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When to Go
Mid-April through June, September, and October are the best times to enjoy the temperate climate and both the coastal and upland landscapes of this wet and grassy corner of Spain—though any time of year except August, when Europeans are on vacation, is nearly as good.
Pamplona in July is bedlam, though for hard-core party animals it's heaven.
The Basque Country is rainy in winter, but the wet Atlantic weather is always invigorating and, as if anyone needed it in this culinary paradise, appetite-enhancing. Much of the classically powerful Basque cuisine evolved with the northern maritime climate in mind.
The September film festival in San Sebastián coincides with the spectacular whaleboat regattas, while the beaches are still ideal and largely uncrowded.
When you're looking for a place to stay, note that the largely industrial and well-to-do north is an expensive part of Spain, which is reflected in room rates. San Sebastián is particularly pricey, and Pamplona rates triple during San Fermín in July. Reserve ahead for Bilbao, where the Guggenheim is filling hotels, and nearly everywhere else in summer.
Glitterati descend on San Sebastián for its international film festival in the second half of September (exact dates vary, check www.sansebastianfestival.com). The same goes for the late-July jazz festival (www.heinekenjazzaldia.com), which draws many of the world's top performers. Saint's day is celebrated here January 19–20 with La Tamborrada, when 100-odd platoons of chefs and Napoleonic soldiers parade hilariously through the streets.
Pamplona's feast of San Fermín (July 6–14), made famous by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, remains best known for its running of the bulls. Bilbao's Semana Grande (Grand Week), in mid-August, is notorious for the largest bulls of the season and a fine series of street concerts.
Near San Sebastián, on August 7 every four years (the next will be in 2013), the fishing village of Getaria celebrates Juan Sebastián Elcano's completion of Ferdinand Magellan's voyage around the world. The fiestas include a solemn procession up from the port of the weather-beaten, starving survivors and a week of feasts, dances, and street parties.
Vitoria's weeklong Fiesta de la Virgen Blanca (Festival of the White Virgin) celebrates the city's patron saint with bullfights and more, August 4-9.
Between Bilbao and San Sebastián, the smaller beaches at Zumaia, Getaria, and Zarautz are usually quiet. San Sebastián's best beach, La Concha, which curves around the bay along with the city itself, is scenic and clean but packed in summer; Ondarreta, at the western end of La Concha, is often less crowded. Surfers gather at Zurriola on the northern side of the Urumea River.
Planning Your Time
A road trip through the Basque Country, Navarra, and La Rioja would require at least a week, but a glimpse, however brief, of Bilbao and its Guggenheim, can be done in two days. San Sebastián and its beach, La Concha, the Baztán Valley, Pamplona, Laguardia, and La Rioja's wine capital at Haro are the top must-see stops.
If you have more time, visit Mundaka and the coast of Vizcaya west of Bilbao; Getaria, Pasajes de San Juan, and Hondarribia near San Sebastián; and Logroño in La Rioja.
La Rioja's Sierra de la Demanda also has some of the finest landscapes in Spain, not to mention culinary pilgrimages to Echaurren in Ezcaray or Venta de Goyo in Viniegra de Abajo.
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