The Basque Country

Visiting Bilbao and San Sebastian
Tapas, Sun-Drenched Beaches, Art and Beauty

There'll always be a warm place in my heart for Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. But my true love is the Basque country, blessed with verdant mountain valleys, thousand-acre fields of cultivated lavender, sun drenched beaches, haute cuisine and a metropolitan sophistication that rivals London and Paris. It is a very special corner of the world that only insiders seem to know about. No wonder the people who live there are so happy, so genuinely friendly.

guggenheim musem bilbao

Port of entry is Bilbao, renowned for its Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum. The glittering facade is outré, wild looking. Clad in thin titanium sheets that shimmer, twist and curve, the edifice appears imminently poised to take flight. Within resides an impressive permanent collection. Just a short walk up the hill lies the Belles Artes museum, one of the more impressive in Europe. Tip: Spending a paltry few Euros for a guided tour in either place breathes life into the works of art.

In Bilbao accommodations range from about €30 to €300 (Euros)per night. See www.Euskadi.net for a comprehensive listing of availabilities and prices. Two favorites are the new Sheraton Hotel and the Hostal Begoña, positioned on opposite ends of town. The Sheraton, a stone's throw from the Guggenheim is eminently comfortable and only moderately expensive. Unlike some European hotel's skimpy breakfasts, the Sheraton morning buffet is particularly satisfying.

Squeaky clean and recently renovated, Hostal Begoña is family run, its room rates a bargain. Even better than price is Bego'as location. Just outside the door are Chinese and Indian restaurants, a Cineplex, an internet cafe, plus a number of taverns offering pintxos (Basque finger food). One block away is public transportation, your choice of either the above ground Euska tren tram, or the Abando subway/railway station. The subway takes you across town and onward to the beach. If you arrive by rail from Madrid, Abando is the last stop.

From Hostal Begoña it's about a 20 minute walk along the Nervion River to the museums, fine restaurants and pintxos bars crowded all around. Or, cross the bridge to Casco Viejo, the medieval side of town where narrow streets are jammed with pintxo bars, restaurants and shopping. Shoes, purses, dresses, and curios and are fairly priced.

Bilbao is a walker's paradise on earth. Traffic is light by European standards. Boulevards are wide, the downtown vital, even after dark. It seems everyone walks here. My favorite pathway skirts both sides of the Rio Nervion, which split's the city in two, like the Seine does Paris. Walking the left bank from Casco Viejo to the Sheraton or Guggenheim takes about a half hour.

From Bilbao, the 112 mile coastline arcs easterly toward the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Along the way are 42 beaches, each with its own distinctive personality. For surfers, Mundaka boasts the best left hand curl in all of Europe. Zarautz, the longest beach, stretches for more than a mile and a half. The crown jewels of the empire are found in the resort town of San Sebastian. Its crescent shaped beach front is considered superior to the Riviera because it's fine, golden sand, not pebbles. Then there's the food.

basque cuisine Everybody eats well in this gourmand's enclave where there are more Michelin Guide stars than ought to be legal. Some restaurants are sit-down fancy. Others are less formal. Just like in Bilbao, the pub crawl is popular for partaking small glasses of wine and pintxos. Snack, drink, laugh, and jabber with friends and strangers, then move on. There are as many varieties of pintxos as there are stars in the heavens. Ham, cheese, foie gras, sausage, tuna, olives, eggs, garlic sprouts, salmon, potato salad and a million other foods are prepared in a dizzying array of hors d'oeuvres. Some of the preparations are as simple as the sea is salt. Some are elaborate. Try as you might, there's never enough vacation time to sample one of everything.

At a more formal setting consider cod. The Basques are legendary seafarers who were taking codfish by the boatload from American waters before Christopher Columbus' great grandfather was born. Suffice it to say seafood plays an integral role in the local cuisine. Bacalao pil-pil is cod served with a creamy salsa verde (olive oil and garlic). Bacalao Vizcaina, cod smothered in a red sauce concocted from tomatoes, red onions and sun dried red peppers. Merluza, or hake, is another famous entré. American, Continental and Asian cuisine are widely available.

Local wines are big in the Basque country. Txakoli, a light and fruity white wine is the perfect accompaniment to fresh seafood. Blood red Rioja, one of the most highly regarded varieties in the world, is made from black Tempranillo grapes. Certain wineries, like Marques de Riscal, offer tours of their vineyards and cellars, a delightful day trip away from the beach when the sun isn't shining.

Accommodations in San Sebastian range from affordable to expensive. My favorite, the Maria Cristina, is an old world delight. Guest rooms exude an ambiance from a by gone era. Evenings I felt compelled to wear a jacket and tie to dinner and half expected to see royalty seated at table next to mine. One night I did. Maria Cristina is close to the beaches and the pintxos bars. For high rollers with money to burn it's a midsumer's night stroll to Casino Kursaal.

Less expensive, but nonetheless charming, is Pension Aida, also located conveniently close to the beach and train station. Clean, comfortable and with goodly proportioned rooms there's satellite TV, internet access and bicycles for rent.

Finally, high up on the hill, overlooking the Bay of Biscay, is the Monte Igueldo campground where budget travelers ride the bus into town.

Timothy Banse