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The Basque Country


After a night in Barcelona, we woke early and hopped on the high speed train across the country to San Sebastian. It was a brilliant way to see the countryside, the sun rising over the vineyards of Catalonia as we exited the city was a sight to see. As we climbed higher and built speed – eventually hitting roughly 250 kilometers per hour (155MPH) – the grapevines and castles gave way to orchards, corn and eventually wheat and sheep. We were all pretty tired after only a few hours of sleep the night before – clocks still on California time – but there was too much action to sleep on the train. The kids were pretty enamored with the cafe carriage, where one could order everything from fresh muffins to baguettes filled with camembert and iberian ham. We arrived in San Sebastian around 1:00PM and walked across town to pick up the keys to our home for the next four nights, all pretty shot after our journey but excited to explore the bustling center of Spanish Basque country.

San Sebastian is famous for its gourmet food, one of the most concentrated Michelin-recognized towns in the world on a per capita basis. One of the main attractions are the pintxo bars in the old town, all of them competing for the tourist dollar with creative displays of iberian ham, seafood, gourmet mushrooms and a host of other delicacies. It was a lot of fun popping into each establishment, grabbing a plate and sampling one or two of the offerings, the kids loved it. Some seriously good food. Both kids were in love with the local chorizo, cured anchovies and ham croquettes. The prosciutto endemic to this area of the country was also quite special.

My attempt to keep everyone somewhat on California time was pretty successful: the kids slept for 15 hours straight on our first night in San Sebastian, all of us waking at almost 11:00AM the first morning! The Basques – as with the rest of Spain (so I’m told…) – run on a relatively late schedule, with dinner festivities not really getting underway until at least 8:00PM. The best of the Basque fare in San Sebastian’s old town starts to roll out around that time of night, so having the kids in bed at 7:00PM just wasn’t going to work… On our first day in town after a leisurely breakfast in our apartment and a morning (just) coffee stop, we explored the underground markets of La Bretxa before then hopped on the bus to Ondaretta. There’s a funicular from Ondaretta up to the peak of Mount Iguelo, a fun adventure given it was quite cool on our first full day in town. The steepness of the track was pretty astonishing, amazing views from up on top.

Next to the main port of San Sebastian is an aquarium that honors the seafaring traditions of the area as well as being host to a range of local sea life. The museum portion of the visit detailing the history of fishing in this part of the world was quite impressive, the kids were full of questions about all the scale models of fishing trawlers with their nets dragging behind them. The actual aquarium portion of the visit was exceptionally done as well, definitely on par with the California Academy of Sciences. The tunnel through the largest tank was awesome, the kids thought it was pretty cool to have a 10 foot shark swim over their heads!

More late night pintxos and some seafood for dinner, followed by visit to a playground next to a 500 year old church (San Vicente). There’s a quaint cafe next to San Vicente, where I was able to grab a €2 glass of red and a delectable slice of apple tort while the kids expended the last of their energy for the day. A little surreal sitting there at 9:30PM next to a playground with a glass of wine, but I guess when in Rome Spain…

Walking through the center of San Sebastian on the morning of our third day in town made me realize just how exceedingly fashionable the Spaniards are. I felt like a hobo waling around in my jeans and t-shirt. Especially the older women: never a hair out of place, beautiful clothes and they all hold themselves with such elegance. It must take them ages to prepare for each day… The clothing boutiques of central San Sebastian match the style of the locals, the quaint terraces of town are littered with designer stores for every budget, I could have definitely spent some time poking around but I’m pretty sure that would not have gone over well with the other two members of my party.

Instead of boutique clothes shopping we instead made our way to Amara train station and adventured to the Spanish/French border town of Hendaye. We crossed the last portion of the Pyrenees – the natural border between France and Spain – as the mountains dropped into the ocean and, just like that, were in another country. The transition from Spanish stone facades with wrought iron features to French whitewashed walls and alternating green and red shutters was striking. We’d only traveled a few miles but we were immediately in a different world. While the Schengen zone makes for exceedingly easy travel between euro area countries, it was a bit of an adventure to actually get between towns on different sides of the border. When we disembarked in Hendaye from our Spanish train we walked a few yards into France, but with the French not overly obliging to entertain a language other than their own and train timetables only in French… Well, let’s just say without Google Maps on my phone it would have been a little tricky to actually get to our final destination for the day: Saint Jean de Luz!

Saint Jean de Luz is a picturesque beach town where the fishing industry seems to still flourish, but where tourism no doubt fills the coffers of most of the town’s residents. The main drag is full of quaint cafes, designer boutiques and establishments offering an array of Basque products. Much like San Sebastian, really, just a much smaller scale with French architecture in place of Spanish. With the sun out for us we made a beeline for the sand, where we spent the afternoon enjoying the warm waters of the Atlantic and building sandcastles. Both kids were big fans of the French baguettes we found for lunch, Lilia wanted me to make sure I passed on that fact to Suzanne!

We made our way back to San Sebastian by bus, train and then bus. Like I said, coordination between Spain and France isn’t a strong point in this area of Europe… Took us almost two hours end to end, but the trip was an adventure in itself and we passed the time with some marathon games of “I spy” (Max wins the trophy for changing his object the most times mid-game…). For dinner we had a booking at a famous Basque steakhouse called Gandarias, we attempted to visit the night before but it was booked solid. Gandarias – unlike a lot of the other swanky establishments in old town, which lure customers with their swish presentation and modern food – is a no-nonsense restaurant that offers simple but exquisite Basque fare and appears to have been operating in the old town since the beginning of time. We visited for one thing: steak. And we weren’t disappointed. The t-bones are priced by weight, and at $20.50 per pound, were an absolute steal in my book (considering one can’t even buy a top quality t-bone in the States for the price, let alone have it cooked and served). The local wines – at €2 to €3 per glass – were a great pairing and too easy to keep ordering! Lilia requested more calamari after she rediscovered it the night before, so Max and I opted for a 600 gram (1.3 pound) piece of meat, which was brought out to us prior to cooking for the tick of approval. Served simply with thick cut fries, it was without a doubt one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever eaten. Max was in heaven too. One our way home we ventured into La Viña – a pintxo bar famous for its cheesecake – and sat amongst the din for dessert. Yes, its reputation is well deserved.

We were lucky to be dealt another warm day on day four in Basque country, and opted to take it easy with as much beach time as possible. I’d read about a beach on Isla de Santa Clara – the small island in the middle on San Sebastian’s main bay – that’s only exposed at low tide. We traipsed around old town to grab some souvenirs after breakfast, grabbed some baguettes, and hopped on the small ferry that services the island at 1:00PM just as low tide was hitting. It was a majestic day: no wind and calm water, perfect for enjoying some time on the beach on Santa Clara. There were only a handful of other people there with us, such a great spot. By the time we left – a little over an hour after we’d arrived – the tide was starting to rise and most of the beach had disappeared!

We spent the rest of the day at Playa de la Concha – San Sebastian’s main beach – lapping up the rays, building sandcastles, and frolicking in the crystal clear Atlantic Ocean. With perfect weather like we had, it’s easy to see why the aristocrats of yesteryear and tourists from all over the world flock to Basque country every summer. Awesome.

After burning some serious calories playing at the beach all day, we spent the evening pintxo bar hopping again, revisiting a couple of spots we discovered earlier in the week as well as a few new haunts. By bedtime we’d dined at five establishments, all I could do was laugh at how much food Max consumed. I don’t know where he put it all, he’s such a little unit (those red shorts he was wearing in Saint Jean de Lux are size 12 months). Two prosciutto baguettes, a chorizo sausage, sliced chorizo, cured anchovies, padron peppers, a prawn skewer, two croquettes, a couple of other delicacies I don’t even know how to pronounce… And I’m sure I missed something that he stuffed down along the way. Kid played hard!

We rose early for an 8:50AM flight out of nearby Hondarribia on our last day in Basque country. My flight booking was made through a rewards program so I couldn’t book us in online, when we arrived at the airport I was pretty shattered to hear that the plane was overbooked and we’d been put on standby. The plane back to Barcelona ended up being full so our early morning was all for naught, ended up being bumped to the 1:00PM flight that day. It actually ended up being a small blessing in disguise, as the airport is only a few hundred meters from beautiful medieval old town Hondarribia. The old town has some quaint little cafes – where we had a coffee and some croissants – as well as the majestic Church of Santa María de la Asunción y del Manzano and the Parador de Hondarribia (which used to be one of the castles of Charles V). Definitely want to stay in one of the paradors next time we’re in Spain…

On the 1:00PM flight and a quick hop back to Barcelona, what an awesome week! I had so much fun with these two! Definitely one of my favorite travel adventures of all time. Bittersweet that Mum couldn’t enjoy it with us, we’ll have to bring her back one day when the grapes aren’t calling…

The Basque Country  

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  1. Rebecca Brown says:

    Wow again! What awesome adventure you’ve taken your little people on, nice work Dad! Such a beautiful place, very jealous!

  2. […] took an early train to the Basque country after our night in Sants, an awesome week of food, sun, beaches and culture up there in northern […]

  3. Suzanne says:

    Glad Lilia settled the matter. Nothing better than French baguette!