Basque Country (San Sebastián & Bilbao)

For a week over Easter break, we went to Northern Spain to explore the Basque country staying three nights and days in San Sebastián (Donostia) and three nights in Bilbao. The area is well-known for incredible food (San Sebastián boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants, and the overall standard is really high), the Gehry-designed Guggenheim, beautiful country and gorgeous beaches. We went a little too early to fully appreciate the beaches, though there were plenty of surfers out in wetsuits. If you want to go when the beach season is guarenteed to be in full swing, it’s best to go no earlier than late May, so we were about two months early. Still a wonderful trip!

Pintxos are Northern Spain’s version of tapas and are available as a spread in a bar or taverna for you to select from. You get a plate from the bartender, make your choices and show them the plate for them to add to your tab (typically these range from €1 – €3 a piece). They’re usually “spiked” onto a piece of bread, though may also be octopus or anchovy segments.

This is a slightly controversial pinxto: elvers, or baby eels.

If you’re looking to bar crawl and get pinxtos around a city, it’s best to go to really crowded tavernas because that means the pinxtos are probably fresher as they haven’t had a chance to sit out before getting picked up. Our airbnb host also gave us some advice about ordering drinks with your pinxtos to ensure the bartender only gives you enough alcohol for your pinxto, rather than a large beer or wine. For that:

Small glass of beer: Zurito
Small glass of red wine: Txikito Crianza
(“tx” is like “ch” in “cheddar”)Small glass of white wine: Txakoli
Small glass of local cider: Sidra

This blogger has good advice if you want to do it right!

There are three main beaches in Donostia: Playa de Ondarreta; Playa de La Concha; and Playa de Zurriola. The main ‘bay’ is split into the first two beaches, with Playa de La Concha taking up the largest space (and closest to the old city). The above picture is from Playa de Zurriola, which is better for surfing as the waves coming in aren’t as sheltered by the cove / islas.Practicing aperature priority!Playa de ZurriolaI pretty much wore this fluffy jacket all week (even inside – most doors are kept wide open).Playa de ZurriolaI loved the fact that dogs were allowed to run free on all the beaches. Be forewarned if you’re nervous around dogs, but if you’re not, it’s heaven.The Spanish version of all the moms meeting up for a power walk is all the moms and all the dogs.The Aquarium in San Sebastian is well worth visiting. Tripadvisor reviews made us slightly dubious, but we loved it. Save it for a rainy or cloudy day, but go. It starts off strangely with a little too much information about the area’s naval history (even though there’s a separate Naval History museum literally next door). Best part of that was the massive whale skeleton! Otherwise breeze right through that to the aquarium.

Jack and the jellyfish!
So dreamy.
Anenomes under a microscope.
The tank! Bull sharks and sea turtles and manta rays and allllll the fish. Amazed that they all get along!

The best part of this aquarium is the tunnel through the tank.

Ahhhh! Spotted garden eels popping out of their sand homes for the food flecks!
These guys
Hey you guys….From outside the aquarium. If you walk around the Monte Urgull on Paseo Nuevo you’re bound to see a lot of unsuspecting tourists sprayed.
We didn’t go to any Michelin-starred restaurants, but we’d highly recommend Atari, Gandarias and Sirimiri. The above photo is from Atari, which we returned to… three times… for the incredible pulpo. The most delicious octopus I have ever, ever had.
In the morning in the shadow of the pollarded beach trees.
Walking around to see the wind combs (near the funicular). Wind combs, done by Eduardo Chillida.

Looking back over San Sebastian’s Bahia de La Concha. On the way up Monte Urgull, looking over the harbour.
Playa de la Concha

Back at Atari for a Gilda plate with anchovy filets, guindilla peppers and manzanilla olives. So, so good.
From on high!Looking down from the San Sebastian statue…

Isla Santa Clara (we didn’t visit, but you can take a ferry over or even swim, apparently. I wouldn’t though – look at those waves!)

Sunset over Donostia through the pollarded treesWhile we were there, it happened to be during Semana Santa (this year March 29th – April 6th). It’s almost exclusively a procession of brotherhoods and fraternities and bears an unfortunate resemblance to the KKK (who almost certainly reappropriated the look).

Seeing them play horns and trumpets through mouthless hoods was a little ridiculous.Inside the Guggenheim! We booked tickets for a 10 am entrance and spent the entire day there, leaving after 5. If you’re visiting, definitely book an early entry time to make the most of your visit.

The Guggenheim is almost more famous for Frank Gehry’s architecture, but the collection did not disappoint! I especially loved the Richard Serra torques and elipses and Kimsooja’s hour-long Thread Routes (blew my mind). There’s also a staggering Ai Weiwei piece, a small Christian Boltanski room, and the visiting exhibition: Niki de Saint Phalle who is absolutely not my bag, but definitely interesting. One of the first ever ‘performance’ artists since she’d build paint bags into her pieces and then shoot them at random.

The famous “Maman” spider – translates creepily to mom tying into the artists biography. Jack + Anish Kapoor’s “Tall tree and the eye” spheresThese guys and the Guggenheim!A Calatrava bridge – ZubizuriWe were up early to make a 6:50 flight to Madrid, then found ourselves with a nice 7 hour layover… long enough to drop our bags off in left luggage, navigate the train across Madrid and make it to the Prado for opening time (10 am). We had two solid hours to rush through the galleries and see masterpieces & mostly used the museum’s guide itself to help us narrow it down: what to see if you have two hours in the Prado.So many incredible pieces, but for me the major highlights were:
The Triumph of Death by Brueghel (snippet above)
Las Meninas by Velázquez
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya (below)

& I’ll leave you with some guy recreating Goya!


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