Exploring Basque Country

Series so Far

This is part two of a five-part series outlining our 2016 Europe trip.

  1. Jet lag recovery: Bordeaux, France.
  2. Basque Country Tour: Bayonne, France; Pamplona, Spain;  San Sebastián, Spain; Bilbao, Spain. You’re reading this right now!
  3. Scotland, pt. 1Edinburgh, St. Andrews,  and Inverness
  4. Scotland, pt. 2: Isle of Skye, Oban, Stirling, and Glasgow
  5. Reykjavik

September 21st, 2016: Bayonne

After an excitingly delayed TGV trip and short walk from the train station, we arrived in the French town of Bayonne. Nested near the coast along Adour, Bayonne is in the northern portion of the French Basque Country. The strategic importance of this location is indicated by multiple castles, impressive ramparts, and the legacy is continued with excellent transportation connections.

It’s an ideal start of a Basque Country tour, which is why we’re here! Arriving in our starting hotel, we meet our guide at the 17:00 welcome meeting. Based out of San Sebastián, Agustin would be our guide for the next 9 days and 8 nights while we journeyed through Southwestern France and Northeastern Spain: the Basque Country.

Along with Augustin was the approximately other tour members, who introduced themselves after the basic groundwork of the tour was presented. All had been to Europe previously, and most had been on multiple Rick Steves’ Tours: for one particularly intrepid this was their ninth tour!

Introductions over, we followed what would be the fairly standard plan for arriving in a new city:

  • Orientation Walk: our guide takes us through a quick jaunt around our neighborhood and points out landmarks, public transportation, laundromats, ATMs, and stores.
    Sweet tour audio device
    Orientation Walk. Notice our super awesome audio earpieces.

    Followed shortly by…

  • Group Meal: around half of our dinners are part of the tour group, and more often than not this means the first night in a new city is a shared meal

Our meal was an introduction on the Basque culinary tradition: lots of wine, and lots of food. Pintxos are always present: they’re often known as tapas. Basque meals aren’t fast affairs. They typically last two to three hours with plenty of salad, pintxos, main courses, and deserts. Despite our vegetarian leanings, the vegetable dishes were plentiful in a land of fish and meat. Also introduced was Basque Cider, which flat in nature and poured from height in order to aërate.

September 22nd, 2016: Bayonne

We’re up bright and early, and after a filling breakfast head off to our main walking tour of Bayonne! Winding through the town, the colorful architecture of the Basque culture begins to reveal itself, along with the political protest signs that still hang from the balconies.

At the cathedral

Although no longer a major seafaring waypoint, Bayonne hints at their wealthy history through their grand cathedral that’s quite a bit larger than would be expected for a city of its size.

What even is my face doing
Down by the water and down by the old main drag

After a brief coffee stop, we headed on towards the real point of starting in Bayonne: the outstanding Musee Basque.

Natural habitat
Coffee Break

Meeting up with our local guide, who resembled the French version of John Roderick, we explored the history of the region and people through their sport, religion, and traditions.

Museum selfie
Museum selfie

Museum complete, we grabbed some bread and sauces to eat a picnic lunch on top of some ramparts near the city center before spending the rest of the day exploring.

September 23rd, 2016: Bayonne to Pamplona, via  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

We packed up and got on our bus towards Spain, but not before a stop along the way.

Although not the primary focus of the tour, much of our route roughly traces one of the main routes of the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James. This is a pilgrimage route through northern Spain towards the Santiago de Compostela. Many of the towns along the way are night stops for pilgrims on the way to their final destination, and the universal sign for these pilgrims is a scallop shell, which can be seen dangling from backpacks and along streets.

Stylized seashell symbol. The spokes represent the shell as well as the multiple approaches to the Santiago de Compostela. (Image via Wikimedia/Skarabeusz)

As a pilgrimage route, hikers come from all over Europe, and while there are many approaches to take, one of the primary starting points for the main journey is the walled town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This portion is referred to as the French Way.

We had a few hours to spend wandering the small town full of pilgrims, and naturally climbed the city walls to the citadel near the top.

Jet lag starting to kick in

After St-Jean-Pied-du-Port, we hopped back on the bus to journey to Spain via Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass that was the location of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 between Basque Forces and Charlemagne’s Army. Cut off by the Basque, Roland rallied his troops for a last stand before being wiped out. There wasn’t much left to be seen of the battle, but the valley was strategic enough.

Soon enough we were over the pass and in to Spain!

Mountain Pass
Basque Spain. Slightly hillier than Basque France

After passing into Spain, we made a stop at the village of Roncesvalles, which mostly had a claim to fame by hosting a number of churches as well as a fairly impressive large and old hostel for pilgrims. Along the Camino route, every 10-20 miles featured a hamlet that catered to weary pilgrims looking for a place to hang their dusty shoes and grab a bit of hot food before their journey the following day.

Behind me? Very old hostel.
Check out this hostel?!

Our day ended in the Spanish town of Pamplona, which was starting up their celebration of the Little San Fermín festival. This name may sound familiar, as the ‘regular’ San Fermín festival hosts the running of the bulls. Turns out that the regular festival used to be in late September, but they moved it to earlier in the year because it consistently had bad weather, and they created the ‘little’ version for where it used to be. This meant Pamplona was going to be rocking and partying our visit!

September 24th, 2016: Pamplona

If you were cool and into Ernest Hemingway, you probably would have read The Sun Also Rises. Alas, we aren’t that cool and neither of us knew that it was because of this book that the city of Pamplona was on the map. Ever hear of the Running of the Bulls?

As mentioned previously, we were in Pamplona in the midst of their secondary festival of the year, and while it didn’t feature bulls, it did give us time for a uncrowded walking tour of the city that morning. Why was it uncrowded? Because the entire town was working off their collective hangovers for the next night.

Tracing our steps across the downtown, the route of the Running of the Bulls was clearly marked by postholes in the ground: this is where the inner and outer layers of fencing goes in to guide the runners and the bulls themselves. Dings and notches on walls and doors mark where the horns of the bulls collided before they continued forward to their doomed destination. The bull ring sits at the end of the course: empty. It is only used during the main festival and is otherwise a large civic structure unused for the remaining weeks of the year.

Gothic light
Pamplona cathedral

The Pamplona cathedral was notable for its brilliantly lit rose (above), and a fully preserved medieval kitchen.

Medieval kitchen flue
Looking up from the floor. You can see the primary chimney in the center along with the four secondaries along the corners.

We were back for another group dinner that night in Pamplona, and this time it was at a Txoko, which is a Basque gastronomical society. These are traditionally male-only places where the men could go and join a private club with friends who would cook for each other. Today, women are often allowed to visit these clubs, but the kitchen is strictly off-limits.

Although not strictly matriarchal, traditional Basque society did place women in positions of power and decision-making that was quite a bit more than the surrounding cultures. One oft-repeated line about the gastronomical societies is that they were set up by men and remained male only because it gave them a place to “be themselves” outside of the household which was female-controlled. It seems like somewhat of a stretch, but this is the explanation given for why these clubs were men-only.

During the festival in Pamplona
Street party

Wandering through the crowded party streets of Pamplona, we ducked into a small below-ground hole that opened up into a narrow dining room with an attached kitchen. The women all went to one side: against the wall, while the men were on the opposite end with their backs to the passageway. Here we would all be the servers, and would ferry out food and drink from the kitchen.

The long table

Three hours later, and completely stuffed to the brim with Basque food, we headed back through the party to the former palace where we were staying.

Ah yes, the Palacio Guendulain is where we were staying in Pamplona. As a former royal residence of Queen Isabella II, it was quite the snazzy place for a Rick Steves’ Tour.

September 25th, 2016: Walking the Camino de Santiago; San Sebastián

Leaving the litter-strewn streets of a hungover Pamplona behind, we hopped on our bus for a quick jaunt up a nearby mountain.

Aftermath of the street party
Little San Fermin: the aftermath

With large wind turbines on the ridge top and a small jeep selling snacks nearby, we all disembarked for the hiking portion of the tour.

Pilgrim power
Camino waypoint. Snack truck to the right. Our bus is the green thing behind it.

Hiking? You may have noticed that the Camino de Santiago is a pretty big part of the overall experience of this tour: one of our fellow tour members had already done the 28 day hike the year before, and was planning on doing it again right after the tour ended.

Just a little social media before the hike
Preparing for the walk

We would only be doing a short segment: 9 kilometers or so, and mostly downhill. Along the way we’d be seeing some villages many pilgrims stopped at, and see a bit of the Basque Countryside.

Overlooking our hiking route
We’ll be walking, more or less, down this hill and off to the distance in the valley below

The journey was peaceful, and our fellow trailmates would often pass us with their scallop shell softly hitting their pack as they hustled by.

Tail pics
The countryside welcomes

After two brief stops in small villages, we started on the third and final segment of the day’s walk.

Rays of god
A sign from the heavens?

Our destination was the 12th-century Iglesia de Santa María de Eunate, known in English as the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate. Peaking between the hills, the Romanesque church started to reveal its location as we came nearer. Not much is known of the church’s history: it isn’t near a modern town, and not much in the way of documentation is present. Featuring an octagonal plan, one theory is that it was constructed to serve as a hostel for pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago.

Notice the surrounding archways. These could possibly be the remains of a cloister.

After exploring the church, our few hours on the Camino was complete, and we were ready for a tasty (and lengthy) meal at a nearby winery in the Spanish Basque countryside! Once again full of food, we encountered a rainstorm on the way to the seaside resort town of San Sebastián.

Nestled along a beautiful bay between two hilly peninsulas, our bus went to the top of one of the hills to get a better view at what would be our home for the next two nights.

San Sebastián
San Sebastián

September 26th, 2016: San Sebastián

Known as Donostia in Basque, San Sebastián is positioned along the Northeastern coast of Spain, and is a resort town that lies along the La Concha Bay. After our morning walking tour of the city, Tracey had noticed that her phone had died.

This may sound familiar, as it also died on our trip to the East Coast earlier this year with the exact same symptoms. After some efforts at resuscitation, it appeared that it was similarly dead as the previous trip. Swapping the SIM into my old Nexus 5 that I bring along for just this exact purpose, we got her up and running again with cellular service. That task complete, we sat on the breakwater for a picnic lunch.

Eating on the breakwater
Check out the square riprap behind me.

Task complete, we began to hike up and around Mount Urgull, home of a park and military fortifications built during the past 800 years. Tracing our way around the mountain, Tracey suddenly realized that the Nexus 5 had died as well. Uhoh.

Near the top of Urgull, the fortifications offered excellent views into the bay and the nearby Mount Igeldo, which is where we stopped by the previous day for a contrasting view of the bay.

Bay overlook
Sun-filled harbor

Back down the mountain we went, and along the way to the water level promenade some lizard friends were spotted basking in the sun.

Hiding in the grasses

Back at the hotel, we managed to resurrect the backup phone, and all was good. But it was now time for one of those less exciting parts of travelling light: doing laundry. Finding a nice automated hole-in-the-wall facility, we took an hour or two to have a reading downtime while our laundry was cleaning.


Laundry complete, it was off to enjoy the beach!

End to the day
Basque Sand

Capped off the day with some vegan takeout. Yummy yummy.

September 27th, 2016: Gernika and Bilbao

And we’re on our way to Bilbao! Following the coast, we arrive for a stop in the town of Getaria. It’s the hometown of Juan Sebastián Elcano, who was the first person to circumnavigate the Earth. There was a nice monument for him, and after stretching our legs exploring the area by the water, we continued on towards our next stop.

Take the coastal road!

In 1937, the Basque region was one of the few remaining areas under Republican control during the Spanish Civil War. Nationalist forces were greatly assisted by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, and it was requested that they bomb the symbolic capital of the region: Gernika. In one of the first targeted bombings of a civilian population, the Germans destroyed the bridges leading away from town before launching additional waves of aircraft who plunged further explosives upon the civilians before strafing them. Resistance in the town was crushed and it soon surrendered.

Picasso’s Guernica

We saw the Basque Parliament.

Obligatory parliament picture

We saw the Basque Oak tree. Or at least one of them. Turns out they swap them out fairly often and keep the wood of the old ones in a yard behind it.

The Basque Oak

The modern parliament building featured some excellent stained glass.

The tree again
Hello. We’re with the tour.

Gernkia behind us, we arrived in Bilbao in the middle of a rainstorm. The largest city of the Basque Region, Bilbao was heavily industrialized and used to be a major mining and steelmaking hub. After suffering economic depression, the city was reinvented on the back of the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Orientation walk done, we got some sweet in-trip clothing reinforcements from H&M before settling in for vegan tapas.

September 28th, 2016: Bilbao

The morning Bilbao walking tour ended, naturally, at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Here, the building is the exhibit. There’s art inside, but it’s not very relevant and quite frankly is completely over classed by the building that housed it.

Museum exterior. See that bridge? We walked over it.
Museum Interior

In the afternoon I went on a trip to see the UNESCO Listed Vizcaya Bridge. Not only did this present an opportunity to see a rare transporter bridge, it also was a trip via the Metro Bilbao, and I’m never one to pass up a chance to ride a new subway system.

Transporter Bridge

Transporter Bridge? Well. It’s a thing when you want to transport people and vehicles across a river, but also want to allow ships pass through. That little suspended cabin hanging from the structure moves back and forth. On either side is a passenger cabin, and between them is a deck that allows the transport of cars and bikes. I wish there was something awesome to say about riding it, but that was a very pedestrian experience. Or at least as normal as it would be to move in a suspended cabin across a river. It’s like a ferry except slightly less rocky.

We finished up that night with our final group dinner. Saying goodbye to our fellow tour members and guide while consuming multiple pounds of food, it was a fitting end to the trip.

September 29th, 2016: Bilbao to Edinburgh

Waking up at approximately way-too-early, we grabbed a taxi through the abandoned morning streets of Bilbao to the local airport.

Enormous Bilbao airport light

When we were transferring planes in Brussels, there was a pleasant surprise! We’d be on a British Aerospace 146! A short lil’ plane with four lil’ jet engines on it, things were looking super fun until we realized our seats would be in a row without windows. And, naturally, the overhead compartments were much smaller if your seats were by the overhead wing, and hint: ours were.

Hey there!

Luckily, the Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 can fit underneath a seat of even this small airplane. And we were on our way to Scotland!

Slightly cramped


Most of the photos in this post come from my Bordeaux and Basque Flickr Album. Others are directly from my phone. As always, check out the Flickr link if you’re interested in seeing my favorite pictures from this portion of the trip.

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