San Sebastián with its vast sweeping crescent shaped bay and fabulous sheltered sandy beach was our first stop on crossing the border into Spain. The aire at just €3.30 a night at this time of year is only a fifteen minute walk to Ondareta beach at the western end of the town and then a further twenty minute walk along the seafront into the Casco Viejo, the old town. We’d been looking forward to coming to San Sebastián as we’d heard good things about it and, apart from the change in the weather, we weren’t disappointed.
Yep, as mentioned in my last blog post, the run of good weather broke on our first evening in San Sebastián with bucket loads of rain coming down throughout the evening, overnight and into the following morning.
The balmy temperatures we’d had for so many weeks plummeted too which was a bit of a shock to the system. It had turned into hat and gloves weather. Still, all credit to San Sebastián it is still an attractive place in dreary weather and I can imagine it would be spectacular in warm sunny weather. We ended up spending three nights at the aire and made the most of any dry spells of weather we had to get out and about.
Basque cuisine has established a reputation for some of the finest in Spain but as regular readers of this blog will have surmised by now we are pretty much philistines when it comes to food preferring food of the pie and a pint variety rather than anything fussy or fishy. We weren’t averse to trying a pintxos and a pint though. Pintxos, the basque equivalent of tapas, are like little works of art lining the counter tops of the many Pintxos bars in the old town.
Seafood is the major ingredient for many of them but we did find a type of all day breakfast one and a mini burger one and the obligatory tortilla pintxos. We did push the boat out and try the bacalao (cod) as well but it was a tad chewy. Sorry but if you are into food and want to read about and see fabulous pictures of food then this isn’t the blog for you!
Anyway, it wasn’t all sightseeing we had chores to do as well with a three week backlog of washing to do. We found an excellent launderette five minutes walk away from the aire which looked almost new and had super fast free wifi. So in the hour it took to wash and dry everything I was able to upload all my photos, upload the last blog post and download some podcasts. Getting back to the van and putting away the still warm washing was very satisfying on a wet and dull Sunday morning. Getting those little jobs done without any stress of drama do help to keep spirits buoyant when you’ve been van bound by inclement weather for longer than you would like.
The Costa Vasca (the Basque country’s coastline) stretches for over one hundred miles and is a rugged up and downer flanked by wooded hills with plenty of little inlets and coves to explore. We spent a night at the aire at Zumaia thirty kilometres west along the coast from San Sebastián. I say aire it was really just a patch of land on the industrial estate by the river but it was free, felt safe, was surprisingly quiet and a ten minute walk along the river got us into the town. We didn’t know it at the time as neither of our guidebooks mentioned it but the thirteen kilometres of cliffs between Zumaia and Deba have been recognised by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and UNESCO as one of the planet’s great geological outcrops.
The near vertical rock layers of the ‘flysch’ as they are known are like the pages of a book revealing, layer by layer, the erosive actions of water and movements of land over the course of 50 million years of the earth’s history.
You really have to see them from sea level to appreciate them and we really enjoyed this natural phenomena.
We stopped at the aire outside the fishing port of Lekeitio where old Basque houses line the seafront and watched the locals clamouring to buy the catch of the day landed that morning.
I have to say we were a bit mopey (is that a word?) as the weather hadn’t really improved with rain coming and going and pottering about the fishing villages isn’t really the same unless the sun is out.
We cheered ourselves up though with a stop at Gaztelugatxe, an islet connected to the mainland by a manmade bridge and on top of which stands a hermitage dating from the 10th Century dedicated to John the Baptist, which had been recommended to us by Tim and Jan who follow the blog and are on their own tour of Spain and Portugal at the moment.
Gaztelugatxe means castle on the rocks in the Basque language and is the most popular place of pilgrimage along the Basque coast. Its religious rites are also tied to the sea. Devotional offerings are left by sailors and fishermen to give thanks to the saint for protecting their boats from the dangers of the sea. Even today when the tuna season begins the fishermen from nearby Bormeo still bring their boats into the waters nearby to ask the saint for good weather, good health and good fishing before heading for the tropics in search of fish.
The small church at the top is eighty metres above sea level and is accessed via a narrow path and over two hundred steps. For all you Game of Thrones fans out there the location featured in Season 7 as Dragonstone with a digitally created castle on top. It was worth the stop and did us for our exercise for the day too before we trundled along to Bilbao.
The aire at Bilbao is in a spectacular location on a steep hillside to the west of the city with magnificent views out across the city and surrounding countryside.
At €15 a night with electric it is well worth staying a night or two. A regular bus service will set you back just €1.30 each way and drop you right beside the river in the old town.
Once an industrial port city home to steelworks and chemical factories, Bilbao has reinvented itself over the last twenty years with many of the old shipyards and factories having been replaced by parks, riverside walks, cafés and new modern architecture.
The pièce de résistance of that new modern architecture is undoubtedly the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by the American architect Frank Gehry and completed in 1997 it transformed a derelict piece of post industrial wasteland right in the heart of the city. Its success triggered a revitalization programme of the city including the development of a new metro system and airport.
Now, we don’t normally do museums preferring outdoor pursuits instead but we made an exception for the Guggenheim as we were sure it was going to be worth seeing inside and out. We approached it from the north bank of the river and climbed up the steps of the Puente de la Salve for a view from higher up.
All I can say is it lived up to all its hype and is, I think, the most remarkable modern building I have ever seen or experienced.
All its sweeping curves are clad in golden titanium tiles and it is just fabulous.
Standing in the sixty metre high atrium on the ground floor it is just mind boggling how it was ever a) conceived b) designed and c) built. Just astonishing.
We enjoyed the various galleries but as with a lot of modern and contemporary art I don’t always ‘get’ what the artist is getting at so to speak but that didn’t matter as the building its self kind of overshadows what’s in it anyway.
So, with all that excitement all we had time for was to walk back along the river and have a mooch about the old town before getting the bus back to the van.
There you go, Bilbao surprised us as we’d always thought it was just a hum drum urban sprawl of a place and somewhere to get the ferry back to the UK. How wrong we were.
So that brought the end to our tour of the Basque region and it was time to move on into Asturias and Cantabria.