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Basque Country

Hello,
Just booked a flight to the Basque region...fly into Pamplona on May 22 from Boston and return to Boston on a flight from San Sebastian on June 6. Planning our itinerary which tentatively looks as such: (we will have a car and plan on rental apartments) 3 nights in Pamplona (day trip to Olite and possibly Bardenas Reales) to Saint Jean de Luz for 4 nights (want to experience the French Basque region....welcome any thoughts/ideas for day trips in French Basque) return to Spain for 4 nights in Zarautz and then wrap up with 4 nights in San Sebastian.
We are a fit couple in our mid 50's who love long walks/hikes every morning and then exploring local villages/towns for a late lunch and to explore museums, cathedrals/churches, castles, fortifications and tastings at local wineries. Love to wander the old towns and their narrow lanes, cobblestone streets and browsing/shopping in the shops. Lunch and dinner will be sampling pintxos on our travels (although I don't like sea food!! and that seems to be the predominant food of the region).

Question? Can I expect some decent weather in late May/early June.....looks like a rainy season?

Thank you very much!!
Michael

Posted by
4128 posts

Michael,
We are looking at visiting the Spanish Basque area as well as the Bordeaux region of France. I will follow others responses.

Posted by
16766 posts

Rick covers some highlights of the Basque Country (French as well as Spanish) in his guide book to Spain.

Lunches in Spain are late, the locals starting around 2 PM, so you'll be happy with the pace of life. And it will be great to have enough time to really explore this very interesting area. The Spanish-Basque countryside is very pretty; I've seen less of the territory on the French side of the border.

It's pretty much always rainy season in the Basque Country, but Pamplona may be far enough south to be in a different weather zone. The areas closer to the coast have a lot of overcast weather even when it's not actually raining. That makes it a good place to go when it's uncomfortably hot in most of the country, but it may (or may not) be surprisingly cool.

I'm not particularly fond of Pamplona, whose main claim to fame is the Running of the Bulls. It does have a smallish historic area, and I enjoyed spending 4 to 6 hours seeing the sights, then I was happy to move on. It is quite touristy because of the Festival and Hemingway's writings. It wouldn't be my choice of base; I preferred Vitoria-Gasteiz, Laguardia and Olite, which are very different from both Pamplona and each other. Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital of the inland area of Alava; it is very seldom visited by foreign tourists and has a great medieval district on top of a hill with outdoor escalators providing assistance in getting to the top. There are also a few museums. Laguardia is a cute-as-a-button medieval hill town (elevator to the top) near the La Rioja wine district. I think you've made a good choice in Olite; the castle is impressive, and the town has a forgotten air that makes visitors feel like it's their own discovery. I'd pay attention to the location of your Pamplona lodgings and the parking situation so you can get in and out of town for day-trips easily.

St-Jean-de-Luz is a very picturesque place but fairly small. I spent a lot more time walking around the historic parts of the larger Bayonne, which I would definitely recommend seeing. Bayonne also has potentially interesting museums (including the Museum of Chocolate run by Atlier du Chocolate, with its extremely generous tasting room). Biarritz I didn't particularly care for (it was raining persistently, which didn't help), but some enjoy its grand-old-resort atmosphere. However, I i very much liked Biarritz's privately-run museum of Asian art, whose major focus seems to be the decorative art of southern Asia.

I didn't have a car and didn't make it to any of the mountain villages of the French Basque Country; I imagine you plan to do that.

The trio of former fishing villages (Zarautz, Getaria, Zumaia) is picturesque, but they are quite small places. You won't need long to see them, and Zarautz is only a 20-minute drive from San Sebastian (according to ViaMichelin.com). I wouldn't choose Zarautz and San Sebastian as two separate bases so close together, and 8 nights seems a very long time in that very limited area. I think you may want at least one additional night on the French side of the border.

San Sebastian has a lively (read: extraordinarily touristy), smallish historic district full of restaurants and tapas bars (not my scene at all, but I assume most people who go there love it). There's a good museum, and the walk along the seafront gives a great view of the spectacular bay. I'm one of those who much preferred the larger, less touristy Bilbao. Bilbao's historic area, the Casco Viejo, is larger and much less touristy. Plus there's the art.

Hondarribia, which sits very near the French border, is a good day-trip from San Sebastian, or you might visit it on the day you transfer from France back to Spain, assuming you are comfortable with the security of your belongings in the trunk of your car. The fishermen's district along the waterfront is full of restaurants; the medieval district is uphill.

Posted by
74 posts

Agree with the previous poster. Pamplona (tiny airport, as San Sebastian) makes a good base for Olite and the dessert of Bardenas Reales, St Jean de Luz is quite small and touristy and I´d choose Bayonne instead (bigger and with more things to see and do), and I´d stay in Bilbao for some time, a great city with not only the Guggenheim museum, but many other attractions (the old quarter is lovely) and lots of places to see around the city. You may expect nice weather, although it´s rainy all year round (we don´t have a rainy season...it can rain any time...this is the Green Spain area), but not beach weather as water will not be warm enough, most likely. I would not miss Hondarribia, Getaria, Lekeitio, Mutriku (all on the coast) and I would not stay that much time in Zarautz, as it´s just 20min from San Sebastian and there´s not much to do or see. I see you´re also ignoring the Rioja Alavesa region (Basque Rioja), with wonderful towns like Laguardia or Labastida, with a medieval atmosphere and a great wine region, with 16 and 17th century wine cellars still producing wine. Laguardia is a must, given that you´re spending so much time in the BAsque Country.

Posted by
2662 posts

If you have an interest in the Camino de Santiago, you could visit St. Jean Pied du Port, just across the French border. It’s a small town worth a short visit where many pilgrims begin the Camino. About 12 miles west of Pamplona, on the Camino, is Alto de Perdon. It affords a great view of the surrounding countryside but you need a car to get there. A little further west is Puente la Reina and its Roman bridge. Southeast of Pamplona is the historic village of Sos Del Rey Catolico, birthplace of King Ferdinand. There are some castles in that area as well as some small chapels, but it’s away from the Basque area.

Posted by
246 posts

Also near Pamplona, about 33km, is the Foz de Lumbier. It is a 1 mile long canyon with a nice path through it. It is very popular with bird watchers. Although I prefer going in the autumn, late Spring is a very pleasant time to visit.

Near by, is Sanguesa, and just beyond that is the Castle of Javier where St. Francisco Javier was born.

Going the opposite direction, the Baztan Valley is a wonderful place to go walking and at the top of the valley there are several caves that are worth a visit. The valley has become popular recently thanks to the trilogy of Dolores Redondo. The first book has been made into a movie, The Invisible Guardian, and is available on Netflix.

If you go west, just near Puente la Reina is the hermitage of Eunate, which is on the Camino. And a bit farther, a hidden treasure is the monastery of Iranzu. When I say hidden, it is in a small valley, and you have to go through a small gorge to get to it, and when you are there, it is like the rest of the world has disappeared.

Posted by
2662 posts

dlindstrom - I added the Foz de Lumbier to my fall itinerary since we’ll be in the area. It looks like a nice walk that’s not terribly long. Had you not mentioned it, I wouldn’t have known it was there. Most of the other locations you mentioned are already on my itinerary.

Posted by
20 posts

Thank you folks for all the great replies, as usual better travel advice than can be found "surfing" the net or reading travel books. Great insight. My itinerary is a work in progress, and you folks just made my homework more exhaustive! I understand Pamplona is not a favorite of everyone, but the flights were very reasonable and we plan to use it just for 2 or 3 days as a base as Olite is a must (and Bardenes desert area looks inviting). Thank you for advice on other villages of that area. Thank you for the intell on Laguardia and Labastida....also Foz de Lumbier and Iranzu! I have read about Biarritz and Bayonne, now leaning towards Bayonne. I have no interest in Bilboa, as i keep seeing it described as an industrial city, which turns me off, not really keen on the famous Guggenheim Museum (am I wrong?)
Thanks again and Happy Holidays to all!
Michael

Posted by
74 posts

Well, you must have read a very old review of Bilbao. Quite far from being an industrial city nowadays, what was formerly the industrial area has been turned into green promenades and parks, pedestrian walks and bicycle paths, the Guggenheim museum (probably the best piece of architecture of the late 20th century) and it also has a wonderful old quarter. And it offers many more things to do and to see than any other city in the area (San Sebastian, Pamplona, Biarritz, Bayonne, Vitoria, Santander...nothing close to it). In my opinion, a must see and a great city to enjoy...and a mistake not to see it!

Posted by
16766 posts

I agree with Mikel. Bilbao doesn't present itself as an industrial city these days.

Posted by
20 posts

I will revisit my Bilboa interest. But from Rick Steves' book on the Basque Country (2015) he agrees that Bilboa is moving on from its industrial past but quotes "But some of the grime hangs on the city mingles beautiful but crumbling old buildings, eye sore high rise apartment blocks, brand new super modern additions to the skyline" Kind of turns me off. Maybe I am wrong.

Posted by
16766 posts

I spent several nights in Bilbao in 2016. I don't doubt that there are modern highrises somewhere (nearly any vibrant city has them), but I walked back and forth across the city several times and didn't notice grime. I remember thinking that the clean-up (sandblasting?) must have been successful. The city used the opening of the Guggenheim to upgrade the face it shows to the world. In addition to the large medieval quarter (which is not full of tourist-targeting tapas bars as in San Sebastian), there are some handsome late-19th/early-20th-century buildings in the center of town.

San Sebastian may be more prettified, but I'll take Bilbao any day.

I bet you can find some videos of Bilbao on YouTube.

Posted by
20 posts

Will skip Bilboa, too modern and too big. Prefer more quaint areas of which there are so many in the region, both in Spain and France. Thank you for all the input.

Posted by
74 posts

Bilbao, not Bilboa (it´s a very common misspelling by English speakers, don´t know why...). Well, "modern" for a city chartered as such in 1300AC, 350,000 inhabitants (San Sebastian is 200,000, as well as Pamplona), very compact, classy, beautiful arquitecture, surrounded by green mountains, quaint old quarter, great food, lots of things to do and see, not as touristy as San Sebastian. I can´t say I tried, maybe next time!! :)

Posted by
20 posts

Appreciate it Mike from Basque, but I do not enjoy big citys...we just returned from Germany, Heidelberg and Esslingen...castles, churches, cathedrals from the 12th century...prior to that it was Cadiz and El Puerto de Santa Maria with churches from the 15 th century....i don't like anything built in the 19th or 20 th......Seville, Malaga, I like...not modern cities....and Guggenheim no interest....give me a Vermeer or Franz Hals, Lucas the Elder or a Van Gogh....dont like soup cans considered art (Warhol}

Posted by
74 posts

I understand...well, plenty of that in the Basque Country (by the way, look for Butrón castle, a 20min drive from Bilbao, and the medieval town of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa, Elorrio on the way from SS to Bilbao, Urizaharra near Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country and an interesting medieval quarter and the so amazing reconstruction of a 12th century cathedral...). If you like history, don´t miss Gernika and the Casa de Juntas, one of the oldest ways of government in the world (one of the reasons John Adams came to Bilbao, to learn about our old system of laws and liberties). But you may not know that Bilbao holds a great Fine Arts Museum, second to El Prado in Spain in quality and quantity of works, and you can find all the classic painters there.

Posted by
1429 posts

hey hey mike
check out:
travelswithmaribel.wordpress. She has info of both Spain and French basque areas.
also sent you a private message. Check you inbox upper right hand corner.
aloha
HOORAY for the NINERS!!

Posted by
20 posts

Thanks Mike/Basque...I will be in touch prior to our trip....seems like there is so much to see in the region. One question...looking forward to the food, described as the best in Spain...however as you can see from my original post, I don't like sea food at all (I know crazy for a guy from Boston where we have some the best in the USA)....can I get some pork, chicken, albondigas?
Happy New Year!

Posted by
74 posts

Well, what I like to tell my visitors is that you don´t like seafood...in the US! Fish is fantastic over here, but of course we have all kind of products (many, of farm origin or Km 0 philosophy). Great meat (in many cases, you may even know the name of the cow), pork, chicken (but not in restaurants, too tasteless and simple), meatballs (not in many restaurants). I recommend, from Monday to Friday, the Menú del Día, for 11 to 15 eur per person you can have a first, a second, dessert, bread, water and wine (half bottle per person). Also, take into account that our lunch (the main and most important meal of the day) is around 2pm, and dinner rarely before 9pm (and that´s early). Dinner is, at home, very light (salad, fish, omelette, soup..., something simple). Restaurants normally open for dinner at 9pm, although with the arrival of tourism many are changing their timetables and open at 8pm (but then, it´ll be just tourists inside).