If someone tells you Spain, what comes to mind? Barcelona, Madrid, Seville… Perhaps Andalucia, Ibiza or Canary Islands too. But this time we invite you to look up North, to the Basque country (sorry for the pun in the title). Spain’s Basque region goes from San Sebastian to Bilbao and all the way to Santiago de Compostela… with, for any wine lover, a little stretch to La Rioja, ola! And this is what we explored over the summer.
Just a hop from another gourmet capital, Bordeaux, and a seaside heaven, Biarritz, both in France, the little town of San Sebastian just across the border in Spain already lives up to its neighbors. With the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants for a city in the world, the charming seaside community is the mecca of any serious lover of Spanish – or should we say Basque – cuisine.
On the street, tasteful pintxos replace the usual tapas, and the white txakoli wine is well-suited to pair with those. And inside unpretentious kitchens, passionate chefs are pulling the world culinary standards upwards, just as we unforgettably witnessed at Mugaritz, the World’s #9 best restaurant on a nothing less than 25-course meal… with wine pairing for each single dish!
Fortunately the lush nature and the cool air are here to help digest all these good things. Driving along the gorgeous Atlantic coastline, we could admire the spectacular green hills and spot rare little houses lost in there, which gave us a feeling of a previous trip to Switzerland. The seaside is full of small towns and villages either perched on rocks or with sandy beaches – all of course offering the ultimate seafood fresh as being fished that same morning.
Bilbao has a rich history and iconic ancient monuments – but it is for its world-famous Guggenheim that it is now known. The little brother of New York’s museum is a jewel in its own right and we were lucky enough to enjoy some of the most spectacular exhibitions in a rather intimate, yet so diverse landmark. It does feel like being inside a human heart inside the museum – it was designed as such -, and each work of art and creation beat a magical symphony of pulses.
The scenery changes dramatically heading South just for a little bit as you cross the Sierra de Cantabria chain of mountains and reach the edges of Castilla y Leon province. There you enter Spain’s most famous wine country, La Rioja, where every town or so claims to be the capital of Rioja. It was very challenging – and would have been a blasphemy – not to stop for tasting some of the finest local wines made either in a traditional, old-fashioned way or in the modern style of Rioja reds.
And to us, this is where the Basque country’s beauty, the artistic resonance of Frank Gehry and the finger-licking flavors of San Sebastian and Rioja came altogether, at Marques de Riscal estate-winery-spa. Don’t get us wrong, there are many places of wonderful hospitality around to choose from; yet this particular one was built on the region’s oldest wine-making estate and turned into a surprising living creature of architecture in the heart of vineyards and just by the charming little church of Elciego reachable by bike or walk.
There are many more things to say, but we’ll leave it here for now, with a splendid view from our room, some more flavors of the region, and the fireworks that were popping up every night for the San Sebastian festival. Now it’s your turn to Basqu’in the Spanish Sun, so check some ideas here and request your own itinerary here.
by Julien Yung Mameaux