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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"), which is basically a huge, city-sized, increasingly international outdoor frat party. It's also on the main Camino de Santiago ("Way of St. James") pilgrimage 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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