Gems Of The Basque Country in Northern Spain
The Basque Country has long been renowned for its outstanding gastronomy.
This autonomous region in Northern Spain has its own culture, culinary traditions and language. Friendly and proud, the Basque people are also passionate – especially about their food. There has been a long-standing tradition of men, and now women, cooking and socializing in clubs called gastronomic societies. In addition to the Michelin starred cuisine, the destination boasts fine wine, charming towns, medieval villages, lush landscapes, stunning architecture, art, handsome coasts, beautiful beaches and welcoming locals with a fascinating heritage unlike anywhere else.
With Frank Gehry’s titanium masterpiece ‘The Guggenheim Museum’ punctuating the revitalized waterfront, plus an exploding gastronomic and art scene, Bilbao’s star is on the rise. Stroll the riverfront promenade for fantastic views of the museum’s eye-popping exterior before heading in. Don’t miss the notable Fine Arts Museum in the heart of the art gallery scene. The city offers an array of architectural styles, from gothic to contemporary. Philippe Starck’s hip, edgy cultural center, Azkuna Zentroa, contrasts the historic old quarter, Casco Viejo. No surprise that in addition to impressive exhibits, the Guggenheim is also home to Michelin starred Nerua Restaurant.
The Miro Boutique Hotel, a favorite of art lovers, features striking photographs throughout and splendid Guggenheim views.
This small, preposterously pretty seaside town with star chefs helming an array of Michelin-starred restaurants, is considered by many as the best place to eat on the planet. Long favored by Spanish royalty drawn to its gorgeous coastline and golden beaches, this Basque beauty features three establishments that hold Michelin’s highest three-star honor: Arzak, Akelare and Berasategui. If you can’t score a reservation at these, there are excellent eateries galore in this foodie mecca.
The de rigueur nightly pre dinner “pintxos crawl” – where locals meet up and socialize over a glass of wine and the delectables – is a must for travelers. Pintxos are small dishes that can include anchovies, cod, squid, iberico ham, prawns, artichokes and more. And typical Basque cider houses such as Alorrenea where friends and families gather on weekends for jovial communal meals such as cod omelettes and rib eye steak with cider tastings are not to be missed. With remarkable cuisine, Belle Époque buildings, waterfront promenades overlooking the romantic Urumea River, voguish boutiques dotting elegant streets and an enchanting old town with centuries old buildings – San Sebastian has it all.
The Hotel Maria Cristina is the best luxury option for those wanting to stay in town. (www.luxurycollection.com/mariacristina) I loved the hotel Villa Soro, a noble nineteenth-century renovated villa with elegant décor surrounded by greenery, and just a 15 minute walk from the old town. www.villasoro.es
Seafood enthusiasts adore Getaria, a quaint fishing village with an old town, lovely beach and staggering views. You can enjoy just-caught fish at the port with the local white wine called txakoli, or perhaps snag a table at acclaimed Michelin starred Elkano. Don’t miss the Balenciaga Museum that houses a dazzling collection from the fashion icon who was born here.
Rioja Alavesa Region
Visit the picturesque Rioja Alavesa region and descend into a subterranean fifteenth-century cellar as you sample the unique wines of Casa Primicia Winery, the oldest building in the town of Laguardia. Afterward, take a stroll through the atmospheric medieval village.
Chic Hotel Viura with whimsical art and sculptures attracts a stylish crowd and offers creative wine pairing dinners featuring Riojan and Basque cuisine. www.hotelviura.com
The Less Traveled Basque
Explore the Basque’s lesser-traveled spots and find a treasure around every corner. See how prized Basque cheese is produced at the Ondarre cheese farm in Segura, sold only to those who stop by (locals and top restaurateurs alike) from a family business passed down through generations – and sample the award winning goodies. Depart to Tolosa for the popular weekly market filled with fantastic food, fashionable residents and music, including a marching band. Meander the seaside port of Bermeo then imbibe some of the best local grapes at nearby hilltop winery Bodega Berroja while gazing at glorious views. I enjoyed one of the best meals ever in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the Basque capital with a medieval center and famed Gothic 13th-century Cathedral Santa María. A dinner of pumpkin, cod and shrimp black cake, red prawns and sturgeon ceviche with vermouth and olive foam, carpaccio of mushrooms with pasta and truffled egg yolk plus hake with citronella juice and lemon pearls paired with fine local wine at Michelin starred Zaldiaran Restaurant, transported me to foodie heaven. www.restaurantezaldiaran.com
Whether pairing the locale with a visit to Madrid or Barcelona, or opting to solely bask in the glorious Basque, this precious gem will not disappoint.
Mikel Gomez Urkijo, a Basque native who lives in Bilbao, owner of superb Tours by Basques specializes in customized itineraries highlighting the best authentic Basque gastronomy and culture.
For more information on travel to the Basque Country: www.basquecountrytourism.eus or www.spain.info