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Basque Spain and France – how long to stay and how to split it up

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I’m planning a two-week trip and would like to include Bayonne/Biarritz, San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Santander.

I would like to visit St Jean de Luz and Espelette France, and Hondarribia and Lekeitio Spain as day trips. I will be solo and use public transportation for this trip. (After this part, I am doing another two weeks driving trip (with my husband) to Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, which will also include Burgos and Leon).

I was thinking 4 nights (3 days) Bayonne, 4 nights San Sebastian, 3 nights Bilbao, and 2 nights Santander. I can add one more night if I need to.

How does this look? Would you add the extra night, if so where? Would you rearrange the number of days in the various locations? Any other suggestions?

Thanks

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    I was in the same area, traveling by public transport, last fall, you might find my TR helpful.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/thursdaysd-wanders-south.cfm#comment-9383738

    Or, with pix: https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/basing-in-bayonne/

    I also spent time in Pau, which you could do as a day trip, and Pamplona, which I liked much more than I expected. I didn't visit Santander this trip, but when I was there in 2004 I was not impressed.

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    "4 nights (3 days) Bayonne, 4 nights San Sebastian, 3 nights Bilbao, and 2 nights Santander" looks like a decent plan, but I'd use Saint-Jean-de-Luz as my base in the Pays Basque, unless you plan on being in Bayonne in late July for the Fêtes de Bayonne (www.fetes.bayonne.fr).

    If you can add one night, then I'd do it in San Sebastián-Donostia, which would allow you time to spend the day in Hondarribia and a day in Pamplona (easy bus connections to both). For more information on San Sebastián-Donostia, you can read: www.maribelsguides.com/mg_san_sebastian.pdf

    Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a better base then Bayonne, which is only a few minutes up the road. It's a more walkable town with lots of good restaurants and a great market (www.saint-jean-de-luz.com).

    There is excellent bus service up and down the coast (Irun to Bayonne and all points in between), but heading inland by bus is a little more difficult, although there are local buses you can use.

    There is daily rail service from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The fastest train takes 1hr 28min and costs about €11 one-way. If you go, then plan on spending the night.

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    Here is something I've posted before:

    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.

    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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    If you are using public transport, as the OP is, St. Jean de Luz is NOT a better base than Bayonne (even though Rick Steves also promotes it). The bus and train service is better from Bayonne, and you can get a day pass for the buses in a wide area including Biarritz but not including St. Jean de Luz for a mere two euro. In any case, I am not young but I found Bayonne quite walkable.

    Stu - the OP said she is using public transport. Which of those restaurants can be reached without a car?

    I agree that Pau is not very lively, at least not during the week, but you go there for the views. I thought St. Jean de Luz highly overrated.

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    In addition to Espelette, Ascain, Ainhoa, and Saré are pretty French Basque villages too. Hondaribbia and St-Jean de Luz are also favorites of ours. You can cross the river from Hondaribbia, Spain to France by taking a little ferry.

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    Many people adore San Sebastian / Donostia. I spent 3 nights there, agree that it is beautiful, am glad I saw it -- and easily liked it less than any other place I've been during 7.5 weeks in Spain. (For context, I have adored every other place I've been in Spain, so it's not that I did not like San Sebastian; it's just a statement of my relative preferences.) A night or two would have been enough for me.

    In contrast, I loved Bilbao -- and not just for the Guggenheim, but for its other museums, interesting neighborhoods, etc.

    A night of two would, I think, be enough for Santander, unless you are using it as a base for some destinations nearby.

    And I'm still glad I spent some time in Santillana del Mar -- but you've already gotten opinions on that....

    JMO.

    I haven't been to the French side of Basque country yet.

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    Thanks so much everyone for the replies and great information.

    I should have mentioned the trip will be end of June through mid July. So yes, high season.

    I tend to think that Bayonne would be the best base and Biarritz and St Jean done as day trips but I will take what some of you have said into account as I search for hotels, it doesn't look like I can really go wrong with any of them.

    My first impression of St Jean Pied du Port was that it wouldn't be worth the time to get there. The second part of my trip (driving part) we will be visiting several towns on the Camino. Several of the other towns mentioned look really interesting but I'm still not sure where best to put the extra night.

    kja - 'part 2' of the trip is going to include 3 nights in Santillana del Mar. I switched focus to get straight the itinerary for part one first, then I'll go back to finishing the rest of the trip. (I'm doing the solo public transportation on the coast part first, and my husband will meet me for the driving part 2 of the trip afterwards)

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