THE BASQUE COUNTRY
The Basque Country is also renowned as the gastronomic heartland of Spain, and the cities offer everything from superb restaurants to simple tapas bars. Indulge in a txikiteo (tapas crawl) and sample the delicious local cider and busy nightlife. We have selflessly visited the best restaurants and tapas bars in order to recommend the best in our detailed dossiers on the region.
San Sebastian (known as Donostia in Basque) has a scenic position at the foothills of the Pyrénées, close to the French border. Set around a sheltered bay, the town became a fashionable coastal resort in the 19th century and has a relaxed, small-town feel, with wide streets and elegant buildings.
There are several good beaches, including the golden sweep of La Concha that arcs around the edge of the bay, and good surfing on Zurriola beach next door. There are also plenty of good, simple eating houses, and the narrow streets of the Parte Vieja, or old quarter, have one of the greatest concentrations of bars in Spain.
Bilbao, the larger of the two cities, has been transformed in recent years by an ambitious programme of urban renewal that has rescued it from post-industrial decline. The most striking symbol of this revival is the famous Guggenheim Museum with its shimmering titanium shell, moored like a ship on the banks of the Nervión River. Outside the museum is Jeff Koons' equally iconic, kitsch floral sculpture of a giant puppy.
The Guggenheim is by no means the only show in town, however. There are other good museums, notably the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Mercado de la Ribera - the largest covered market in Spain - good shopping and a cityscape further transformed by new architecture from the likes of Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava.
THE BASQUE HINTERLAND & RIOJA WINE REGION
Away from the cities, we highly recommend exploration of the rest of the Basque country, with its extraordinary language, long history and proud local culture. We can create self-drive itineraries that include places such as the salt marshes, sea cliffs, forests, beaches of the UNESCO protected Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve; the town of Ordizia for gastronomic markets and cheese tastings and the fishing village of Ondorroa to see the tuna boats being unloaded and the vibrant fish market. Thanks to our little Basque book of contacts we have access to superb local guides who can real insight into Basque culture and arrange access to San Sebastian's famous (and famously secretive) gastronomic societies. Needless to say, we can also book tables in the best of the very good bunch of restaurants.
Further south lies Rioja, one of the world's most famous winemaking regions. Original Travel can arrange vineyard tours and wine tastings at some of the most famous producers, but there's also an extraordinary place to stay in the Gehry inspired and designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal, surrounded by the vineyards of that particular famous winemaker.