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Itinerary help please--Basque Country/Picos de Europa/Pyrenees/Barcelona

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We are going to have the opportunity to visit northern Spain and probably southern France, with the following constraints:

My wife, 23-year old son, and I will probably be arriving in Bilbao on Wednesday morning, 9/2, and departing Barcelona on Sunday, 9/13. Our 26-year old daughter and her boyfriend, who live in Brussels, will be joining us for a 3-day weekend—probably arriving in Bilbao late on Thursday, 9/3, and departing from Toulouse late afternoon Sunday, 9/6. Taking account of the interests of the group as a whole, we probably won’t be taking long or challenging hikes, but short ones would be nice, and museum visits will be limited and relatively short.

I know I have a lot more reading to do, including all of the great ideas on this site as well as Maribel’s wonderful guide. But before locking in these flights, I wanted to get your opinion as to whether an itinerary something like the following would make sense. I would also really appreciate any specific suggestions on itinerary changes or differences in time allocation, as well as comments that this entire itinerary seems crazy.

Wed. 9/2: Arrive in Bilbao, visit Altamira and El Castillo caves, stay in Santillana.

Thurs 9/3: Drive and do a little hiking in Picos de Europa (e.g, drive to Potes and Fuente De, and if time circle around to Riano and Cangas. Stay in Bilbao. Daughter and boyfriend arrive late at night at Bilbao airport.

Fri 9/4: Bilbao, Guggenheim, Museo de Bellas Artes (brief visits to both museums), Old Quarter. Drive to and stay in San Sebastian?

Sat 9/5: Visit Hondarribia and some part of French Basque country/Pyrenees. Suggestions? Stay in Pau?

Sun 9/6: Drive to Toulouse, perhaps via Gascogne, or just directly to Toulouse and spend some time in Toulouse (I know Sunday is not ideal). Take daughter and boyfriend to airport late in afternoon. Drive to Carcassonne and stay overnight there.

Mon. 9/7: Drive to Figueres, perhaps via a scenic route through the Pyrenees (e.g., via Col de Puymorens, Olot?), or perhaps by Peyrepertuse. Visit Cadaques or go to Dali Museum if there is time. Eat and stay in Figueres?

Tu 9/8: Go to Dali Museum and/or Cadaques if didn’t go the day before. Drive to Barcelona via Girona, perhaps drive between Sant Feliu/Tossa/Lloret, drop off car in Barcelona. Stay in Barcelona.

We 9/9 through Sat 9/12: Stay in Barcelona. Probably take a day trip one day to Montserrat.

Sun 9/13: Fly home midday.

Various possible modifications that occur to me include:
--Spending one more day west of Bilbao before my daughter arrives, with her arriving Friday evening and departing Monday late afternoon from Toulouse, which would result in one fewer day in Barcelona. If so, where would you spend the time?
--Spending a day getting a taste of Dordogne after my daughter departs, which would result in one fewer day in Barcelona.
--Spending an extra day in Pyrenees or elsewhere between Toulouse and Figueres, with one fewer day in Barcelona.
--Skipping France and making my daughter take a 6 AM flight from Bilbao to Brussels (there are no flights late in the day). If we don’t go to France, would you fly from Bilbao to Barcelona, or are there interesting places (e.g., Zaragoza) and/or pretty drives (e.g., Spanish Pyrenees) that would argue for driving?

Thanks very much for any help you can offer!


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    I don´t see feasible your schedule for the 3rd of september, unless you plan to drive the whole day and not get out of the car.

    I have been countless times to Picos, and we have done something similar a couple of times, but ... we slept in Arenas de Cabrales, walk up and down the Cares, drove over to Cangas de Onis, stop there for an hour or so, drive up the Ponton pass and sleep, very late, in some village in Palencia. The following day we would drive down to Potes from San Glorio. My parents, my uncles and now ourselves know pretty well the roads and what we can encounter on the road, so it is not a big problem ... but when it´s your first time there, you must be slower and it can be tiring.

    I would suggest either go to Potes and Fuente De, and stop in San Vicente de la Barquera on the way back, or go to Cangas de Onís and Covadonga, get one of the buses to the Lakes (the walks there are pretty easy and it can be lovely in september), visit the Santina ... You could stop for a quick visit to Ribadesella in the way back, and then drive back to Bilbao. The motorway is quite good.

    Regarding the Pyrenees, I like Jaca a lot, and you can also think about Ainsa or Ordesa National Park.

    Rgds, Covadonga

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    Hi Len,
    Just a general observation before addressing your specific questions-

    I've done all the following of your proposed itinerary (save the city of Toulouse) but on a series of trips, rather than in one fell swoop. This seems to me far, far, far too much and too rushed for 11 days. Your memories would just be a blur.

    On 9/2, if you're arriving in Bilbao after an overnight flight, you will be tired and want to rest rather than jump in the car and try to make the guided tours of both the Neo Caves in Santillana and El Castillo (no quick in and out in either). And for both you should have advanced reservations, as they're capacity controlled. ( I did both last summer on two separate days).

    As to the full circuit on 9/3:

    Santillana-hiking in Picos (no "quick" hikes)-Fuente Dé funicular (which is the raison d'etre for Fuente Dé)-Riaño (the drive Potes to Riaño is hair raising/extremely slow)-Cangas-Bilbao
    just isn't feasible if you want to enjoy your day.

    Mountain passes galore and 2 excruciatingly slow drives through narrow, sinuous gorges-the Desfiladero de la Hermida and Desfiladero de los Beyos. A look at the twisting yellow roads on Michelin map 572 Asturias-Cantabria will give you pause. Please trust me.

    If this were my trip, I would save the France portion through the Pays Basque and Gascony for another journey. And I spent 8 very full days days in Dordogne and didn't see all that I wanted to see-wished I had alloted another week!

    I strongly suggest that your daughter return to Brussels from Bilbao so that you as a family can spend a relaxing weekend in the Bilbao-San Sebastián-Hondarribia vicinity. Your son, daughter and her boyfriend, I'm sure will simply love the vibrancy and the beautiful beaches of San Sebastián.

    As to the journey from Bilbao to Barcelona, this can take 6 hrs. without touring stops, a few days, a week or an entire month. There is a great deal to see and explore in the Navarran, Aragonese, Catalonian Pyrenees in the gorgeous valleys above the autoroute to Zaragoza.

    With only 11 days, I would limit this trip to the Basque Country on both sides and Barcelona, probably flying between Bilbao-Barcelona, so as to have proper time to enjoy your final city.

    Just a few thoughts...

  • Report Abuse

    Correction, Len, to my post.

    With just 11 days, if it were my trip, I would limit it to Spain's Basque Country, the French Pays Basque, both coastal and interior, then Barcelona, either driving with an overnight in the Pyrenees (agree with cova on Jaca) or fly.

    I'd leave Bearn, Gascony and French Catalonia for another journey (you didn't plan on the Dordogne, sorry!! misread!)

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    Thanks so much for your quick and very helpful responses, all of you. I must admit that as I was typing out the possible itinerary I was thinking much the way you are, Maribel. We get so little vacation time that I was tempted to fit in more, but I think you are definitely right. (I did mention Dordogne as a possible add-on for a ludicrous one day, so you are not wrong.)

    So we are going to take your advice and tell my daughter to fly back at 6 AM, and we will fly from Bilbao to Barcelona.

    I am looking forward to reading you guides in detail, Maribel, but recognizing that we still don't have nearly enough time to do either area justice, how would you divide time between the 2? How would you use the time in the general vicinity of Bilbao, recognizing that we need to meet my daughter late on the night of Thursday 9/3 in Bilbao, and stay in Bilbao Sunday night so they can get to the airport early the next morning. Or they could arrive and depart one day later (they only have one weekday off from work).

    My daughter and her husband are alergic to anything overly touristy, so I would definitely not take them to Santillana (do you think we should also avoid it for that reason, though we are much more tolerant of fellow tourists?). They really like less touristy cities as well as walking in mountains, etc. We all love to eat, and we are trying to keep hotels relatively affordable, particularly as we need 2 rooms (3 when my daughter is with us). My son is not wild about museums.

    Thanks again for all of your help!


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    Hi Len,
    I understand completely the urge to fit as much in as possible into the meager vacation time that we have. I do know very well that urge!

    About Santillana,
    Your daughter's and husband's allergy would certainly be triggered with a day trip to Santillana now, I'm afraid!

    I used to laud it here as one of Spain's most beautiful, charming medieval villages, and while the beauty is still apparent after the multitude of souvenir, tee-shirt shops close and bus tours leave, during the day, sadly, it has become rather Disney-fied, like Carcassonne but on a smaller scale. At night it returns to its more dignified, untarnished movie set look.

    Last summer I was crushed to see that the most ancient, emblematic and picture postcard photographed half-timbered home there had opened a tee-shirt shop in its portal. Glad I have photos of it the way it used to be!

    Nonetheless, I always enjoy seeing the Romanesque Colegiata with its amazing capitals in the cloister and the Museo Diocesano at the other end of the village. And the Neo Caves at the Altamira Museum. So yes, you and your wife should go if you have the time. It would be a 90 min. drive from Bilbao, more or less, says

    Because we arrive in Bilbao after an overnight flight, when heading out of the city, we venture no further than Liérganes or the Trasmiera area (just east of Santander). But if you arrive after a short flight, you and your wife could go further on to Santillana. The area of lush rolling hills between Santillana and Comillas also makes for a very pretty drive.

    Those who have seen Lascaux II won't be so impressed as the Altamira replica caves are not as authentic in look or feel, but the museum displays are quite interesting. But even for Sept. I'd book ahead at
    to avoid standing in long lines. With locator number, you go straight inside to the info booth.

    I do promise your daughter and husband will love San Sebastián-everyone does, particularly in September, a great time to be there, before the Film Festival.

    Since they like non-touristy areas, with them, I'd visit the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve between Bilbao and San Sebastián.

    The virtual cave visit, with 3 D googles, of Santimamiñe (in Kortezubi) has really been well done-has been lauded as a model for replica palaeolithic cave art visits. Must pre-book via email at [email protected]
    More info here:

    And a visit there can be combined with a brisk hike down to Agustín Ibarrola's amazing Painted Forest of Oma (drive up to the top of the entrance, park and walk down the steep staircase into the forest).

    I always suggest a visit to the Peace Museum in Gernika as well. Even if you're not wild about museums, this is a very moving experience.

    And the coastal drive north of Gernika, from the authentic fishing port of Bermeo to the beach town, txakolí-producing Bakio is quite pretty with opportunities for nice walks, including the hike up to the island sanctuary of San Juan Gaztelugatxe, all 231 steps worth, from bridge to the church! There is even a paved coastal walkway from Forua, above Gernika, all the way to Bermeo, along the sea. Great way to walk off lunch.

    The Urdaibai offers great sights, food, lodging, walks in a completely non-touristy environment. We're staying for a week there in an agroturism home in late July after our week in Hondarribia-San Sebastián.

    Or the coastal drive Zumaia-Getaria- Zarautz, just west of San Sebastián is also quite scenic, the prettiest section for me.

    As for inexpensive lodging, in Bilbao with a car, the hotel we use for an easy in and out and garage parking is the Abba Parque with rooms under 80.

    There's also the Petit Palace Arana for about 70 or sister across the bridge, High Tech La Ribera for 80, but not as handy for easy in and out with car to do day trips.

    In San Sebastián, a great value is the simple but pleasant Hostal Alemana, just 2 blocks from La Concha.

    members of the Pensiones con encanto group, like the Kursaal

    or the Pensión Bellas Artes

    I book the De Londres y de Inglaterra a lot, but their beach side rooms don't come cheaply, The Hotel Niza doesn't guarantee a bay view room, and rates for Sept. are 145-don't know if that's relatively affordable for your group or not.

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    Sorry ekscrunchy,
    Didn't see your post while composing my very long winded one!

    No, no great food to be found in Santillana. If you do take a day trip, I'd go back to Bilbao for spectacular pintxos (tapas) at night!

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    Thanks!--it all sounds fabulous. I am going to start reading your guides tonight, Maribel.

    If it were you, how would you divide up time (11 full days, including the day we arrive overnight from the US) between the Basque and surrounding areas (e.g., Picos de Europa) and the Barcelona area (probably including 1 or 2 day trips out of the city)? We have been in other parts of Spain, but never in these 2.

    Would you be inclined to stay in Bilbao the whole time before we fly to Barcelona (given that we have to stay there 2 nights), or move around a lot more?


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    Unless the flights are already set, I would do a RT from Brussels to Bilbao and simply stay in Spanish Basque country for that long weekend. Driving to Toulouse will burn up a good deal of time. And then I would stick to the Spanish side of the Pyrenees while going to Barcelona.

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    Hi Len,
    You did decide to fly from Bilbao to Barcelona, correct?

    With 11 days and your first one arriving after a transatlantic, overnight flight, I'd stay put in Bilbao on 9/2 and depending on your energy, use that time to see/do *some* of the following:


    cross the Zubizuri bridge and over to take the red Artxanda funicular and stroll in the park-nice views

    Museum of Fine Arts (a real gem)-but without your son, who doesn't love art museums

    A stroll down the Gran Vía to the bridge that will take you across to the Casco Viejo (Old Quarter)

    Basque Ethnographic Museum, as an introduction to Basque culture

    stroll around the Casco Viejo, have some pintxos, sit on an outdoor terrace at the Plaza Nueva

    get on the metro and alight at the Areeta station and walk down to the really neat hanging bridge, Puente Colgante or Puente Vizcaya, a cross between a bridge and a ferry-a suspended gondola. Your son would like this. It connects the estuary neighborhoods Las Arenas in Getxo to the fishermen's neighborhood of Portugalete, across the ría. It's a great piece of engineering.
    Then take a stroll around Las Arenas beach and back on the metro.

    If you want to do 2 daytrips outside of Barcelona (choose amongTarragona, Girona, Figueres, Sitges, Montserrat or the Penedes wine country), I would allow 4 nights there.

    For the remaining 7,
    I'd do 2 in Bilbao (1st night, final night before flying to BCN),
    3 in San Sebastián (for a day trip to Hondarribia and a stop in the Urdaibai between cities)
    2 nights in the St-Jean-de-Luz or Biarritz area of the Pays Basque (which will be far less hectic in Sept.) to explore this beautiful, non-touristy corner of the South West of France.

    If you want to cut a night from Barcelona and just do one day trip, I'd add a day to the Pays Basque (French side) for explorations into the totally non-touristy interior.

    Or since San Sebastián and Biarritz are only 2 hrs. apart, just stay put in ONE base, either or, and explore both sides by car from your base, remembering that lots of valuable touring time is lost in changing locations/lodgings.

    But that leaves no time for Picos de Europa in Cantabria/Asturias.

    I think you need to decide between Spanish Basque Country + Picos de Europa + Barcelona or..
    Spanish AND French Basque Country + Barcelona

    From Bilbao to Fuente Dé (end of the road in the Cantabrian Picos) is a 3 hr. one way drive. For me, this wouldn't be a day trip, plus I'd arrive way too late to hop on the cable car without a long wait in line.
    Once I'm through the slow going, narrow gorge, Desfiladero de la Garganta, I want to stay put in the gorgeous Liébana valley for a couple of days to explore and to do walks or to do a "day trip" back up through the gorge again and over to Cangas, on the Asturian side.

    Sounds like the walks in Picos may be an important piece to your vacation (??)

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    A couple of thoghts:

    I think Bilboa is often inaccurately described - Bilbao itself is much better than thought and the Gugggenheim doesn't live up to its press. The Gehry building is amazing but the collections often strain credulity. IMO - 30 minutes looking at the outside of the building then head downtown for stylish shopping areas and good food. Or, hit the coast road toward San Sebastian and spend a day walking the villages on the coast. They are beautiful.

    Also on my "overrated" list is Hondarribia. Beautiful place, some very good food, but unless you are blessed with time, I'd hold off and use that time in San Sebastian. for some reason, probably the rep of the parador, many people seem to use it as a base to see San Sebastian. IMO, "When in San Sebastian do as the San Sebastians - sleep in San Sebastian". BTW, it's certainly my favorite town in Spain and top 2-3 in Europe.

    I agree re Santillana but must relate a story from 5-6 years ago: Traveling alone, Saturday night, wandered down the wide walking street roughly in from of the parador which leads into town. About a block in, on the right was a non-descript [I am trying to be kind] restaurant with windows so smoked up you couldn't see in but great laughter and sounds of a crowd coming out. My kind of place. Went in, sat at the bar. The place was packed with families having the time of there life. They all seemed to know each other. Hard to tell, but didn't see anyone who screamed "tourist" [except me]. Meat grilled on an open pit at the rear. [Hence the smoked windows}. I sat at the bar, ate my ribs, drank my wine, kept my mouth shut, and enjoyed. A wonderful oasis in a town filled with busses and tourists

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    I had the opportunity to visit Santillana last February. As it was off-season and found it a pleasurable location. I had read reports about the tourist business there so I felt privileged to have seen the place how it was.
    I think I also eat at the same restaurant as Weber. The food was great and the bar is shared by locals and a few tourist too. I did not stay in the Paradore though. I was a bit disappointed to find out that this place as an “extension” to the rear of the village. The building is modern and there was a fire truck parked there. The radio was on ..hopefully they could not hear that in the bedrooms. If you cannot afford the Paradore there are lots of other places to lay your head.
    Whilst in the area there are several other places to visit to. Like the caves and places like Comillas too
    It seems to me that the OP should look at their travel plans as looking through a windscreen is not so pleasant as it seems at times. Maribel has posted some excellent advice as usual.

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    It is a tight schedule. If you are going to do only one hike, I believe you would like to do it in Fuente De. Take the funicular up to the El Cable and you can walk to Horcados Rojos and back.
    You will find all the details of this route here:
    This hike will take you some three or four hours.
    The road from Potes to Riaño is slow, but not that bad. It is 56 kilometres and it will take you more or less one hour. You should make a short stop in Puerto de San Glorio and visit the mirador (look out spot), from where you have a fantastic view over Picos de Europa. (The walk from the mirador to the top of Coriscau is a good alternative to Horcados Rojos route and a trip to Fuente De, especially if you want to save some time. You can find this route aswell from the above mentioned website.)
    Driving from Riaño to Cangas de Onis is 65 kilometres and it takes more than one hour. Driving back to Bilbao 232 km takes almost three hours.
    It is possible, but you will be busy.
    And remember, this year the police has been very active in the Asturian part of N-634. You better follow the (partly ridiculous) speed limits between Ribadesella and San Vicente.
    I've got three speeding tickets in Llanes this year...

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    About Santilana del Mar-
    We've visited both in summer and in November-while a visit can be far more pleasant off season, I still wish that there weren't now such a heavy proliferation of tacky souvenir shops in every portal. It makes the once picturesque Calle Cantón, which leads to the Colegiata, far less photogenic. I compare my photos of visits in the 70s, 80s and 90s to now, and my eyes see a great difference. But again, at night when shops close and buses depart, it takes on some of its once magical appearance once more. I think I'm bothered more by its "touristy-ness" now because I've seen it evolve over the years.

    There are two Paradors in Santillana, the original historic Parador Gil Blas, housed in a 17th century manor home, which lies directly on the main square of the village, and the former "annex", now called the Parador de Santillana (the modern building), which lies tucked away in a quiet corner, away from the tourist fray, with its own parking lot. We've stayed in both-the annex is much quieter, while the Gil Blas (named after the protagonist of a picaresque novel) is more atmospheric.

    We've also based in Comillas twice in July, frankly to be far away from the high season tourist hordes in Santillana. And that drive between the two is a lovely one.

    I agree with Weber that a first timer should base in San Sebastián (rather than Hondarribia), one of Spain's most elegant cities. We go to S.S. every summer-have done so for years-and now use a casa rural as our base in Hondarribia, but only because it makes a very inexpensive option for our week, the owners are dear friends, we have our favorite room with huge, private terrace, we love the charm of the fishing quarter, and we can access our favorite villages on the French side, the Pays Basque, more quickly from there. But we know the back roads well. Yes, as Weber says, many folks base in Hondarribia because they want to experience staying in a castle-fortress Parador from the 10th century.

    As a first timer to this area, I would encourage you to spend a few nights in the city of San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) to get to know it well and do a day trip to Hondarribia, which can be done by car or public bus.

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    If you do decide to venture down to Fuente Dé for the cable car ride to the Mirador and possibly a hike, you do need to be prepared, equipped for sudden changes in weather.

    And the hikes, such as the rather demanding one (for ME, NOT a veteran hiker or climber!) to the Horcados Rojos, do take quite a bit of time, 3-4 hours. I climbed up to the Refugio Cabaña Verónica at 2,325 meters once (strenuous for me), and just as I was about to enter the hut, a sudden rain storm came down, and our group needed to make a rushed descent. Not fun.

    For those who are well versed in mountain driving in Spain and do it daily, these distances and drives (such as the one from Potes past the Puerto de San Glorio, down to Riaño, up the Desfiladero de los Beyes to Cangas) do seem *doable*, but for a first timer, I would heartily recommend a less challenging agenda, especially if you want to include some hiking.

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    I can´t but agree with all of Maribel´s suggestions. And yes, I´d stick to the Spanish Basque Country, following an strategy of concentration rather than diversification. Bilbao and the neighbouring areas will take you two days, SS and the coastal towns on the road there are a must for another two or three days, then you can´t miss the Rioja region, two more days, and yes, Santillana is a beautiful town, a bit spoilt by tourism, but impressive in any case.

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    Thank you all for your fabulous help. I have been telling my daughter for years how helpful the Fodors board is, but I don't think she believed me until now. Your arguments easily convinced her to take the 6 AM flight back from Bilbao to enable us to adopt a "strategy of concentration." Now we have to decide what to do during the 3 days with her and her boyfriend--they really want to do everything that you have all described.


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    Taking account of all of your comments, we are thinking of saving the Picos de Europa for another trip and adopting the following revised itinerary. What do you think? Any recommendations for changes, hotels, restaurants, etc.?

    Especially in Bilbao and San Sebastian, we will need 3 rooms because of 20-something kids/boyfriend—any ideas for apartments or other relatively affordable accommodations? We are hoping to spend maybe 60-100 euros per room per night most nights—less would be great, more would be possible (and more acceptable when we need 2 rooms rather than 3).

    Wed. 9/2: Arrive in Bilbao early in the morning, spend the day in the city--Guggenheim, Museo de Bellas Artes (brief visits to both museums), Old Quarter. Stay in Bilbao.

    Thurs 9/3: Rent a car and take a day trip from Bilbao. Could go to a cave (Altamira, El Castillo, or Cavalanas—which would you recommend?), OR just take one of the drives Maribel recommends—“Swiss Alps” from Amurrio to Balmaseda, OR Duranguesado Valley—which would you recommend? Re cave, we have not been to Lascaux II, but hope to someday. Daughter and boyfriend arrive late at night at Bilbao airport. Stay in Bilbao.

    Fri 9/4: Drive to San Sebastian, with detour to the coast road from Zumaia to Getaria, and perhaps over to Hondarribia. Walk around and stay in San Sebastian.

    Sat 9/5: Visit some part of French Basque country based on Maribel’s suggestions. How much makes sense to do in one day? Stay in San Sebastian.

    Sun 9/6: Drive to Bilbao via coastal villages (e.g., Lekeitio, Laida, Gernika, Mundaka, Cabo Machiachaco, Gaztelugatxe). Stay in Bilbao.

    Mon. 9/7: Take daughter and boyfriend to airport for 630 AM flight. Fly to Barcelona with our son on 7 AM flight. Upon arriving at Barcelona airport at 805 AM, drive into Catalan Pyrenees, perhaps via Santa Fe del Montseny, Ripoll, Sant Joan de les Abadesses, Coll de Coubet, and perhaps stay in Olot (Mas les Comellas?).

    Tu 9/8: Drive to Besalu, Girona (walk around there), and then drive to Figueres (Teatre Museu Dali). Eat dinner and stay in Figueres? Or drive to and stay in Cadaques?

    We 9/9: Go to Cadaques if did not the day before, and then drive to Castell de Pubol, and back to Barcelona, if time via Sant Feliu/Tossa/Lloret, drop off car in Barcelona. Stay in Barcelona.

    Th 9/10: Barcelona

    Fr 9/11: Barcelona

    Sa 9/12: Barcelona

    Su 9/13: Fly home 11 AM

    Thanks again for all your help,


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    9/2, 9/3 Wed.-Thurs.

    Bilbao hotel:
    The Abba Parque (where I sometimes stay) has rooms for 61 and 71
    The Petit Palace Arana in the Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) has rates of 70 or 86 with breakfast.

    9/3 Thurs. day trip:
    If you have your heart set caves, I would see the real pre-historic cave paintings at El Castillo/La Moneda outside of Puente Viesgo rather than the neo-cave replica of Altamira in Santillana.
    The El Castillo complex is well done. Afterwards you could even walk a bit of the Via Verde (walking path made from old railroad bed) which starts down next to the Balneario (spa) intown.
    The Covalanas caves are closer to Bilbao but only allow 6 or so visitors in at each visit.
    You absolutely must have prior reservations. Either call, email or book online.

    I've been to the major caves of Asturias/Cantabria/Basque Country and the Dordogne, and the Altamira replica just doesn't seem very authentic to me.
    But for either, you WILL need reservations. Don't forget! You can book online for Altamira as well and by pass the lines at the outside ticket booth, going directly to the info desk inside for your appointment to the neo-caves, then visit the rest of the museum.

    If you can forgo the caves and add to your next trip to Cantabrian Picos, you could take the pretty drive to Balmaseda. Or spend the day in the Urdaibai Biosphere.

    (The Durangesado, I mention in the file, because I like to stay in Axpe at the Medi Goikoa and dine at the amazing Etxebarri, but that requires an overnight for this visit to really be fantastic for me).

    9/4, Fri.
    Drive to San Sebastián taking detour from Zumaia to Getaria or on to Zarauz.
    Stop for a drink or lunch in Getaria at the Mayflower (grilled sardines) at the pier, have some txakolí (Basque white wine from this D.O.).
    But visit Hondarribia on your way to the French Basque Country, AFTER San Sebastián.

    9/5, Sat.
    Drive from San Sebastián to Hondarribia then up the autoroute to EITHER St.-Jean-de-Luz or Biarritz, one of the two for a look at a sophisticated French Basque beach resort.
    Or Hondarribia then Bayonne
    for a visit to a genuine Basque city totally without pretense and a fantastic Basque Ethnographic Museum-but allow 2 hrs. at least for this museum, as it's just terrific!
    But the Basque Museum in Bilbao (FREE on Thurs.) is no slouch either, so you could visit one or even both.
    If you want to learn more about Basque history, culture, way of life one of these fine museums is truly a must.

    9/6, Sun.
    Back to Bilbao, getting off the autoroute to drive inland and up to Lekeitio, then down to Gernika, then up the estuary to Bermeo and on to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. This drive could take all day, since there are lots of stops for photo ops. And I honestly wouldn't miss a walk down into the painted forest of Oma (drive the car up the 2 km. hill to the entrance, then walk down).

    9/7, Mon.
    Fly from Bilbao to Barcelona, pick up rental car at airport, drive to Ripoll
    (too bad the Episcoapl Museum in Vic is closed Mon.)
    for Monestir de Santa María/ Sant Joan de les Abadesses (both open Mon.)
    Stay somewhere around Olot.

    If you want to skip the monasteries, saving for Tues., go up to Ribes de Freser and take the fabulous train ride up to the Val de Nuria, then back down.
    But... check train schedule carefully to make sure it will work at

    9/8, Tues.
    Drive to Besalú, see a bit of the Garrotxa volcanic area around Santa Pau, then on to Figueres for Teatre Museu Dalí. Stay in or around Figueres.

    9/9, Wed.
    Drive to Cadaqués, then to Púbol to finish off Dalí triangle , then back to Barcelona. Certainly skip Lloret completely!!
    If you had time for anything else, I would include the superb Greco-Roman ruins of Empúries at L'Escala, then take the C 31 down to Púbol.

    9/10, 9/11, 9/12-Barcelona

    Hope this helps.

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    Thank you so much, Maribel. Your suggestions are extremely helpful as always.

    A few follow-up questions if you don’t mind:
    I think we’ll save our cave expedition for a hoped-for trip to Dordogne some other time.
    Given that we plan to be in the Urdaibai Biosphere area on Saturday 9/6, would you use Thursday 9/3 to go to another part of that area (giving us time for the walk to Oma on Saturday, which I'm sure my daughter would love), or would you take the drive to Balmaseda?

    I have not gone through all the recommendations in your guide yet, but any suggestions on a hotel in San Sebastian that you think would make most sense for 3 rooms and a reasonable price, good location, and not crazy with a car? You aren’t aware of any in-town multi-room apartments, are you?

    I gather you are not suggesting we drive into the inland areas of the Pays Basque. Is that because you don’t think we’ll have time? My wife had been interested in the train to La Rhune. Would that make any sense to do?

    Nuria sounds great. Would you take the cable car also, or just the train?

    You didn’t mention Girona. Would you try to fit that in, or skip it?

    By skipping Lloret, you mean to skip Tossa and Sant Feliu as well? Empuries does seem to make a lot of sense.

    I have not reviewed your guide to Barcelona yet, but any particular recommendations re hotel or 2-bedroom apartment given our price range?

    Thanks again!

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    Regarding 9/3
    If you plan to cover the entire Urdaibai Biosphere are on 9/6 (painted forest of Oma, "virtual tour" of caves of Santimamiñe, Peace Museum in Gernika, drive up the estuary to whaling town of Bermeo, on to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe even as far as Bakio), then yes, I think you can explore the area from Amurrio to Balmaseda, but I would make sure to cover the Urdaibai well.

    Hotel in San Sebastían
    For your budget of 60-100 euros per room per night, I would look at the Hostal Alemana or the Pension Bellas Artes

    Or check the listing of for a 2 bedroom apartment. I haven't checked their rates for Sept. lately.

    For Nuria, just the train, that will take you to the sanctuary. You could also take the cable car, but the train will take you to the basin where you can take some spectacular walks.

    Re inland Pays Basque,
    I love taking the train to La Rhune, but I don't see where you have allocated the time. My husband and I do this from our base in Hondarribia, and it requires an early morning departure, since the lines to take the train can often be quite long, but we go during high season. When do you plan to fit this in to your schedule?

    I see your day trip exploration in the Pays Basque either to a French Basque coastal resort (St.-Jean-de-Luz/Biarritz), or to the spiritual capital of the Pays Basque-Bayonne, or a train trip to La Rhune in the am and visit to either of the first two (resort town or Bayonne) in the afternoon, from San Sebastian. (You really must do La Rhune as early as possible in the morning).

    Empuries not only makes sense, it's one of Catalunya's most important sites, archaeologically speaking. I'm not all that well-versed in Greco-Roman ruins, but I found it fascinating.

    I love exploring the ancient Jewish quarter of Girona, the Call, and visiting the cathedral, but again, I don't know when you'll have time to fit it in, unless you skip something on your list.

    The drive from Sant Feliu to Tossa is spectacular, but Lloret is not.

    This is a matter of making priorities, so what is most important to you, scenic drives or historical sites?

    For Barcelona,
    there are amazing bargains to be had from the Derby group this year. I have just switched my own reservations for June to one of the Derby properties because of their unbeatable online rates at their 3 and 4 star hotels in the Eixample. For low rates look at the 3 star Astoria or Balmes. And on the booking feature, be sure to click on "more rates" to see the "hidden" 15% discounts. Unbeatable for a full service hotel in a very safe location.
    See your options at

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    Thanks again! It does sound like there’s a lot to do in the Urdaibai Biosphere, and we love areas that are close to the sea, so I am inclined to go there both Thursday 9/3 (perhaps with a visit to the Bilbao Basque Museum first) and with my daughter and boyfriend on Sunday 9/6, and save Balmaseda for another trip.

    We had thought of going to La Rhume on Saturday 9/5, but sounds like that is too much (and we will be on a train a couple days later). As we will have my daughter and her boyfriend (allergic to touristy places) with us that day, do you think they will like St. Jean-de-Luz? Perhaps they would prefer Bayonne? If we wanted to do a day with Hondarribia, Bayonne (maybe without the museum if we have gone to the museum in Bilbao?), and someplace inland in Pays Basque, what would you recommend? Or is that clearly too much for one day?

    Girona did sound interesting. We were thinking of an early departure from Olot on 9/8 Tuesday, to Besalu, Girona, and Figueres. If we did not have time for Dali Museum that day, we could perhaps visit it first thing on 9/9, go to Cadaques, perhaps skip Pubol, try to have time for Empuries, and try to include the drive from Sant Feliu to Tossa. But perhaps that’s crazy. We are mostly interested in the Dali museums as buildings, so would not expect to stay all that long looking at paintings.

    Unfortunately, we like scenic drives and walks, historic sites, fascinating towns and cities, delicious food, interesting cultures, etc. Obviously what we really need is more vacation time....


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    I've been following this thread without saying anything because people so frequently have posted that you are going to end up seeing everything through your windshield -- at best.

    I think you are underestimating some of the drive times and parking requirements and it is hard to see the point of toe-touching one basque town after another without relaxing in any of them.

    Much of the french basque seacoast is pretty, but it is not so much prettier than the Spanish Basque coast to make it worth to haul all the way to touristy St Jean de Luz or beyond.

    Likewise, the loop-de-loops through all sorts of Catalonian destinations to glimpse a Jewish bath or Dali church --

    I'm a huge critic of "slow travel" or any other kind of formulaic travel, and when I drove through the Basque country, the Pyrenees and Catalonia I was a demon behind the wheel. I had more time that you do explore and revisit and adjust. It wasn't a forced march.

    I only sometimes agree with Maribel's advice, but her question about what you want to be doing -- absorbing Catalonian and Basque culture or driving (only some of it will be scenic) is a good one. But you need to get out of the car more often.

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    Our posts crossed, If somebody is allergic to touristy places in your group, they will have a sneezing fit plus hives in St Jean de Luz.

    And while Besalu is a rarity for Catalonia -- many of its towns of that sort have been lost, I would not consider it essential. Girona has many more atmospheric areas of interest beyond the touristy core of the cathedral -- and if I were going somewhere simply to be amazed by a town, I'd pick Vic hands down over Besalu, even if the museum is closed. It's ten times more interesting than Besalu.

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    Some find the coastal town of St-Jean-de-Luz/Donibane very "touristy", some do not.
    Some feel that very same way about Cadaqués.
    I don't have a sneezing fit or hives in either outside of high season.
    Both will be far less crowded in September than in July-August.

    I'm somewhat allergic to very touristy places, that's why I'm not as fond anymore of Santillana del Mar and all its T-shirt shops, open in winter and summer, (I'm not crazy about Carcassonne either), but I do still enjoy St.-Jean-de-Luz. Most of the visitors in Sept. will be French nationals.

    I really don't have any way of knowing how your daughter and boyfriend will feel about St.-Jean-de-Luz or the city of Biarritz.

    I took American friends both to Bayonne, St.-Jean-de-Luz and for a weekend stay in Biarritz. They are foodies and adored the markets and loved the beachs at St.Jean and Biarritz. They delighted in it all except for the July crowds.
    They did remark that Bayonne seemed especially charming/captivating to them because it was so authentically Basque and didn't feel the need to "pretty up" for tourists. Bayonne just doesn't attract many tourists compared to its more "picture postcard perfect" cousins, except for the pilgrims on the way from its cathedral to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to do the Pilgrimage to St. James.

    As I posted above, you will enjoy your day excursion into the Pays Basque from San Sebastián more if you pare down. My husband wasn't keen on taking the short train ride up to La Rhune until we actually did it with friends. It happened to be a beautiful rather than cloudy day so we reveled in the spectacular views of both Navarra and the Basque coast. But....
    we took the entire day for our inland explorations, coupling this with other activities in the charmingly picturesque villages of Sara, Espelette, Ainhoa, etc.

    I think you need to choose between a coastal drive or an inland one to visit the 3 flower villages in the bucolic French Basque countryside.

    Hondarribia, St-Jean-de-Luz (or skip)-Bayonne, remembering that the Musée Basque in Bayonne is one of Europe's very finest ethnographic museums. I need to allow at least two hours to enjoy it thoroughly.

    La Rhune plus Sara-Ainhoa-Espelette-La Bastide Clairence, which is a quartet of villages more off the beaten path.
    But it is just that: a collection of highly picturesque villages with no "must see" monuments, museums.

    I was under the impression that you wanted to complete the Dalí triangle, but if visiting those Dalí sites are not that important to you, I would certainly skip one or two of them to spend more time in the historic quarter of Girona.

    And I certainly love Vic every bit as much as the next person, and yes, even on Mondays, although I prefer to visit when I can enjoy both the outdoor market on a Sat. or Tues. AND the Episcopal Museum. That makes more sense to me. And I've spent 3 days there lodged in the Parador at Vic-Sau, overlooking the lake.
    And of course, there's more to see there than in Besalu because it is a vibrant town of 40,000 rather than a village of 2,000.

    More info regarding Besalu:

    More about Vic:

    Yes, Len what you need is more vacation time! You just need to decide what your priorities are, and try to absorb as much Basque and Catalonian history and culture in the time you have without exhausting yourself with driving.
    I would simply follow mikelg's sound advice to pursue "a strategy of concentration rather than diversification".

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    Len, your itinerary on the Basque area sounds fine, as well as all of Maribel´s suggestions. In any case, I wouldn´t worry too much about where to your likings are nice villages, good food, relaxing atmosphere and non touristic places, that´s what you´ll basically find over here. And don´t forget that you´re skipping La Rioja wine region, full of historical places and great wineyards (just 100 kms from Bilbao).

    To make things easier, places you shouldn´t miss:

    - Bilbao, and near Bilbao, the Hanging Bridge-Puente Colgante and Getxo (20´ride on the metro system), a unique experience. In Bilbao, the Old Town, Guggy, Bellas Artes Museum, funicular train to Artxanda for the very best views of the area. Opposite the Guggenheim.

    - Lekeitio, Zarautz, Getaria, Zumaia...all on the same road to or from San Sebastian. Lekeitio is a real must.

    - St Jean de Luz is a gem, but try to visit it on a weekday. Although touristy, still keeps its charm. Bayonne is just minutes away, two sides, one with the cathedral, more "tourist oriented", the other side of the river with the Old Bayonne, more local atmosphere. Biarritz must also be visited.

    - San Sebastian, Igueldo mountain for spectacular views of the bay. Hondarribia is another must.

    - Save a day for Laguardia in the Basque Rioja region, and Labastida. One day for both, if you can visit Vitoria and the restoration of the Old Cathedral, it´s a plus.

    And, in any case, follow Maribel´s advice, and don´t worry too much about what you´ll be missing, but on what you´ll see. The Off The Beaten Track places will be for next visit, still untouched (we keep them for ourselves, Basques are kind of reserved people :):))

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    BTW, did you know that the most spectacular collection of ALL models of authentic Rolls Royce cars is hidden in a castle in the Basque Country, and can be visited? Even women love it---the owner shows it himself, all cars run and there are 43 RR and 22 other classics...but this is a secret to everyone(

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    Obviously there is plenty to see everywhere in the Basque country and Catalonia and optimal times to see them and not, but the main problem -- with all due respect to the people giving this advice -- is there is simply way too many urgings of "must-sees" for such a limited period of time.

    Even if people just want to go from one charming place to the next, you're listing too many of them! Nobody can tour all those places in one day, day after day in a single rush.

    It's nice to make people aware of what's on offer, but I hope they don't try to do all this! What I fear will happen is that they will just start bailing at a certain point out of sheer exhaustion and frustration at not really getting a chance to absorb anything.

    Well, anyway.

    I want to make one last comment about the Greek ruins in Catalonia.

    I went to Catalonia almost by accident. It was last minute trip and I had no time to plan it. But I did have 3 weeks. Seeing the greek settlement that faces the sea is a real eye opener about what kind of a nation-culture Catalonia was. Why it remains such a cosmopolitian, outward looking place -- except in the strongholds of controversial Catalonian nationalism, like Vic, which to this day argues against the cosmopolitan outlook of multi-lingual Barcelona. Also, seeing how British expats have transformed the costa brava -- destroyed really, so much of it -- and who has roughshod over this marvelous and beleagured Catalonian culture that goes back to antiquity (Basque culture in primitive by comparison!) deserves to be appreciated. Just going to quaint and picturesque places shortchanges to me the value of being there and understanding contemporary Europe.

    I live in one of Italy's most touristy towns and I live the life of a hedonist. I've got nothing against tourists (they pay the bills around here), the picturesque, or pleasure travel -- and if I didn't live here, I'd live in San Sebastian. So I've not got anything against purely enjoying these places for their touristic charm and novelty and looking for variety. But it's a lost opportunity if you race through Spain doing touristy things, because its the single most interesting contemporary cultural project in Europe.

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    Zeppole, I really think that my proposal (or Maribel´s) is too "urging". As I´ve pointed out, there´s plenty to see and do, so just take the road and try to stop in any of the places proposed. I think that if you´re having a good time in one place, you should stay and not go to next one just "because". Len will probably take these suggestions on consideration when thinking on what to do next day.

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    HI mikelg and Len,
    Agreed. And I'm a great believer in "slow travel", allowing ample time to soak up and savor.

    Any or all of the above are simply suggestions of what places of merit in the Basque Country (or Catalonia) that a traveler might want to see or experience within his or her time limitations.

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    I just wanted to say one other thing about Vic.

    Unlike most european plazas and piazzas that were designed by a single architect, one of the things that makes the Plaza Mayor in Vic stunning is that it is an accretion of buildings from a variety of centuries -- CENTURIES -- and it is beautiful. I've not been on market day but I would actually worry it would be harder to see the plaza on that day. And while the museum is stupendous, I can't see the point of making the best the enemy of the good. Why go to a less interesting town simply the museum in the more interesting town is closed?

    My other concern is about a certain kind of template for tourism that I'm almost guessing originated with people traveling to Provence -- go from one charming preserved village to another, do a little market shopping and cafe sitting, go to the next. It's amusing, relaxing, pretty and a relief from big-ticket, art-heavy sightseeing. This same template has since been applied with great success to one corner of Tuscany, and now people are trying to "do" Piemonte that way. I guess Catalonia can be done that way too -- but why? It's Spain, not France.

    Also, to me touristy doesn't mean "tacky tee shirts" etc. It just means a town where nothing else is going on other than tourism. St Jean de Luz has been in the tourist business for more than a century, so I'm not faulting it for being a holiday town. I've not been to Bayonne, so no comment. But if people want to come into contact with a foreign culture, they are wise to seek out places where tourists don't outnumber locals 5 to 1.

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    I have enjoyed reading, and rereading, this topic. We are planning a trip to Barcelona and the Basque region and have made adjustments to our itinerary based on the advice you all have given.

    We are now planning on staying three nights in Barcelona, three nights in San Sebastian, and then returning to Barcelona for the last two nights.

    July 14 – Barcelona (arrive in am after night flight)
    July 15 – Barcelona - Girona /Figueres outing
    July 16 - Barcelona
    July 17 – San Sebastian (a few hours in either San Sebastian or Barcelona and travel to San Sebastian)
    July 18 – San Sebastian - outing to Urdaibai Biosphere/Painted Forest/Gernika
    July 19 – San Sebastian - outing to Pays Basque
    July 20 – Barcelona – travel and a few hours in either San Sebastian or Barcelona
    July 21 - Barcelona - Monserrat outing
    July 22 – depart for home in am

    We would like to minimize driving. I don’t drive a manual car so we have to rent an expensive automatic or my husband will have to do all the driving. We are planning to rent a car at least for the Girona/Figueres outing and the two outings from San Sebastian. We‘ll rent a car additional days if it makes sense to do so.

    We are thinking of taking a train between Barcelona and Sebastian. We don’t like small prop plans and I understand, based on a call I made to Iberia Air, that this is the type of plane that flies this route. I assume this is true of the other airlines. If anyone has had any experience flying this route, please let us know. I know this decision will cost us a lot of time. It looks to us like the train takes six and a half hours, which isn’t much longer than if we drove and it will be less expensive. Is there a reason for us to drive either one way or both ways?

    We would like to visit Pays Basque. Am I right that Maribel’s advice is that it would be too much to do St.-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz, and Bayonne as a day trip, but that we could do two of the three? Could we also do the train to Le Rhune if we do this in the am?

    I would appreciate any comments on the itinerary. Have we completely failed to heed mikelg’s advise of “a strategy of concentration rather than diversification”? We’ve cut out some of what we wanted to do (e.g. Bilbao, wine region) but should we cut out more of the outings? I could skip Figueres, although I’m not sure how much of a difference this would make. We know San Sebastian is a beach town, but we don’t plan to spend more than a few hours, at most, on the beach. We do want to be able to explore and enjoy the city.

    Thank you all.

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    San Sebastian is not a beach town. It´s the loveliest town in Europe, with three beaches. But weather over here is not "mediterranean", it rains, it´s cold and humid and going to the beach is only possible in late spring and summer. So if you miss SS, you´ll miss a wonderful town, where food is like a religion for us.

    The rest of the itinerary sounds fine to me, missing the Guggenheim museum, even from outside, is a real pity, though.

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    Regarding flights, well, Clickair links both cities at very cheap prices and in just one hour, in Airbus planes. BTW, small props are safer than big turbojets, but this is not the case, we are talking big planes on this route.

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    Sorry, just one more: in my opinion(sorry, Maribel), St Jean de Luz, Biarritz and Bayonne can be done in one day. It takes half an hour from SS to get to St Jean de Luz, then another 20 minutes to BAyonne and about 40 minutes to Bayonne, on the highway. You can take the coastal road (full of roundabouts) and enjoy the views. To the west of SS Getaria, Zarautz and Lekeitio are a must, if you have time.

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    Hi mikel and sgp,
    I need to confess that the reason I can't do St-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz and Bayonne on the same day is that I'm a shopper!!

    I love the French Basque linens and tableware (and ceramics) of Helena, Euskal Lingue Basque and Jean Vier (my home is filled with them), so it takes me a while to look at the new styles and replenish my towel, tablecloth and placemat supply, and the shops in StJdeL and Biarritz have slightly different inventories. We also take "orders" from friends in the US.

    I also like to spend a good couple of hours at the Tues./Fri. outdoor market in St-Jean-de-Luz because it's just one of the very best in the Pays Basque.

    The top purveyors of hams, brebis cheeses, pâté, honey, black cherry confiture, gâteau basque all come to you-you don't have to go to their farms (although we do that too). While farmers' markets in my home city are ok, they just can't compare with those of SW France, I'm afraid!
    And we take orders from US friends here too.

    Third reason is that we always spend at least a couple of hours at the fascinating Musée Basque (ethnography museum) in Bayonne and buy a combined ticket for it and the fine arts museum next door, the Musée Bonnat.

    But for those who don't want to shop or spend an afternoon on the very family friendly beach of St J de L or visit the Musée de la Mer or Asiatica Musée d'Art Oriental plus churches in Biarritz or tour those two fine Bayonne museums, you can get a "look" in one day.

    I just like to split them up and savor, but I have the luxury of ample time to do so.
    And we have to visit in high season when the N 111 is jam packed and very slow going.

    The waits for the train to La Rhune, the Basque "sacred mountain" during high season can be more than 2 hours long, if you don't arrive to line up by 8:30 am. This is an extremely popular family outing among the locals. Lots of family groups, both French and Spanish. In July/Aug. most people want to take the train early then do the 2 1/2 walk down before it gets too hot (my friends scold me for not walking BOTH ways).
    It's a 35 min. ride one way. But don't plan on it if it's a cloudy day. Read all about it here-

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