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Basque Country: Bilbao, San Sebastián, and More

Our “escape from Fallas” (Valencia’s epic but exhausting spring festival) brought us to explore northern Spain’s Basque Country, or País Vasco, for several days. We started in Bilbao, which boasts one of four Guggenheim museums in the world, a Frank Gehry-designed masterpiece with not a straight line to be found and which has transformed the city in many ways since its opening in 1997. It’s quite a welcome when you’re driving from the airport into the city; you emerge through a tunnel onto a bridge, beholding the museum from an incredible vantage point, as seen below.

The building itself is arguably more compelling than the fairly small collection of modern art inside (though we did feel moved by the Richard Serra “The Matter of Time” weathered steel circles installation, visiting just a few days before his death).

We lucked out with unseasonably warm and sunny weather in mid-March as we strolled along Bilbao’s Nervión River artery, with pretty parks, excellent playgrounds, a farmer’s market, and much to enjoy before hitting the more touristy old city. We also took a boat ride up and down the river, getting a sense of Bilbao’s industrial and mining history, mountains framing the river landscape, and many bridges. In fact, Bilbao reminded us of Pittsburgh in both these respects, so it felt familiar and familial.

After about 36 hours in Bilbao, we took the longer, more scenic coastal road to drive to San Sebastián. (Note that on the main highway between the cities, there’s a nearly 15 euro toll one-way; we noticed many more tolls and higher gas prices in the north than in other regions.) Interestingly, since Euskara is the Basque language, most signs are in four languages: Euskara, Castellano (Castillian Spanish), English, and French.

We then spent about three days in San Sebastián in the off-season, which is plenty of time to tour the city, spend time at the beach, and do a daytrip or two. As there aren’t as many notable historic sites to visit, San Sebastián’s expansive, scenic beach promenade and an old town filled with some of the best pintxos tapas bars and food we’ve had in Spain were really the highlights.

Although we got a babysitter for two evenings so that we could savor a leisurely, relaxing meal at the excellent Bodegon Alejandro and tapas-hop through Casa Urola and Bar Atari, the most memorable night was actually at Bar Antonio, where Jacob was the only kid sitting at the bar at 9 p.m., ordering a glass of warm leche for himself and munching on a bocadillo while we savored lobster ravioli, grilled octopus, and a truly memorable deconstructed tortilla española.

Finally, we took a daytrip to French Basque Country (the small cities of Bayonne, Biarritz, and Saint-Jean-de-Luz), which is about a 40-minute drive from San Sebastián, just across the border (there is no normal border crossing since you’re within the EU, though you’ll pay plenty of minor tolls in both directions). It was quite windy for the beach in Saint-Jean-de-Luz this time of year, but the charm, chocolate shops (for the guys), and French boutique shopping (for me) in Bayonne made it worth the trip. We can only imagine how crowded these Basque beach towns get in the height of summer!

We really enjoyed discovering (and for me, rediscovering 20 years after my first visit!) this intriguing, captivating region of Spain.