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…





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 Flysch of Zumaia, Amazing 60 Million Years Back in History

16 08 2014

Zumaia is a beautiful town that is, quite surprisingly, not visited by foreign tourism. Located on the coast, it offers a unique experience, though: the visit of the Flysch (an association of certain types of marine sedimentary rocks characteristic of deposition in a foredeep”). Its Geopark offers a stunning view of the magnificent flysch formations by the crashing of the waves against the cliffs, stretching a total of 5 miles. It can be easily seen from the Church of San Telmo, on top of Itzurun beach.Itzurun beach and part of the Flysch

San Telmo church and FlyschGeologists from all over the world come to this area to study the Earth´s formation and the different prehistoric periods, and some say that the Zumaia flysch covers up 100 million years back.

FlyschThe area is also stunningly beautiful and there´s a beautiful walk along the cliffs, that is part of the Way of St James pilgrimage. A must see during your visit to the Basque Country, taking into account also that Zumaia is close to the quaint fishing ports of Mutriku and Deba.Zumaia





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.





The Basics II (and final)

20 11 2009

So we have 7 territories and three political regions, two in Spain and one in France, that form the present Basque Country (in a wide sense) or Euskal Herria.  Two languages, Basque and Spanish. Basque spoken daily by around 500-800.000 people on both sides of the border. And 6 dialects for such a small number of speakers!! It´s possible to know the birthplace of a person by the way he speaks Basque.

Four capitals in Spain, Bilbao-Bilbo, San Sebastián-Donostia, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Iruña-Pamplona (the latter as capital of Navarra or Nafarroa, an autonomous community). The system in France is not as in Spain, divided into regions.

Excellent roads, very good public transport, a good public, universal and free health care system (as a matter of fact, when giving birth most women prefer public hospitals to private ones!!).

Currency: Euro (but many people still think in the old currency, pesetas). The rise of prices since the introduction of the Euro has been spectacular. Average salary per month (x 14 times, we get two extra wages on July and December), 1900 euros/month (gross).

Religion: food and eating. Then, Christian Catholics (95%). Churchgoers: less than 20%. A huge drop in religious beliefs and practices in the past 30 years.

Education: public and private. But…public education system has an agreement with many private schools (most of religious inspiration). Therefore, the Spanish or the Basque government pays for the education costs of all students and the wages of all teachers (except for those schools not included on this agreement, which are mostly foreign schools, like the French, or German, or American School). Difficult to explain, hard to believe, but that´s the way it is. So we have a “publivate” or “privublic” education system. Three linguistic models: A, all subjects taught in Spanish, and Basque as a subject (20%); B, 60% in Basque, 40% in Spanish (25%); D (there´s no C in Basque), 100% in Basque (55%). Something similar in Navarra, but inexistant in the French Basque Country. There are also privublic “ikastolas”, Basque cooperative schools, that teach only in Basque.

Airports: the most important one is in Bilbao, with many international flights (Europe, mainly). Then there´s a small one in SS (Hondarribia), a cargo one in Vitoria, one in Bayonne and one in Pamplona.

Cost of housing: huge, but dropping, thanks to the present 2008-2009-…recession. Still, unbeliable prices for housing. Most of the population live in apartments that they own. Apartments are completely equipped (washing machine in the kitchen, not on the basement).

Well, that´s almost all you need to know about the basic an boring aspects in Basque life. Now, let´s get in depth in some of them…