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Basque country ideas

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We are planning a spring trip to the Basque region, for 2 weeks. We will be spending the first week with extended family in rental house near Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz. The house is quite nice and because we will be with extended family, I expect we won't do a tremendous amount of regional sightseeing. We will certainly visit places in the immediate area but won't do multiple day-long trips.

So we're trying to plan now for the second week. I would like to see San Sebastian and Bilbao, as well as other highlights of Spanish Basque country. We are considering doing half of the week based out of San Sebastian, and then spending the second half of the week in Barcelona.

I'd welcome thoughts on whether SS is a good base for seeing the rest of Basque country. It seems so close to where we are staying the first week (45 minutes away, it appears). I don't know that area very well so don't have good ideas for places to base ourselves other than SS or Bilbao.

Oh, and we have 2 young children!

Also would welcome general recommendations on cool things to do/places to see in the entire area, especially that are kid-friendly. Caves? Historical places that would be cool for kids?

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    We spent a bit more than a week in San Sebastián and St-Jean-de-Luz at the end of September and were captivated.

    You need to read up, as we did, in as many guidebooks as you can get your hands on, plus peruse the excellent official websites of both towns, to learn what there is to do around there. There is LOTS! We tended to stick close to home in SS because it was so interesting, with so many gardens, lovely squares, churches, shops, and the thalassotherapy center, which was a huge draw for us. The food alone was enough to keep us just wandering around eating in new places. We did go to Bilbao,where we really only had time to see the Guggenhaim before going back to SS by bus. We weren't blown way by the exhibits in the Guggenheim, but the exterior and grounds were very impressive. Our traveling companions went to Getaria to have a meal of fresh grilled turbot and came home rather ecstatic.

    We adore St-Jean-de-Luz, a place I already knew from previous visits - a miniature SS in many ways. When it comes time to sell this big old French house of ours here in the Dordogne, I think it would be one of our top choices to move to.

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    Below is part of my Pays Basque itinerary. It mostly focuses on the French side.

    Maps & Books needed
    Michelin Map #342 – Haute Pyrenees, Pyrenees Atlantiques
    Michelin Map #573 for the San Sebastian area in Spain
    Michelin Green Guide to the Atlantic Coast


    This itinerary assumes that you are staying in a "central" spot like Sare - where we stayed for 2 weeks in 2012. We've also stayed in Osses for 2 weeks in about 2001.

    The stars in the following text refers to the star ratings given by the Michelin Green Guide.

    Things to do & see
    1. La Rhune rack railway ***. Do this on a clear sunny day, and get there as early in the morning as possible so the sun will not be in your face for the view of Bayonne, Biarritz, & St Jean de Luz. It is just outside of Sare on the way to Ascain. Plan on 2 ½ hrs: 45 mins up & back, & 1 hr on top.

    2. Espelette*, and Ainhoa* are our two favorite small villages in the immediate region (they really capture the Basque "look"). You can drive through Ainhoa, but you will need to park just outside of Espelette to visit it. Espelette is a great place for lunch. They have a nice Wednesday & Saturday morning market. Sare* is an appealing village - but we like Espelette & Ainhoa much more. Ascain* and Itxassou* are starred in the Michelin Green Guide - but we didn't think they deserved the stars. The D20 between Ainhoa and Espelette is a very scenic road. Take a tour of a typical historic Basque house http://www.ortillopitz.com/

    La Rhune in the morning, Espelette for lunch & visit, followed by Ainoa would be a great day - but don't do it on a Sunday or Monday morning when shops are closed.

    3. St Jean Pied de Port* is one of the most popular destinations in the Pays Basque. We stayed near there in Osses for 2 weeks in 2002. St Jean is a major stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Campestela. You'll see lots of "shell" signs (symbolic of the pilgrimage) everywhere. St Jean is a tad touristy. It has one of our favorite restaurants in France. It's quite an interesting village, particularily if you explore outside the touristy center. It takes 1 hr to drive to St Jean from Sare.

    4. Visit the Bidasoa Valley in Spain. From Sare, take the D406/NA4410 to Bera (which we did not find to be very interesting), then the N121A to Lesaka, Etxalar, Sunbilla, then the N121B back to Ainhoa. We took the N121A north into the Honarribia and the San Sebastian area several times.

    Cities to visit

    5. Bayonne** is the most interesting "old" city in the Pays Basque area and stradles the river (the "old" and the "older" towns on either side). We parked at the Place General de Gaulle (see the Michelin Red guide) at the north end of town. Follow the walking itinerary in the green guide. Shops close up tight for lunch, and the city is rather "dead" at night. Visiting Bayonne might consume most of a morning or afternoon. We thought the Musee Basque** was only mildly interesting.

    6. Biarritz** is a very interesting resort town. Old mixing with the new!!! Just wander in town. Make sure you walk the western peninsula to the Rocher de la Vierge* and walk La Perspective for the views**. We spent most of a day in Biarritz - we sat in several grassy areas and just admired "things".

    7. St Jean de Luz** is a great beach city. Lots of shops & a long beach. If you want to have a "beach day" - this is where to go. They have a nice Les Halles food market, and several well-stocked shops that sell Basque fabric which is unique (mainly stripes) & entirely different from the Provencal patterns. We purchased several "runners" that we use on our dining room. The Maison Louis XIV* was interesting to visit. We visited St Jean several times and parked near the train station.

    8. San Sebastian** is one of the most popular destinations in Spain. We had dinner there one night and wandered around for about 1 hr before dinner. However, we were entirely un-prepared to drive into San Sebastian. We had a GPS - but we really didn't know how to use it. We did not have good maps. We got lost!! We never went back for a thorough visit because of the trouble we had getting there. You should go and plan to spend most of an entire day there. The restaurant where we dined was OK - not one of our favorites in the Pays Basque.

    9. Hondarribia* in Spain was the real "surprise" of our trip to the Pays Basque. It is a fortified medieval "upper" town, with an interesting "fisherman's quarter" below. The latter would be a good place for a lunch; there are many choices. Our second favorite restaurant in the Pays Basque was Restaurant Alameda, just outside the fortified walls in Hondarribia. We visited the city several days before we dined at Alhambra - and actually parked near Alhambra to visit the city.

    10. Bilbao and the Museo Guggenheim*** is a popular destination with museum folks. Friends really enjoyed the museum - but we are not museum fans & have not visited Bilbao

    11 . Pau** (pg 247) is a "perplexing" city. It gets 2 stars from Michelin and the few people on Fodors who have visited Pau, have liked it. We've visited it twice and found it to be a "not very lively" city. We were there for the first time on a Saturday (market day) in about 2002 and the market was quite active - but there wasn't the "life" in the city that you would expect on market day. We were back in 2012, and the city had made many civic improvements. But on this "sunny day" (after a week of gloomy/rainy weather), there was still not much life in the city. We wandered down the main thoroughfare, we visited the chateau, my wife shopped at Galleries Lafayette while I dined at an outside cafe (two-thirds empty) - and there was still little life to this city. We simply didn't "connect" with Pau.

    Scenic Drives

    Most of the area east of the A63 is quite scenic. In addition to the D20 between Ainhoa and Espelette, the "Route Imperiale des Cimes" (the D22 between the D10 & St Pierre d'Irube) is very pretty. So is the road just to the east of the Imperiale des Cimes - the D76 between the A64 and the D22. At the "col" in this road, there is a very scenic picnic spot.

    The Corniche Basque** is a short but scenic road. There is a nice view of Chateau d'Antoine Abladie** along this road. For some reason - we did not visit this chateau in 2012, but my wife remembered visiting it in 2002.

    12. Deeper into the Pyrenees***
    The following route is through "free-grazing" areas - so watch out for cows & other animals on the road. They have the right-of-way - and know it!!

    From St Jean Pied du Port, take the very pretty D18/D19 southeast over the Col Bagargui*. Continue east on the D19 then the D26. Continue on the D26 to Tardets-Sorholus. At Tardets, return west on the D247/D117/D417/D18 to St Jean. From Sare, this is about 4 1/2 hrs in the car on a very scenic drive. You could visit St Jean Pied de Port at the start or end of this drive.

    13. Into the Haute Pyrenees, with an overnight in "one of those lovely, picturesque little villages".

    I would only do this "overnight" on a clear day - with as few clouds as possible. Perhaps wake up early in the morning, gauge the weather, and if it is clear - call one of the hotels mentioned below to reserve a room. Then "head out" on this lovely trip through the Pyrenees. Get an early start (see below comment) so the sun will be at your back for the most scenic part of the drive.

    It is our experience that there are fewer clouds in the mornings than in the afternoons when clouds seem to gather in the mountains. So try to drive over the following mountain passes (cols) as early as possible. If you get to the Col du Tourmalet and it is cloudy - drive back over the col again the next morning.

    A portion of this drive follows the same route as #12 above. So if you decide to follow this overnight trip into the Haute Pyrenees - don't do #12.

    This drive consists of a 2 hr 20 min drive on the A64 Autoroute, then a 2 1/2 hr extremely scenic/picturesque drive over two of the most famous mountain passes in the Pyrenees to a lovely village with a "quaint" hotel/restaurant. Then a 2 hr walking/ski lift exploration to the Pont d'Espagne*** - one of our favorite spots in the Pyrenees. The Pont d'Espagne could be visited the afternoon you arrive in the region, or the next morning. Then it is a scenic 5 hr drive back to Sare along some of the roads described in #12.

    My wife & I stayed in the Haute Pyrenees for 2 weeks in 2012 & loved the area. We never got tired of just driving around in the mountains and admiring them at different times in the day - in full sunlight and in clouds. We stayed in the little village of Gaillagos at the eastern foot of the fabulous Col d'Aubisque**.

    Leave Sare and get on the A63 at Exit #3, and then take the A64 east. Get off the A64 at Exit #16 and take the D924A to the interesting village of Arreau. It should take you about 2 hrs 50 mins to get to Arreau from Sare. Explore Arreau, and if it is time for lunch - have lunch there by the river (but remember about the clouds in the afternoon). Next, drive west on the D918 over the Col d'Aspin***. At the Col (highest point on the road), get out of the car and wander around & admire the scenery and grazing horses, cattle, and sheep. Remember - much of the Pyrenees is "free-grazing" and the animals have the right-of-way. You might encounter a cow sleeping on the road you are trying to drive on, or even a troupeau (herd) of sheep "blocking" the entire road. You'll have to be patient until the troupeaux travel off the road, before you can get by. The horses can get a little rambunctious - so don't approach them. We saw a tourist trying to get close to a horse, and the horse clearly didn't like it at all!!!

    At Ste Marie de Campan in the summer you'll see displays of hay-stuffed costumed life-size "dolls" portraying "daily life" - a potter, two people sitting at a cafe, and other similar scenes. Drive through Ste Marie slowly. Then take the D918 west over the famous Col du Tourmalet**. If you follow the Tour de France at all - you will be familiar with this col. When you actually reach the col, get out of the car, admire the views, cows, sheep & horses. Have your picture taken under the statue of the bike rider "huffing & puffing" his way up the col. There will probably be many other people/bikers hanging around the col. Perhaps ask one of them if you can borrow their bike & have them take a picture of you under the statue. We did this (corny as it sounds).

    Now descend the Col du Tourmalet and drive north on the D921 through the scenic Gorge de Luz to your hotel.

    We dined at two very nice restaurants, which are also hotels in the Vercos mountain region in the Pyrenees. They are close to each other - both just south of Argeles Gazost. The first one is La Grange aux Marmottes in Viscos (population 44). www.grangeauxmarmottes.com . The second one is Les Viscos in St Savin (population 372). www.hotel-leviscos.com .

    On this day or the next morning, visit the fabulous Pont d'Espagne*** - which is a short drive from your hotel. It is just south of Cauterets* - which is a charming "Belle Epoque" alpine town. Though Cauterets is less of a tourist mecca than it was in times past, you can still see and appreciate its "glory days" and many of the grand old hotels have been converted into apartments. Get to the Pont d'Espagne by driving through the Val de Jeret**. You can read about the Pont d'Espagne in the Michelin Green Guide for the Languedoc - but there really is no "trick" to visiting this spot. Just drive there, wander around and admire the scenery, the convergence of two rivers, and the rushing waters. The force of the raging waters is remarkable - quite deafening when you are close by. Go up the ski lift to the mountain lake, and perhaps have lunch or a drink at the restaurant by the lake. The Pont d'Espagne is a "don't miss" in this region. Between Cauterets and the Pont d'Espagne, you'll pass one of our favorite restaurants in the region - L'Abri du Benques. There is a magnificent water cascade next to the restaurant - you'll hear it before you spot it.

    To drive back to Sare, head towards Argeles-Gazost and then take the D918 over the Col du Soulor and then over the fabulous Col d'Aubisque**. We drove over this col 4-5 times while we stayed in a gite in Gaillagos. It is very scenic - perhaps our favorite. At the end of the col, you will arrive in Eaux-Bonnes. My wife loved the "old" hotels in this spa town. Continue on to Laruns.

    Now, check your watch. It is about a 3 3/4 hr scenic drive back to Sare from Laruns. If you did not visit the Pont d'Espagne today and you got an early start this morning - perhaps you have 4 hours available to take a gondola trip, then a tiny train up higher into the Pyrenees with lovely views of snow-covered mountain peaks. From Laruns, take the D934 south. When you get to the smaller D431, take it north to the Gondola starting place. Take the Gondola, and then the very scenic train to La Sagette. The most scenic views are from the left side of the train going up. At the termination of the train trip, you have the option of walking to Lac d’Ayous, but we did not take this trek – most people on the train did not either. This entire gondola/train trip will probably consume 3-4 hours, but it is well worth it.

    From Laruns, head north on the D934, If you want to stretch your legs - Bielle* is a nice visit. Then head west on the very pretty D294. If you have an extra 1 1/2 hrs to spare, take the N134 south toward Lescun* for a visit. There is a marvelous walking path above town (look for the dirt road before you get to town). This path has restful, magnificent views. We took a break along this path, sat on a bench, & simply "took in" the scenery.

    If you don't have the 1 1/2 extra hours to visit Lescun, at the N134 drive north to the D918 and take the D918 (you've been on the D918 quite a bit these last 2 days) all the way towards Tardets-Sorholus. Just before Tardets, take the D26 south to Larrau, then the D19 west over the scenic Col Bagargui*, then the pretty D18 to St Jean Pied de Port. Then back to Sare.

    Restaurants
    We spend 2 months vacationing in different regions of France every year. We're "foodies", and dine at "nice" restaurants if the menu interests us. We try to find Michelin 1 star restaurants - and we'll occasionally dine at a 2 or 3 star restaurant for a special occasion.

    The Pays Basque region in France and Spain had probably the best dining experiences we've encountered. We've spent 4 weeks in this region on two different trips.

    Our recommendations - in order of preference:

    1. Table et Hostellerie des Freres Ibarbourne in Bidart. We've dined here twice.

    2. L’Auberge Basque just outside of St Pee - in the countryside. Dined here twice.
    Alameda in Hondarribia Spain
    Zuberoa in Oiartzun Spain
    the above are all tied for second place

    5. Les Rosiers in the outskirts of Biarritz

    6. Auberge du Cheval Blanc in Bayonne. Dined here twice

    7. Ithurria in Ainhoa. We've dined here twice - but not in 2012
    Le Moulin d'Alotz in Arcangues

    9. Kokotxa in San Sebastian

    All of the above are Michelin 1 star restaurants. Even those at the bottom of our list were better than most 1 star restaurants that we have visited in other regions of France.

    Les Pyrenees Restaurant in St Jean Pied de Port would be our #1 or #2 choice - but it is too far away from Sare (1 hr). We've dined there twice - but not in 2012.

    Stu Dudley

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    There's the eco-musée in the Landes, by the town of Marquèze which has a lot of children's activities (at least for groups).

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/5976227012/in/album-72157627163616289/ and subsequent pictures.

    There's the La Rhune cog railway going to the top of a mountain which is right on the frontier between Spain and France. The train is in France, the service road to the services on top is on the4 Spanish side.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/5976264982/in/album-72157627163616289/ and subsequent pictures.

    I wrote a 2011 trip report traveling from Bordeaux through French Basque country and back up to the Dordogne. You might get some ideas out of it; click on my name to find it.

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    You'll find that there are a lot of differences between the Pays Baque and País Vasco, more then just the countryside. And then there is Navarra.

    I'd take the time to visit San Sebastián-Donostia and Hondarribia from your place near Biarritz, especially if you want to have a late lunch one day. They don't start serving lunch until 1:30 on the Spanish side, about the same time as lunch is ending on the French side. We do it quite often.

    An excellent place to use as a base in the País Vasco would be in the Uradabi. It's close to Bilbao, with easy access to Vitoria-Gastiz.

    www.maribelsguides.com/mg_urdaibai_2016.pdf

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    I second the advice to consult some good guidebooks. I would also say that there is MORE than enough to keep one busy in the Basque part of Spain for a week, and likewise, more than enough to keep happily busy in Barcelona for a week. And FWIW, while I thought San Sebastian / Donostia beautiful, I far preferred Bilbao. That said, I wasn’t traveling with children and believe that would make a big difference.

    Hope that helps!

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    San Sebastián is a feast for all senses, the culinary capital of Spain if not all of Europe, lots of fun for the kids and an excellent base to explore the region.
    http://www.euskoguide.com/places-basque-country/spain/san-sebastian-tourism/
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/spain/san-sebastian/articles/Is-San-Sebastian-the-worlds-greatest-city-for-foodies/

    KID-FRIENDLY AND HISTORICAL PLACES IN DONOSTIA/SAN SEBASTIAN:

    - The 12th century Castillo de la Mota on top of Monte Urgull, just above the Parte vieja/Old town in San Sebastián. Have had many great picnics up here: http://www.sansebastianturismo.com/en/to-do/plans-in-san-sebastian/discover-city-its-neighborhoods/what-not-to-miss/to-the-shelter-of-mount-urgull

    - San Telmo museum on the edge of the Parte vieja, in a 16th Century Dominican convent and about Basque society, history and culture: http://www.sansebastianturismo.com/en/to-do/culture-art-architecture/museums

    - The Miramar Palace, used to be the Royal summer residence in San Sebastián from some 150 years ago. During the summer months it now hosts the University of the Basque Country's great quality international summer courses over a vide range of topics: http://www.sansebastian.travel/en/miramar-palace/

    - Take the steep funicular up to the old world amusement park on top of Monte Igueldo. Fabulous views of the city, the bay and the sea from up here: http://www.monteigueldo.es/en/index_en.php

    - The Eureka science museum with the digital Planetarium etc. etc. in the Miramón Technology park:
    http://www.sansebastian.travel/en/eureka-museum-of-science/

    - The Aquarium: http://aquariumss.com/

    - Some of the finest city beaches in Europe: http://www.sansebastianturismo.com/en/to-do/beach-parks/let-s-go-to-the-beach

    - And go for the world famous pintxos, the Basque stellar variant of tapas. A fun and affordable way to have a tailor made gourmet meal. http://www.euskoguide.com/food-drink-basque-country/pintxos-pinchos/
    The best pintxos, pintxos bars and suggested routes etc: http://www.todopintxos.com/home/home.php?lang=en

    OUTSIDE SAN SEBASTIÁN

    Visit the witches in the Zugarramurdi cave:
    http://www.turismo.navarra.es/eng/organice-viaje/recurso.aspx?o=3295
    http://www.turismo.navarra.es/eng/organice-viaje/recurso.aspx?o=3295

    The old university town Oñati (the university from 1540) and the close by Arantzazu sanctuary: http://tourism.euskadi.eus/en/towns/onati/aa30-12375/en/

    The Hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe:
    http://www.euskoguide.com/places-basque-country/spain/onati-arantzazu-tourism/
    http://tourism.euskadi.eus/en/top10/cultural-heritage/hermitage-of-san-juan-de-gaztelugatxe/aa30-12376/en/

    The historical capital Guernica, world famous for the 1937 German/Franco terror bombings and Picasso's masterpiece of the same name: http://www.euskoguide.com/places-basque-country/spain/guernica-tourism/

    See some of the best football (soccer) teams in the world in either San Sebastián (Real Sociedad), the football miracle town Eibar or in Bilbao. Always a great spectacle, and Real Madrid and FC Barcelona play here at least six times pr. year. http://www.football-espana.net/58466/la-liga-facing-basque-takeover

    --

    Here are two great guides to the region: http://tourism.euskadi.eus/en/
    http://www.euskoguide.com/

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