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Basque Country

The Northeast part of Spain (and part of Southwest France) is traditionally Basque, a region with a different language and culture from the rest of Spain (and France). While violent separatism is now mostly a thing of the past, you'll still find a proud culture which insists that everything be bilingual—even though most people speak Spanish/French (and English).

When pronouncing Basque, the most confusing letter is X, which is pronounced like "SH" (e.g. pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, are pronounced "PEENT-shows")

Maribel's Guides has a bunch of great PDF notes about the major cities/regions, including general information about the Spanish Basque Country (Pais Vasco) & French Basque Country ("Pays Basque")

San Sebastián (Donostia)

The most popular resort town on the Basque coast, with great food, beautiful beaches, and lively nightlife.

Things to Do/See

  • Monte Urgul - beautiful park on a mountain overlooking the city; it's easy to climb from either the port or the eastern side
  • Monte Igueldo - the other mountain on San Sebastian's west side; it has a funicular that climbs to the top
  • Playa de la Concha - San Sebastian's main, long beach that connects the Parte Vieja with Monte Igueldo

Restaurants/Food

  • Parte Vieja (Old Quarter):
    • ***Atari Gastroteka - some of our favorite pintxos on the whole trip!! great octopus, foie gras, and this one delicious pintxo that looked like a sailing ship, rec'd Michelin; great location, too across from Santa Maria del Coro church
      • Sirimiri Gastroleku - next door, run by the same people so the menu is similar, a little more casual/laid back
    • ***Ganbara - wow, what a great pinxtos place! their version of "pigs in a blanket" is amazing, as was their mushroom dish, green peppers...pretty much everything we tried was amazing. Rec'd Michelin.
    • Bodegón Alejandro - was closed when we were there, but looked really good, rec'd Michelin
    • La Cuchara de Sant Telmo - rec'd by various people
    • A Fuego Nero - rec'd by various people, very "creative", rec'd Michelin
    • Casa Urola - very nice sit-down restaurant, delicious food but a bit stuffy (was uncomfortable with a young child)
    • Aralar - rec'd by one Googler but we didn't go
    • ***Gelato: Oiartzun - yeah, they have pastries too, but they have great gelato, especially fruit flavors
    • Groceries: Sentido Comun - nice place for organic groceries if you're in the old quarter
    • Bar Antonio - looked nice
    • Bar Nestor - known for its amazing tortilla espanola, only made in small quantities twice a day at 1 and 8 PM (so get there early!), alas was closed when we visited, nice photos here
    • Txepetxa - known for anchovy-based pintxos, not bad
    • Borda Berri - rec'd by some folks for more traditional pintxos
  • Gros
    • Bergara - pintxos rec'd Michelin
    • ***Bar Zabaleta - supposedly one of the most authentic places for tortilla española (this guy says he liked it better than Nestor's) and it was quite good...but it is a random hole-in-the-wall bar
    • Bodega Donostiarra - does individually-sized tortilla española; not bad but nothing to write home about

Hotels

  • Pensión Itxasoa - where we stayed; pretty good prices, amazing views of the Bay of Biscay, but not a full service hotel

Bilbao (Bilbo)

The largest town in Basque country, and a lively metropolis with great food, culture, and spirit. Also has the easiest airport to get into/out of.

Things to Do/See

  • Guggenheim Museum Bilbao - a nice museum but the Frank Gehry architecture (and the cool "flower dog" sculpture outside) are also nice draws. Museum cafe is not bad.
  • San Juan de Gaztelugatxe - a ways outside of Bilbao, but a stunning island/hermitage jutting into the Bay of Biscay; filming location for season 8 of Game of Thrones
  • Just walking around the town (especially in the evening on the weekend) is a fun activity, as everyone's out for a passiagiata-style stroll
  • ...also once a month there is a group of people that meet for traditional Basque dancing outside the main Cathedral

Restaurants/Food

  • Ensanche
    • ***La Viña del Ensanche - rec'd by NYT and many others, *amazing* food/pintxos, very crowded but if you're persistent you can get through
  • Casco Viejo
    • ***Gelati!! Gelati!! - near Plaza Nueva, some of the best gelato we've had outside of Italy, including an absolutely amazing Mango flavor

Hotels

  • Meliá Bilbao - we stayed here, pretty good prices for a nice hotel, not far from Guggenheim

Pamplona (Iruña)

Capital of the Navarre region and famous for its San Fermín festival (which includes "the running of the bulls"). It's also on the main Camino de Santiago trail.

Things to Do/See

  • TBD

Restaurants/Food

  • TBD

Hotels

  • TBD

French Basque Country

Saint-Jean-de-Luz

Popular resort town
  • ***Ferme Lizarraga - awesome restaurant with somewhat fancy but rooted-in-the-earth food, located a bit off the beaten track on a farm outside of Saint-Jean-de-Luz (so you ~need a car to get there); good with gluten intolerances, not exactly "family friendly" (since it's a bit quiet) but they did a great job accommodating our ~1 year old, rec'd Michelin

Sare

Beautiful (but tiny) hill town
  • Sare & Thé - nice cafe with organic/vegetarian options; really delicious hot chocolate

Ainhoa

Nice hill town, a bit larger than Ascain

Espelette

Hill town known for its eponymous peppers


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