Ten amazing days in a surreal region of northern Spain, with a lot of craziness from two Basques and a sweet Cypriot girl (Maria, obviously I am talking about you) and a risky travel blogger. It’s time for you lovely little traveler to create your own itinerary for the road trip you will take in the Basque Country. Take notes and deploy everything you will read below. Trust me, you will need it.
As for any other road trip, the map is (almost) indispensable if you want to make the most of every second of your journey. If you only have a few days at your disposal to see a place, you may want to create a map in Google Maps like the one you see below, noting the areas you want to visit and everything you want to see. It doesn’t mean that you will visit them all. The map is not dogmatic my little traveler. In some places you will go, in some places you will not, while other places will add up in the process for certain, which you hadn’t even marked. You are very lucky because you have me, your favourite blogger and friend, who already has prepared the map for you.
First stage completed.
You have the map. Now all that is left is to find out information for each place marked on it. Did you really think, I would give you a map without saying where you should go and why? I already told you I am here to make your life easier! So information is following along with links and fascinating pictures of all the places I visited in the Basque Country. This way you will have in this trilogy of articles, the map with all points of interest but also information about each place, with a touch of …Katerina!
Today we will talk exclusively about Vizcaya (Bizkaia) * with its capital Bilbao (Bilbo), in the second article we will focus on Guipúzcoa (Gipuzkoa) with its capital San Sebastián (Donostia) and in the third part we will see together Álava (Araba ) with its capital Vitoria- Gasteiz which is the capital of the entire region as well.
Are you ready? Let’s go!
Bilbao will probably be your first stop in the Basque Country. It is the capital of Vizcaya and the largest city in the region. You know that I’m not a fan of big cities but I came to spend half of my trip’s nights here, eating pintxos (Basque tapas) and watching the great Bilbao Marathon who took place the last night of my stay in Bilbao. It was literally the icing on the cake since it complemented perfectly my whole experience in this cosmopolitan city.
You will wander through the old town, Casco Viejo, drink txacoli, the local wine and eat pintxos in Plaza Nueva. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t possibly pass by the internationally acclaimed Guggenheim Museum without saying “WOW!”. A work of the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, Guggenheim is one of the most important architectural creations that were made in the last four centuries. And of course, you can see why! Personally, I regret not sending Hermes (aka my beloved drone) to take a ride over the museum. I am slapping myself right at this moment.
Tip: Find a local to take you around the city and show you all the good places so you can avoid the touristic areas. Locals always know better!
Cueva de Santimamiñe
Located at a strategic point on the right bank of the Urdaibai river and at the feet of Ereñozar mountain, Santimamiñe cave is perhaps one of the most important sites in the Basque Country. In 1916, paintings from the Paleolithic era were accidentally discovered in the cave, by some children playing nearby, depicting mostly animals such as horses, deers and goats. Except of course from the historical importance that this discovery had (imagine that these paintings are more than 13.000 years old!) cave Santimamiñe is full of stalagmites and stalactites making the place look even more spectacular.
Did I fill your mind with images? Get ready now to hear the bad news. The cave is closed to the public since 2006! Now you will ask me, “Why should I go there since I won’t see anything?”. For starters let me tell you that 1 hour and 30 minutes tours are offered, but mainly to admire the natural beauty of the area. You will see the rock paintings in a video, at the end of the tour. Pay attention! You should make reservations before you go and be there on time. Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of this detail and as a result, I lost the tour and only saw the cave through the gate.
Bosque Pintado de Oma
Do you remember some colored photos of a forest, that I kept posting in social media during my stay in the Basque country? Well, all of those beautiful images were captured in this forest, known as Bosque Pintado de Oma, meaning the “painted forest”. It is very close to the Santimamiñe cave (so close that you go on foot) in the small town Kortezubi in Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. This is a work of Agustin Ibarrola, a famous Basque sculptor and painter from Bilbao who with his talent created this beautiful and colorful landscape, perfect for Instagram photos.
But what is the hidden secret behind these paintings which at first glance look like abstract art? It will not take long for you to realize that in order to understand what the paintings on the trunks of the trees depict , you have to look at them from a different… perspective! Meaning that you have to see them a specific angle. You will find this “specific angle” by standing on the numbered yellow arrows on the ground a few meters away from each project. Look at the photo above and you will understand what I’m talking about.
Tip: Admission is free. Oh, and get ready for some walking! But the view will reward you. Download here the map for the forest!
The famous Vizcaya or Biscay bridge, connects the two cities Getxo and Portugalete which are divided by the river Nervión, approximately 12 km from Bilbao. It symbolizes the European industrial revolution and since 2006, has been listed as World Heritage by UNESCO. If you wish you can take the lift to go up on the bridge on one side, and then return back with the “gondola”, the pendant wagon which crosses daily the river every few minutes.
Tip: You will buy tickets for the lift and the gondola from the souvenir gift shop at the base of the bridge for € 7. If you go on a sunny day, you will take amazing panoramic photos of Getxo and Portugalete.
Sopela, Playa de Sopelana
If you are a surfer then you have heard of the famous beaches of the city Sopela or Sopelana, southeast of Bilbao. The climate here is different from the rest of the Basque Country. Let’s just say, that here it is very windy! The wind in combination with the huge waves, create the ideal conditions for surfing! If you are not fond of surfing you can just come to admire dozens of professionals, conquering the waves with their colorful boards or, if you are lucky, you can also watch a surfing contest.
Tip: Sopela has three famous beaches. Atxabiribil, Barinatxe and Arrietara. Beware of the big waves guys, this is not a joke.
Castillo de Butron
One of the examples of the hackneyed phrase, “Always trust the locals”! I went not once, but twice in the beautiful Butron Castle, since I was brought here by my two Basque friends, believing that I would be impressed, although I didn’t even know of its existence. The abandoned castle, located in Gatika since the Middle Ages, looks like it came out of a fairytale with dragons and princesses or, to speak with a modern approach, it looks like it came out of a Game of Thrones scene. Kate Middleton said it was her dream to get married in Butron castle.Poor her, eventually she had to marry Prince William at Westminster Abbey.
Tip: Unfortunately you can’t go inside, but still it’s worth a visit.
Funny Tip: It is for sale at the incredible price of € 3.5 million! It has a library, a chapel and its own dungeon (!). Hurry up and buy it before someone else does!
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Perhaps the most impressive place I visited during those ten days in the Basque Country. I had to go twice to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, since the first time it wasn’t accessible due to the filming of Game of Thrones. Yes, you heard that correctly! I was lucky and unlucky at the same time, since on one hand I couldn’t climb to San Juan the first time because of the filming so I had to go back for a second time. On the other hand I was so close to the filming area that I might had the chance to meet one of the protagonists! Don’t get so excited though. That never happened.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is clearly a must see if you are visiting the Basque Country. It is a small island close to the coast, along the Bay of Biscay, 35 km from Bilbao. The conical island has a small chapel on top, dedicated to John the Baptist. To climb up there is a small adventure since you must ascent following a path, then go down and then climb again the 241 stairs to reach the church.
Tip: They say that if you make a wish and ring the church bell three times, the wish will be realized. You will hear the sound of the bell many times until you climb up.
Just ten kilometers from San Juan de Gaztelugatxe you will find the colorful, picturesque village of Bermeo. Here you can make a stop before or after San Juan de Gaztelugatxe to walk in the old city and enjoy fresh Pintxos. Bermeo is one of the most important fishing villages in the Basque country with a long maritime tradition.
Tip: The highlight of Bermeo is the old harbor with the fishing boats that in the afternoon changes its look as the colours of the sunset dance on the rooftops of the houses, in front of the port.
Lekeitio is located between Bilbao and San Sebastian and is one of the places you can squeeze into your schedule if you have more time in your hands. What makes Lekeitio so special is its geographical position that places it right in the mouth of the River Lea. When the river meets the ocean, a magnificent setting is created with sandy beaches on both sides of the river, with the islet of San Nicolás right in the middle. The tide transforms this landscape completely making the island accessible on foot for leisurely walks. Fantastic, huh?
Tip: If you have the opportunity to climb to the top of San Nicolás, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of Lekeitio, the beaches and the rest of the Basque coast.
I didn’t meet any local who didn’t encourage me to visit the beautiful city of Mundaka, which is located in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. Here you will stop for surfing or food and accommodation during your exploration in the reserve. The tiny but charming town has one of the most beautiful bays in the region. So there on the edge of the village where the harbor is located, you will see locals of all ages meeting for a walk by the sea or the park, or for a drink in one of the village’s bars. You simply follow their steps.
Tip: If you don’t like surfing you can try the next best thing. The stand up paddling! Here you will find the necessary information.
I saved the known to all of us Gernika for last, the town that was bombed in 1937 and was the inspiration for the homonymous famous Picasso painting everyone incorrectly calls “Guernica” (the correct is Gernika). The painting shows the pain and drama that the Basques lived here on April 26, 1937. On that day, German and Italian air forces bombed the city, destroying nearly everything, while many people died.
But Gernika besides historic has also political significance since here is the Tree of Gernika. Under its branches the autonomy was granted to Basques in the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the tree survived the bombing and is next to the Assembly Building. You will go early so you can enter the building and see the huge stained glass located on the roof of the «Stained Glass Room”. The best way to see it, is to lie on the ground and look up!
Tip: Try to be there on a Monday so you can walk the Monday Market, one of the major “mercados” in the Basque Country.
These are enough for starters. Study them until next week when I will show you the diamonds of the Guipúzcoa (Gipuzkoa) area. If you want to find out how I got in the Basque Country then check this out. Otherwise, stay tuned until next week for part 2! Until then, have fun and travel more!
* All towns have Basque and Spanish names. What is in brackets is the name of the city in Basque. You will probably need the Basque names since the street signs are written in both languages.