Road trip from Barcelona to the Basque Country

I’ve had this post in the draft section for over 2 years now, truth is, I am busier and busier and never find time to write anymore. I also blame the permanent good weather here in Spain, which lets you little time for a cosy day in, when I like to write the best. Today, is finally one of those days, blanket put, 8 degrees outside, Christmas decoration procrastination 100% on!

Of all the things we may associate 2020 with, a great trip experience may not be the first thing that comes to mind.

I, however, cannot say the same. Unemployed and a bit lost, I decided that life had to go on and I had to make the most of this uncommon free time I had.

In only a couple of days, my fiancé and I put together a wee adventure. We hired a car, booked a couple of hotels on Booking.com, and let my good friend Itxaso know we were finally on our way to Bilbao, in the Basque Country.

In love with the Basque Country

The Basque Country is a region of northern Spain with a very strong identity, traditions and culture. It’s famous for its Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and delicious bites called ‘pintxos’. Game of Thrones definitely contributed to the tourism boom in this region too, with some of its best scenes filmed at the breathtaking Gaztelugatxe site, which is free to visit!

The best way to explore the Basque country is by car, but public transport is also very good, and if you feel more adventurous (and have the time), you can walk it or cycle it. The popular ‘Camino de Santiago’ goes through a big part of this beautiful region, and there are some incredible hikes!

I will try to summarise here what we visited and liked the most.

Places we visited on our way from Barcelona to the Basque Country

Los Monegros

Los Monegros must definitely be the most unexpected and impressive place we made a stop at on our road trip to the Basque Country. This deserted region can be reached in just a hour and an half drive from the Catalan capital, but you will feel in a different country altogether. It is in fact a unique ecosystem in Europe, considered by some scientists as the richest in biological species in Spain and Europe. We enjoyed the landscapes, a bit less the gravel roads.

Zaragoza

We decided to break down the road trip right in the middle, and booked a flat in Zaragoza, the fifth-most populated city in Spain. Zaragoza is a religious touristic spot, with people coming from all over to visit the stunning Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pilar.

A student town, Zaragoza also benefits of a great night life with the Tubo being the district where thousands of people flock to enjoy wine and tapas.

We really enjoyed our food and wine at El Balcón del Tubo, where we went back while on our road trip to Cantabria, in September 2022.

Briones, La Rioja

After a good night in Zaragoza, we started our ascent up to Bilbao, which meant driving through the wine famous region La Rioja. We luckily came upon Briones, considered one of the most beautiful villages of Spain. In this tiny village ‘Restaurante Los 4 Arcos’ immediately caught our attention and we decided to stop for lunch in this very authentic place, with its original chimney oven where they grilled everything from fish to a nice t-bone steak.

Bilbao

After a La Rioja wine-free lunch for my hubby who was driving (we agreed with the waiter as this was almost unacceptable), we excitingly continued our drive to reach Bilbao. We had booked a resonably-priced room right in the centre, next to the Guggenheim museum and immediately after met up with our friend for beer and pinxos in the centre.

You quickly see how pinxos is a big cultural part of the region, with plenty bars in the old town offering these tasty and colourful bites for 1 or 2 euros depending on the ingredients. I dived into prawns, potato tortilla and other flavours, all super fresh and tasty! And ‘zuritos’, tiny glasses of beer, as people like to go from bar into bar and therefore have a small beer in each place rather than sitting down with a big pint like in the UK for example. I loved this idea!

Another thing I immediately recognised to be traditional of Bilbao, and later on confirmed it was true for the the Basque Country as a whole, is having breakfast with a pinxo de tortilla, which consists of a big triangle of egg frittata filled in and topped up with cheese, ham, veggies, etc; opposite to tortillas eaten all over Spain I noticed and my friend confirmed how Basque like their tortillas to be left juicy, with the eggs being runny. Your fav pinxo de tortilla is served with a nice piece of bread and people have a nice coffee to wash it down. A must say that the food scene already captivated me and San Sebastian had to come yet.

Enough about food, for now, as I m drooling already and my Glovo has not arrived yet.

The highlight of our 2 day stay in Bilbao was definitely the day spent cycling around the city with our friend Itxaso and her local friend. We cycled along the river from the centre to where the old biscuit Artiach factory was, passing by the Athletic Bilbao stadium.

Bilbao is a city built into a kind of valley, with mountain tops closing in on the city all around. It is peculiar to see lifts all over the city to reach the higher parts of it, as the drop down is super steep.

A place to not miss is Txakoli Simon, an outdoors restaurant on top of the hill, where you can eat the best quality t-bone steak from the area, in a unique set up surrounded by trees and the woods.

Lunch at Txakoli Simon

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

We left Bilbao for San Sebastian on a rainy morning, the day of my birthday, and made the first stop at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. It was a lovely surprise to be able to access the place even though the free of charge tickets were sold out, but the group in front of us told the admission lady a part of their group did not make it, so we were allowed to get in, great birthday gift! Gaztelugatxe blew my mind away for its raw and rough atmosphere; a small isle with a chapel on top, connected to the main land by a man-made bridge made of stones. The waves were so powerful, the cliff walk to get on the bridge so beautiful and the whole atmosphere so mystic!

San Sebastian

The undiscussed gem of the Basque Country is surely San Sebastian, established as one of the world’s best food scenes and rich in history, as well as beautiful beaches, with the beach of La Concha being the clear protagonist.

We booked a small room in the expensive town, right next to a lovely old church, and immediately felt relaxed by the vibe of this place, despite the busy streets filled in with bars and restaurants everywhere. As my birthday day, my hubby had booked a chic restaurant for us for the evening, where we indulged in fresh seafood-based dishes and a lovely dessert, together with a bottle of txakoli, the lightly-sparkling white wine of the region.

Strolling up and down the coast and admiring the outdoors exhibition were my favourite things in San Sebastian. A bit controversially, we had the other two dinners at an Italian restaurant, La Raviolina, tired of eating pinxos and looking for something simpler, this was the perfect sit-down place to chill at after a big exploration day.

Zarautz

As we stayed three full days in San Sebastian we decided it was the perfect time to explore a part of the Camino de Santiago, specially reading that San Sebastian-Zarautz was one of the most breath-taking routes. Our day was an adventure in every sense. As we arrived in Zarautz after a spectacular 26 km ride with our rented bikes, I prepared to receive the scheduled call with the recruiter of the company I had being interviewing for 2 long months, consisting of 9 interviews, and learnt that the company decided to offer the role to somebody else. Unfortunately, my memory of Zarautz will always be connected to this, sitting on a bench looking at the beautiful long beach and crying over the only job opportunity I had, flying away. After that, my city e-bike battery’s died, and my poor hubby had to cycle the heavy beast back, while I took over his mountain bike. Not my day but I will always remenisce the lovely ride on our way there, along green round tops, surrounded by goats and beautiful flowers, with views on the coast and forests.

And places we visited on our way from the Basque Country back to Barcelona

Huesca

After a full week in the Basque Country we started our way back to Barcelona and decided to stop for one night in Huesca, a beautiful medieval town with a huge square and delicious food. We came across Merendero El Temple restaurant, where we had some of the best meat and tomatoes of our lives, in a very authentic set up. I would go back just for that.

2021 places we visited on our second road trip to the Basque Country

In between my post’s writing, we came back in August 2021!

This time we drove straight from Barcelona to Bilbao and back, 7 days later. This time we drove with our own car, which we purchased in June! And this time we also worked remotely so we mainly enjoyed the late afternoons in Sopela, and then an incredible pre-birthday weekend away in Bakio, a surfers town with the best breakfasts close to Bilbao.

Sopela

Sopela or Sopelana is one of the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Used to the horrible crowds of Barcelona, Costa Brava and the North East Coast in general in Spain, going to a beach where silence reigns and you feel at strict contact with nature is a real blessing for the mind and body. We sat on the beach for hours and just watched the paragliders flying over the bay.

Sopela Beach

One day we also did a lovely walk on the coast from Sopela to Gorlizko stopping every 2 minutes taking in the phenomenal geological formations all around, both in the water, with long stripes of rocks going far down in the ocean, and tops at the end of each beach.

Mundaka

Another nice trip from Bilbao is a visit to Mundaka, a costal town renowned for its surfing scene at an international level. Compared to other coastal towns along the region, I felt that Mundaka was a bit suffocating as built up vertically, but I loved its quirkiness and out of this world beaches, with one strip of land strangely dividing two sets of water; I had never seen anything like that before.

Bakio

My hubby treated me to a lovely 3 night stay at a lovely farm house surrounded by vineyards in Bakio. It was the perfect spot where to relax from, enjoying long walks on the beach promenade, and a good night at our favourite spot La Parra. Best picture memory I have of the place is drinking a local beer in our waterproofs sitting outside under the sunshade and watching surfers walking down the beach.

I am so happy I finally managed to put down in words things we did in the Basque Country and what I liked the most about this very curious region.

This year we went to Cantabria instead, its neighbour region, but we managed to squeeze in Vitoria, the Basque Country’s capital, which we had not time to visit in our two other trips.

Let’s see when I will be able to write about that now!

Thanks for reading as always,

S.

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