After spending a month in the Puglia region of Italy, it was sadly time to move on. We had a wonderful apartment in Lecce, and hoped our month-long stay in Biarritz would measure up. When we were making our 2022 travel plan, northern Spain was our target destination (specifically San Sebastian), but we struggled to find an apartment that checked all our boxes: affordable, in-unit washer/dryer, a good kitchen, walkable to the city center, close to a train station and good public transport since we would not have a car the duration of our stay. We weren’t able to find a suitable flat in San Sebastian, but the town of Biarritz (France) was just 30-minutes away and filled all our requirements. Our apartment was a dream, and we were very happy the entire month of our stay. I cooked a TON and the little SPAR market below the flat could not have been more convenient. We were in the region for nearly all of November, and were pleasantly surprised by the mild temperatures. Most days were in the 70s (21-24C) and we had quite a few days in the 80s (26-28C).
The Basque country is located in the western Pyrenees, and includes the borders of France and Spain and the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The Northern Basque Country is the part that lies entirely within France, and is usually known as French Basque Country (Pays Basque in French). Much of the area is multilingual, speaking Spanish or French & Basque (Euskara). You know you’re in Basque Country by the striking red and white neo-Basque architecture, and flags of the lauburu, a hooked cross with four comma-shaped heads.
We started our adventure in the very non-Basque city of Bordeaux. Our original plan had us arriving in Bordeaux in the early afternoon, giving us nearly a full day to explore before catching a train to Biarritz. However, a flight change cut our Bordeaux visit short and we only had a few hours to walk around before we had to depart to meet our Airbnb host in Biarritz. In a very brief period of time, we liked Bordeaux enough to plan a return trip later in the month (more below!).
We visited the following towns (in order):
London* (midweek getaway)
*Not in Basque Country
Our base for the month became a real home away from home, and we fell madly in love with Biarritz. We haven’t been successful pinpointing what we loved so much…its overall vibe gave us a warm and fuzzy feeling. Biarritz is simultaneously glitzy and homey. If you want to hobnob with the well-heeled, head to the Hôtel du Palais, (originally built for the Empress Eugénie), Hermès or Miremont Patisserie. For more local flavor, stroll down the Rue du Port Vieux to the plage du Port Vieux, then follow the esplanade de la Vierge back towards the Grand Plage. This seaside walkway allows you to cast your gaze along the Bay of Biscay at the Rocher de la Vierge or Gamaritz. The small aquarium is here, and can be a good respite from the heat or rain. Further along, follow the steps down to Le Port des Pêcheurs to admire the most adorable fishing village; grab a table at Crampotte 30 to enjoy the catch of the day and some French (or Spanish!) wines.
In the Place St. Eugenie stands the Sainte-Eugénie Church of Biarritz. This square is home to a number of good cafes and shops. Our favorite pub, La Tireuse, is located here, and we always found an excuse for a pint from their extensive taps, and the decadent duck confit spring rolls. The covered market (les halles) is open daily (except Sunday) and is the best place for fresh produce, cheese, seafood and meat. It’s also a lot of fun to just walk around and explore. Next door is the Chistera & Coquillages café that sells excellent tapas and the servers are very friendly. Another great place in Biarritz, slightly away from the “tourist” area, is Sarrasin Creperie. It was across from our apartment and after seeing it from our terrace every day, we decided to give it a try. Not only did it become a favorite in Biarritz, we were very fond of Kevin, the proprietor. If you are in Biarritz you must go for a delicious crepe and cold, bubbly cider!
Biarritz has an excellent transportation system, which is another aspect of the town that attracted us. The local bus service is reliable and affordable; rides are €1.20 per trip or €9.60 for a 10-trip pass (daily and weekly passes are also available). Tickets can be purchased onboard, at some stops, and at the tabac; Google maps displays routes and timetables in real-time. From the city center it’s approximately 15 minutes to the train station and the airport, so getting out of town for a day/weekend trip is a breeze. One thing we did not do was ride bikes; there are a few bike rental shops, but no city bike, which is unfortunate. With so many miles of coastline, jetting around on an e-bike would be a great way to spend a day!
This precious town is an absolute jewel. It’s rich in history, has great food, a huge beach, and it’s easy to walk. From Biarritz, it was 15 minutes by train ($2pp). The first stop on our visit was to the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the site of the marriage between Louis XIV and Maria Theresa in 1660. The chapel has an exquisite alter of carved gilded wood that occupies the entire height of the back wall of the apse. We continued walking until we reached the beach, where we ambled along the Promenade Jacques Thibaud to the Donibane dyke, then back to the other end of the beach for a great lunch at Toki Goxoa.
After lunch we checked out the Rue de la République and the Place Louis XIV to do some people watching before catching our train back to Biarritz. In the square, there are a few historical attractions available to visit: Maison Louis XIV, City Hall, and the Maison de l’nfante.
Bayonne is a 30-minute bus ride from Biarritz, and we loved it so much, we made two visits! If you are considering a visit to the French Basque region, I would definitely consider staying in Bayonne if you don’t find what you want in Biarritz. Although it lacks the beaches of Biarritz, Bayonne’s architecture and history make up for it. One of the highlights of Bayonne (in addition to getting lost in the maze of streets) is the 13th century Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Bayonne. Bayonne was under English rule before being taken by the French after the Hundred Years’ War, and the half-timber buildings offer a hint of England mingled with Basque. Sephardic Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition brought chocolate making skills to Bayonne and it gained a reputation for chocolate. Bayonne is now the chocolate capital of France. On our first visit, we just wandered around without much of an agenda, stopping to people watch over a pint and some tapas. We got a bit more organized for our second visit, and made a plan to visit the botanical garden (skip it) and a handful of chocolate shops. We found that petite Bayonne (the less touristic side of the river) is just as interesting as the main area. Overall, Bayonne is fascinating and worthy of a much longer visit!
Although not in the Basque country, we got a preview of Bordeaux on our arrival in France, and we liked it a lot. It’s only two hours from Biarritz (by car or train), so it was perfect for an overnight trip. We decided to rent a car so we would have more freedom, and it was actually less expensive than the train. Parking and driving in Bordeaux’s old town is not fun, and sometimes not possible due to street bollards that require a code. There are pay parking garages and lots surrounding the old town, and the city has a beautiful, modern tram system to help you get around. We stayed at the Hotel Singulier Bordeaux, which was chic, comfortable, and private, and a short walk to a parking garage.
During our two days in Bordeaux, we drank lots of wine and checked out some of the gorgeous architecture that is literally everywhere. Some must-sees are the Cathedrale Saint-Andre, the numerous city arches around the old town perimeter, Place du Parlement, Place de la Bourse, Miroir d’Eau, and the impressive Grosse Cloche. We had a divine meal at Epicentre, which offers two prix-fix lunch options, paired with glorious French wines. Our favorite thing about Bordeaux was the endless surprises around every corner, be it a charming square, an amazing church, or a grand promenade. If you love Paris but hate the crowds and prices, Bordeaux might be the city of your dreams.
San Sebastian (officially Donostia-San Sebastian)
For our wedding anniversary we decided to rent a car and take a 3-night road trip to San Sebastian and Bilbao. On our way to San Sebastian, we stopped for lunch in Hondarribia, which is a cute seaside town. During the off season, public parking is free, and we found a lot close to the San Pedro Kalea pedestrian area. Arriving on a Saturday meant lots of people crowding the outdoor tables of the restaurants and cafes, but we were finally able to get a quick pintxo to tie us over.
We first learned of San Sebastian from the late, great, Anthony Bourdain. He made multiple visits to this gastronomic wonderland, and after our first visit, we understood why. San Sebastian is a pretty town…it’s not drop dead gorgeous, but it’s also not an eyesore. The reason most people flock to San Sebastian is for the food: San Sebastián and the surrounding area is home to a high concentration of restaurants with Michelin stars, and has the second most Michelin stars per capita in the world (after Kyoto, Japan). One of the specialties of San Sebastian is pintxos, which is basically tapas served on bread. Walking through the old town is literally a smorgasbord of pintxos, with one restaurant after another lining the corridors and plazas. Most have a specialty, such as Txepetxa, which pairs anchovies with ingredients that will surprise and delight…you might not think anchovies and blueberries go together, but you’d be wrong!
Beef cheeks, tortilla and jamon are delicious staples at most pintxos bars, and if you like sparkling wine, the crisp Txacoli wine seems to go with just about everything; the barkeeps’ dramatic pouring of the wine to elicit the bubbles adds to the ambiance of the entire experience. In addition to Txepetxa, we also enjoyed Gandarias (our first taste of the beef cheeks), Atari Gastroteka, and La Cuchara de San Telmo. Eating in San Sebastian is incredibly affordable, and the small pintxos make it easy to sample a lot of different flavors. Typical bill for 6-8 pintxos and 4-6 drinks (beer or txacoli) ran about $40. The Basque people eat pintxos as an appetizer to their main meal, but we liked stopping at a variety of places, sampling their specialty and moving on to the next stop, getting our fill of pintxos and Txacoli.
When it was time to take a break from eating, we walked our legs off. We hoofed from our hotel (Sansebay Hotel), past the marina and city hall, along the Paseo Marítimo, and back. From the City Hall, we headed through the Alameda del Boulevard toward the river, stopping at the luxurious Hotel Maria Cristina for a fancy cocktail. After our refreshment we walked along the Salamanca Pasealekua before making our way back to the old town for more food! We finished the night with churros from Churreria Santa Lucía, which are served hot and crispy with a cup of warm, gooey chocolate on the side. If you like to hike, Monte Urgull is adjacent to the old town, and has lots of trails and greenspace. From the peak there are amazing views of the town. Across La Concha Bay, visitors can take the Funicular Monte Igueldo to an amusement park, restaurant and lookout observatory.
We departed San Sebastian to make the short drive to Bilboa, the largest city in the Spanish Basque country. En route, we stopped for a look-about and a bite to eat at Zarautz, which is a cute little town by the sea. The Palace of Narros, located adjacent to Zarautz’s 1.7 mile long beach, is where Queen Isabella II and Fabiola of Belgium spent their summer holidays. The beach is known for being the longest in the Basque Country.
Our primary objective in Bilbao was to visit the Guggenheim Museum, so we selected the Gran Hotel Domine, which is right next door. As usual, we arrived in between regular meal times, so we started our hunt for food. We found La Viña del Ensanche serving a full menu, and we sat down for a table full of tapas, wine and an incredible Basque cheesecake, fresh from the oven. After our meal we explored Bilbao. Much of the old Bilbao was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War but was rebuilt in the 1940s and much of the architecture is fairly new.
The next day we spent checking out the exhibits of the Guggenheim. The museum is laid out well so it’s not difficult to explore in a few hours. It’s advised to get tickets online in advance to avoid the queues. There are three restaurants within the museum depending on your budget, time and palate.
Obviously not part of Basque Country (or even the European Union), but we couldn’t resist taking advantage of a 20 euro fare from the Biarritz airport! We hadn’t been since 2017, and we had never seen the Christmas lights in London, which did not disappoint. For more on London, click HERE.
When it was time to depart Biarritz for our journey back to the US, we had planned to take the train to Madrid, stopping in Vitoria-Gasteiz and Burgos along the way. However, we decided having a car would give us more flexibility. A one-way car from Biarritz to Madrid was over $1000 whereas the car from San Sebastian to Madrid was only $130. Getting the train to San Sebastian was cheap, but required a change in Hendaye (going from the French to Spanish train line) and we didn’t want to hassle with the luggage. So, for $17, we ended up using FlixBus for the very first time (it was fine). There was a bit of confusion finding the FlixBus stop in the city center, but once we were on board, it was a fast 30-minute trip to San Sebastian and before long we were in our rental car en route to Vitoria-Gasteiz. We stayed one night at the Marriott General Alava, which was OK, but guests don’t have temperature control in the room (which was really hot), and the street noise and lights aren’t conducive to open windows. Upon checkout we discovered our rental car had been hit in the parking garage (nothing too serious).
Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital of the Spanish Basque country. There has been a settlement there since medieval times and there are a number of gothic churches and historical places to visit. The Plaza de la Virgen Blanca is massive space that includes the Ayuntamiento De Vitoria-Gasteiz and the Plaza de Espana. The area around the Church of San Vicente Martir is lovely, and at the Palacio Escoriaza – Esquivel you can see the ancient city walls. A few steps away is the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Vitoria, its imposing chapel looms over the square.
Our final stop in Spain was in Burgos, a town I had never heard of before we decided to stop there. It was selected as a half way point to Madrid, and we needed a place to sleep for the night. We stayed at the Hotel NH Collection Palacio de Burgos, which had comfortable beds and high-end bathrooms.
The main attraction in Burgos is the Museum of Human Evolution which houses the remains of the first hominins in Europe, who lived in the area 800,000 years ago. The museum is incredibly interesting and doesn’t cost a lot to enter. We went in the evening and practically had the place to ourselves. In the old town, the gate to the city is seriously impressive. The gateway of Santa María, one of the twelve medieval gates in the city, was rebuilt by Charles V during the 16th century. The Cathedral of Burgos is a World Heritage Site and at night lights up Burgos. The usual meal struggle was avoided in Burgos when we found the fabulous El Huerto de Roque, where we escaped the cold rainy afternoon and enjoyed a much better than expected meal in a cozy dining room. Like most of the towns we visited this trip, Burgos was a surprise and a delight.
Our month-long visit to the Basque Country ended too soon, and was one of the best trips we’ve taken for many reasons. We loved the countryside, the food, the towns, the people, and the climate. Getting away from the major tourist cities and exploring areas off the beaten path was particularly rewarding in this region; so many times we walked the most beautiful boulevards and passageways, stunned that these striking places weren’t better known (but glad for it). The Basque country was not like any place we had ever been (even the Basque language is completely unique), and we eagerly await our return.
Looks like it was an interesting & educational month!
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Thank you! Probably my favorite destination ever!