Friday, May 11, 2012

Northern Spain, A Cultural Pilgrimage and Culinary Odyssey (Part 1)

Our 3-week trip through the Northern of Spain started near Bordeaux, one of the most gorgeous cities in France bordering the Basque region. From there, heading south along the serenely beautiful coast, bypassing stunning little cities and towns like Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz was a wonderful drive.
However, with all the beauty that surrounded us, the place that I remember most profoundly was Guernica, the city that was memorialized in Picasso’s painting by same name and best reflect the long and tumultuous history of this region.
Basque Country is a small ethnic enclave located in the heart of the Pyrenees Mountains, which divide Spain and France from one another. While falling technically into Spain, and its people have often been trapped between the powerfully warring factions of France and Spain as well as its own struggle for independence.

After few hours of breathtaking drive, we arrived in Pamplona, the city that’s been immortalized by the writings of Hemingway. At first, arriving in a city where I didn’t speak the language fluently proved to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. Unbeknownst to me, much of the Spanish that is being spoken in the Northern region, especially in the Basque country was quite different than Spanish I was used to speaking in Mexico, and even simple words like bathroom, el baño, was unrecognized as it's called el lavabo.

Also, I underestimated the seriousness of the siesta, a break taken during midday shortly after lunch. We had arrived in Pamplona in the afternoon and had gotten engrossed in exploring the city, and by the time we’d remembered to get some lunch in the late afternoon, we discovered that all restaurants and most of the shops including grocery stores were closed.

This of course was an unfamiliar concept to us and most of the tourists, especially those who had dared to forgo lunch, and it was next to impossible to find a restaurant that served a full meal in the evening as we'd learned that lunch was the main meal of the day ... most of the Spaniards opt to have small tapas in the evenings. After aimlessly searching through the town for about an hour, we settled on our only choice, a Chinese restaurant!

Lesson learned, we certainly adjusted our meals according to the Spanish timetable and got into the groove of things the next day. We began enjoying "menu del dia", what the Spanish offer as an alternative to the inflation, which had taken over the Euro zone, which basically is a multi-course meal offered at a reasonable price.  Wine and drinks are included as well, which makes it a really deal.

Also, as it turned out, it was perfect meal schedule for me, and of course, we began taking full advantage of siesta, which I’d vowed to incorporate into my daily life back at home!

Recommended hotel: Hotel Europa C/Espoz y Mina, 31001 Pamplona T. 948 221 800

San Sebastian
After another gorgeous drive through the Spanish Pyrenees, we arrived in the city of San Sebastian. We were a little skeptical at first, as initially, it seemed like a typical ostentatious European summer getaway town. However, we were pleasantly surprised at the warmth and the charm of the city, not to mention our delightful hotel Pension Amaiur and its hostess who was absolutely courteous and helpful.

Also, it didn’t hurt that San Sebastian happens to be the mecca of tapas bars (pintxo bars), and we were able to sample some the best … and I do mean THE BEST … tapas there. My husband and I happily spent the entire day going from one tapas bar to the another enjoying the wonderful atmosphere of the city.

We were however slightly disappointed by the beach, as it was terribly crowded, and beach towels and bodies occupied every square centimeter of what seem to be more of a strand. Nonetheless, the town itself is absolutely charming and is filled with plenty of wonderful shops and monuments, and strolling on the beautiful boardwalk along the beach turned out to be one of the most enjoyable activities during the trip … and made us wish we’d brought our roller blades.

The drive along the Northern coast from San Sebastian to Bilbao was amazing, filled with windy roads through the mountainous passes overlooking the gorgeous cliffs leading to the ocean.

The main reason for going to Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim Museum … and of course, the awe-inspiring buildings designed by Frank O. Gehry. It has become a personal pilgrimage of mine to visit all the Guggenheim Museums around the world … so far 4 out of 5 with the only exception being the one in Dubai … and situated along the Nervión River in the old industrial heart of the city, the museum with its distinctive titanium curves and soaring glass atrium was absolutely impressive.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Bilbao, which proved to be a delightfully cosmopolitan city, and on the contrary to the stereotype of being an sterile industrial hub, the old town was absolutely beautiful. Also, being the cultural center of Spain, the city seem to attract an interesting and diverse group of people from all over the world, and it had a unique vibe and culturally diverse atmosphere which was rarity in Europe.  It was one of the most lively towns we've been to in Europe, and we wished we'd planned a longer stay there.

About 2 hours west of Bilbao lies a charming little fishing village of Llanes. It is bounded to the south by the high ridge of the limestone Sierra del Cuera, which rises to over 1,100 m, and Costa Verde (Green Coast) of Spain, which is known for its spectacular coastal scenery, beaches, and mountains.
We decided to base ourselves in Llanes mainly due to its ideal location in exploring Picos de Europa, known as the Yosemite of Northern Spain. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the our hotel la Posada de Babel, which turned out to be absolutely charming.
The only downside was the weather, which tends to be a bit rainy and colder than the rest of Spain, but it didn’t deter us from discovering some of the most spectacular nature in Spain.

los Picos de Europa
Home to some of the most gorgeous landscapes in Europe, los Picos de Europa (the Peaks of Europe) are the most famous and legend-riddled mountains in Spain. Rising more than 2,590m (8,500 ft.), they are not high by alpine standards, but their proximity to the sea makes their height especially awesome.

The best way to see this region is by car, and it was an amazing experience to drive through the majestic Picos de Europa, discovering secluded beaches and hidden treasures such as Pena Tu and Monastery de Covadonga, which are rarely visited by foreign tourists.
Northern Spain, A Cultural Pilgrimage and Culinary Odyssey (Part 2)


  1. nice posting.. thanks for sharing..

  2. When were you in San Sebastian? I saw your comment about the beach being overcrowded and I'm trying to avoid the large crowds there on my trip. Thanks!

    1. We were there in June. Overall, popular destinations in Europe, esp. near the coast tends to get really crowded in the summer. In my opinion, Sep is the best month to travel in Europe, as the weather is still warm, and you won't encounter summer holiday goers.

    2. Thanks so much! We went to croatia last summer and everything was so crowded we were trying to figure out where to go this summer - our problem is that vacation time every year is the end of july/early august so we get all the European tourism if we head there.

    3. Jul/Aug is popular travel months in Europe, and you will encounter a lot of people wherever you go. However, N. Spain is far less crowded than other popular (coastal) destinations in France or Italy, and the drive along the coast as well as around los Picos de Europa is absolutely breathtaking. I recommend staying at smaller towns or less known cities in N. Spain and doing day trips to San Sebastian, as it might give you some time away from the crowd.

    4. Thanks so much!