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ENCHANTING SPAIN: Madrid, North of Spain, Barcelona

ENCHANTING SPAIN: Madrid, North of Spain, Barcelona

Jan 11th, 2019, 07:29 AM
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Mikelg, you are fortunate to claim such a beautiful city as your hometown. We loved northern Spain. Within the time constraints of our "holiday", we know that we got only a taste of the area and need to return.

Over the Christmas holiday, we found out that the young woman whom our cousin married in early 2018 has Basque roots on her father's side. The family moved to Chile, which is where she grew up. We had a some enjoyable discussions, and are eager to hear more at another family event.

Thanks for you continued interest and insights!
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 11th, 2019, 08:11 AM
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Enjoying the photos and the report.
twk is offline  
Jan 11th, 2019, 01:29 PM
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Thanks, twk! Always happy to have another traveler's interest in our TR.
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 12th, 2019, 12:34 AM
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Thanks to you for your great report!
mikelg is offline  
Jan 12th, 2019, 10:04 AM
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"We even snuck in a half-hour nap, unusual for us."

I'll have to hide this sentence from Tracy.

maitaitom is online now  
Jan 13th, 2019, 11:20 AM
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Mikelg, we've been fascinated with so much in the north of Spain. Glad to have you following along!
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 13th, 2019, 11:27 AM
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Tom, maybe we take more cafe'/wine breaks than you guys?
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Jan 13th, 2019, 01:49 PM
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I am glad you mentioned Santander... a very nice spot often overlooked by travelers.
danon is online now  
Jan 14th, 2019, 09:32 AM
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Photos from Bilbao, Getaria, and San Sebastian

tomarkot is offline  
Jan 14th, 2019, 09:34 AM
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tomarkot is offline  
Jan 14th, 2019, 11:39 AM
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Apologies for the double post of photos
above. Had difficulty posting.


AM Bilbao

PM Getaria; on to Destination:

On the road by 8:30 AM. We wished that we would have had an additional night at this gorgeous hotel in Santander. The rain had prevented us from exploring the city; that was not to be on this trip.

Leaving Santander en route to Bilbao, it was not raining; just overcast. The mountains, with homes dotting the lower elevations, were impressive with their deep green color.

We would be traveling east to the Spanish Basque region. We learned that the Basque people have inhabited the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains around the Bay of Biscay for thousands of years. Apparently, scholars have still not determined the exact origins of the Basque people. Though many have connected the Basque region with their strong attempts to separate from Spain and remain their own country, the Basque region is actually the most prosperous region in Spain in terms of GDP per capita, owing to its industrial sector, its tourism, and its agricultural activity.

There are two official languages in the Spanish Basque Country, Euskara and Castilian Spanish, having totally different origins. Throughout the Basque region, places have two quite different sounding names.

The two big commercial cities are the ports of Bilbao and San Sebastian, (or Donostia in Basque). Between them, the rocky Atlantic coastline has a small number of small resorts which have seen development in recent decades.

We would begin our day with a visit to the famous city of BILBAO. A main attraction as one enters Bilbao is the futuristic Guggenheim Museum, a 1997 work of the American architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Designed to resemble a ship, it is located on the banks of the deep Nervion River which runs from the bay and through the city. The Guggenheim is a unique mix of angles, shapes, and construction materials.

Coinciding with the construction of the Guggenheim Museum was a rebirth of Bilbao. Some refer to it as the “emblem of Bilbao”. Over a twenty-year period, it is said that the city was transformed from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan. It has become one of the cultural centers of Spain, being its 5th largest city.

Bilbao is a totally Basque city, the capital of the entire Basque region. Basque is a unique language. We had attempted to learn a few words in Basque and made a little “cheat sheet” for ourselves. But we didn’t have our sheet handy, and the words we could remember to use are the ones for “hello”: “kaiko”, and for “thank you”: “eskerrick asko”. We found that the people were very friendly and willing to speak a little English.

A 43 ft. high topiary of a West Highland Terrier, which has been named “Puppy”, is a main attraction fronting the Guggenheim. At first sight, we were puzzled as to its prominence and popularity in front of the museum.
We learned that an American artist, Jerry Koons, designed this living plant sculpture in Germany. It was then moved to Sydney, and finally to Bilbao, intended to be temporary, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the museum. Apparently, the citizens loved “Puppy” with its 70,000 blooming plants, and it was decided to give him a permanent spot.

From the bridge over the river, we enjoyed looking down to entrance of the Guggenheim, where the Puppy is a prominent feature.

Another feature to grab one’s attention is the outdoor sculpture of a 30 ft. high by 33 ft. wide spider, titled “Maman”, (or “Mother” in French). It was created by a French artist, Louise Bourgeois, in honor of her mother who was a weaver and died when Louise was young, a real crisis in her life.

With our limited time in Bilbao, we considered this a mere introductory visit. It offered us a flavor of the city. Bilbao is an integration of old and modern. It has green spaces, and beautiful plazas, museums, hotels, and a user-friendly public tram system.

Bilbao has many restaurants. The city focuses on fine cuisine, and we heard it said by someone that many consider a restaurant as a “kitchen with tables”.

We walked some of the side streets, window-shopping. Different types of cheeses are featured in special stores. And what we refer to as “gourmet” pinxtos are served everywhere.

Stopping in Nostrum Café’ for coffee and a croissant, we chose a sidewalk table with a view of the Guggenheim Museum and the famous “Puppy”, a central visitor attraction.

Strolling the main city street, lined with small shops, Tom spotted a t-shirt featuring the unique spider sculpture, a true conversation piece. We used our remaining minutes to enjoy the pedestrian promenade which runs along the river. With one last look at the Guggenheim and the Puppy topiary, it was time to board the awaiting coach toward San Sebastian.

This whole area near the coast is impressive, green and lush, with mountains throughout. But the price for such beauty is an abundance of rain. And, so far, we had enjoyed our share of it. But toward the end of our Bilbao visit, the clouds began to lift.

En route to San Sebastian, we traveled along portions of the Costa Vasca, stopping by GETARIA, one of the charming small fishing villages. By this time, we were delighted to see blue skies and sun!

As we walked down the narrow main street, we stopped at one of the pinxtos bars, joining in the crowds of people eating inside and out. The bar had multiple platters stacked with hundreds of appealing pinxtos. Accompanied with a glass of the local txakoli wine, we enjoyed our pinxtos outdoors.

Following that treat, we wended our way to the end of the cobblestoned walking street, stopping briefly at the church. The highlight of our stop in Getaria was the view over the Bay of Biscay, seeming more beautiful because of the perfect weather.

Two features attracted peoples’ attention near the waterfront. One is a statue of Juan-Sebastian de Elcano, Magellan’s second in command, who completed the circumnavigation of the globe following Magellan’s death in the Phillipines. Another attraction was the mouse-shaped rock, called “El Raton”, near the shore. For us, it was the surprisingly gorgeous setting, with two beaches, and many boats anchored. The shore was lined with lovely cafes.

We couldn’t resist having another drink as we enjoyed the view of the bay. If we hadn’t been enroute to the coastal city of San Sebastián, we would have been disappointed at having insufficient time to settle in and enjoy Getaria. But, as it was, there was more coastal beauty to come!

Our destination was the beautiful city: San Sebastian, (“Donastia” in Basque language). It is known as the “pearl of the Cantabrian Coast”.

We would stay for two nights at the Hotel Barcelo in San Sebastian! This city was another highlight which we anticipated in planning our trip.

SAN SEBASTIAN has a perfect location with golden beaches, capped by twin peaks, one at either end, and a small island in the center. A beachfront promenade runs the length of the bay, with Old Town at one end and an upscale shopping district in the center.

With a gorgeous setting, Monté Urguell is topped by the soaring statue of Christ gazing over the city, reminding us of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We were attracted to San Sebastian not only for its sightseeing, but for its indescribable beauty. It’s a gem in Spain’s Basque Country.

After quickly getting settled in our Hotel Barcelo room, we had time to grab a coffee before boarding the coach for an exploration of the town of San Sebastian.

We began our excursion with a drive-up Monté Igueldo for an awe-inspiring view over the La Concha Bay. The cameras were clicking as everyone wanted to get multiple shots of this stunning area. From this vantage point, one could see the bay opening to the Atlantic Ocean.

There was a small amusement park on top of Monté Igueldo which was an attraction for families, but the focus of most peoples' interest was the shell-shaped harbor of La Concha Bay, with its wide, sandy beach. Quite an amazing sight from the mountain top!

We could have stayed on Mount Igueldo a while longer; but then, we didn’t look forward to hiking down and into the heart of the city where tradition and modernity are brought together.

We proceeded to the Old Town where we began a walking tour with our knowledgeable guide. Lots of walking, lots of history, lots of beauty.

We viewed main attractions: the port, San Vincente Church, Santa Maria Church, Boulevard Street, a theater area where Franco’s National Side took over in a couple of days (bullet holes were deliberately left in place as a reminder of Franco’s autocratic rule). The plaza where bullfights were held was interesting, especially learning about the house numbers used for seating purposes on the higher room levels.

The broad Constitution Square, which is often a venue chosen for weddings of important people, special concerts, and large festivals, was enhanced by landscaping, including flower gardens.

We walked into the gardens of the Miramar Palace where the Spanish royalty chose to summer. This tradition began in 1845 when Queen Isabella II was advised by her doctor that bathing in the sea would treat her skin problems. Her visit mobilized Spain’s aristocracy, and gradually San Sebastian became a destination resort. The appeal of San Sebastian was the ideal weather and its beaches.

Our guide, Amoria, described that Franco, the Spanish dictator who ruled from after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) until 1973, made this his personal summer residence. It’s difficult to believe, or even imagine, that he could enjoy a luxurious vacation while ruling his people with an iron hand and allowing Hitler to bomb the city of Guernica, a Spanish Basque city, located along the coast.

Following our extensive walking tour through San Sebastian, we were happy to be heading in the direction of a gorgeous restaurant, a special treat for the evening. San Sebastian is known as the culinary capitol of Spain, and a “foodie heaven”.

The delicious taste of each course of our meals was matched with its attractive presentation. We were happy to sit across from Su and Thuhi, the dentists. Good discussion! All seemed to enjoy their meals.

As we left the restaurant, we enjoyed a view of the lit-up Constitution Square. We returned to our hotel about 10:15. A great meal, but after another long day, we were again worn out. We “crashed” about 11:40. (Six hours is often our reality of sleep time.)

We had enjoyed a great full day: Bilbao, Getaria, and San Sebastian. Ready for more in the AM!
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 15th, 2019, 03:42 AM
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Pity you stayed so little time in Bilbao and missed its beautiful old quarter!! By the way, Bilbao is not the capital of the Basque Country, actually it´s Vitoria-Gasteiz, the smallest of the Basque capitals, located 75km south of Bilbao, on the way to Rioja wine region.
mikelg is offline  
Jan 15th, 2019, 07:42 AM
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Yes, we agree about the limited time we were in Bilbao. However, we feel this way about so many places we visit, even in the US. We need more holiday time! LOL
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 15th, 2019, 09:43 AM
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Great trip report and photos! I love the historical references and city info as I do the same in my trip reports! My high-school daughter and I were in Spain mid-July to 1 Aug 2017. It was so extremely hot (especially in Madrid) and we walked everywhere so it got quite uncomfortable. However, we went to many of the same museums you did and relished the A/C and fantastic art. Unfortunately, we did not have time to get to Bilbao, San Sebastian and the northern Basque/Pyrenees areas of Spain but would have loved to if time allowed! We hope to go back again soon and add Portugal to our travels since we've never been there.
Huitres is offline  
Jan 15th, 2019, 11:48 AM
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Huitres, thanks for your nice comments on our TR. Not sure how we missed your report, so we just read and enjoyed it! I think we both agree that Spain is a beautifully diverse country.
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Jan 18th, 2019, 12:54 PM
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Breakfast at 8, off at 9 AM to France, which is only about 20 kilometers away.

We were still in Basque country, which straddles two nations along the Atlantic Coast: Spain and France. Though two countries, the Basque people are united by their flag with the colors green, red, and white, by similar cuisine, and by a common language: Euskara.

As we crossed the border into France, our first destination was BIARRITZ, a gorgeous city on the ocean; more elegant than we expected. We took multiple pictures looking down onto the beach and the circle of the bay area. Another area of fabulous beauty, with an abundance of upscale hotels and restaurants.

We discovered the classy Café de Paris for enjoying our mid-morning café and delicious French croissants, with a view to the ocean. Attractive restrooms were a bonus. We strolled the beautiful main walking street, with its center park.

For anyone liking a beautiful seaside resort, with a plethora of elegant hotels and restaurants, Biarritz is your place. This short visit to Biarritz was another high point for us! After days of fabulous sightseeing, with the past few days of inclement weather, we were thrilled to enjoy coastal cities. We regretted having to leave Biarritz at 11:30, but knew that we were in for a couple more highlights of the day.

The sun and weather were cooperating perfectly, with temps probably in the low 80’s, making these experiences on the Atlantic Coast exceptional.
Along the western coast of France, there is an almost unbroken line of beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean. The characteristics of sand and sun make them popular for great sailing and surfing.

From this gorgeous stop in Biarritz, we moved on to ST. JEAN DE LUZ, a French village known to some as “Little Paris”. En route, we passed some residential areas with the traditional red and green timbered homes. Also, some pelota courts, a popular sport in the area, like jai alai.

St. Jean de Luz, too, is a village set on the Bay of Biscay of the Atlantic Ocean. It has a small port, and pretty beach. It has a history of whaling, cod fishing, and even pirating which provided its wealth. Rich shipbuilders built elegant homes in the downtown area. Today its economy relies heavily on tourism.

A significant event which occurred in St. Jean de Luz was the1660 marriage of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa of Spain in Église St-Jean Baptiste. The plain façade of this church gives no hint of the historic nature of this happening.

After exchanging rings, legend says that the couple walked down the aisle and out of the south door, which was then sealed to commemorate peace between the two nations after twenty-four years of hostilities. In reality, most say that the door was later sealed. It bears a commemorative plaque highlighting this event.

The church has an intricately-carved gilded wooden altarpiece. Also notable are the wooden balconies running along the sides. Toward the rear, a ship is suspended from the ceiling, suggestive of the city’s connection to the sea.

One remarkable addition to the church, since that famous wedding, has been the construction of an impressive long staircase to the altar, somewhat reminiscent of the one in St. Michael’s, Mondsee, Austria, which was used in the film “Sound of Music”.

Upon leaving the church, we witnessed a wedding party, whose ceremony had taken place a while earlier. The bride and the going-away sports car were interesting bits of local color!

St. Jean de Luz was an enjoyable city for walking its pedestrian streets, taking in the lively squares and its sandy beaches. Pastry shops, including macarons, were among the restaurants and other stores. Red peppers seem to be a favorite seasoning, as well as decoration on the homes and businesses.

It was lunch time, and we had passed a restaurant on the walk that had many patrons, and appealing food. We walked back to the La Vieille Alberge. Being close to the sea, there were seafood options. However, the pastoral farms of the interior provided wonderful beef. Having enjoyed a wonderful seafood meal the previous evening, we were attracted to their steak offering.

We ordered “boeuf for two” that included a beautiful steak, seasoned and grilled to perfection, artfully sliced, accompanied with tasty potatoes, served on a silver platter; also, a salad. This steak dinner will be remembered for a long time, given the great taste, huge portion, and attractive presentation. (€60.50).

Following that filling meal, we strolled down the street leading to the water. We loved being in France again, if even for only a short while. It would be a prelude to our fall trip for 2019!

As we boarded the coach for our return trip, and took our last glances of St. Jean de Luz, we would be trading one beautiful beach for another. We could enjoy more of the same after our return to San Sebastian! So much beauty in this corner where Spain and France meet!

The rest of the day belonged to our ingenuity as we ended our stay in lovely San Sebastian. Many visitors use the evening and nighttime to do “bar hopping” among the many places in the Old Town. Since we had had a long day, and needed to face an early morning departure, we chose to use the hotel shuttle and head for the two-mile long promenade along La Concha Beach.

On this perfect evening, we enjoyed a stroll along the shell-shaped beach, with many beach-goers enjoying what has been described by many as one of Europe’s best stretches of sand.

After a while, upon spotting an end table with a water view at La Perla Café-Restaurant, we leisurely imbibed a pitcher of wonderful sangria. We were glad that this drink, one of our favs, is also popular in San Sebastian.
The seat and location were so comfortable that we decided to remain and order dinner there, a light one, to make up for that steak meal at lunch.

Our Barcelo Hotel was located on a hill overlooking the town, close to the palace gardens. While it was walkable from the promenade, we decided to sit for a while longer, with an awareness that we could catch the last shuttle. That was motivation to postpone our farewells to this gorgeous beach a few minutes longer.

Upon return to our hotel, we needed to pack our luggage and get things in readiness for the morning departure to Pamplona.

These past several days along the gorgeous Atlantic Coast, with the beautiful weather, would be remembered as another highlight of our trip!
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 19th, 2019, 03:08 AM
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If I may...the ships suspended in many churches in coastal towns, all along the Basque coast, correspond to "ex votos" (out of a promise), reproduction of ships after being saved from a storm at sea and thanking the local saint for it (and looking for further protection). The red peppers (season starts in November) correspond to a protected D.O., Espelette, and they are widely used in Basque cuisine (not spicy, normally). Espelette, a quaint town, shows in winter hundreds of strips of pepper drying outside the walls of the houses (and in many other areas of the Basque Country). And last...sangria is hardly drunk by any local in Spain, it´s a drink specifically made for tourists (for some reason, visitors tend to think it´s popular...and so we make it for you). No local would drink from a sangria staying long in a bar, when we make it (and it´s mostly in Mediterranean Spain, in the Basque Country it´s a rarity) it´s at home, for domestic use.

Excellent report, by the way, your comments and knowledge and investigation of the area is outstanding. In your next visit, don´t miss both markets at Biarritz and St Jean de Luz, if you like cheese...
mikelg is offline  
Jan 19th, 2019, 07:19 AM
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Mikelg, thanks so much for your insights. Everywhere we travel, there is so much new learning.
And so many reasons to return. We appreciate your interest in our report!
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 19th, 2019, 06:43 PM
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Hello Tomarkot,

Thank you for your detailed report and gorgeous pictures. I'm a big fan of Northern Spain and always enjoy reading other travelers impressions about the area. God willing I'll be doing the Camino Ingles later this year and I'm so looking forward to seeing back my beloved Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, all cleaned up and without the scaffolding that marred its appearance last two times I was there. I believe afterwards I might head out to Basque country, mainly Bilbao, and maybe a short stop in Vitoria. Looking forward to the rest of your report!
cruiseluv is offline  
Jan 19th, 2019, 06:47 PM
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Thanks for your interest and kind remarks about our report. We felt fortunate to see the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela minus the scaffolding. There is something compelling about Northern Spain, isn't there?

I'm not familiar with the Camino Ingles. What is its route?
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