The Basque region, which straddles the border of Spain and France, has long been on my travel wish list. While pilgrims from all over the world have been making their way for centuries through Basque country following the Camino de Santiago de Compostela trail, this part of Northern Spain has more recently become a site of pilgrimage for food lovers. So when the opportunity came up at the end of May this year to do a little road trip through Basque country, I naturally jumped at it.
Travelling from the airport in Bordeaux, our first destination was the beautiful Hotel Iturregi
situated in the hills above the pretty fishing village of Getaria, 25 minutes drive from San Sebastian. Boarded by vineyards, woods, lush rolling hills, green fields dotted with sheep, and with stunning views towards the Bay of Biscay, this small hotel (only 8 rooms) was the perfect peaceful oasis we were looking for to begin our Basque adventure. Pulling in through the gated driveway which is bordered by olive trees and garden beds filled with masses of white roses, we were greeted warmly by one of the lovely staff members, Susana, who spoke perfect English…which was helpful as our Basque language skills were embarrassingly poor pretty much non-existent. The hotel, which was opened in 2007 and is built on the site of an old Basque farmhouse, feels rather more like staying in a wealthy relative’s private manor house than an impersonal hotel. Our room, Jaizkibel, was located on the first floor of the property and was beautifully decorated in soothing tones of crisp white, olive green and botanical print. The bathroom is entirely open plan with the bedroom (so perhaps not the best choice for a holiday with a new lover unless you are entirely comfortable with, ahem, all bodily functions!) with an enormous walk-in shower and, beneath the bathroom window, a spacious deep bath where you can soak and enjoy the stunning views of the coastline. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors in front of the comfortable bed open to reveal a balcony with a table and chairs and expansive views of the neighboring woods, vineyards and sea. The weather was perfect during our stay so we naturally gravitated to the balcony to breakfast, read, check emails, drink Txakoli* in the afternoon, gaze at the twinkling lights of Getaria in the evening and, one morning, even managed to drag ourselves out of bed early enough to watch a glorious sunrise over the ocean.
The common areas of the hotel are just as gorgeous as the rooms and never feel crowded due to the restricted number of guests. A lounge area with huge windows framing the view hosts an honesty bar plus a (complimentary) Nespresso machine for morning/afternoon caffeine fixes, a fireplace for the winter months and a stack of glossy Spanish magazines to peruse. A large covered outdoor terrace with enormous comfy sofas feels like an extension of the lounge area and is perfect for a pre-supper drink or curling up with a book (I loved listening to the chirruping of the frogs in the nearby pond in the late afternoon). Leading off the terrace and up some stone steps is the hotel’s stunning pool which is set in the ruins of the old farmhouse and framed by pretty, manicured gardens. Sun lounges border the pool edge and with the only sounds being the gentle lapping of the water, the occasional clang of a cow bell in the distance or bleating lamb, it was tempting to forget all about sightseeing and spend the entire day napping by the pool!
San Sebastian: In an article for Qantas magazine, Australian chef Neil Perry says “If San Sebastián isn’t the world’s best food town, it’s close
”. And with three 3-star Michelin restaurants, an abundance of fresh produce (both from the sea and the land) and bars lining the narrow streets serving achingly good pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) I can see why. We started our pintxos stroll in San Sebastian at around 7pm and managed to try 5 different places before our tummies (and feet) began protesting. My favorites?
Bar La Cepa
(Calle 31 de Agosto, 7) Try the grilled wild mushrooms with egg, thin slices of buttery, glistening Iberian ham and slivers of smoked salmon and anchovy atop a round of baguette with a dab of crème fraiche. The friendly barman had us mesmerized by his ability to precisely pour Txakoli from a great height into tumblers without looking and without spilling a drop!
Bar Borda Berri
(Fermin Calbeton 12) On the recommendation of a Spanish-Australian girl who happened to be standing right next to us while we were trying to decipher the chalkboard menu, we tried the mushroom risotto and the beef cheeks slow cooked in red wine. Both were outstanding.
(Calle 31 de Agosto, 13) Try the warm salt cod and Iberian ham croquettes.
(Calle 31 de Agosto, 3) We shared a piece of the baked cheesecake which La Vina is famous for. Creamy, light, not too sweet – it was a delicious way to end our progressive meal.
Axtondo: Asador Etxebarri.
About an hour’s drive from Getaria, Asador Etxebarri is on many food lover’s “must visit” places (just google it!). Located in one of the prettiest (and tiniest) villages I have ever been and surrounded by mountains (much of Basque country reminds me of parts of Switzerland) it is worth going for the location alone. A grilling institution, the highlight of the meal was the cooked-on-the bone beef chop. In the top 5 steaks I have eaten in my lifetime, it was full of flavor, both from the meat itself and the grilling process.
Tolosa: Casa Julian
By far my favorite restaurant from this trip, Casa Julian was recommended by a Swedish friend who knows his food and wine. Entering through what appeared to be the restaurant’s storeroom, we weren’t quite sure whether we were in the right place (the Basque version of a Speakeasy perhaps?) until we caught a whiff of delicious, grilling meat. Shown through into a small room with white cloth topped tables filled with locals, the focal point of the room was the open grill at one end manned by Señor Julian. We were served impossibly thick, fat spears of asparagus in a sweet vinegary sauce, glistening roasted peppers, crusty bread with creamy, peppery olive oil and the highlight, a thick grilled steak prepared expertly by Señor Julian. Not even the 30 minute search for a car park nor the slight incident with a tree (eek!) could dampen our enthusiasm for Casa Julian – it is one of those very special, authentic restaurants that you hope to discover on every holiday to a foreign destination but so rarely do.
Getaria: Grilled fish restaurants. If you are staying near Getaria like we were, the asador restaurants, where super fresh fish is grilled over charcoal, are great for a casual meal overlooking the harbour. We tried The Mayflower and the grilled fish was lovely.
: Apart from eating, swimming in the sea and exploring the lovely towns which dot the coastline, this part of Basque country offers wonderful walking opportunities and we saw many walkers making the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage (identifiable by the scallop shell seen dangling from their backpacks).
Getaria is also the home of the Cristóbal Balenciaga museum
(Cristóbal was born in Getaria) and while we didn’t have time to visit, it looks excellent.
*The slightly salty, spritzy young local white wine
Part 2 of our Basque road trip next week.