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Experiencing Basque Country

Click here to read the previous Trip Report in this series

As our two-and-a-half hour trainride rolled between Burgos and Bilbao, we discussed the topic of food. Basque Country has become an epicenter of global cuisine, and is considered one of the prime destinations for foodies, up there with New York, Hong Kong, and Paris. BUT, we had a problem -- after nearly three weeks of pure Spanish food, we were getting a little maxed out. Fortunately, part of what makes Bilbao so interesting as a dining destination is the idea of fusion, and bringing together some of the flavors we'd been missing, particularly Asian. So we decided to take a two-pronged approach to food in Bilbao to change things up: 1) Pintxos, of course, and 2) lunches in restaurants that brought out more diverse flavors beyond what might be deemed traditional. Dinner remained light and cooked in our apartment rental.

The first test of our new strategy was PAM&KO, an innovative sushi restaurant just across from Old Town. Their gastronomic and playful approach to sushi was delicious. A multicourse tasting menu was exactly what we needed -- light, refreshing, but full of interesting flavors. But we were in Basque County after all. So that evening, we set out to begin testing our chops when it came to Bilbao's pintxos. We found a trio that we dubbed "meat, fish, and cheese," because that's what we enjoyed at each: fantastic meatballs at Baster; grilled cuttlefish at Bar SantaMaria; and a cheese plate of outstanding Spanish cheeses at Taska Beltz -- each washed down with an excellent glass of white wine.

Normally, we wouldn't race out of town just after we arrived, but the next day was perfect and the sea was beckoning. One of the great features of Bilbao is the transit system, including how far afield it goes. The Euskotrens are amazing, and a unified fare card provides access to trains, trams, and buses (at least in Bilbao). We rode out to Mundaka, gasping at the first glimpses of the sea. Mundaka is known worldwide to surfers, and it was easy to see why. Huge swells gathered out on the horizon, only to throw themselves onto the rocks near our overlooks. The Hermitage of Santa Catalina sits on the edge of town and provides a breathtaking vista. From there we walked to Bermeo, a classic Basque fishing village dating to the 1200s, also with amazing views. After some breakfast refreshment gazing out on the harbor, we were ready to head inland to the town of Durango, nestled within site of Mount Anboto. Honestly, this stop is pretty niche, and probably won't make it onto most itineraries. But we had a lead on an up-and-coming restaurant that might even be gunning for Michelin consideration. Iruku has sushi at its core, but branches out into multiple fusions, pulling together flavors from Thailand, Korea, Peru, Mexico, and more. As delicious as PAM&KO had been the day before, Iruku blew us away.

The next day we had beautiful light on the iconic Guggenheim building (we planned to go inside later), so a bit of a photo shoot ensued. Afterwards we headed to Bilbao's Museum of Fine Arts. Sighhhhhhhh.... This was such a disappointing visit. Somewhere in the planning of their current expansion, the museum decided to strip their galleries of their world-class collection (including El Greco) and reduce the spaces to a series of "contrasts" between a masterwork and modern art. I know this approach can work, but here it was strained and reductive. On top of that, they've given over 10 whole galleries (ten, TEN rooms!!) to an installation called Thirteen to Centaurus. Think Hefty trashbags filled with air. Seriously. That's it. Needless to say, we were not fans of this new direction for the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

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Perhaps to assuage our disappointment, we headed to El Puertito de Ledesma, an oyster bar with a fantastic pipeline to Bay of Biscay oysters. We started by being faithful to Spain and selected Galician oysters, and they were indeed very tasty. But then we moved onto the French side, selecting Belon and the world-famous Gillardeau oysters. Wow...just...WOW. The Gillardeau oysters especially were amazing. This was a real treat. From there we somehow settled into another Basque-style pintxos crawl. Quite by accident we stumbled onto Basque Bar, a sleek art noveau space that turned out to be one of the city's elite watering holes. While there, a family that looked liked they'd just stepped out of a Ralph Lauren photoshoot stopped in, rubbing shoulders with brusk old men discussing sports and politics. When we moved on this time the star of the show was not a particular provider, but the overall place. The Plaza Nueva, a neoclassical square with colonnades, is like a beating heart in the city. It was filled with families and kids and tourists and everything in between. We grabbed a table (no small feat) and got glasses of wine to enjoy the scene. I have no idea which restaurant it was, but the whole square was lively and fun in equal measure.

The following day we decided to be a bit adventurous and take advantage of Bilboa's excellent bus system. We headed to the Bilbao Intermodal Station, a sleek, modern terminal connecting bus, metro, and train. It was clean and easy to navigate -- so much so we wondered if we should have done more bussing. But the one we picked turned out to be a winner: Castro Urdiales, accessible by direct, hourly service. This little spot has one of the region's most perfect and pristine gothic churches. Built in the 1200s, Santa María de la Asunción is a tiny jewel of gothic architecture, the flying buttresses and pinnacles perfectly scaled and left unadorned during the following centuries. Inside is a wonderful 1200s Madonna and Child (La Virgen Blanca), preserved in such pristine condition because it was hidden behind a wall for centuries, and only rediscovered in 1955!

Our visit was quick, returning us to the Intermodal, where we connected seamlessly to the Metro and out to the Vizcaya Bridge. I have to confess, before our trip I didn't "get" why the bridge is so renowned. But it is truly a marvel, on par from an engineering perspective to other 19th-century wonders like the Eiffel Tower. And perhaps you just have to see it to get it! We continued our pan-Asian lunch theme with Restaurante Hanoi, a nice spot for fried spring rolls and dumplings. The sun was shining and the breeze was pleasant, so we did a walk along the waterfront and the wide promenade. It turned out to be another highlight of the day, in a day that had a lot! What we strolled was Getxo's best stretch of palatial architecture. At the beginning of the 20th century, Getxo had the highest income per capita in Spain, and these houses -- scratch that, MANSIONS -- reflect it. Better still, Getxo has assembled over two dozen panels describing the structures, including in English. If the weather is fine, this walk of about 20 or 30 minutes each way is highly recommended. (

We had our next and final day in Bilbao all lined up like dominoes: A ride up the Funicular de Artxanda, followed by a visit to the iconic Cafe Iruna. Then lunch at the Michelin-flagged sushi restaurant KUMA, and finally, a late-in-the-day return to the Guggenheim to see the collections and exhibits before closing at 7:00 p.m. Sadly, an unfortunate problem emerged the night before that sidelined our activities for the next couple days.

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Fast-forward 48 hours, and we'd made our transfer to Donostia-San Sebastian (abbreviated DSS henceforth for ease), leaving Bilboa beyond. We chose to use the E1 Euskotren for this, which meant it was about 3 hours. Buses would have been about half the time, but we were curious to see the stops between the two. The tradeoff was comfort -- the E1's seats are not comfy by a long shot.

Settled in DSS, we headed for one of the region's most spectacular spots -- Itzurun Beach and its flysch cliffs. These vertical strata formations rise in stark, soaring plates from the beach, creating a truly otherworldly effect. (So much so, that Game of Thrones filmed here). The beach is accessible from Zumaia, one of the stations on the E1. On the walk back to the train station, we stopped at Txopa Gastrolekua for some bites -- a nice, friendly gastropub overlooking the harbor. Of all of Basque Country's magnificent oceanside vistas and beaches, Itzurun Beach was probably our favorite. In the early evening we took a long stroll through DSS's Centro neighborhood. I was completely unprepared for how Parisian it all looked and felt. Street after street was filled with Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau buildings, boulevards, fountains, bridges, and more. Given the city's reputation for a party town, the sophisticated shops and glamorous architecture was a welcome surprise.

The next day we took a daytrip to Hondarribia, often described as one of Basque Country's most picturesque villages. In truth Hondarribia is pushing towards 20,000 inhabitants, so it is hardly a village; however, within the medieval walls it is entirely possible to be fooled. This is true fairytale village stuff, with all the hallmarks -- halftimbered facades, brightly colored balconies, thick stone walls, cobblestone streets, and magnificant views out to the sea. I definitely recommend including this if you are in the region. From DSS we took the train to Irun, and then a bus the rest of the way. We arrived around lunchtime, in time to see a steady stream of dusty workmen all heading to the same place, so we followed. Great call. Miramar offered XXL sandwiches, plus lots of wines, cider, pintxos, and tortillas. Yummy and homey. But the real star of the day was the Parador de Hondarribia. I know all the Paradors in Spain are amazing, but this one really seemed like a gem, as it is within a 10th century castle. Even better, the cafe (available to non-guests) sits in the great hall, soaring four or even five stories high. Surrounded by thick stone walls and a bit of medieval-style decor is very transporting when sipping your coffee or wine, or enjoying some local cake.

One of the places we were most excited to visit was DSS's San Telmo Museoa, dedicated to Basque history and culture. We waited until Saturday morning to visit and basically had the museum to ourselves. It is a little confusing to navigate at first, but once we got the hang of it, we spent over two hours absorbing the outstanding exhibits and panels (all major section labels are in English and QR squares throughout bring up more English-language information). It really provides a wonderful overview of Basque history and is full of surprises, like The Sert Canvases, a series of 1930s monumental works that bridge the arts of painting and tapestry in a wholely unqiue way. Afterwards we wandered the streets of Old Town until we arrived at Casa Urola. The upstairs dining room has made it into the Michelin Guide, but I'd suggest sticking with the pintxos bar downstairs so that you can sample some of the best pintxos in town (my humble opinion). In fact, we broke pintxos protocol of "moving on" because the food was so good; instead, we parked and kept ordering -- mushroom tarts, cod casserole, partridge breast, and more.

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Turns out DSS has more rainy days than anywhere else in Spain. And in this case, when it rained, it poured. So, much of Sunday was a washout until the storms passed, with our time given over to laundry, cooking in, travel planning, etc. When the rain finally cleared, we walked around Centro a bit more. A while back I had asked the question if Spain had outposts of "colonial cuisine" -- Mexican, Argentinean, Columbian, etc. I'm pleased to report that DSS has an outstanding Peruvian restaurant called Tayta, complete with ceviche, chaufa, Peruvian chicken, and pisco sours. Definitely a stop for fans of Peruvian cuisine who might be looking to change things up during their time in DSS.

La Playa de La Concha consistantly ranks as one of Europe's most beautiful beaches, and once the final remnants of clouds blew away, we headed over to explore. We started with lunch at La Brasserie Mari Galant in the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, a classic grande dame from DSS's Golden Age of Travel. Opening in the 1860s, it also has the advantage of sitting on one of the best pieces of real estate in the city. Lunch overlooking the sapphire waters was a real treat, as was the poached lobster salad, hands down the best thing on the menu! After lunch, we walked the promenade to The Miramar Mansion, a Tudor Revival castle that once served as a royal residence. We then continued to the Igueldo funicular, a vintage railway that climbs high above the city for spectacular views. You could see the mountains that surround the city and miles out to sea. The back-and-forth walk along La Concha was about 4-5 miles total, but it was the perfect farewell to Basque Country.

Click here for Easter Week in Pamplona and Zaragoza

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Another fascinating trip report!

Honestly I can understand that after a few weeks traditional Spanish food gets a bit tiresome. Glad you are finding other kinds of cuisines to spice it up, in Spain we don't always eat tortilla, queso manchego, and croquetas all the time and often go out for foreign food too. If I were visiting the USA, I wouldn't be able to handle only hamburgers, nachos, and milkshakes for 3 weeks lol!

I also found amusing your description of Hondarribia, reminded me of the "what do Americans think is a village" topic from a few weeks ago.

You'll love Zaragoza during Semana Santa.

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10093 posts

When we were considering staying in “ the village” of Hondarribia, I checked the population and it certainly wasn’t a village! But we enjoyed a week there moving between the upper medieval village and the fishermen’s village below. We traveled over the border to France several times including one time by accident. The nearby French Basque villages in the foothills of the Pyrenees are not to be missed, very charming.

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Thanks for the good info! I had a planned trip to northern Spain, including Bilbao, that has to be put off until next year but I’m making note of your Bilbao info. Maybe by then the hefty bags will be replaced with something else! And I think that bridge has moved from the “maybe if there’s time” list to “do this thing!” list. Not sure I can read the rest of your trip reports or I’ll need 6 weeks off work.

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Suki, we tried to go to the French side, but the strikes and unrest aren't over yet. The limited train service had several cancellations, and the remaining offerings were jacked up in price accordingly. Even to the bitter end we tried and failed to make France work, so we just stayed on the Spanish side!

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As a Bilbao native, born and bred in the old quarter, and now a citizen of Getxo (Hanging Bridge, beaches and mansions), I have to thank you for your well-informed, detailed and excellent trip report. Thanks for your references of Bilbao as a city to visit, so frequently overlooked by Donostia-San Sebastian (where, in fact, it rains a well as in all northern Spain, but most visitors think it´s a resort far from it!!). Thanks, a real pleasure to read your report.

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5600 posts

Nice trip report and glad you had a good time. We enjoyed the Parador in Hondarrbia too. The elevator to the lower town behind it was nice too.

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Thanks so much for this wonderful trip report. I will be in Bilbao and San Sebastian next week and this will be very handy.

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5142 posts

Thanks for taking the time to write another great trip report!

I’ve not traveled to this region of Spain (yet) but are definitely bookmarking your post for future reference.

Hondarribia sounds like my kind of “village” I’d love to experience.
Did you wish you had stayed at least an overnight there?

Thanks for adding links to your other trip reports, I’m looking forward to reading them all!

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3401 posts

Great report of another fun trip. We will be headed to the Basque area Sept 2024 so I am bookmarking your report for planning references.