Side Trip to the Basque Country

Street in San Sebastián (Donostia)

The Canary Islands are a popular destination for European tourists and many discount airlines fly there from a number of mainland European cities.  Last month we looked for cheap nonstop flights from Lanzarote and found one to Bilbao in Basque Country, so we bought tickets.  On October 7, we flew into the Bilbao airport and took a 75 minute bus ride directly from there to San Sebastián, the cultural capital of the Spanish Basque region.  We spent four days in San Sebastián followed by two days in Hondarribia, a beautiful town that is the home town of our dear friend Irene.

Laura in the harbor of San Sebastián
Statue in the harbor of San Sebastián

San Sebastian is considered by many to be the world’s top food spot.  It has  more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world.  But what makes San Sebastián (or Donostia as it is known in the Basque language) especially appealing is the quality of the everyday food, in particular the hundreds of pintxo bars.  These are simple wine bars selling everything from traditional snacks to high-end gourmet dishes in small portions – and with small prices.  Going for pintxos means bar-hopping your way through the city, eating a few plates at each place before continuing.  Everything is laid out on the bar for you to see before choosing,  We almost always ordered Spanish cider (or sidra) as our accompanying drink.  Sidra is fermented naturally and has an alcohol content similar to beer.  Spain has a custom known as “throwing the cider.” A server pours the cider from a height of approximately one meter to aerate and enhance the aroma and flavor of the cider.

The weather was almost ideal the whole time we were in San Sebastián and the city was perfect for walking.  We walked along the river, under a cliff face with breaking waves below, and along a long sandy beach. Plus, of course, through the beautiful old parts of the city.

Pintxos, San Sebastián

Fresh produce, San Sebastián
Cathedral, San Sebastián
Beach Promenade, San Sebastián
Urumea River, San Sebastián
Mark “throws the cider”, San Sebastián

On October 11, we picked up a rental car in San Sebastián and drove west along a beautiful high road that roughly followed the coast heading for the small coastal towns of Getaria and Zumaia.  The greenery of the countryside was almost overwhelming for us after two months on the barren volcanic island of Lanzarote. Before dark, we turned and headed east to our next destination, the Basque town of Hondarribia, on the French border.  Hondarribia has an ancient old quarter set on a hill with walls and a castle, and a newer section nearby with excellent pintxo bars.

After two nights in Hondarribia we drove to Saint Emilion in Bordeaux and La Rochelle in Charente-Maritime.  That trip is the subject of our next blog post.  However, on the way back to catch our return flight from Bilbao, we stopped for the night at a cute hotel next to the Petritegi Cider House in Astigarraga (outside of San Sebastián), where we had booked a meal.  At the cider house, everyone sat on long benches next to “picnic” tables.  We were served many courses of delicious local food plus all of the sidra we wanted.  To get sidra, you left the dining hall and went to the large fermenting room where there were many numbered barrels of sidra, each slightly different. We pointed to the barrel we wished to sample, and a young man would pull a cork to let the sidra stream out into your glass held at least one meter away.  A lot of sidra ended up on the floor but as we became more proficient at judging the stream, most wound up in our glass.  Good thing the the hotel was just a 1/2 mile walk away.

Green vistas on the high coastal road from San Sebastián to Getaria
Old Town, Hondarribia
Old Town, Hondarribia
The Petritegi Cider House in Astigarraga (outside of San Sebastián)
Throwing the cider from a barrel, Petritegi Cider House
Laura in front of the entrance to the walled old city of Hondarribia
Hatxeroa’ Sapper Statue, Hondarribia
Patatas Bravas, Hondarribia