This Vibrant Northern Province Will Leave You Longing for More
If you’ve spent any time at all exploring the pages of this blog, you’ve probably figured out that Simon, Otto and I are in love with Spain. The diverse landscapes, historic wonders, fascinating architecture, mouth-watering regional cuisines and above all, the warm, friendly people, have captured our hearts. We have traveled through several regions in Spain, and on our most recent visit, we discovered the delights of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. In this post, I will share with you some of the unusual surprises we found in the short time we spent in Basque Country.
Prelude to Basque Country
Before we even set foot in Basque country, we found ourselves on an hour-long drive on a winding road that snaked up a mountain. The name of the village was Laguna de Cameros , and the hotel room we had reserved earlier that evening awaited our tired bodies.
Deciding to wait until we arrived at Hotel Rural Camero Viejo turned out to be a bad idea. Nothing was open by the time we pulled up in front of the hotel, including the hotel restaurant. Fortunately, Daniel, who, along with his wife, Carolina, owned the hotel, took pity on us. The hot pressed ham and cheese sandwiches he made us were like fine dining to our complaining stomachs.
In the light of day, the hotel turned out to be bright and clean. They also served an excellent breakfast, which included some of the best scrambled eggs and chopped ham I’ve ever tasted. And the addition of walnuts made for an interesting variation. For these and many other reasons, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay at Hotel Rural Camero Viejo for more than just one night the next time we’re in the area.
Food and Wine in Elciego
Well rested and well fed, we drove back down the mountain. The winding road wasn’t quite as daunting as it had been the previous evening. We were also able to stop so Simon could capture through the lens of his camera some of the breathtaking views waiting to amaze us around every bend.
Our destination was Elciego, a town located in the south of the Rioja Alavesa region with a distant view of the Cantabrian Range to the north. Our mission was to visit the Marques de Riscal Winery for a tour and tasting.
Since our appointment was at 4:30 PM, we took our time wandering the old city, watching locals performing traditional dances, exploring the market and soaking up the sun.
Our substantial breakfast began to wear off somewhere around 3:00, so we found a couple of stools at a local bar, and enjoyed pottery bowls filled with satisfying, palate-pleasing beans and chorizo.
One of several reasons for visiting the Marques de Riscal Winery was to take a look at what architect extraordinaire, Frank O. Gehry had done with the design of the luxurious Hotel Marques de Riscal, which opened in 2006. Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Biomuseo in Panama City, outdid himself with this project. Unconventional roof angles, shades of red, gold and silver (representing the wine, the bottle netting and the cork foil) and other surprises was an one-of-a-kind experience for the eye.
Another reason was to learn about the history of Marques de Riscal and how its award-winning wines are made. This winery has been an integral part of the Basque landscape since 1858, and now distributes its products in 110 countries.
We learned about the oak barrels, the equipment used to sort, crush and press grapes and the secure chamber containing Marques de Riscal’s impressive private collection of well aged and most treasured wines.
The third reason, of course, was tasting the wine itself. Both the white and red we sampled were gentle on the palate and kind to the taste buds.
Celebrations and Surprises in Pamplona
Because of its close proximity and strong ties with the Basque language and culture, a common error is to place this delightful city in the province. In fact, the city famous for the annual Running of the Bulls is the capital of the province of Navarra. Despite this, I have decided to include Pamplona in our Basque adventure.
Our visit to Pamplona fell on a Sunday. Knowing that most attractions would be closed, we treated ourselves to a rare leisurely morning, and arrived in the historic section of the city around noon. What we found turned out to be one surprise after another.
From the tourist office in the old city we learned the 20th Korrika was ending on that very day. Korrika is an annual 2,500 kilometer race to raise awareness and funds for, the preservation of the Basque language.
During Franco’s reign of terror, children and adults were severely punished if overheard speaking Basque. The language nearly died out, but this annual race is proof of the determination of the Basque people to insure their native language stays alive and thrives.
The pedestrian areas of the old city were alive with parades of men bouncing cow bells on their behinds as they marched, traditional music and sing-alongs and smiling children and adults everywhere. Revelers passed us eating luscious-looking sandwiches, while others drank and dined at tables outside bars and restaurants. But the sweetest scenes of all were of families and friends gathered for picnics at long tables in the street, in doorways or anywhere they saw fit to establish themselves for their feasts.
We could smell all kinds of food cooking, which made us consider our lunch options. But the most delicious fragrance to tickle our noses was that of fresh garlic simmering in olive oil. This was a sure indication that something exceptional was about to be created.
The second piece of information we gleaned from the tourist office was that area pintxo (Basque tapas, pronounced pincho) bars were in competition to claim bragging rights for producing the best pintxos in Pamplona. So, while we participated in the festive mood of the day, we grazed on some outstanding tasting and innovative offerings at various venues.
Beaches and Beach Art in San Sebastian
San Sebastian is a hot spot for Spanish and international tourists. From its sandy beaches to its historic quarter chock full of shops, bars and restaurants, it is much loved by vacationers who want to slow down and relax.
Unfortunately, our morning in San Sebestian was overcast, damp and chilly. The beach was out, except for Simon’s photographs of the Combs of Wind, a series of sculptures by Eduardo Chillida built into the rocks.
We saw day drinkers getting an early start at a bar where we breakfasted on coffee and tuna and anchovy pintxos. Then we walked down to the beach and watched the waves roll in.
For us, the beach is great for a long walk or a quick dip. But sitting for several consecutive days on a beach, then having to deal with residues from salt water and sand, isn’t our idea of fun. However, for those who love the beach, San Sebastian is a perfect place to recharge those internal batteries.
Architecture and Braille in Bilbao
The city of Bilbao is a study in survival. When the Basque separatist group, ETA, was spreading violence throughout the region, the port city was a scene of devastation. Now, it has become a center for art, architecture and another of Spain’s most popular beach towns.
In Basque country, the surprises just kept on coming. In the tourist office, I was asked if I read Braille, and when I answered in the affirmative, was hand a raised line drawing of the town with explanations in Spanish and English.
The three of us took a long walk to see the four sites on our agenda. The first was the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum, another product of Frank O. Gehry’s genius. Clad entirely in titanium, the building is as much a work of art as any of its contents. One of it’s unique features is the wing of the building that runs under a bridge. While visitors admire art, traffic roars above their heads.
Our next stop was Abando train station, which contains a magnificent stained glass window. The panes depicted industrial scenes in a rainbow of brilliant colors.
The art deco exterior of the Santander Bilbao train station turned out to be surprisingly photogenic even on a dull grey day. It was a wonder to see two such fascinating and eye-catching stations only a few blocks apart.
Our last stop was a wander through the market in the older section. The market was a total disappointment. Lined on both sides with bars and restaurants, there wasn’t a fruit or vegetable stand to be seen. Definitely not our kind of market.
Our brief time in Basque country was an adventure to be sure. But we realized there was a great deal more to see. We have a long list of churches, museums, historical buildings and neighborhoods, as well as areas of stunning natural beauty. Now that we have sampled the basque pintxo, we hope to return and indulge ourselves in an entire meal made up of the diverse aspects of this fascinating and friendly region of Spain.
If You Go
Hotel Rural Camero Viejo
Laguna de Cameros
The village dates back to the ninth century, and is surrounded by magnificent walking and hiking trails. The hotel was built in 2005, and is wheelchair accessible.
Marques de Riscal Winery
C/ Torrea 1, 01340
Phone: 945 60 60 00
You’ll need a reservation to take the winery tour and participate in the tasting. The tour and hotel are wheelchair accessible. There is a 12€ charge for the tour and tasting, but it’s well worth it.
For more information and tour hours, visit the Marques de Riscal website.
For more information on attractions and festivals in Pamplona, check out the official tourist website.
To learn more about what there is to see and do in San Sebastian, visit the official tourist website.
Bilbao’s many facets can be accessed at the official tourism website.