Tuggy’s Travels – Basque Country

Picking a holiday this year has been hard, we both work hard and try to do a lot with our spare time that sitting down and talking about where we want to visit just never came to the forefront.

My boyfriend had been to some of the Basque Country in northern Spain before with a group of friends. Knowing I’m a massive foodie he suggested that I would love San Sebastián in particular so we began making a plan to visit. We had rented a car and driven across Crotia 2 years prior and we had an amazing time – I must get round to writing about it, hence the idea of renting a car and doing the same in Spain made sense.

We flew from Edinburgh airport to Santander with Ryanair, it only took 2 hours which was a perfect short flight time. We arrived to pick up our Seat Ibiza which is what we drive at home, except on the other side of the road obviously! We hired via Europcar and we were greeted by a very friendly member of staff who explained everything to us, extra insurance etc. There’s definitely a sense of excitement being in charge of your own car and getting yourself to your hotel of choice. We chose for one person to drive as its approx £100 more to have 2 drivers. Needless to say it wasn’t me who won the job of driver. Gavin did a great job getting us safely to Hotel Santemar, with me as co-pilot. It takes no time at all to drive from the airport to Santander – approx 10 mins. We got to the hotel about 21:45pm. The result of having a car means you have to book parking, unless you want to take the chance of finding your own, we didn’t so we made sure each hotel had a parking option which isn’t a cheap choice as sometimes the parking is extra. Hotel Santemar had an underground garage that we used. The hotel is quite grand and not the cheapest, the breakfast was outstanding however, they cater for everyone’s likes and dislikes. That evening we went out for some food and listened to a local band before calling it a night. There’s been a lot of worry at the moment about the cost of items in Europe due to the recent ‘Brexit,’ however we spent less than €5 on two medium-sized red wines which was cheap as chips! We left in the morning for Bilbao, we’d be back in Santander at the end of our trip so we could see more of it then.

Our first selfie using the selfie stick! Whilst on holiday in Italy last year, it seemed everywhere we looked people had selfie sticks and we were missing a trick! Not so much here, Bilbao is not your typical British tourist haunt (which is a good thing). Nevertheless the selfie stick was a bit of a novelty so we snapped away. Bilbao is beautiful, the buildings and bridges’ architecture are stunning and the Guggenheim museum is just spectacular! We had a stroll around Casco Viejo (the old town) to take in the narrow streets, it was the weekend and there was a band performing in the bandstand which drew in a large crowd. The sun was beating down, it was 29 degrees! 

Everywhere you look the locals are sunbathing on the grass or just reading on a bench, Bilbao has such a relaxed atmosphere, maybe it’s all down to the sun but it’s slow pace is alluring. The highlight of our time in Bilbao was renting bikes and cycling around the city, we did this through Tourne bikes. The man who served us was really friendly, he had been to Edinburgh before and we talked about each of our cities. At the end you get to place a flag where you’re from – I noticed that no one from Perth, Australia had ever rented a bike from there! The city has designated cycle lanes you can travel on, we cycled to the Guggenheim, Bilbao’s art museum, then on to Casilda Iturrizar Parkea (a large park with fountains, a duck pond and cafe). We visited Azkuna Zentroa which is a cultural centre, lots of open space and study rooms and libraries which is perfect for some Sunday reading. We cycled over Zubizuri bridge and we also went up the funicular which is a red cable car you can go up to see great views right over the city. The breeze you get whilst cycling is unbeatable also.
 

Basque is the northern region of Spain’s own language, however Spanish is my go to when communicating, having studied it at school and then again at an evening class, I’d love to improve, as each time I take a class I quickly forget through lack of practice. My crummy Spanish has gotten me by here as English isn’t widely spoken by everyone so making the effort to learn the odd everyday phrase doesn’t hurt and it’s the polite thing to do. By the way we stayed in Hotel Abando which was right smack bam in the centre of town, a great location with underground parking. We didn’t scrimp on the price we wanted good quality. We chose to eat out with the hotel for breakfast and just be aware that our room wasn’t the white book case themed room you see on the website, we had what looked like a standard hotel room, you must have to pay more for the room they advertise on the website.


Pintxos is the Basque word for tapas style eating – it really blew my mind the way that they eat here. You are encouraged to go into a bar, order a drink and some light nibbles. It seems anytime you feel hungry there’s food there which I love as I always feel like I could nibble on something when drinking. We were in Plaza Nueva, which is a large square in the old town where lots of people congregate for the best pintxos, so we did too and above is a few of the samples we had. We went to about 3 or 4 bars and made it our dinner, it was difficult to find a sit down restaurant and it felt like we were taking part in the culture by eating this way. It’s definitely a unique approach, they heat food up in the microwave if you want it hot, I’m not sure I’m crazy about this idea but I’ll keep an open mind until we get to San Sebastián which is described as Spain’s foodie capital. We stumbled upon a series of restaurants later on in the evening so it’s good to know you have the choice. 

San Fermín, Pamplona

I can’t begin to describe how crazy it seems to see bulls running down narrow cobbled Spanish streets alongside people who have voluntary put themselves up to the challenge. Although it’s a blink and you miss it kind of event it’s something unique to Pamplona. Every year from 6th until 14th July, San Fermín is celebrated by the running of the Bulls, parades, music, bullfights and fireworks. It is all in the name of San Fermín, the patron saint of Navarra which is the region Pamplona is in. It’s down to American author Hemingway for pulling in the tourists with his reference to San Fermín in his 1926 novel ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ He himself was a regular visitor to Pamplona. 

American buddies

So Gav and I got in on the action and rented a third floor balcony to watch the running of the bulls unfold. I got my knickers in a twist a bit before we went on holiday as I had a feeling that if I didn’t get a balcony before I went then I wouldn’t be able to acquire one. However I was a bit wary giving my card details to someone unknown on the Internet. It couldn’t have been easier though as our hotel had contacts with people renting out balconies so we inquired and paid for the balcony at the hotel the day before. It was €65 each for approximately 2 hours use of the balcony. You can pay more, I had quotes of about €100 and for that you were getting full commentary and knowledge about the annual event in English with breakfast provided. However for our 65 bucks we got a cup of coffee, a packaged sweet breakfast item and we met some American guys having a boys trip away to Pamplona, they’d been up all night partying which seems to be the thing to do! You don’t get exclusive use of the balcony for your money, you get space to see and there was about 10 of us watching which really added to the atmosphere as you can make new friends like we did. We had to be there before 6:30am as the bull run begins at 8am and they shut off all the streets to those not running. You can see behind the wooden barricades but it’s crowded and a bit of a long uncomfortable wait by the looks of things.

The whole run takes about 4 minutes approximately, here is a link to my video of the run unfolding Running of the Bulls.

After all the excitement early morning with the bull run, we didn’t fancy getting drunk all day (we are pushing 30) so we headed to Nacedero de Urederra a beautiful national park with a gorgeous turquoise lake hidden in the forest. I was aware of this place due to this fantastic travel blog ‘Young Adventuress.’ The part of the park we visited seems to make up a bigger national park called Parque Natural Urbasa Y Andía which seems fantastic if you have more time or are a keen walker. We parked in the town Baquedano (photos above) we simply put the town name into our sat nav that we brought from home and it took us straight there! The link to Navarra’s tourist website allows you to book yourself into the park, there’s a quota per day of how many visitors are allowed. However I asked the hotel to book it for me as the booking form was all in Spanish! Also for me the parking attendant never checked but I guess it’s best to do it if you can. There’s a car park and as the place seems to be a bit more popular, this sleepy Spanish town seem to be reaping the benefits as the charge is €3 for parking which doesn’t seem too unreasonable. 
Nacedero de Urederra 

Our hotel in Pamplona was really fantastic, it was a little out of town with an underground car park for the car and it was adjacent to a shopping mall with eateries and many shops, including a massive supermarket with lots of fresh fish and lots of other items. Our hotel, ‘Hotel Zenit‘ put on a shuttle bus from 6am until 10pm all 9 days of the festival. All the staff were dressed in the San Fermín colours of red and white and you could buy merchandise there to get into the spirit yourself. We used the shuttle regularly. We went to see the fireworks that are on every evening of the festival, I had brought my picnic blanket with me from home so we plonked ourselves on there with a bottle of Rioja and some plastic cups and a bottle opener from the large supermarket I mentioned before. The driver of our shuttle bus mentioned that different fireworks companies put on displays every night and there’s a vote locally for the best display. It was certainly a fantastic spectacle. The only downside was getting home – the shuttle doesn’t come after 10pm and the fireworks start and finish after this time. There were so many people and no taxis about so we decided to walk back to the hotel. Our scariest encounter was with a fox on the path home!

What can I say about San Sebastián…. It’s the perfect holiday spot for those seeking culture, food, sun, sea, sand, activities and chill time combined. My boyfriend had been here before with friends previously and he said how much he liked the place. I could see his attraction almost instantly. When we arrived it was actually chucking it down with rain but as we parked the car at the hotel and made our way to the centre of town it quickly brightened up and I felt foolish in my jeans!

San Sabastián beach 

First glimpse of the beach and I was in love! We stayed for 3 nights and our hotel ‘Palacio de Aiete‘ was situated up a hill in a quiet residential part of town. The hotel was simply stunning, very quiet and stylish. We didn’t have breakfast included but on a couple of mornings we opted for their Continental breakfast on offer in the bar area. For €6.50 you were served freshly squeezed orange juice, a coffee of your choice, toast and a bakery item. We walked down to the town which took 20 minutes there or thereabouts, we’d walk back up during the day to get ready for night time, however a taxi cost approx €8 at night which was totally worth it and so easy to get as there’s many taxi ranks about town. 

Pintxos

Since we arrived early afternoon on our first day and we weren’t quite sure what the weather was doing, we simply took in our surroundings, walking all over the city, down by the harbour, through the shopping district and via the old town before sitting at some seating area with a great view of the ocean with an ice cream in hand. For our dinner that evening it was all about the pintxos. Now San Sebastián is famed for its Michelin Star restaurants, however that wasn’t the route I wanted to go down in San Sebastián. Instead I sought advice from other bloggers who had been before and stumbled upon ‘The London Foodie’she had suggested some spots in the old town ‘Calle 31 de Agosto.’ So we headed there and took in some of the pintxos bars. Casa Gandarias was one of my faves (pictured above), it was busy so you had to push your way to the bar. The service was as friendly and efficient as could be in that environment and they heated through the items that I wanted which was great as I like my dinner hot! The thing with pintxos is it’s a quick turnaround. I think what once was a leisurely pursuit for the locals where they could grab a bite here and there with their drink of choice, has now become a tight nit machine in these popular tourist streets. I grabbed a table where we could stand outside and there was a food tour going on and it appeared to be really good. If you don’t fancy grappling for your food, they bring the selections out for you to try and introduce to the whole pintxos experience while allowing you to meet fellow travellers.

As the night progressed I tried the traditional sparkling white wine ‘txakoli’ (pronounced chalk-o-lee) and it is the perfect pairing with pintxos as your encouraged to have one or two pintxos per bar and move on to another, so this light wine is much more easy with each serving as opposed to a heavy Rioja. We tried to get into ‘La Cuchara de San Telmo’ who cook pintxos to order, however it was packed and that’s when I let my eyes and ears lead us to where we fancied going and not where the ‘tour guides’ recommend. We ended up in a bar called ‘TTUN TTUN Taberna,’ full of locals and friendly staff and cheap! My advice is just go with the flow round the old town and let your curiously guide you.

It was the return of the renting of the bikes, again San Sebastián has cycle lanes throughout the city, it was hot so the breeze on the bike was lovely. There’s quite a few rental companies throughout town and we went to the tourist office for directions as the ones we had initially gone to seemed to be closed for a siesta! On the other side of the main part of town I took this glorious picture above, surfers paradise in San Sebastián – I was so jealous, I really wish I could surf!

On the morning of our last full day we decided to walk up the big hill to go visit San Sebastián himself, whom looks down keeping a watchful eye over the city. There’s a little castle at the top that you have to walk through (no admission unless you want an audio guide) in order to get the most fantastic views of the bay of San Sebastián (see photo above).

It was beach time next, we plonked our towels down and basked in the sun – it was seriously hot for a wee redhead! That evening I was craving a sit-down meal, don’t get me wrong I love the idea, the culture and uniqueness of the pintxos but admittedly I’m not a seafood lover and for those who are you would probably love pintxos even more. I love cheeses and meats and there is a lot of that to go around but being a Home Ec teacher and being paranoid about hygiene and safety anyway, there’s something that doesn’t sit right with me when food is sitting out in the heat for a period of time even though I was absolutely fine eating it. I like hot freshly made food and that’s something I needed tonight in the form of a pizza!

I researched Raviolina on good old Trip Advisor before venturing out that night and apart from the service, I wasn’t disappointed food wise!

San Juan Gaztelugatxe

We’d attempted to go here when we left Bilbao for Pamplona but the mist and rain were horrendous, today was the polar opposite! This is another one I discovered via the ‘Young Adventuress‘ blog. It’s so easy to get here when visiting the places we did. We put the town of ‘Bakio’ into our sat nav (which also has an incredible beach by the way) and then just kept following the road before signposts appear for San Juan Gaztelugatxe. There’s a massive car park, we got there just before mid-day and we still got parked but about 1:30pm when we’d finished the walk (which is downhill then uphill then vice versa on the way back) the place was packed! There is a restaurant at the carpark and the walk for a fit young person is about an hour and a half round trip. The little chapel on the top was built in aide of John the Baptist and he is said to have set foot on the island. You can ring the bell at the top which in olden times was said to promote fertility and ward off evil spirits but today they say it is for good luck if you ring it 3 times. I loved it here.

So it was back to Santander for our last afternoon of our 10 day holiday. In case you didn’t know we were back in ‘Spain,’ even though technically Pamplona, San Sebastián and Bilbao are in Spain a lot of them don’t associate as Spanish they say they are Basque and Basque only hence the Basque flag that you may have seen pop up in a few of my photographs. Santander are proudly Spanish with a massive flag in the centre of town and many Spanish flags hung out of windows. We stayed in Hotel Art which is a Thai themed boutique hotel very central to all amenities. It is very arty inside but very cosy and comfortable, the lady at reception was so helpful and we had underground parking which involved driving the car into a lift which I wasn’t overly keen on! 

We both felt like we may have made a mistake not staying in Santander longer as it has many beautiful beaches, it’s very warm with lovely little eateries and shops and streets to get lost in. I couldn’t recommend this trip that we did more.

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