What are the best things about the Basque country?
October 5, 2005 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Bilbao. San Sebastian. Three days. What would you recommend?

Obviously, there's the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but what else is there? I'm interested in hidden architectural gems, weird modern/postmodern buildings (if there are any), things off the beaten trail, great places to eat (everything from budget tapas to uber-swanky restaurants), local oddities, places related to local folklore/myth, art galleries, particular places/areas significant in Basque culture, places of significant literary interest, anywhere that you'd never heard of before visiting the area but which you would unfailingly recommend to other people.

Obviously, that's rather broad. But I'm sure that you're up to it ...
posted by Len to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Burgos is cool and has castle ruins.
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:36 PM on October 5, 2005

Eat fresh sardines grilled over an open fire. Try txakoli, the Basque sparkling wine. Eat lots of sausage. Eat lots of shell fish, especially "berberechos" (cockles, in English.) And for a true cultural experience (though not a high gastronomical one) order a "kalimotxo" in a bar (pronounced call-ee-mow-cho). It's coke mixed with cheap red wine, and it's what all the kids drink.
posted by footnote at 6:23 PM on October 5, 2005

And don't forget the cheese!
posted by footnote at 6:25 PM on October 5, 2005

Len, if it isn't already on your list, I'd recommend a visit to Museo Chillida Leku just outside of San Sebastian.
posted by veryape at 6:30 PM on October 5, 2005

You must visit the Cafe Boulevard in Bilbao, in the old town. It's Bilbao's oldest cafe, and is decked out in crazy art-deco style.

Vitoria is an interesting old place, with a lovely square and lots of antique glass architecture. Well, I seem to remember there being lots of unusual windows.

Santillana Del Mar is officially the most beautiful village in the world, although it suffers slightly from tourism overload.

The Ebro Canyons are interesting if you want to get out into the countryside and see wild natural stuff.

Comillas is an interesting old place, as it has a Pope University, where priests are trained to be popes. It also has a fascinating early Antoni Gaudi piece: El Capricho. Well worth checking out.
posted by nylon at 6:56 PM on October 5, 2005

From what I can remember, old downtown San Sebastian, and the seafront, is lovely. This was a long time ago though.
posted by carter at 8:00 PM on October 5, 2005

In both places, I've always managed to have a great time without planning much or having a "must-see" list of any sort (like you said, except for the Guggenheim).

That said, a few things come to mind:

In Bilbao, I would make sure to take a ride in the subway. It's all relatively new and sleek. The dramatic street-level entrances were designed by architect Sir Norman Foster. If you enter in the old part of town (Casco Viejo), you get a good idea of just how deep the system is dug.

I would also try to get into the hills surrounding Bilbao, which offer some really excellent and dramatic views of the city. This can easily be accomplished via city bus (it's not a day trip, more like an hour trip).

As for San Sebastian, I agree with other posters: pintxos/tapas, esp. seafood, is the way to go. Stumple around the old quarter and go to someplace that looks appealing. There shouldn't be much mystery about it, as most places will have stacks of their goodies on display on the bar. You can point and eat till you can't point and eat anymore.

If you want a quick trip out of the city, you might try the fishing village/tourist town of Hondarribia. You can get there by local bus in roughly 1.5 hours. The seafood restaurant on the main drag there owned by the fisherman's cooperative is tasty. There are also some very old city walls to visit.

Also, the people I've run into in the Basque Country have always appreciated even ridiculously elementary Basque. Learning how to say thank you and goodbye (so you can bid all farewell as you leave a bar or store) can't hurt!

Have a great trip.
posted by veggieboy at 4:44 AM on October 6, 2005

order a "kalimotxo" in a bar (pronounced call-ee-mow-cho). It's coke mixed with cheap red wine, and it's what all the kids drink.
posted by footnote at 6:23 PM PST on October 5 [!]

Yes, and don't forget to drink piss from the urinals. My advice is you don't have to travel to the heart of culinary Spain to drink what unemployed teenagers drink in order to puke on the street. For that just buy a box of cooking wine and a straw and stay at home.

Both cities are famous for their pinxtos (peenchos) just wander around the casco viejo in each city and eat sparingly in all of the little bars, drink WINE or BEER (order cañas = canyas) and soak in the atmosphere. The Basque are very nice, although a bit brusque (double word score) despite their reputation. Eat fish! The best Spanish chefs come from the Basque Country.
posted by sic at 5:26 AM on October 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

Get up before everyone else in San Sebastian and walk around. It's beautiful. Smile at the shopkeepers scrubbing the sidewalks. If you see a pinxto that looks like black rice wrapped in seaweed but probably isn't, eat it. I don't know what it is but it's amazing.
posted by miniape at 5:42 AM on October 6, 2005

Miniape, I think you may be referring to morcilla, which is a type of sausage. I won't tell you what it's made out of, just eat it, it's excellent.
posted by sic at 6:06 AM on October 6, 2005

Should have mentioned this, too:

Beyond just visiting the Guggenheim during the day and looking at the art and the building, it's worth heading across the bridge at night and getting a good view of the building from the "other" side and (more importantly) seeing the cool jets of fire woosh to life! (As shown in some of the photos on this page)
posted by veggieboy at 6:17 AM on October 6, 2005

By the way, Burgos is a cool place to spend half a day, but it is far less cool than either San Sebastian or Bilbao. It's also at least 2-3 hours away (if not more) from those cities, and so probably not worth a side trip if you only have 3 days. Instead you may want to visit some of the beautiful pueblos of Guipúzcoa to eat some really really fresh fish! I can recommend Getaria, but as you can see there are many worthwhile visits.
posted by sic at 6:24 AM on October 6, 2005

I can recommend a visit to a little place called Portugalete - a lovely little town. It is notable for having an odd Transporter bridge. There are some excellent little restaurants and bars in the old fishing quarter across the bay - and some great coastal walks (both sandy beaches and cliffs).
posted by jonesor at 9:50 AM on October 6, 2005

sic - he did ask about "local oddities..." I suppose he can spend all his time eating fancy pintxos if he just wants to do what the rich tourists and old people do...
posted by footnote at 10:05 AM on October 6, 2005

If you have a car (you didn't say), here's a route that I promise you will never forget (but it's a full day).

From Bilbao head on the motorway to Santander, nice place but carry on to Santillana (see above). Great cheap hotel there by the way, the Altamira. Drive on to Comillas (again see nylon's comments above) and further to San Vincente which is the most perfect seaside town imaginable. Then head inland to the 621 through Panes and Potes. By now the scenery is seriously impressive, but the best is to come.

At the bizzare flooded valley of Riano, take the 625 signposted to Cagnas de Onis. This is one of the most spectacular roads on earth, threading through the Picos de Europa and the amazing gorge of the River Sella. Pick up the motorway at Ribadesella and you're home.

This is a diversion, for sure. There's plenty in the Basque country to entertain, but Cantabria is at peace with itself, has the Picos, enjoying the fantastic Alpine scenery and a gentle, rural beauty that the seemingly countless concrete factories and go-go Cities of the Basque country lack(s).
posted by grahamwell at 10:51 AM on October 6, 2005 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Cool, thanks for all the advice/recommendations. Wish I was going for longer than three days now :(
posted by Len at 11:21 AM on October 6, 2005

There's also an airport and a bridge by Calatrava, if you are a Calatrava fan ...
posted by carter at 11:55 AM on October 6, 2005

Hey, there's a Cement museum in San Sebastian, to honour ... this material which plays such an important role in our lives .. as illustrated by these typical Basque beauty spots.
posted by grahamwell at 12:44 PM on October 6, 2005

That was cheap, but ... well, you'll see. Couple of other things in the Basque country itself. Guernica? Is it worth a visit? Well, err, maybe. It's a nice little town in the most beautiful location and with this wonderful legend, of the Great Oak and a very early democracy. Then of course there's the legend we all know. If you want to sample small town Euskadi and just hang out (and get a very decent haircut), it's nice enough but in honesty there's not a lot to actually see. Press on to San Sebastian.

Castro Urdiales is easily the smartest, most attractive and most interesting of the seaside towns and easy to reach from Bilbao. It's a little fishing village which has grown into rather a smart resort without becoming a City, like San Sebastian. Strangely it's really attractive on a wet, cold winter day, huddling in the smart cake shops on the sea front.
posted by grahamwell at 1:10 PM on October 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm going to Bilbao next weekend - perfect timing! I bloody love this place.
posted by blag at 11:22 AM on October 7, 2005

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