly-fermented cider after someone bellows ‘txotx!’, and yanks the stopper out, during a lunchtime feast that simply didn’t stop coming at Alorrenea cider house while bound for San Sebastian.

Not to worry, as we had earlier experienced the magic in the making at the unexpectedly fun Sagardoetxea Basque Cider Museum in Astigarraga, where you can also tour a maze of different apple trees and give apple juice processing a bash.

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Traditional apple juice making

Traditional apple juice making

Traditional apple juice making

Our final night is spent dandering along Donostia’s picture-postcard coastline, and drinking up the long-forgotten buzz of a city alive with smiling tourists, buskers and street artists.

It’s a wrench to leave the gorgeous Lasala Plaza Hotel, let alone San Sebastian, as we know it in English, behind.

Admiring beautiful La Concha beach from a height one last time, wind whipping through my hair, who needs a hat anyway.

TRAVEL FACTFILE

BASQUE COUNTRY, SPAIN
See tourism.euskadi.eus
■ Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Bilbao in two hours and 15 minutes from as little as €42 one-way. See aerlingus.com.
■ With views of La Concha Beach, Lasala Plaza Hotel is the ideal luxury base for exploring San Sebastian. See lasalaplazahotel.com.
■ Entry to Sagardoetxea Basque Cider Museum is €5. See sagardoarenlurraldea.eus.

Late deals

CRUISE ON THE SEINE
SAIL with Travel Department to discover the sights along one of Europe’s most historic rivers on this seven-night river cruise holiday.

You’ll begin with a guided tour of Paris before commencing your cruise along the world-famous Seine. Moored very close to the Eiffel Tower, you’ll be welcomed on board with stunning views, a cocktail and delicious dinner.

Ports of call with excursions include Rouen, famous for its Gothic Cathedral, Honfleur, from where Samuel de Champlain set sail to discover Canada, and the beautiful Gardens of Giverny, which inspired Monet’s series of famous paintings, The Water Lilies. You will also experience all the elegance of a boutique hotel as you float along the Seine.

Priced from €2,129pp and includes flights, transfers, seven nights’ accommodation on a B&B basis, with expert guide. This trip leaves on June 8 and August 17.


PADDY’S DAY IN BELFAST HASTINGS

Hotels has launched a St Patrick’s Day deal to entice people to make the most of the extra bank holiday next month. Two of its Belfast hotels are inviting us to extend the weekend by offering four nights for the price of three when you check in on March 16, 17 or 18.

Available in The Grand Central and Europa hotels, the package also includes a full Irish breakfast each morning plus a bowl of stew and a pint of Guinness in the evening, plus a Hastings rubber duck for every guest to take home.

The sophisticated Grand Central Hotel in Belfast city centre boasts the tallest cocktail bar in Ireland — The Observatory.

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