7 Off the Beaten Path Must-Sees in the Basque Country

27 01 2015

So you´re coming to the Basque Country because you want to visit Donostia-San Sebastian, the Guggenheim and try some of the famous pintxos. Good for you!…but you´re missing many other great visits that go unseen for most visitors. Here´s a list of seven of them:

1- The Transporter (or Hanging) Bridge of Vizcaya, that links Portugalete and Las Arenas (metro Areeta). A unique construction, running 365/24, built in 1893, that can transport 6 cars and quite a good number of people on its two barges (it resembles a catamaran, somehow). Patented in the Basque Country, it´s the very first one and the most beautiful of all. You can take the lift all the way up and cross it from side to side, with incredible views. Always a delightful surprise to visitors.

Another view The Transporter Bridge

2- The Rolls Royce museum Torre Loizaga, http://www.torreloizaga.com, the biggest and best Rolls Royce car collection in the world. Kept in a beautiful castle about 30kms from Bilbao, the owner (that died in 2009) built this collection throughout his adventurous life and also reconstructed the tower castle. A real must for car lovers, as it also has some Ferraris, Cadillacs, Lamborghinis,…

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3- Pozalagua Caves, one of the three caves with the highest concentration of eccentric stalactites in the world. Located in the unspoilt green valleys of western Bizkaia, they can be visited and the experience of seeing those weird shapes is just amazing. A short, beautiful video on them on this link.

4- The Basilica of Loyola (or Loiola), located in this neighbourhood of Azpeitia (Gipuzkoa, near San Sebastian). Right by it, the castle where St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the religious order of the Jesuits, was born. The castle is kept as it was during the time St Ignatius lived there, and the Basilica is a great example of a 18th century church, with its huge central dome. Surrounded by mountains and in a green valley, this visit is another must.

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4- Vitoria, the capital city of the Basque Country. Its Old Quarter, called The Almond due to its shape, and with a medieval Jewish quarter, is beautiful and contains amazing centuries old buildings. The Cathedral of Santa María, “open for repairs”, offers a great visit that shows you the reconstruction of this 13th century cathedral. And don´t forget about the pintxos in Vitoria!!

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5- Labraza, declared the Best Walled Town in the world in 2008, and the smallest fortified town in the Basque Country, is a beautiful example of a well preserved medieval village, off the beaten path and unspoilt by tourism. Just 60 houses in total and the church of San Miguel, surrounded by the fortified walls. A must during your visit to Rioja.

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6- San Juan de Gaztelugatxe…becoming more and more popular, but still massively unvisited and remaining unknown for most foreign visitors. 300 stairs lead to the top, where you´ll find a church and have to ring the bell…Meaning “the castle in the rock”, it was formerly a castle used for defense against foreign invasions. Amazing.

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7- Ainhoa, probably the most beautiful village in the French Basque Country…it´s cemetery, right by the church, deserves a visit, as well as main street, surrounded by beautiful Basque style houses in perfect condition.

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A very short list, as the Basque Country is full of hidden, unspoilt places that are always a great way to experience our real way of life and visit our favorite places. More to come soon…





8 days on a Basque Gastro Tour and in good company…beat it! – Part One

26 11 2014

I´ve had the great pleasure to enjoy a gastronomic tour in the Basque Country with a couple of Hong Kong friends…and moreover when the weather at the end of November has been incredibly warm and sunny 7 of the 8 days. Regrettably, some of the restaurants we had chosen as a first option were closed for holidays, but having a great meal has never been a problem in the Basque Country.

Just an hour after arrival, we arrived in Asador Etxebarri, one Michelin star, in the beautiful town of Axpe. The tasting menu consists of a wide array of dishes, all based on the mastering of the grill by Bittor Arginzoniz, the cook and owner. He has develop his own grilling technique and instruments, and so he´s able to grill an oyster, baby eels or a boneless steak. Product is mostly local or from his own garden. Service is friendly, close and very efficient. Two and a half hours of wonders in your mouth, at a reasonable price for a Michelin star if we compare it to those in the US or France, for example. Some pics:

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Next day we went to a very special place in the slopes of the hills surrounding Bilbao, the Kate Zaharra (in Basque, the Old Chain). A classic in Bilbao, it probably has the best views of town. When you enter, they offer you to visit the cellar, where you can choose your wine and enjoy some fresh cut ibérico ham, as well as some anchovies or other delicacies. Then you go upstairs to your table, where you can taste great grilled fish, clams, the freshest seafood…Product, product and product, and a lovely aftermeal upstairs where you can enjoy a drink of your favorite spirit and awesome views of the city.

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A visit to a medieval castle in the outskirts of Bilbao as well as to the amazing Old Town marked a perfect day for the three of us…

More to come…





Some Funny Questions From Visitors to The Basque Country

23 10 2014

It´s been a few years now working as a guide in the Basque Country, and I have to say that 99.99% of my guests have always been very nice and polite. With some of them I´ve made friends and we exchange emails regularly (Hi Barb!) and with some others I´ve had the pleasure to see they return again to this beautiful region. Most of my visitors are foreigners, mainly from English speaking countries (US, Australia, Canada, Britain,…) and sometimes the information they have about our way of life and culture is not very comprehensive. So I´ve received a lot of questions about the Basque Country, and some of them have been very funny:

1- “I do know that marriages in the Basque Country have always been arranged by the parents, but do you still keep this habit? Your marriage was also arranged, young man?”

My answer was: “No madam, it was only until we joined the European Union, then they prohibited this ancient custom, much to our regret”.

2- (On a wine tasting experience, when tasting red wine): “Oh my God, mine is not sweet!!, I must have taken the wrong glass”

3- More on wine tasting in the Rioja region: “Oh, so you don´t offer California wine here?”

4- (asking for a coffee with milk -café con leche- in a cafeteria in San Sebastián): “Do you pasteurize your milk?” And on seeing my puzzled face..”Hum, you may not know what “pasteurizing” means, sorry” . And then she explained it to me.
5- “So this is an anchovie, look Diane, it´s actually a FISH!!!”, on looking at a spectacular anchovie pintxo with a real anchovie on it (he thought of them as that weird thing they put on pizzas.
6- “Do you pay taxes or is everything government owned and paid?”
7- “I can pay with US Dollars everywhere, right?”
8-“Do kids go to school every day?” (a very kind lady, I answered “yes, except on weekends, summer and Christmas….”)
9- “I´d like to see the running of the bulls”…”Yes sir, but that is in Pamplona on July and it´s September”. “Oh, I thought they ran all year round…”

10- “On Mondays (day when many restaurants are closed), you don´t go to work because you can´t eat anywhere, right?”

11- “Why can´t I pay a glass of wine with a VISA?” (most bars in Spain don´t accept credit cards, and you never ever leave your visa to the bartender in case they do…trust is the word). Important to know that a glass of wine in Spain just costs 1.50eur approx…

12- “How come there´re so many kids on the street? Shouldn´t they be home watching TV?”

13- “Wow, a glass of water with no ice on it!! How can you drink it?” (or a Coke, mostly served with just an ice cube or two)

14-  “I can´t eat cheese” “Well, you should have told me earlier, you just had two pieces of Idiazabal sheep cheese” “Wow, that was cheese?? I meant pizza cheese, I didn´t know there was hard cheese!”.

And so many others that make this job a very exciting and interesting one!

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The Funicular of Artxanda, 99 years of history for the best views of Bilbao

25 09 2014

Next year we will celebrate 100 years of the first trip of the Funicular of Artxanda, one of the two cable trains that exist in Bizkaia (the other one is in Trapagaran, ascending to Larreineta mountains for the best views of the estuary of the river of Bilbao). It runs every 15min from 07:15am to 10:00pm, the trip takes roughly three minutes and it leaves you on top of Artxanda hill, a very popular destination for all Bilbao citizens when they want to enjoy nature, restaurants and some relax. Once you get to the top, turn left on exit and walk for about 200m…you´ll arrive to the best viewing point of Bilbao, with wonderful views that embrace the whole city. A must on your visit to Bilbao.

A short video on the way up:

http://www.bilbao.net/cs/Satellite/funicularArtxanda/Subida-Virtual/es/100001152/Contenido?idVideo=100023561

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An Update on my 2010 post, “Some Places You Wouldn´t Go in Bilbao if Not Told”

8 07 2014

Time surely goes fast…I still remember when the Guggenheim was being built and when we took pictures of tourists, awed at the fact that there were actually people visiting Bilbao!! Well, things have changed a lot since then: Bilbao has turned into a wonderful, livable, lively town, great for foodies and a must-see from an architectural point of view. My favorite places have also changed from my 2010 post, and so I also have new likes and dislikes. Let´s talk about 9 places that I love and that you may miss as a tourist, as they´re a bit off-the-beaten-path:

1) Mercado de la Ribera, the biggest covered market in Europe, completely re-built, and where my guests love to take pics of the fresh fish at the fishmongers´, of the Ibérico ham hanging from the ceilings, of the wide range of local cheeses and of the farmers that offer their locally produced vegetables (without any “organic” label on them…no need for this kind of marketing)…

2) Alhóndiga, the former wine warehouse located on the very center of Bilbao, now a public cultural and leisure center. Its interior has been singularly designed by acclaimed designer Philippe Starck, and it has a great rooftop bar where you can enjoy great music and views.Alhóndiga rooftop bar

3) Diputación Street, right behind the beautiful building of the provincial government or Diputación, in the Gran Vía (main street). Great pintxos in El Globo, good cocktails at El Embrujo, wonderful ibérico ham at La Viña, excellent steaks at Santa Rosalía…

4) Henao and Heros streets area, close to renovated Jado square (the one with the lions fountain in the center), where new bars have added life to this beautiful resident area. Mr Wonderful, Coppola pizzeria (in Barrainkua st), Singular, Residence, El Txoko de Gabi, Las Cepas…excellent pintxos and wine route, as well as good live music.

5) Bacaicoa bar, in Unamuno square, Old Town…the best pintxo of grilled mushrooms in town.

6) A ride on the Begoña or Iturribide public elevators, in the Old Town, for the very best views of the Old Town of Bilbao from above. Very cheap and a great experience as a local.View from Iturribide elevator, Old Town

7) A ride on the Funicular of Artxanda, from Castaños street…definitely the best views of the whole city from above…just turn left when you get up to get to the view point.

8) Santa María street in the Old Town on a Friday evening, for alternative pintxos bars and restaurants and great street atmosphere (we love having pintxos outside bars, rather than inside)

9) Doña Casilda Park, or “park of the ducks”, as we used to name it when kids…lovely public gardens in Bilbao, right behind the Meliá hotel. Perfect place to relax and enjoy the coolness of its shady trees and pond.Doña Casilda Park





How To Eat Pintxos Like A Local in the Basque Country

23 06 2014

Given the increasing number of tourists (don´t worry, the Basque Country is still a heaven for those that feel comfortable far from the madding crowds) that come to this gourmet´s paradise in search of the best pintxos in the world, please find below a few suggestions on how to eat pintxos like a local. Having experienced and seen lots of guests on my pintxos tours at a loss when faced with a counter full of these delicacies, I feel this post as a must for those that want to do it right:

1) Peek into the bar and take a look at its counter. If you don´t like what´s shown there, just look for another bar. There´re plenty.Barra Irrintzi 1

2) Yes, I know that in your native country you don´t have as many bars as we do here, and you tend to spend your time and money in just one for the whole evening. No, we don´t do it that way. We visit as many bars as possible.

3) We like to have ONE pintxo per bar, maximum TWO, and ONE drink.Ham and tomato on bread

4) We don´t have pintxos meals or anything of the kind. It´s an appetizer and not a meal. It´s meant to dilute the amount of alcohol in blood and facilitate conversation while standing close to the counter.

5) STANDING, we have them standing, we don´t sit down for pintxos. Please. Stand. Talk. Enjoy. But don´t seat.

6) Never, ever, accept the plate handed by the waiter. We locals just grab them with our hand from the counter. Or order them from the list on the wall to have them made on order.

7) We pay based on an honour system, that is, we tell the waiter how many we´ve had and he believes us. We don´t lie, ever. The toothpick thing (counting toothpicks as a proof of how many pintxos you´ve had) is nowadays an urban legend.

8) ALL pintxos are good, all taste great. Ibérico ham is good for your health and great for your heart and arteries. And yes, those fresh looking things are real anchovies, not that thing you have on pizza.Pintxos

9) There´s no such thing as “pintxos bars”. 99% of bars offer pintxos, all bars are “pintxos bars”.

10) Order a “zurito” (a third of a glass of beer), a “rioja” (a glass of red wine), a “blanco” (white wine) or a “cider” (natural cider, not fizzy). Ignore Coke or any other sweet drinks, they are not meant for pintxos.

11) Enjoy the atmosphere, ask the waiter about the pintxos, talk to strangers, throw napkins on the floor (YES!!!), pay on leaving, try different things, get a bit tipsy, enjoy this wonderful pintxos culture…pintxos counter





I´m moving…

30 03 2010
It´s been a long time since my last entry on this blog, mainly for professional reasons but also because I´ve been contacted by the Basque Broadcasting Corporation (yes, it does sound like the BBC!!), that is, www.eitb.com, and they´ve proposed to publish this blog under their web dominion. I´ve accepted, and the new blog will be published together with a series of other interesting blogs in English language (http://www.eitb.com/en, at the bottom of page) most aspects of Basque life (gastronomy, sports, culture, tourism,…). The new address is http://www.blogseitb.us/basquetourism/, I hope you will continue visiting this blog and sending your comments or questions. Some of the entries will be new but I will also publish old ones, for the newcomers.

Of course, I will maintain my independent (but non-objective and clearly biased) point of view. Hope you like the new blog!!





Basque Ferrerías – Ironworks of the Middle Ages and Beyond

24 02 2010

One of the main characteristics of the Basque soil is (was) its rich content in high quality iron. Up to the XVI century, there were around 300 foundries producing iron for all of Europe. Nowadays, it still plays an important role in our present industrial activity. At the very beginning, the foundries were located on top of the mountains and they used the wind as the main force to produce iron, using coal as the source of heat (in an extreme anti-economical way). Soon they found out that it made more sense to have the ironworks by a water stream, and so “modern” foundries were established in many Basque towns.

I´ve been to two of these foundries, that have been recently restored . You can visit them (visits also available in English) in order to see “live” how iron was formerly obtained, the historical reconstruction is very well performed and what you see is probably very close to what it really was. One of them is near Bilbao, in Muskiz (Bizkaia), Ferrería El Pobal, www.elpobal.com (this link will redirect you to another page available in English)- press here for a 4´youtube video of a visitor-. You can also see how they got flour with a water mill. It´s cheap and very interesting, kids find it amusing.

The other one is located in Legazpi, Gipuzkoa, where there formerly were 7 foundries. This one is Ferrería Mirandaola, on this link (not the best of webs, but it´s in English too), located in the middle of a beautiful park where you can enjoy the incredible landscape surrounding it.





Two days in Bilbao without a car-The Basics

8 02 2010

Right, you´ve come to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim. A city you´d never thought in your “to visit” list, but the museum is a “must-see” and you´ve read very good reports about the area. So you arrive at our new (small and convenient) airport, take a taxi to your hotel on the city centre (20 Euros, aprox.) or the bus (1,50, I think). There you are, 10AM and the full morning to see the museum.

Good, you´ve spent 4 hours inside it and you´re now hungry. I´d go to the Old Town (Casco Viejo) to have a drink and a couple of pintxos. You can either take the tram that leaves you in front of the Arriaga theatre in 5 minutes or walk along the promenade by the river. You´re now in the Plaza Nueva, if it´s nice sit outside and enjoy your drink. It´s 14:30, time to have lunch. I´d suggest to have a “menú del día”, where for 11-12 euros per person you will have a first, a second, a dessert, bread and wine or water. There´s a wide choice all over Bilbao, but as you´re in the Old Town I´d suggest Jardines Street or El Perro Street, and any of its restaurants. I particularly like Harrobia, in El Perro, www.harrobia.com.

16:00 and you´re feeling tired. You may take a nap in your hotel, and by six or so you may want to walk the Gran Vía and parallel streets, full of shops and interesting buildings. Or you may want to explore the Old Town, the cathedral and the 7 original streets of Bilbao, as well as take some pictures of the Arriaga theatre and the riverfront.

20:00 and you notice that there are lots of people on the streets, hanging around and socializing while having a drink. You may want to enter in Café Iruña, http://www.cafesdebilbao.net/cafes/caf_iru.php, serving drinks and food since 1903, together with its “brothers” Café La Granja and Café Boulevard (soon to re-open), and order a glass of wine (1,60 euros per glass) or a “zurito”, half a glass of beer. Next, at Ledesma st, you will find many other interesting bars, such as the Artajo or Taurino.

I´d go on a pintxos crawl for dinner on Bilbao city center, there will be people until 09:00PM or so. If tired, you may want to go back to your hotel. If not, you can walk to Licenciado Poza street where you will find more people and more bars open. I assume you´re not going clubbing tonight…correct?

Next morning, take the funicular train to Artxanda and enjoy the spectacular views of Bilbao, the Guggenheim, the mountains and the sea from above. http://www.bilbao.net/funicularArtxanda/jsp/home.jsp?idioma=9&color=rojo& Then, after all the pictures and maybe some exploring of the area, get down to town again and get the metro to Areeta-Las Arenas. From there you have a 5 minute walk to El Puente Colgante, the hanging bridge, a Unesco World Heritage Monument, one of a kind, over a 100 years old and running 365/24, as a public service. You may want to climb to the top for stunning views of Bilbao stuary and the beaches. www.puente-colgante.com. Walk then all the way to Ereaga beach and enjoy a meal at Tamarises restaurant or at the cozy fishing port of Algorta (google “puerto viejo algorta” for images).

From there you can take the elevator to Algorta city centre and then the metro back to Bilbao. Once in Bilbao, step off at Indautxu station and look for García Rivero street, and enter in El Huevo Frito, for great pintxos and a zurito. Or in the Okela, for more elaborate ones.

It´s getting late and you haven´t visited the Museum of Fine Arts, second to El Prado in importance in Spain. Well, maybe for next visit…

This itinerary is based on a medium budget, for those of you without a car and short of time. Of course, there are many alternatives, but this one may be a good option if you want to make the most of Bilbao in just a day and a half.





Some Places I Like As a Local In Bilbao-and where you probably wouldn´t go if not told

27 01 2010

As it happens in every city in the world, there´s an area that is visited by tourism, leaving apart other places that may be as interesting. With the arrival of tourism (the Guggenheim effect), the bars in the Old Town have risen prices and quality is…well, very good, but not quite the same.

What follows is a shortlist of places I like in Bilbao (ordered as they come to my mind), that you normally will not visit as a tourist (and at very fair prices):

1) Bar EME, http://www.baremebilbao.com,  absolutely the best sandwiches in the whole world (and I´m not exaggerating), locals flock in to buy them, you can have them at the bar or to take away, it´s amazing how many hundreds of them they sell every day. Made with a special bread and a secret sauce, they are a treat. At 2,20 euros each, a bargain!!

2) La tabernilla de Pozas (the small tavern), in Licenciado Poza street (known as “Pozas”), you´d never enter here because it doesn´t even have a name outside. There are no bars like this anymore. Wine in barrels or drunk in “porrón”, it´s popular to have (non peeled) peanuts and wonderful tuna sandwiches (real ones with good chunks of fish and real crusty bread), an ageless counter, unaltered premises for ages,…, and the legend says that the two brothers behind the counter haven´t talked to each other for years..

3) Melilla y Fez, in Iturribide street (Old Town), just entering the street on your left hand side, a huge variety of potato omelette (Spanish omelettes) served in big portions at very good prices.

4) Bar Estoril, in Plaza Campuzano (center), the best long drinks in your life, together with wonderful omelette pintxos.

5) Bar Rio Oja, in El Perro street, the best cazuelitas (tapas), Old Town.

6) Azak restaurant, in Pablo Alzola st, in the Basurto district, you can have selection of Iberic specialties and cheese for as less as 14 euros…and so big you´ll need to have another bottle of their extensive (and cheap) wine list. A rarity in this district. Huge selection of meals, appetizers and beers.

7) Taberna Taurina, in Ledesma (center), small but authentic with dozens of pictures of bulls and bullfighters.

8) Mina restaurant, in the Old Town. A bit pricey, but worth every cent spent at it.

More to follow, there are still many places worth visiting in Bilbao…