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Basque Country

Hi. S.O. and I (around 60) are in the planning stages of trip in September.

We are fairly seasoned European travelers, but have not visited this area before. We are prepared to do lots of walking. Love culture, antiquities, and food. S.O. loves good art, as well (and I am happy to tag along for all but modern art). Not sports enthusiasts, big drinkers, or clubbers. Generally would like to avoid 1 night stops, unless there is a good reason for them.

We have somewhere between 25-28 days. Nothing will be committed to until S.O. confirms exactly how long she can take off.

Tentative plan is to fly into Barcelona, rent a car, immediately head north into France.

Spend 6 nights sauntering up to Sarlat, with three 2-night stays in rural places on the way up.

Then, about 4 nights in Sarlat.

Then, 2 nights in Bordeaux.

Then, about 8 nights in Basque land, both French and Spanish

Closing out with 2 nights in Saragosa, and 4 or so nights in Barcelona.

I am mostly looking for input on where and how to divide up our 8 nights and spend our days in the Basque Country.

Also, wondering whether it would be a good idea to drop our car in the Basque country, and switch to rails for the journey to Saragossa/Barcelona.

Finally, (since they aren't covered at all in a Rick Steves book) would welcome input on Bordeaux and Saragossa.

Thank you in advance for those who take the time to comment.

Posted by
141 posts

There are three major areas of interest in the Basque Country (Spanish side): Bilbao and the surrounding coastal towns (Plentzia -so ignored-, Lekeitio, Bermeo, Mundaka, Gernika...); then Donostia-San Sebastian and the towns nearby (Getaria, Hondarribia, Zumaia, Tolosa, Oñati, Arantzazu, Loyola), and then the Basque Rioja wine region, with Laguardia, Labastida and Elciego as main points of interest. All quite different one from the other. And of course, Navarra, with many places of interest, Iruña-Pamplona as the capital and then Sangüesa, Tudela, Olite...in the south and the green, mountainous valleys in the north (Elizondo, Otxagabia, Bera de Bidasoa, Roncesvalles...). I´d split my time between Bilbao and SS, with a side trip to Rioja from Bilbao. You can also visit the French side from SS.

Posted by
18746 posts

I wouldn't want to get into a car and drive to France after an overnight flight.

ViaMichelin.com offers three possible routes to Sarlat. Have you decided which way you'll go?

I'd suggest spending a little less time on the drive to Sarlat and adding a day or two there, to give yourselves more time in the Dordogne/Lot. There are, however, a lot of interesting places along the way.

I think most nearly everyone who has seen both will say the Dordogne is more engaging than Bordeaux--a nice city with some historic architecture, but not particularly distinctive. If you can't find another way to add some time in the Dordogne, I'd go so far as to suggest skipping Bordeaux.

Zaragoza has an attractive historic center and an impressive Moorish palace. The train station is awkwardly located--about a 15-minute walk from the palace and 30 minutes from the historic area. There seemed to be frequent bus service from the station to the center, but the area around the train station seemed bereft of restaurants as of 2016, so it's not an attractive place to stay. The business-class Eurostars hotel in the train station is comfortable, but the food situation would keep me from staying there again. The hotel restaurant was closed during my July visit, I assume because summers are so miserably hot in Zaragoza that there's little business traffic at that time of year. An extremely limited menu was available from room service. I don't know what the situation would be like in September. Be sure you have an air-conditioned hotel in Zaragoza.

Four nights will be very short in Barcelona (another reason to drop Bordeaux). Four nights is the minimum I ever recommend, and that's for people who have no real interest in Barcelona's art museums. Although there are other cities along your route where you'll find art, I suspect the best is in Barcelona except for the Guggenheim--and you've said you don't care for modern art. I am prepared to be corrected on this point, because I am not an art expert, just someone who goes to a lot of art museums.

There's an interesting privately-run Asian art museum in Biarritz. I haven't been to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao because it was closed at the time of my 2016 visit. Some online research should help you decide whether the museums in Bordeaux, Bayonne, San Sebastian, and Vitoria-Gasteiz are right for you.

I especially recommend the MNAC in Barcelona. In addition to paintings and sculptures, it has two unusual collections. The modernism collection focuses on furniture, jewelry and decorative art. Then there are large medieval frescoes rescued from churches in the Pyrenees. But the city has many other museums, art and otherwise. The Picasso Museum is too popular for its own good; the Miro Museum is generally a much more pleasant place to see art.

Another factor affecting the time you'll want to spend in Barcelona is the presence of a lot of highly popular sights for which you'll need to buy tickets (usually timed tickets) in advance to avoid wasting a lot of time in ticket lines and possibly encountering sell-outs. It's hard to rush through a city's sights when you have to make appointments to see six of them (if they are of interest to you). The problematic six are: La Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, Casa Mila/La Pedrera, Casa Batllo, the Picasso Museum and the Palau de la Musica Catalana (whose English tours might sell out).

Driving from the Basque Country to Zaragoza appears to be faster than taking the train, and trains are infrequent. For the last leg, from Zaragoza to Barcelona, the train takes less time--as little as 1-1/2 hours vs. ViaMichelin's estimate of 3 hr. 15 min. in a car. There are many trains connecting the two cities because Zaragoza is on the Barcelona-Madrid rail line. I don't know anything about the rental-car drop-off locations.

Posted by
141 posts

The Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao is a gem...second to El Prado in Spain in importance of the art displayed, from the Romanesque painters to 21 century ones.

Posted by
582 posts

I agree that the Dordogne and Barcelona deserve more time. I would spend a week in the Dordogne and a minimum of 6 nights in Barcelona.

Posted by
760 posts

25-28 days sounds like a lot until you spread it out over so many places.

While it is usually a good idea to put all your time in the place you are flying out of at the end, in this case Barcelona, it is not a good idea to rent a car after an international flight due to dangerous driving. Can you get flights into Barcelona and out of Bilbao - or even Madrid. Then you put your 4 nights in Barcelona at the beginning and don't have to back track there at the end.

The highlights from my trip to French and Spanish Basque region were the Biarritz/Bayonne/St Jean area in France, San Sebastian and Laguardia in Spain. Also Bilbao and Santander. But that would take more than 8 days. If it were me I'd shorten the rest of France time (maybe drop Bordeaux, have only 2 2-night stays on the way to Sarlat, shorten that by one day). I mean, every place is wonderful but you can't do it all unless you can extend your time.

Here's my trip report on the Basque trip I took a couple years ago - https://andiamo.zenfolio.com/blog/2017/9/crisscrossing-the-camino---five-weeks-in-northern-spain-and-basque-france-part-1

Posted by
18746 posts

Isabel has nailed it. You have enough time not to have to blitz through every place without being able to enjoy it, but I fear you're going to feel you're leaving a lot of places before you want to. It's still going to be a more in-depth trip than 90% of those proposed here, so you've done well in your planning so far.

Barcelona, much as I love it, is an easy place to return to, so I suppose I'd prioritize the Dordogne and the Basque Country if I had to make a choice.

As to the Dordogne/Lot, everyone talks about Sarlat (wildly picturesque and with a great market on Wednesday and Saturday) and the little places. Without a car I was forced to hop from town to town in search of buses that would make day trips possible to a few of the smaller spots. There are a lot of very nice towns in that area that are rarely mentioned on this forum: Figeac, Cahors, Perigueux and more.

Posted by
208 posts

Hi all.

We have committed to our trip. Purchased the airline tickets (arrive 9/6, and depart 10/2). This allowed me to add 1 additional night in Sarlat (5 nights total) and 1 additional night in Barcelona (now 5 nights total).

For the Basque portion of our trip, wound up booking:

2 nights in Ciboure at Villa Erresinolettean

2 nights in San Sebastian at http://pension-ondarra.com/

3 nights in Bilbao at http://hoteljardinesdealbia.com/

San Sebastian, in particular, seemed pretty full in September already. All the places in Rick Steves were 100% booked for our dates of stay.

Booking at the Bilbao hotel was interesting. My S.O. and I happened to be simultaneously looking for places, her on her phone, and I on my computer. The same search quoted two very different nightly rates for the exact same dates; the rate quoted on my computer being significantly lower than that quoted on S.O.'s phone. I didn't know this was a thing.

If anyone has experience with these places, I would be interested to hear of it.

Thanks in advance to all who respond.

Posted by
141 posts

My comments as a Basque local:

2 nights in Colliure at Villa Erresinolettean

I reckon you mean Ciboure, near St Jean de Luz, Colliure is on the other side of France!

3 nights in Bilbao at http://hoteljardinesdealbia.com/

Very centrally located and good value. You can go walking anywhere in Bilbao and Donostia-San Sebastian

San Sebastian, in particular, seemed pretty full in September already. All the places in Rick Steves were 100% booked for our dates of stay.

It´s probably during our Basque regattas championship and it gets extremely busy (you´ve never seen this kind of regattas). Also, it´s the International Film Festival.