Basque Country for a week: San Sebastian, Bilbao and the Basque Mountains
Basque Country is one of the most underestimated regions in Europe. After arrival you see beautiful views, delicious food, rich cultural life, well-developed public transport system and affordable prices. All those elements make the trip to the Basque Country one of the best travels ever and you start to think: why Lonely Planet didn’t make it this year’s ‘hot destination’.
San Sebastian: culinary capital of Basque Country
San Sebastian is a touristic Eldorado in the Basque Country. One can be terrified with the abundance of French and Spanish tourists during the rush season. In that time locals escape from the city to the countryside looking for the safe and quiet place. Because there are not so much hostels you have to book a room in advance (we highly recommend A Room in the City). The best time for visiting San Sebastian is spring when nature is awakening or the beginning of autumn when waters of the Biscay Bay are still warm enough for swimming and surfing. In September it is worth to visit San Sebastian Film Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious film events in Europe (all screenings with English and Spanish subtitles!). Old City is a heart of San Sebastian, with its visiting card – a secessionist city hall situated near to the picturesque beach. For those who are interested in the history and Basque tradition there is a TFA museum (free entrance every Tuesday). Don’t forget English audio-guides because most of the information is written in Spanish or Basque. Another touristic attraction is Aquarium, especially underwater tunnel with sharks and crampfish. Yet another impressive part is the part of museum dedicated to the history of Basque sailing and whale hunting.
Beyond any doubt, one of the biggest attractions of San Sebastian is Basque cuisine. It is enough to say, that according to some culinary critics San Sebastian remains the best city in the world in terms of cuisine (16 local restaurants hold Micheline stars!). Pinchos is San Sebastians’ specialty. It is a small snack made of a loaf of French baguette with different kinds of seafood, meet, cheese and vegetable on the top. Basically, everything can be put on the pinchos, and sometimes there are a lot of ingredients, so it needs to be kept with a wooden toothpick. When you enter a bar, you get a plate from barman and you are free to combine your own pincho-set for your taste. Prices range from 2 to 4 Euro per pincho (it usually depends on products it is made of – seafood is a little more expensive than meat). After dozen of bars being advised by A room in the City Hostel and Lonely Planet here are our favorites: Baztan (Calle Puerto St. 8; prices start from 2,50 Euro), Casa Senra (San Francisco St. 32; prices start from 2,50; try delicious pincho with caramelized onion!), Casa Vergara (Mayor St. 21 offering the best price-to-value ratio, as pinchos start from 2 Euro; and they cook perfect tortilla) and Atari (Mayor St. 16). However, for an early breakfast – a cup of coffee with croissant or fresh toast (for 2.5 Euro) you can drop in Zinema Corner which is situated in the Gros district (Plaza Pinares 1). On Thursday go for pitcho pote to the Gros district. That time most of the bars sell a pincho with a drink (usually beer or wine) for as small as 2 Euro. To be honest, that pinchos are rather easy than those sold for normal price, however, still worth to go. Most of the bars you will find along San Frantzisko St. and Zabaleta St. Last but not least, local pastries are as good as pincho bars – try caramelized cupcakes with almonds on the top which are served in Pasteleria Izar which operates since 1949 (Mayor St. 2).
Around San Sebastian
However one day of strolling around San Sebastian streets is (almost) enough to have an overall view of the city, exploration of its surroundings requires much more time. Going west, one of the most catchy places is a small town Zumaia (approx.. 30 km from San Sebastian). There are outstanding cliffs which look like the pages from a book. Indeed, there are many secrets hidden between them, one of which is the mystery of dinosaurs extinction. The cliffs (so-called flysch) can be seen from different places, but the best way to explore the surroundings is to take a walk from San Telmo chapel to the nearest viewpoint (approx. 30 minutes by walk). If you come during the grape harvesting, you can visit vineyards too. Some of the most interesting trails around Zumaia you will find here. Another charming place is a small harbor town Getaria which is only 10 kilometers far from Zumaia. In the downtown you can see people playing pelota, which is traditional Basque sport. It looks like a combination of tennis and squash. Different pelota tournaments take place during holidays. Once being in Getaria, don’t miss the walk along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to Zarautz (about 1 hour). On the way you may see surfers trying to ride powerful waves. South of Zumaia is located Azpeitia, one of the most important religious places on the Basque map as well as a birthplace and basilica of Ignacio Loyola, the founder of Jesuits order. However, the basilica itself is not the most impressive from the outside, it remains pretty impressive inside. The town of Azpeitia lies at the foot of the Erlo mountain (1030 meters) . Possible hiking roots to the top of the mountain (about 2 hours) you can find here or here.
Not far east from San Sebastian you may find a lot of attractions too. During sunny days a walk along the coastline from San Sebastian to Pasaia is the perfect choice. The trail has many alternative routes leading to the hidden places which you will not find in touristic brochures. In half way we advise to leave the main trail and climb on the big scarp (which is visible on our pictures). The trail starts in San Sebastian in the Gros district – exactly on the crossing of Larramendi St. and Zemoria St. (near the petrol station). You should climb the stairs and follow red-white signs. The whole trail is approx. 8 kilometers long and takes about 2,5-3 hours. If you have more time, you can take a longer, 22 kilometers hike (about 9 hours) from Pasaia to Hondarriba. The trail goes along the Atlantic Ocean and directs you to the very first peak of the Pyrenees – Jaizkibel (547 meters). Here you will find detailed description of the trail.
Another popular place for hiking are the Crown of Three Kings (Les Trois Couronnes in French) which Basque names are slightly more complicated to pronounce: Irumugarrieta (806 meters), Txurrumurru (826 meters) and (836 meters). The trail starts just behind the parking lot, not far from ruins of Castillo del Ingles fortress (check out a map). It shouldn’t take you more than two hours there and back. The detailed description of the trail you can find here. Most of the places in Basque country are reachable with public transport delivered by Lurralade Bus (e.g from San Sebastian to Pasaia: 1,70 Euro; San Sebastian to Basilica of Loyola: 5 Euro). As a result, there is no need to rent a car.
The Basque Mountains: take a more challenging hike
Despite being rather low mountains (the highest peak Aizkorri is 1551 metres), the Basque Mountains will definitely satisfy beginners as well as experienced hikers. The most picturesque mountain is Txindoki (Larrunarri in Basque; 1346 metres) which is called the Basque Matterhorn thanks to it specific shape. Start your hiking from a small village of Larraitz. You can get there by bus from Alegia or Tolosa (we took the Tolosadea bus; 1.70 Euro one way). The buses are going every hour, to check schedule click here. The way back is, however, more challenging – as there are not many tourists going there, the buses’ last stop is one village before. Thus, before going to the mountains, write down Tolosaldea phone number (900 234 555) and call them about an hour before you get to the parking lot at the foot of a mountain – the public bus will come for you. Otherwise, you have to walk for two kilometres to the nearest village Abrizkieta which is a stop for regular busses to/from Alegia and Tolosa. Yet, it is worth to try hitchhiking (as we did). The way to the top of the mountain takes about 2-2.5 hours of intensive climbing. The most difficult is the last part with its sharp rocks and it is definitely not recommended to climb in bad weather conditions – even dazzling rain may cause difficulties during hiking last kilometers. All in all, the trail is about ten kilometers long. On the way you won’t find any shelters or any means of civilization – only pure nature.
Coming back via hitchhiking from Larraitz to San Sebastian we have met a Basque who had hiked all the Basque Mountains. He recommended us more interesting trails in the vicinity of Txindoki. One of them is Ernio (1078 meters) which you can reach from Iturrioz (4km, 1.5 hours), Errezil (4km; 1.5 hours) or Larraul (15,5 km; 4.5 hours). Some pictures from the hike you may see here. Another mountain is Aitxuri (1551 meters) which is the highest mountain in the Basque Country. To reach the top, start in Aranzazu village (8,2 km; 2,5 hours). For more information about mountains and trails in the Aizkorri-Aratz National Park, click here.
Bilbao: art and industry in Basque Country
The largest city in the Basque country is Bilbao with the population of about million people. It is situated not far from The Biscaya Bay and surrounded by the mountains. The biggest attraction and symbol of the city is the Guggenheim Museum which has in its collection works of the most prominent artists (e.g Andy Warhol). On the other side of the river there is an impressive building of the Deusto University, where the famous ETA, an organization fighting for the Basque independence, was established. Another must visit places are the Old City and Viscaya Bridge (the latter was UNESCO-listed in 2006). This metal construction is one of the greatest reminiscence of the Industrial Revolution ever made. In XIX and XX century, thanks to the steel industry, Bilbao became the second (after Barcelona) most important economic and industrial hub in Spain. Football fans should visit San Mames, the stadium of Athletic Bilbao which is surrounded with dozens of thematic bars and shops selling club souvenirs. During matchday visit Lizentziatuaren St. which leads to the stadium – it is crowded with singing, drinking and partying football fans. Street art lovers should explore the city for murals – we provide you with a map with some locations marked.
Food enthusiasts should try local pinchos (the prices are slightly lower than San Sebastian). On the way from the coach station to the downtown we advise to visit the bar Juantxu (Licenciado Poza St. 39) or Zaharra (Pozas St. 39; during breakfast hours you can get a pincho with a cup of coffee for 2,50 Euro). Bilbao is full of cafes waiting for you to try different kinds of Basque pastries – the most delicious (and traditional for the northern part of the Basque Country) is gâteau Basque stuffed with delicious almond pudding.
Around Bilbao: Basque Country off the beaten track
Same as San Sebastian, Bilbao is a perfect starting point for discovering Basque interior. Just one hour away is Guernika – a historical seat of the Basque parliament. Thanks to the one of the most famous artworks by Pablo Picasso, the town of Guernika became famous all over the world. You can see a copy of the Picasso’s painting carved in stone. Nevertheless, the most interesting place is Casa de Juntas, the seat of Viscaya authorities. To get to Guernika, you can take a bus nr 3514 or 3115 that leaves from the Zabalburu railway station in Bilbao (one way ticket costs 1.70 Euro). Another interesting place in the close vicinity of Bilbao is Gaztelugatxe de San Juan, a small island on the shore of the Biscaya Bay. Though it is pretty difficult to go there by public transport, it is definitely worth to visit. Take bus or train to Bermeo and then walk (about 6 km) or catch local bus connecting Bermeo and Bakio. Unfortunately, the bus runs every two hours, so be sure you planned your schedule (the bus goes from Monday to Friday all year long and stops is San Juan de Gaztelugatxe).
We could discover The Basque country thanks to: