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Bilbao...was a surprisingly fun place to visit. As the gateway to Spanish Basque Country, we chose to fly in here, but we really only intended to see the Guggenheim and then get out. Luckily, we decided to take an additional day to explore and found the place very likeable.
What did we do:
1. Visited the Guggenheim Museum. In truth, we found the building itself to be the most compelling work of art. Even so, it is necessary to experience the place from the inside as well as outside. It is closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly. Don't come to Bilbao and miss the Guggenheim!!
2. Explored Casco Viejo (the old town).
This relatively small area of narrow streets has a lot of character, shops, bars and pintxos. Go to Calle del Perro for good restaurants and bars. We stayed in the hotel Iturrienea Ostatua right in Casco Viejo and found the location perfect. We also enjoyed the hotel and would recommend it, especially given the price.
3. Ate pintxos. Pintxos (or pinchos) are the northern Spain version of tapas or small dishes. Yummy! You will find them in every bar. Typically, they are laid out for the patron to see, and all you need to do is order (or point to) the item you want. It's good to keep track of what you've eaten, as this is often done on a kind of honor system. You can't really avoid pintxos, and I'm not sure why you would. Since restaurants open so late by non-Spanish standards, it is often necessary to eat pintxos in a bar in order to find sustenance before 9 PM.
4. Drank txakoli. Txakoli is a Basque regional white wine. When in Spanish Basque country, you must try it. Tradition has the bartender hold the glass low while pouring txakoli from the bottle fairly high above the glass.
5. Ate Idiazabal, a Spanish Basque region cheese made from sheep milk. We had it smoked and non smoked.
6. Strolled along the river from Casco Viejo toward the Guggenheim. The riverfront re-development is wonderful. What (apparently) was once a polluted, industrial waste land is now a delightful place to stroll or people watch as the whole of Bilbao comes out on Sunday afternoons to walk along their revitalized river.
7. Took the funicular up the hill for a bird's eye view of all of Bilbao.
We rented a car in Bilbao and headed for the coast. On the way there, we passed through the town of Gernika (or Guernica). Keep in mind that in Basque Country, every place has both a Basque name and a Spanish name. This can cause a bit of confusion, especially where the Spanish place names have been painted over. Remember, there are those who would prefer that Basque Country NOT be part of Spain and they try and remove the Spanish names from road signs when they can. Just something to keep in mind.
Gernika (or Guernica) is worth a stop if for no other reason than to visit the Gernika Museum of Peace. Gernika opposed Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and as a result, in 1937, Franco allowed a German Luftwaffe squadron to bomb the town with the intent of totally obliterating it. Apparently this was kind of a practice run for things to come later during World War II. Most of the city was in fact destroyed and the event inspired one of Picasso's most famous paintings, 'Guernica', currently housed at the Reina Sofia Art Museum in Madrid.
Yes, it is a rather sobering museum, but an important one, I think. Interestingly, the day we visited, there was a large group of Japanese visitors in town doing a kind of "peace tour" around the world.
The museum also provides some information on the ongoing Basque separatist movement.
From Guernica, we headed up to the coast to the small, sleepy village of Lekeitio. Here, there is no escaping the fact that this is Basque Country. We stayed at the Emperatriz Zita Hotel, right on the water, and walked around the harbor. A large group of young people had been rowing in the sea, and as they put their boats away, we realized that everyone was speaking Basque. These were folks in their 20s, maybe into their 30s. On the other hand, when we needed help finding our hotel, all the older folks we approached were speaking Spanish. In Bilbao, we didn't hear nearly as much Basque as we heard here.
It's a very quiet little town, very peaceful, with some nice views of the sea. We enjoyed a glass of txakoli at an outdoor patio overlooking the sea and the harbor.
Most boats in the harbor flew Basque flags, and we saw more spray painted "messages" with the word ETA here than anywhere else.
At any rate, the people here were very friendly, very helpful, and when we did speak Spanish (even to younger people) they responded in Spanish and didn't seem to hold it against us (that we weren't speaking Basque). At the hotel, people spoke English too, so not to worry.
There did not seem to be a whole lot for visitors to do here, so our one night stay was just about perfect for us.
We continued on, choosing not to stay in San Sebastian but instead in the smaller, "more manageable" Hondarribia. I believe "more manageable" is how Rick Steves described Hondarribia--and it was. We are glad we took his advice.
Hondarribia is a lovely little town of about 15,000 people right on the French border. Now, I have seen some references in books, etc, stating that "Fuentarribia" is the Spanish name for Hondarribia, but I don't recall ever seeing the word Fuentarribia used in the region.
Hondarribia has two parts: the older walled portion, and the part of town outside the wall, down the hill and nearer the water. We stayed at Hotel Obispo inside the wall. My review for that hotel is already posted on TripAdvisor. In a nutshell: it's a great place.
Our hotel gave us a map with a walking tour of the old walled city which takes you by the beautiful Parador which is in an old castle (!), small plazas, and narrow (always narrow) streets of brightly painted houses that in places look almost Bavarian. We went out one night inside the walled portion of town, and there was not much happening. Most of the bars were pretty empty EXCEPT, in each and every bar, the few patrons were glued to the tv watching a soccer match. We had a pinxto in one bar then headed to another to watch the game (Barcelona vs an English team--sorry, don't remember which one, but Barcelona won).
The next night we headed outside the wall and walked along Txingudi Bay where we could see across to France. Then we went in search of restaurants/bars and found that it was pretty quiet outside the old walled city too. This was May, so maybe the town remains quiet until the tourists come later in the summer.
Okay, this isn't Spain. But it IS Basque Country. Hondarribia is SOOOO close to France, and we'd never been, so we had to do a day trip to France. And, of course, Bayonne is known for its chocolate, so how could we NOT go??
First we had lunch at a restaurant in Bayonne called Gernika. Great people and good food. This was not a fancy place, but they served up a nice lunch and were wonderful considering we spoke not a word of French, and they spoke no English and virtually no Spanish AND we showed up at Spanish lunch time (2:15) which is after French lunch time, and technically, they weren't even still serving lunch. Now, how's that for service....
Then we went to the Basque Museum of Bayonne with the largest collection of Basque artifacts anywhere--It's definitely worth a visit, but the interpretive signs are written in Basque, French, and Spanish. Unlike most other museums where English is included, it isn't here. They will sell you a brochure in English, but they seem not to speak English OR Spanish at the museum. Communication was a challenge.
Finally, the highlight of our day:
We went to two chocolate shops and had a cup of the house chocolate at the salon of the famous Cazenave Chocolatier. Yum, Yum, Yum. This chocolatier was founded over 150 years ago and we felt privileged to get to visit.
The work of the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida is displayed on the grounds of a beautiful outdoor museum 12 km from San Sebastian. We visited the museum on our way from Hondarribia to Laguardia.
Absolutely worth a visit.
Laguardia, in the heart of La Rioja Alavesa wine country, was our last stop in Basque Country.
Like Hondarribia, Laguardia is a walled medieval ciy. Only, here, almost all of the city is within the walls. The setting is spectacular--a beautiful little town perched on a hill surrounded by vineyards and gorgeous mountains. You couldn't ask for a prettier setting. We were unable to get a room inside the walled town, so we had to stay at Villa Laguardia, a 5 minute walk down the road. We'd recommend Villa Laguardia, but it is not particularly special. All of our other hotels had some historic charm, and this one didn't, but otherwise it was a perfectly fine hotel.
Unlike trips to wine country in, say, California, where it is perfectly okay to pop on in to visit wineries with no advance notice, here, it is necessary to make reservations to visit any of the "bodegas". We were able to visit only one, El Fabulista, one of the last bodegas that still operates from within the walls of the old walled city. It is possible to reserve a tour in English here, and we'd recommend it highly. We also visited a wine center, Villa Lucia, that we probably wouldn't recommend. It was more gimmicky and touristy than truly educational, in our opinion.
And the wine, well, it was wonderful! Here, it is possible to get really good wine for a very reasonable price. However, we had our most expensive meal of our trip in this town, surprisingly. We ate at the Hotel Castillo el Collado and decided to splurge. We had been eating mostly at bars throughout the trip, as the late night dinner was too much for us, but here, we went all the way and did the tasting menu. It was good and we would recommend it.