Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Weekend Adventures {Bilbao & San Sebastian, Spain}

We took a weekend away (with my mom in tow) to northern Spain in mid-October.  Specifically we went to Bilbao and San Sebastian. along with a few other smaller towns along the way.  We flew in and out of Bilbao* and rented a car which I highly recommend -- there are trains and buses connecting most of the towns in the region, but it takes much longer and just easier with a car.
The region we went to in Northern Spain is known as Basque Country.  The region crosses into France, but we stayed on the Spanish side.  The region has their own language, Euskara which is quite interesting to listen to – it is considered an isolate language.  More recently, the Basque on the Spanish side were heavily punished by going against the Franco regime – this is when the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Homeland and Freedom) group started.  Franco tried (and in many ways succeeded) to squash the Basque culture, especially by banishing the Basque language.  While the group was active until 2011, the region is completely safe and a must visit.  The Basque language is being used (and taught) again and the culture of the people and region is alive and well.  Just know that many of those living in and from the area call themselves Basque, not Spanish or French.  In fact most will say you are not in Spain or France, you are in Euskadi (or Basque Country).  And also know that while most people will speak Spanish (or French if on the French side), Euskara is written first for almost everything – menus, street signs, etc.  On the Spain side, Spanish was then next and then English (if it was there at all).  This is an insanely simple history of the people and region -- it really is fascinating if you care to learn more!

The food alone is a reason to visit the Basque Country.  The region is famous for its food – bar hopping and sampling various pintxos (small plates) while also sampling the sidra (hard cider) and txakoli (lightly sparkling white wine) -- both of these drinks are usually poured from high up to create aeration (and fun to watch).  San Sebastian has one of the highest Michelin stars per capita (I believe second highest in the world).  The city has THREE three starred restaurants (the highest number of stars possible), but be prepared to book months in advance and shell out 200+ per person for a meal!  So even if a Michelin starred restaurant is not in your budget, the region knows its food and should not be missed.  And also, just try everything – I typically hate seafood (and yes, I have tried most of it before) but I didn’t hesitate when I ate sardines and bacalao (cod fish) and it was all amazing.  Pintxos are usually served a little earlier than a typical Spanish eating hours -- so start your pintxo bar hop about noon for lunch or 8PM for dinner.  The majority of your time in this area will be eating, so plan accordingly.   
Bilbao is the biggest city in the region and has more to do (in terms of museums and such) and one of the main reasons we stayed there.  We stayed here at a great AirBnB and the area was good but not a lot of food options nearby (or parking -- make sure to get a hotel or AirBnB with parking included).  Bilbao (and the whole region) is very hilly and mountainous which makes for some gorgeous scenery but also makes it rough to get around at times!  Bilbao had plenty of escalators and elevators so you weren't stuck hiking up the hills all the time.  Bilbao does have a metro/tram system but it was easier just to walk most places.

We spent one full day in Bilbao walking around enjoying the sights, going to museums and eating.  Bilbao is a great city to walk and enjoy the various architecture styles -- we did a big loop from the Old Town (Casco Viejo) down the river to past the Guggenheim Museum and back (we mostly followed the Lonely Planet Walk for Bilbao).

The Guggenheim Museum was amazing and actually really great for kids -- the famous architect Frank Gehry designed the building which opened in 1997.  Outside the museum other artists have added their works -- the giant spider named Maman or the pool of water that emits mist (which was very cool).  And then of course the famous Puppy made up of thousands of begonia flowers.  Sadly Puppy was covered in scaffolding and our poor sweet girl was so sad, she was looking forward to seeing the giant "flower puppy."  Inside the museum, the best part was the huge Matter of Time sculpture which you can walk around and through (Serafina loved this part).  There was also a small kids play area off to the side of this huge room that was fairly decent -- good place to let kiddos play while the adults take turns walking around the museum.  The stroller was easy to use within the museum, you just need to check larger backpacks.

We didn't have time to go into the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) but heard good things and it was in the middle of a large park -- good place for kids to play at the playground or run around!  Bilbao had the most amazing playgrounds and they were everywhere and we probably had to play at all of them :)  We also tried real hard to make it to the Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum) but we kept hitting closing times.  We did for sure go to Casco Viejo (the old town/quarter) to eat pintxos.  Highly recommend started (and ending) in Plaza Nueva -- its a great way to try a bunch of pintxo bars.  Most of the bars have tables outside, but if you snag a seat within the plaza you can just do counter orders at various bars to try different places.  Our favorite place was Bar Gure Toki but there are plenty of bars to choose from within the plaza and around.  And once again, just point to whatever looks good and go for it!
We spent another full day in San Sebastian (which is about an hour drive from Bilbao).  San Sebastian is gorgeous -- the beach is a must see, seriously Playa de la Concha is one of the most gorgeous beaches ever.  Sadly we weren't there on a sunny day so no enjoying the beach, but we did go to the Aquarium and it was amazing.  One of the best aquariums we have been to and our little lady had so much fun!  We also went up to Monte Igueldo for insanely amazing views of the city.  There is also a mini amusement park at the top but it was closed when we went.  You can take a funicular to the top, but we drove up and parked (similar price for both).

And we couldn't go to San Sebastian without eating -- so we did a food tour that was amazing.  We went with San Sebastian Walking Tours and it was perfect.  They were so accommodating with Serafina and also didn't charge us for her (every single other tour I found wanted to charge the same price for adults and kids.... uh, no).  Our tour guide was so knowledgeable and fun -- we learned a lot but also had a wonderful time.  We went to five different pintxo bars -- tried a pintxo at each as well as a drink.  All were amazing.  And most pintxos were seafood but I ate them all and they were all amazing; the drinks were really good too.  Seriously, if you are going to San Sebastian, you have to do a food tour with San Sebastian Walking Tours.
Here are some other food recommendations for San Sebastian -- you could do a food tour for lunch and hit up these places for dinner!  Gandarias is a pintxo bar but also a restaurant, both are good (but make reservations for the restaurant).  Borda Berri is a good place to try pintxos with Basque cheese.  Bar Sport is a good place to try foie (different than foie gras and don't think about what it is -- just eat it).  And finally you must go to La Vina for cheesecake.  We were so sad that La Vina wasn't open while we were there because we have heard from numerous people how amazing the cheesecake is.  Guess it is a reason to go back! 

We also had a half day to explore some of the smaller towns in the region.  We happened to be in the area on a Spanish holiday weekend as well as during high surf times (and the region is known for some good surfing), so with that said -- we tried to go to two different towns and legit could NOT find parking.... We drove through Mundaka and Portugalete and while we had gorgeous views of the sea and town, we literally could not find a place to park.  We did finally find a place to park in Bermeo and walked the small beach boardwalk and enjoyed watching all the surfers.  We had planned to stop in Gernika, famous for Picasso's painting, but Serafina was asleep in the car!  If you go -- stop at Foruria for food, it is owned by a friend's uncle.  Also in this area is San Juan de Gazteluatxe which is a small island that has a hermitage -- now very famous for Game of Thrones being filmed there.  If you go, go early and be prepared for a serious hike down to the island (and then back up).  We had friends go to the same weekend and they watched someone get medivac-ed out by helicopter!   

Everywhere we went people spoke English, but we mostly used Spanish and did just fine.  I had no problems eating any of the pintxos with my food allergies, but I did ask if items contained nuts before I started eating.  We all loved the Basque Country and would for sure go back, especially to eat more yummy food!

*Just a warning -- where the airport in Bilbao is located (basically in a valley) allows for some serious crosswinds which can make for some bumpy and a little scary landings and take offs.  Our landing in Bilbao was quite the roller coaster ride but still very safe!

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