Basque in the beauty

by Alison O'Hanlon
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The Guggenheim Museum , La Salve Bridge, Blibao

Many flock to Spanish coastal cities for sunshine, sea and surf, but the Basque Country offers so much more, making it your perfect winter escape. With so many delightful wonders in such a small area, the Basque country is a not to be missed destination.

The main tourist cities of the Basque Country, locally known as Euskadi, include Bilbao,  San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gasteiz; the capital of the Basque Autonomous Community. All of which are only about an hours drive from each other. It’s a place that demands exploration,  Bilbao is famed for its art and architecture, especially the Guggenheim, while San Sebastian is a gastronomic gem.  

Richard Serra, Bilbao, spain, Guggenheim
Richard Serra’s weathered steel Picture Alison O’Hanlon

Bilbao is a town that has reinvented itself, transforming into a modern cultural centre. Staying at the stunning Gran Hotel Domine, we found ourselves directly opposite, the jewel in Bilbao’s crown, The Guggenheim Museum, a major centre for contemporary art alongside the La Salve Bridge with its unmissable red arc.

Its eye-catching shimmering titanium tiles, make it one of modern architecture’s most iconic buildings. There are some amazing pieces to see before you even go inside, I loved Maman, the bronze-and-steel spider by artist Louise Bourgeois, and the famous larger-than-life bouquet of tulips and Puppy, both sculptures by Jeff Koons.

Inside, the interior is vast with a cathedral-like atrium more than 45m high. Permanent exhibitions fill the ground floor, including Richard Serra’s massive maze-like sculptures in weathered steel and Reaching for the Skies, Jenny Holzer’s nine LED columns of ever-flowing phrases and text fragments in English, Spanish and Basque. Both are captivating in their own way.

Maman,, Bilbao, spain, Guggenheim
Guggenheim – Maman, the bronze-and-steel spider by artist Louise Bourgeois

Once you’ve ticked the museum’s magnificent collections off your list, head across to the bustling Casco Viejo – old quarter – and take the time to explore its pedestrian streets lined with independent shops and pintxos bars. Pintxos are small snacks signature to Spain’s Basque region. They’re elaborately crafted, designed to be eaten in just a few bites while enjoying drinks with friends at local bars

You’ll find some of Spain’s finest red wines are produced in the Rioja Alavesa region, whose nerve centre is the charmingl walled town of Laguardia, a tiny medieval gem. Located on a hill, it’s medieval layout remains intact. The walled nature of the village has enabled the wine capital of Laguardia-Rioja Alavesa to provide a pedestrian town where it’s an absolute delight to explore.

What lies below LaGuardia is just as fascinating as what meets the eye above ground, a labyrinth of over 300 caves. We were taken on a tour of the Carlos San Pedro traditional winery, where you descend into the caves beneath the wine shop. The San Pedro family has been producing wine for more than 500 years and its medium-size winery produces just 40,000 bottles per year.  After some generous tastings of their delicious wines, Carlos lets us know, “The best wine is the one you like the most.”

Walled city of Laguardia, Spain, Basque
Walled city of Laguardia

In stark contrast, we then visited Bodegas Baigorri, a modern winery in Samaniego, which has a very James Bond feel about it. An impressive winery, featuring a modern glass pavilion with incredible views across the vineyards. It is built seven stories into the ground, using gravity to aid in the wine making process. I would definitely recommend ending the visit with lunch at their on-site restaurant which offers fantastic tasting menus with Baigorri’s top wines. 

If cider is your thing, the town of Astigarraga is where you need to be.  Specifically, the Sagardoetxea Basque Cider Museum, where you can learn the history of and how to make the region’s signature tipple, production of which goes back long before wine’s. The Museum has three parts, an apple orchard, where we were able to have a go at making our own apple juice using traditional methods, the museum and then the tasting centre.

Give yourself time to visit a traditional cider house, we feasted on a traditional meal of tomatoes with garlic and onion, seafood omelette, green peppers and Txuleta –  possibly the biggest piece of meat I’ve ever seen, charred on the outside, medium rare in the middle, it melts in your mouth.

Cider House, spain, Basque
Cider House

While visiting a cider house, It’s tradition to pour from the barrell ‘ txotx’  pronounced choach . Everybody gathers around and the barrels as one is opened while you catch the cider in the glass. This also air-rates the cider.

The capital city of the region, Vitoria-Gasteiz boasts a gorgeous medieval quarter and is home to St Mary’s Cathedral Santa Maria, a gothic cathedral which started as a defensive fortress. 

We took a fascinating tour starting below the Cathedrals structure, revealing more than 800 years of history while working our way up through the church where a lift then brings you to the top of the tower, from here you can see the entire town. Before finishing the tour visitor are treated to a cutting-edge virtual experience explaining how it was built and looked through the centuries.

Dinner that evening is at one of the cities best known restaurants, El Portalón, and it didn’t disappoint.  A 15th century tavern built as a lodging for merchants, transporting you back in time with its charming rustic rooms and an entrance still large enough for a horse and cart. 

Chillida-leku
Chillida-leku

The following morning we spent a few hours exploring Chillida-leku. Located on the outskirts of San Sebastian. This is probably not the first place people think of to visit, it is out of the way and there are no gourmet food or beaches involved, but as someone who had never seen Chillida’s art before, it was an unforgettable experience. 40 monumental pieces are dotted around the beautifully manicured grounds. At he heart of this outdoor museum is a16th century farmhouse, containing works from chilladi’s earlier years.

San Sebastian

The final stay on our tour of the Basque Country, San Sebastian. With its impressive shell-shaped La Concha beach and its palatial looking hotels, this city is a long-established favourite of the rich and famous. It is the perfect spot to admire the ocean, relax and take a stroll along the promenade. We were lucky to be staying at the stunning four-star Lasala Plaza Hotel, located on the beach front with spectacular views and perfectly situated for exploring the Old Town, beach and harbour.

San Sebastion
San Sebastians famed La Concha Beach

While many visitors come for the beaches, arts celebrations and fiestas, San Sebastian is serious about its food and drink. At night, the city’s charming old town bursts into life and is filled with the sound of glasses clinking and the aromas of the local pintxos, in the modern city, sidewalk cafes and hight street shops are all around.

While on our way back to Bilbao for our flights home, we made a quick stop in Getaria.  A charming picturesque fishing village offering an array of eateries and also home to the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum, solely dedicated to the designer and all things fashion.

After incredible four days, I can’t wait to return.

While in the Basque Country, Alison was a guest of the Spanish Tourism Office. For more information on travelling to Spain go to www.spain.info

Photos Alison O’Hanlon

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