Europe

Spain’s Basque Country

written by | Posted on February 1st, 2009

Not far off are the pretty beaches of La Concha and Ondarreta in La Concha Bay, which fills in from the Cantabric Sea and where families mingle (surfers head to La Zurriola), as well as historical landmarks that include the Victoria Eugenia Theater. San Sebastian is also a city of sculptures, both modern and seasoned, with works by Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza, among others. (Just a few minutes away from the city is the Chillida-Leku Museum, a park with 150 pieces by the famous Spanish sculptor, some outdoors and some in a lovely 16th century farmhouse.) As in Bilbao, pilgrims will find clear signs to Santiago de Compostela, while shoppers may want to walk along Fermin Calbeton Street in San Sebastian’s Old Town to find a good keepsake or book.

Besides its natural appeal and Old World glamour, San Sebastian has become famous for its Basque cuisine, which has experienced a rebirth of sorts. Its height of culinary creativity is in pintxos—small imaginative dishes (unlike the tapa, which is more of a ration) lately being referred to as mini-high cuisine. San Sebastian has put pintxos on the map, with fish and shellfish playing a protagonic role. Out of the many places to try them here, there’s Casa Gandarias with more traditional pintxos and A Fuego Negro for the more daring and nouvelle (remind clients to also try txakoli, a local sparkling white wine). Clients may even sign up for a pintxo workshop through companies such as Gabriela’s Kitchen and prepare unique creations that they can later enjoy with a glass of wine or two.

About two months before arriving here, have clients make reservations at Mugaritz, lauded as one of the top seven restaurants in the world. An unforgettable tasting menu costs about 150 euro.

enlightened capital The capital of Basque Country, Vitoria-Gastiez, runs circles around most other European capitals, occupying first place in the continent in terms of consolidated green space since each of the city’s quarters is required to have its own garden and park. This “green belt” protects the city, increases its biodiversity and provides added recreation for its inhabitants, with free bike rentals, lookout points and walking trails. The wetlands are particularly appealing for birdwatchers.

Vitoria-Gasteiz seems like a relatively new city, but it’s really not. It has a pretty historic center that’s been well preserved, with monuments of gothic, renaissance, baroque, and neoclassical styles, as well as a surprisingly wide assortment of pastry shops, cafes and pretty stores. Despite its abundance of pretty plazas, squares and sculptures, one of Vitoria’s most curious attractions is a statue of best-selling author Ken Follett, who based one of his most famous thrillers, “World Without End,” on the capital city.

The stay of choice in Vitoria is the Hotel Silken Ciudad de Vitoria, which is within walking distance of the historic district but far enough to avoid its bustle. All rooms were refurbished only a couple of years ago, with the most comfortable of living spaces and full mini-bars; open corridors and an inviting lobby draw you into the property. The hotel has great meeting areas on its ground floor, a fitness room and even a piano bar for late-night revelers. This hotel enjoys an added advantage—like others in the brand, it benefits from Silken’s gastronomic consultant, who has his own eatery in the city.

vino, more vino! The Rioja-Alavesa wine region is one of the most prestigious in the world, snaking among 15 municipalities between the Ebro River and the Toloño and Cantabria mountain ranges. There are almost 400 wineries here, each with its own quirk or forte. Ysios wines, for instance, are only reserva and are produced in an imposing structure by Calatrava, while El Fabulista, in the medieval village of Laguardia, has an underground cellar and still makes wine by treading on grapes. These and many other wineries in the region offer tastings. Beginning in April, there will be an oeno-bus tour through Rioja-Alavesa available for wine lovers with weekly departures from Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gasteiz.

But you can’t mention Spanish wine without singing the praises of Marques de Riscal. Founded in 1860, its historic cellar houses the most important wine collection in Europe, with wines of every year since 1862 (a 1.5-hour tour costs about 10 euros). Even though the wine is world-famous, its relatively new hotel has been catching up to its buzz.