At last I am back with pictures of my recent trip to the Basque country. I expect this trip will be the first of many Rick Steves’ tours for me. We were a group of 20 with a wonderful guide, Francisco a/k/a Fran or “Patchy” (sounds like his nickname in the Basque language Euskara). Many in our group had taken multiple RS Tours and I now know why. We covered a lot of territory in a short week, had a wonderful time, ate and drank very well and had terrific local guides everywhere we went – not to mention our great traveling companions, access to some RS exclusives like dinner at a private dining club – off limits to other tourists – and a bonus side trip to Pamplona, our guide’s home town. Yes, that's where they run the bulls every year (and, yes, he’s run it many times). It was the perfect mix of interesting organized activities and free time to do what we wished.
We began our tour in Bayonne, France. After a long train
ride from St. Gallen, Switzerland, my friend Starr and I arrived late the night
before our tour so we spent our first morning and afternoon exploring (and
shopping) on our own. We lucked into a terrific first lunch at
Brasserie Les Arcades where we ordered Assiette Pils Pils, a Basque dish loaded with the tiniest, sweetest mussels
I’ve ever eaten along with slices of local sausage, little tender squid, steamed potatoes (we didn’t know it included potatoes so mistakenly ordered pommes frites) in a sweet pepper sauce that was divine! With bread and wine we were off to a good start.
When our tour began we would learn that the Basque Jews were
the first importers of chocolate to Europe and wonderful chocolate shops abound
Here some local children were having a lesson on the intricacies of making chocolates and I found my favorites - candied orange slices dipped in dark chocolate. Sublime!
I was seduced by these Bocage “tango” shoes even before our tour began and both of us found scarves to add to our collections. We met our group for dinner on Saturday evening.
Our fabulous guide thought it funny that I take pictures of food and wine on my trips so he posed for me.
predate the pre-Christian era and originally worshiped Mother Nature (they are
This painting depicts a folk dance, an inspiration for what became ballet in France. Chocolate and ballet! These Basques were becoming more interesting all the time. Jai Lai (among many other ball sports) is also a Basque invention.
In my pre-tour research I found a website for a town called La Pernia in northwest Spain. The website cited a population of 440 but didn’t relate much more information. I asked our various guides about it but none seemed familiar with the town. Later Patchy searched his iPhone and told me that La Pernia is actually not in Basque country but in nearby Palencia. He also told me that there was a large migration of Basques to the Philippines for the fishing in days gone by. I wonder if my former husband’s people came from this part of Spain by way of the Philippines?
After our tour of the city and of the museum we had some free time so a
group of us went for lunch along the river. I ordered a plate of tapas (Pinxtos
– pronounced peenchos - in Euskara)
that was so huge I couldn’t eat it all. Thanks to our new friend Cal who treated a table full of ladies! Two lunches in a row had proven that Basque portions are large and delicious.
We were free in the afternoon but our guide had business in St. Jean-de-Luz and offered to show us the way by train. This picturesque beach town where Louis XIV was married was a fun addition to our day.
The next morning we took our bus to St. Jean Pied de Port
where the Camino Santiago begins.
Here my new friend, Susie, poses with Starr and the Basque linens the area is famous for. We also found more chocolate and an intriguing spice shop (as seamen, Basques were big traders and the pilgrims on the The Way were customers).
I loved this interesting planter arrangement.
We stopped along the way to San Sebastian for lunch at a
hotel that really challenged our ability to pack away food. I believe it was at
least a 7 course lunch but I really lost track as the wine flowed liberally in
this Rioja region.
I did snap a picture of our delicious first course, a cold sort of gazpacho with a cream and pimento base topped with local jamon (ham) and green peppers. Yum!
I also remember that we had two desserts and this was just one of them.
When we arrived in San Sebastian our first stop was a hilltop view and then a ride down on the 100 year old funicular. This set us down at an intriguing park with
amazing geological formations,
a Wind Comb sculpture and blow holes that gave us a thrill or two.
Here Starr is having a “Marilyn Monroe Moment.”
I loved every place we went on this trip but if I had to choose just one place to return to I think it would be San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque). It is a gorgeous city on La Concha Bay off the Bay of Biscay with a picturesque Old Town, great shopping, beautiful 19th century buildings (Napolean’s troops burned it down so the really old buildings are mostly gone), a beautiful beach and surfing. We’d just missed George Clooney and Tommy Lee Jones who’d been there the week before for the International Film Festival. Drat!
Our first night in San Sebastian we went for a tour of several bars for pinxtos. Patchy introduced us to a local young wine known as Txakoli (pronounced chahkolee) poured theatrically from a height into tumblers to aerate it. Txakoli goes very well indeed with the vast array of pinxtos. Apparently the Basques downsized from whales to cod (still very popular here) to sardines and finally to anchovies. What a great way to eat, cruising from one bar to the next, having a glass and a snack, visiting with friends, and then moving on to another bar with another specialty of the house. Delicious!
We walked to the old seaport, through the old town and by beautiful buildings sponsored by the Infanta Maria Cristina who came to San Sebastian to bathe on doctor’s orders for her exzema. It became a royal hangout for good reason. I loved watching the surfers in wetsuits on bicycles with their surfboards tucked under their arm. We had to be very careful in the bicycle lanes.
I’d asked Fran where would be a good place to buy a Basque beret (La autentica boina vasca) and he asked if I wanted the real thing rather than the tourist berets sold everywhere. Of course! He told me he knew just the place in San Sebastian. Then he went above and beyond my request, visiting the shop and researching all the types and qualities they had on offer and even told me their top price. So I purchased their top quality beret made by a family company in the Village of Tolosa who celebrated their 150 year anniversary in 2008. I asked Fran if the Basques invented the beret but he said no. They only adopted it. Of course, it is traditionally a man’s hat but that didn’t stop me. Starr also found a cute cloche which suited her in the same shop.
Our last evening in San Sebastian we were treated to dinner in a private dining club. These clubs were originally “men only” but now accept a few women who are nevertheless not allowed in the kitchen. We had a delicious meal and broke all RS tour records on our wine consumption.
Here is our host and chef!
Off to walk the Camino Santiago we stopped for a photo op in the Pyrenees. Since we were so near Patchy decided to show us his hometown of Pamplona and tell us about the running of the bulls.
He couldn’t resist trying on my beret and I do think it suits him better than me. Despite all the drama did you know that most injuries are caused – not by the bulls – but by youngsters in flip flops cutting up their feet in the crowds of champagne drinking (and littering) bystanders? Fran told us he ran the bulls from age 17 until he turned 30 when his daughter was born. Not being the macho type, I would avoid Pamplona when that packed with tourists.
While in Pamplona we stopped off for a coffee/bathroom break at one of the many bars where Hemingway drank and wrote and I spotted this pilgrim by her fantastic walking stick! She was just embarking on The Way and turned out to be from Baltimore. When Tina heard I was from Arlington, Virginia she asked me to carry back an extra jacket mistakenly packed in her backpack. I agreed and hope to connect with her after her pilgrimage to hear how her adventure went.
We also saw a redwood tree in Pamplona, a gift from the United States (Is that how Germany and Switzerland got the ones we saw there?). It had been struck by lightening and was deemed a loss by all the tree experts but a homeopath advised one last ditch effort that proved to save the tree so it is still thriving.
We would see another tree in Guernica but first we would spend a day walking the Camino Santiago, for centuries a religious pilgrimage but now a quest by many who simply want to walk with some meditative time or lose some weight.
The whole Camino takes over a month to walk and several of our clients advised me to see the Emilio Estevez film, The Way, before I took this trip. I enjoyed it and watched the film twice. I also enjoyed El Camino Santiago and may go back someday.
We stopped for lunch along The Way at a little family vineyard. This family winery in the Navarra region has been in business since the 12th century. We were served their delicious red wine along with an outstanding lunch made from what grows on their property.
We encountered this Ermita de Santa Maria de Eunate along The Way where, it turns out, our tour guide was married! He said there is a tradition that anyone who is married here stays married (or is thwarted before the wedding happens). Whatever the mythology, it is a beautiful gothic structure in seemingly the middle of nowhere but there are many respites along way for pilgrims on the Camino Santiago.
The next morning we were on our way to Guernica but stopped at this little fishing town of Getaria, home of Juan-Sebastian de Elcano. Remember that bit in geography class about Magellan being the first to circumnavigate the globe? Well, the truth is he didn’t make the whole trip but died in the Philippines. It was the Basque sailor Juan-Sebastian del Elcano, a hell-raiser who was apparently taken out of the brig because he was the only one who could sail the ship home. Eight of the original crew made it back thanks to him.
It was late morning and I was hungry (again!) so instead of
coffee I indulged in another pinxto - and the most delicious of my trip
– fresh anchovies on a sweet pimento with a sprinkle of fresh garlic on bread (sigh). As if I needed a reason to come back, Patchy made a point on the bus that Getaria was also the hometown of Cristobal Balenciaga, a fabulous couture designer of the 40s and 50s. There is a museum dedicated to him in Getaria (alas, not on our tour!) with a whole section devoted to hats!
Guernica was bombed in 1937 by Hitler with Franco’s collusion as a practice run for Nazi bombing techniques later used on London. Apparently, they thought it would all be kept very quiet but the newspapers got wind of it and Picasso painted his famous anti-war painting Guernica as a result. The painting, for many years at MOMA in the U.S. while Franco still reigned, is now located in Madrid but we saw a full size replica done in tiles on a public wall in Guernica. Very moving!
Another great local guide took us through the Assembly House where members from the various Basque regions meet regarding important issues. In the old days, before telephone and telegraph, members had 20 days from the time that bonfires were lit from hilltops and the ram’s horn was blown, to get to where members met under an oak tree. The original tree has since died but they have maintained an oak tree as a symbolic part of the Assembly and we saw the young replacement.
Our guide brought a ram’s horn and demonstrated the technique for making the rousing noise. Several of us took turns trying to get the thing to toot like a horn. And guess who had the most success? Somehow, I figured what the thing needed was an old fashioned “raspberry” into the horn and I made a joyful noise – not once but twice. Perhaps I should take up the trumpet, after all. Not!!
Then on to Bilbao.
Our first view of the largest city on our tour, was from this hilltop with a thumbprint art piece setting the tone. Once settled into our hotel we walked around the old town section, past the cathedral and on to
Victor Montes for more pintxos and a Txakoli.
Friday morning we headed out early for a walk to the Guggenheim.
I was looking forward to seeing this museum for the amazing Frank Gehry structure but was skeptical about the art, since I’m not normally a huge fan of modern art. I was to be very surprised.
The first but only disappointment to my mind was that “Puppy” in front of the museum was undergoing a twice yearly changing of the plantings that coat this giant West Highland Terrier sculpture, a tribute to “sentimentalism.” It takes two days to change out the plants and wouldn’t you know that’s when we were there. Oh well, plenty more to see.
This stunning building is covered in sheets of titanium and glass. Bilbao, once a steel and shipbuilding industrial city, dreamed up and reinvented itself around this museum when those industries moved elsewhere. It is an astounding accomplishment.
The building is evocative of the ships once built here and the fishing that drove the shipbuilding trades. Everywhere you look the building seems to change inside and out and it is beautiful.
We were guided on a tour of the permanent collection which, much to my surprise, I liked very much. Outside there are sculptures,
one incorporating a nearby bridge, another a giant spider called “Mother” which these school children were very involved with.
The girls were hugging her legs and the little boys were trying to push her over. Hourly there is a mist happening as an artistic installation and at night there are fire fountains (which we did not see during the day). We had free time in the afternoon and opted to have lunch in their excellent cafe.
We especially enjoyed the Sangria!
Inside I was most taken with the Richard Serra installation named La materia del tiempo. We walked the first piece, called “the snake” which was mesmerizing like walking a maze. I went back after lunch to walk the six other mazes in the group and consider this my “Wow Moment” of the tour. We were not permitted to take pictures of the artwork due to copyright issues so you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.
Too soon we had our last dinner celebration with the group (Where did the week go?!?)
and it was sad to say good-bye to our traveling companions. Hopefully, some of us will meet again on other tours and a few of us are already planning reunions.
Some of us weren’t flying out until Sunday so we had a
little more time to explore. Susie and I found a street full of “mercerie”
shops on Calle Arte. Starr, you should
have seen them all! Susie and I also
headed back to the large department store where I’d seen a jacket I couldn’t
stop thinking about.
I bought it and we prowled the aisles to check out other goodies including a Carolina Herrera boutique which felt like a chapel! I had no more room in my suitcase and can’t afford CH anyway but it was fun to see.
Our intrepid guide had mentioned that “the best flamenco dancer in Spain” was performing at the theater across from our hotel. Carlene, Susie and I managed to snag tickets to see Sara Baras on our last night in Bilbao. It was an amazing end to our wonderful tour.