Basque Country Spain Destination Guide
Article and Photography by Andrea Cannistraci
Throw all ideas of what you think Spain is like, out the window. You’ve arrived in Basque Country! No tourists. No flamenco dancing. No sangria. The wine list is simple, “red or white.” And the local white wine is “txakoli”. And if you think “tapas” is a type of restaurant–think again. “Tapa” means “cover” and it’s a way of serving the food. And they don’t even use the word “tapa”….in Basque country it’s “pintxos”. (The “tx is pronounced like “ch”) And after eating these “pintos” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days, you may never want to see a pintxos again! And if you’re a fan of fried eggs, you’ll be happy to know they are quite popular at breakfast time and you’ll notice straight away that the yolks are very orange.
A few alternatives to pintxos include the traditional “Restaurantes Searantes III”. The Vina Ardanz” wine was amazing and very much reminded me of a brunello. The pantxienta cake for dessert was yummy! Just remember that dinner starts at 9pm in Spain. A great dessert is churros with hot chocolate. The hot chocolate in Spain is rather thick–almost like pudding. A great place to try this yummy dessert is Avemay Cafe. If you’re looking for a late night bar, check out the Irish Pub, “M’or O’rless” they pour a great Guinness and have darts to keep you occupied. Another late night spot for pintos (what else?!) is El Molinillo (it translates to “grinder”).
In the heart of Basque country is Bilbao: the home of the Guggenheim. In this modern, working city there are few tourists. (Which means no English.) Bilbao is small enough to explore on foot in one day, and easily navigable. A few “must-sees” include: the old city (referred to as the casca vieja) where you can wander through narrow cobblestone streets, grab pintxos and a beer at a Berton (more or less a pintos chain) , or just relax in one of the plazas. The Zubizuri Bridge (which means “white bridge” in Basque) offers a great view of the Guggenheim and the chocolate milk river, Nervion. If it’s a clear day, take the Artxanda Funicular up to the top of Bilbao for amazing views of the entire city. Of course, no visit to Bilbao would be complete without a visit to the Guggenheim. Even if you’re not a museum person, the place is cool. There is just as much cool art outside, as there is inside, so if you’re pressed for time (or Euro) do yourself a favor and at least snap a photo of yourself in front of Puppy!
And speaking of the Guggenheim, why would you want to stay anywhere else than the hotel that the famed architect Frank Gehry stayed when he first had his vision for the Guggenheim? Hotel Lopez de Haro is where it all started. In fact the first rough sketch of the Guggenheim was made on the bedside stationery. Anna and George at the front desk are most helpful and accommodating; and Luis gives a great tour if you’re interested in seeing more than meets the eye. He may even let you see the gigantic guest book. (They like to show off the Dali Lama’s signature) To learn more about this hotel, please listen to our luxury podcast here.
Be sure to check out the shopping in the “new town.” Ercilla Street is packed with both Spanish and American store. If you wanna shop H&M or Mango (Not sure why anyone would!) you can. Or opt for more local flare at Sfera, Nice Things!, and Salvador Bachiller (my fav with bright colorful leather purses!)
A day trip to San Sebastian is a definite must when in Bilbao. The 50- minute bus (don’t take the train–it’s not direct and will take you nearly 3 hours) ride is pleasant and easy and will set you back a mere 8 euro each way. I felt right at home on this seaside resort town. La Concha Beach is the place to sunbathe and the walking path along the waterfront allows for great views. A great place to stop for a beer by the water is a small bar called Akerbeltz. Enjoy the local brew, Estrella, or a nice German beer, or opt for a shot of liquor. Don’t ask for the “local” liquor of orujo -they’ll laugh at you and give you tequila. The best pintxos ever (well the best we had) were found at Ganbara. The restaurant is known for it’s amazing dinners, but that would require waiting until at least 9pm when restaurants open. (Note the last bus back to Bilbao is at 10pm) And we sure to stop by the wine store, Luka. Ask for Ben–he’s from San Diego–and can lead you in the right direction.
The Basque equivalent to grappa (or port) is called Orujo. It’s a spirit distilled from wine and flavoured with special herbs or coffee, plus sugar, lemon peel, coffee beans and cinnamon.
Typically, while preparing the punch a spell or incantation is recited, so that special powers are conferred to the queimada and those drinking it. Then the queimada is set alight, and slowly burns as more brandy is added.
It’s served in a “chupito”–a small shot-like glass and is affectionately referred to simply as a “chupito.” The “blanco” smelled and tasted like paint thinner, the “cafe” was similar to a kahula-flavor, and the “verbal” reminded me of Anisette.
If you’re looking for a unique adventure through Spain, you may want to try El Espresso de la Robla. It’s an “Orient-Express-like” sleeping train operated by the local FEVE that takes you on a four day/three night journey into the true heart of Basque country. It’s quite the trip! If you’re under 70, you may find yourself as the only “dark hair” on the train. You’ll “realize” caves, churches, aqueducts–all in cities that you’ve never heard of, your friends have never heard of, that are not in any guide books, and not even noted on maps. This is the real, local deep-dive, folks. The living quarters on the train are 6×6, so we don’t recommend this trip as a first date. (Note: 6’4″ male survived) But if you do go with a date, you can tour the famous La Encartada Beret Factory Museum and buy matching chocolate-colored berets. That’s right–berets are originally from Northern Spain (not France!) If you’re lucky, they’ll even feed you the bean soup they used to make for the workers over a hundred years ago. You have quite arrived!
The Spanish equivalent to the Moroccan riads are the “paradors” and you’ll have quite the opportunity to dine at one of these when you board the train tour. The Parador in Decervera de Pisuerga serves a nice red wine by Antonio Banderas (I’m not kidding). And if you’ve always been dying to try goat, the El Molino restaurant in Benavides is known for it’s cured, dried goat…they even have a festival of the cured, dried goat! One final note if you decide dot take this tour: bring a carry-on size luggage. I wish we would have known that two full size Samsonite hard case suitcase would not fit in the room. (Side note: Don’t think your Latin American Spanish is gonna get you by here! Basque (aka Euskara) is a different language altogether. To see it written, you’d think it’s more Nordic than Romance.)
Bilbao is a great base city in which to explore other European cities. There are inexpensive flights on EasyJet out of BIO. But a word of caution if you’ve never flown DifficultJet: You may have only paid $50USD for that flight to London (which lands at Stansted–an hour outside of London) but you’ll likely be checking a bag–add about $40USD. Plus if you’ve been in Europe for awhile said piece of luggage will likely be over 20kg and you will pay 12 Euros for every kilo you are over. Our $50 USD flights from BIO to STN ended up costing nearly $300 USD (yes, that is EACH!) My advice, take British Airways.