Why Bilbao is the PERFECT place for a FOODIE weekend getaway

23 02 2015

Barra Irrintzi 1http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2955811/Basque-brilliance-Bilbao-perfect-city-Spanish-foodie-weekend-convince-wife-eat-fish-is.html Everything at hand, a very convenient city, medium-sized, excellent public transport, great food, extremely safe, beautiful surroundings….what else can you ask for? 101_7484 The Transporter Bridgepintxos counter

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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…





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





The One and Only Transporter Bridge of Portugalete

25 07 2014

This is one of the most pleasant  surprises for most of my guests when coming to the Basque Country. I tend not to inform in advance about what we are going to visit, this way I believe the visit has the added value of the unexpected. And so here it is…after a 2´drive from the cruise port, or just 20´from Bilbao, the unique Puente Colgante (officially named Puente Bizkaia) appears in front of us. At first sight, they don´t understand what´s going on: “OK, an iron bridge…what else?” and the look of disappointment is kind of worrying. But then the suspended barge starts crossing the river to get to the other side, and right there is when they open wide their eyes and start taking pictures and getting closer to the Bridge.The Transporter Bridge

It runs 365/24 and has already been used for over 650 million people in its 121 years of existence (inaugurated on 1893). Designed and patented by Alberto de Palacio, a local engineer (disciple of Eiffel), its main use was to link both margins of the river without interrupting the constant flow of ships transporting iron from the mines on the nearby mountains.

 

 

It allows the transport of passengers and 6 cars, apart from bikes and motorbikes. It´s been recently painted (color was chosen by popular vote) and a full maintenance work has been carried out to make sure that it´ll be running for another 100 years or more. Mainly used by locals and not designed as a tourist attraction, it has been awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Monument, a fact that has increased the number of visitors to this incredible bridge. There´s an elevator that takes you to the upper walkway, with great views and some explanations on the origins of the Bridge.The barge

A ship crossing under the bridgeA must on your visit to the Basque Country…and close to the beach of Ereaga and the beautiful old fishing port of Algorta…

 

 

 





St Ignatius of Loyola, the Basque founder of the Jesuits

17 06 2014

You have surely heard of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, as they are present all over the world. But I´m sure you didn´t know that the founder was born in 1491 in Azpeitia, in the heart of the Basque CountryIñigo de Loyola (born Iñigo, a Basque name, that he changed later to Ignacio), of a noble family, received a good education and soon became a soldier serving the King of Castile. In 1521 he was injured while battling in Pamplona, and retired to heal his wounds to his fortress in the valley of Loiola, near Azpeitia and Azkoitia. During his long recovery he started reading religious books, that made him rethink his whole life. Once recovered, he started a life of sanctity that led him to the foundation of the Jesuit order, probably the most influential in the history of the Catholic church.

The 18th century basilica is located in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a park full of trees and the Urola river that flows through the mountainous scenery. As you can see by the pictures, it´s a magnificent but at the same time a modest building, with a great dome covered in baroque paintings and designs. On its left hand side you can visit the birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola (a medieval tower) that has been beautifully restored to its original state. You can visit both buildings, the Loiola tower shows most rooms as they originally were on the 16th century.

Right by the Basilica (or Sanctuary) there´s a nice, cozy hotel and some rural lodgings, as well as fine restaurants, in an atmosphere surprisingly tourist free. The valley offers very interesting visits, like the Ferrería de Mirandaola (Ironmongery) in the Iron Valley or the town of Idiazabal, where the world famous Idiazabal sheep cheese is made (also, the Cheese Museum deserves a visit). The Railway Museum in Azpeitia offers the possibility to ride in a steam locomotive train…a great experience for kids!!

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Medieval Towns in Basque Rioja…it´s more than just wine

9 06 2014

Rioja wine region is divided into Rioja Alavesa (Basque Country), Rioja Alta (La Rioja) and Rioja Baja (La Rioja and Navarre). It´s mostly small family wineries, but of course there are also some big ones among them too. A visit to a winery in Rioja is always a delightful experiences, as you spend at least a couple of hours learning how they´ve been making wine during centuries. No wine bars like in Napa valley…it´s a much more enriching experience.

Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly

Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly

But there´s more to Basque Rioja than wine. When you drive along the roads surrounded by vineyards, you will for sure find a beautiful medieval town on your way. Or several prehistoric monuments, like dolmens and funerary burial sites. Or incredible churches that keep inside amazing altarpieces. Or a walled town, just where lied the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Castile and Navarre. Or maybe  just a town with nothing special on it but full of flavor and a particular relaxing atmosphere, where one of its neighbors may invite you to his place for a homemade meal.

Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar

Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar

Next time you´re there, don´t forget to visit walled Laguardia and the façade of Santa María de los Reyes (a must), Labastida and its fortressed church, medieval Labraza surrounded by nothing but vineyards, Samaniego, Lapuebla de Labarca, Baños de Ebro, Kripán, Elvillar, Elciego and the Marqués de Riscal winery (designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim arquitect)…you´ll find a lovely atmosphere in places where the path of time seems to be slower than in the rest of the world…

Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja

Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja

Elciego, Marqués de Riscal winery

Elciego, Marqués de Riscal winery