The Basque Country: From San Sebastian to Bilbao

The Basque Country is one of the most intriguing regions of Spain. It is inhabited by the Basques, an ancient culture who speaks their own language. Interestingly, the Basque language is not a Romance language. It is not related to any other language that is currently spoken.

Like Catalonians, Basques are fiercely independent. They believe strongly in their autonomy and many want to secede from Spain. From 1959-2010, a pro-independence terrorist group called ETA used kidnappings, killings and bombings to push for independence. The group was disbanded in 2018. Still, the Basque pride and (for many) a hatred of Spain is strong. 

A Basque flag car

At this point, I had visited all but two of Spain´s 17 autonomous communities. The two remaining were the Basque Country and the adjacent Cantabria. I decided to combine the two into a single trip with 3 days in the Basque Country and then a day trip to Cantabria. My friend and classmate Natalia decided to join me. 

April 8, 2021: Guernica and Mundaka

I flew from Barcelona into Bilbao by myself since Natalia could not come until tomorrow. I then immediately drove to Guernica. The town of Guernica is a center of Basque pride. For hundreds of years, the kings of Spain would come to Guernica and would stand underneath a specific oak tree. There, they would pledge an oath to protecting Basque liberties. While the last monarch of Spain to swear the oath was Queen Isabella II in 1839, the tradition continues today with the modern presidents of the Basque Country swearing their oaths of office under the tree.

The Guernica Tree

Guernica is world famous due to a tragic event that occurred in the Spanish Civil War on April 26, 1937. Guernica, while not on the front lines, was supporting the Republican side of the war. Generalissimo Francisco gave the authority for the German Nazi´s Condor Legion to bomb the town. The Germans destroyed 85% of the town and killed up to 1,600 civilians. 

The news shocked the world. How could a country bomb its own civilians? Most famously, the bombing inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his iconic painting Guernica in 1939. Picasso was living in Paris at the time. The painting was not allowed to be shown in Spain until the country became a republic. The painting now hangs in Madrid´s Museo Reina Sofia.

A replica of Guernica in Guernica

The history of the bombing and the town is documented in a popular museum in the town center. 

The town did rebuild and is now a beautiful place.

Main square in Guernica. Everything you see has been meticulously rebuilt after the bombing

I then drove 20 minutes north to the town of Mundaka. Mundaka is world-famous among surfers for having the best ¨left¨ in Europe. Due to the currents of the ocean, most waves break to the right, meaning you have to turn to the right when facing the beach to surf the wave. Mundaka has a left because of the odd orientation of the narrow bay on the north facing coastline. Lefts are very rare and surfers will travel across the globe for one.

Unfortunately, on this day, the waves were not hitting and the sea was calm. 

The Mundaka bay

The town of Mundaka is very cute, but small. 

The town of Mundaka

I stayed in a surfer hostel where I was the only guest. The hostel was so empty that I had to wait 90 minutes to check in because the receptionist wasn´t even in town. 

When looking for dinner, I ran into some issues. Two days before my visit, the Basque Country implemented a COVID rule closing all restaurants by 20:00. When looking for a place for dinner at 19:30, my only option was to order in from a pizzeria in the next town over.

April 9, 2021: San Sebastian 

In the morning, I drove back to the Bilbao airport to pick up Natalia. We then drove about 1.5 hours east towards the town of San Sebastian. 

On the way, we stopped at the town of Zumaia. The town of Zumaia is fine, but its beach is a star attraction. 

Zumaia´s beach is lined with the longest rock strata in the world, creating an otherworldly set of cliffs. 

Zumaia Beach

Zumaia was also featured in the TV show Game of Thrones. For some reason, being a Game of Thrones filming location is a big deal and gets people excited. 

Continuing east, we reached the town of San Sebastian (known as Donostia in the Basque language). This wealthy and beautiful town is one of the most popular cities to visit in all of Spain. San Sebastian is known for its beautiful circular bay and spectacular food scene. 

Beautiful San Sebastian

We spent a bit of time wandering around the gorgeous town center. A few highlights include the neo-Gothic cathedral, and the modern Mercado San Martin. 

San Sebastian is so beautiful

We then walked down the incredible walkway along the bay to the Aquarium, considered one of the city´s top attractions. The aquarium surprised me in multiple way. First, it is way larger than it appears. Additionally, it is not just animals. There is also a large sector of the building that focuses on the city´s strong maritime history.

A strange fish in the San Sebastian aquarium

It was now time for the main event, the pinxto (or pincho) crawl of San Sebastian. Pinxtos are the Basque version of tapas. The word pinxto means spike in the Basque language and therefore a pinxto technically should have a small toothpick to hold it together. Additionally, all pinxtos have sliced bread as a base. Pinxtos are very elaborate and are meant to be visually appealing. 

The main pinxto scene in San Sebastian is on the narrow streets of the old town. There are many legendary bars here. Based on both recommendations of numerous friends and Google, Natalia and I took a 5-bar crawl. We did not order pinxtos at every bar. 

The pinxto zone

We first went to Cervecerias La Mejillonera for calamari and an unusual version of patatas bravas with a spicy yellow sauce. 

Next we visited Gandarias for pinxtos. The highlight had warm goat cheese. 

Third was Borda Berri for a rib and risotto. 

Fourth was Bar Nestor for the tomato salad. They also apparently have the best chuleton in all of Spain, but we were too full. 

Finally, we visited La Viña for Basque cheesecake. 

We were so stuffed by this point. 

Next, we drove around the bay to reach the Monte Igueldo amusement park. With the exception of the roller coaster with amazing views, the attractions are skippable. However, the panoramic views of the bay are superb from here. 

With Natalia at Monte Igueldo. Look at those views!!

It was getting late in the afternoon and we had one more place to visit Cristina Enea park (parkea in Basque). This stunning park had amazing views of the Urumea River. We then stopped a nearby café for dinner. 

It was now dark and we headed towards our hotel. When unpacking the car, I realized that my laptop was missing. I called the hostel in Mundaka to see if I left it there, but was told no. I then knew It was stolen. I then searched Find My iPhone and discovered that my laptop was now located in a suburb of San Sebastian. It was stolen while we were parked in the garage during the tapas crawl. Interestingly, the rest of both our possessions were left untouched with one exception: my flag of Spain. The guy must have been a Basque separatist!

After pulling together my evidence and constructing the timeline of events, Natalia and I headed to the police station. They were helpful and very kind although they could not get the laptop. 

April 10, 2021: Bilbao

The next morning, we drove to Bilbao, the largest city of the Basque Country. Despite popular belief, Bilbao is not the capital of the Basque Country. That honor belongs to Vitoria-Gasteiz. 

Bilbao used to be a run-down industrial city. However, in the last 25 years, the city has undergone a magnificent renaissance. Today, Bilbao is considered one of Spain´s top tourist destinations and is one of the richest cities in the country. The start of that renaissance was in 1997 with the construction of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao museum.

The first thing you notice when driving into Bilbao and its suburbs is the incredible display of Athletic Bilbao flags, which seem to be on every balcony. Athletic competes in La Liga, the top Spanish league. Athletic is world famous for only recruiting Basque players for the team. Despite the extreme limitations, they have managed to be one of Spain´s most successful clubs. They have never been demoted from the top league. Now that the Basque separatist movement has largely stopped, I believe that supporting the club is the most visible way for Basques to celebrate their culture. 

Our first stop of the day was technically not in Bilbao but in the suburb of Portugalete. It is the Vizcaya Bridge (Bizkaiko Zubia in Basque). This was the first transporter bridge ever built. A transporter bridge uses a ferry or cable car to cross the span. In this case, cars and passengers are transported across the river using an enormous cable car suspended from the top of the bridge. 

The Vizcaya Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The transporter bridge was built to allow people to cross the river while avoiding any disruption to maritime traffic coming from Bilbao. The bridge is truly one of a kind. In 2006, the Vizcaya Bridge was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first in the Basque Country. 

We then checked into our hotel. I then set out to purchase a new flag of Spain for the photo op in Cantabria tomorrow. I asked the hotel receptionist where to purchase a flag of Spain and after a pause and look of shock, was told “You are in the wrong city. But maybe the Chinese shop would have one”. Lo and behold, the Chinese shop did have a flag of Spain, which I purchased and quickly stuffed into my pocked to hide from sight. 

Hello Bilbao!

We then walked around the city center. Bilbao feels like a big city with restaurants and beautiful buildings. It is clearly not as pretty as San Sebastian but that is not surprising given the city´s less than illustrious past. The most interesting sight in the city center was the Azkuna Zentroa. This lifestyle/cultural center has coworking spaces, an art gallery, movie theater and a gym with a pool. 

Azkuna Zentroa

The weather was absolutely perfect and it was a Saturday, so unsurprisingly the town was hopping. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing  

Next, we headed to the old town of Bilbao with its narrow winding alleys. The old town is average by Spain standards. The most impressive part of the old town is the market, which is on the water. 

The old town of Bilbao

We then headed on a long walk along the Nervion River to reach the world-famous Guggenheim. This shiny gigantic box of titanium really stands out from the rest of the town.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Inside, the museum is quite spacious. The collection is mostly modern art with a few sprinklings of 19th century and early 20th century pieces. The highlights were a Richard Serra sculpture (the first one I have ever liked) and a temporary exhibition of interactive art. In total we spent about 90 minutes in the museum and really enjoyed it. 

Inside the Guggenheim Bilbao

Next we visited Bilbao´s other art museum: the Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa. While the architecture was nowhere as interesting as the Guggeinheim, the museum is, in my opinion, better than the Guggenheim. Rather than organize by time period, the museum was organized by theme with each letter of the alphabet (plus Spanish letters ll and ñ and Basque letters ts, tx and tz) getting a room. For example, the F room was familia and could have an El Greco painting of the Holy Family in the same room as a modern photograph and an Impressionist painting. This was a novel and bold decision and I think it really worked. 

For dinner we got more pinxtos. They looked good, but did not taste good. In general, the food in Bilbao was way worse than the food I have had in other cities in the region. 

With that, we went to bed because our day trip to Cantabria was coming up. 

Final Thoughts:

The Basque Country is definitely one of Spain´s most celebrated and popular regions. It definitely feels different from the rest of Spain. The language, food, and culture are all unique. 

I really loved all the beautiful and well-kept towns.

While the food in San Sebastian did live up to the hype, in general I was not very impressed by the food elsewhere in the Basque Country. 

If I were to visit the Basque Country again, I would spend more time in San Sebastian and less time everywhere else.

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