Bilbao and the Basque Country
Northern Spain is a misty land of green hills, low russet rooflines, and colorful fishing villages; it’s also home to the formerly industrial city of Bilbao, reborn as a center of art and architecture. The semiautonomous Basque Country, with its steady drizzle (onomatopoetically called the siri-miri), damp verdant landscape, and rugged coastline, is a distinct national and cultural entity within the Spanish state.
Bilbao and the Basque Country Sights
Northern Spain’s Bay of Biscay area, at the western end of the Pyrenees along the border with France, is where the Cantabrian Cordillera and the Pyrenees nearly meet. The green foothills of Basque Country gently fill this space between the otherwise unbroken chain of mountains that rises from the Iberian Peninsula’s easternmost point at northern Catalonia’s Cap de Creus and ends at western Galicia’s Fisterra, or Finisterre, land’s end. Navarra—part Basque and part Castilian-speaking Navarrese—lies just southeast and inland of the Basque Country, with the backdrop of the Pyrenees rising up to the north. La Rioja, below Navarra, nestles in the Ebro River valley under the Sierra de la Demanda to the south, and stretches east and downriver to Calahorra and the edge of Spain’s central meseta (plains).
Bilbao and the Basque Country Restaurant Reviews
Basque cuisine in and around San Sebastián and Bilbao combines the fish of the Atlantic with a love of sauces that’s rare south of the Pyrenees—a result, no doubt, of Euskadi’s proximity to France. The now 30-year-old nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cooking), originally inspired by the Basque Country’s neighbors to the north, invented light, streamlined versions of classic Basque dishes such as marmitako (tuna and potato stew). Traditional San Sebastián specialties include chuleta de buey (garlicky beefsteak grilled over coals), and firm, flaky besugo a la parrilla (grilled sea bream) covered with crisped garlic. Around Bilbao, bacalao al pil-pil is ubiquitous—cod-flank fillets cooked in a boiled emulsion of garlic and gelatin from the cod itself so that the oil makes a popping noise (“pil-pil”) and a white sauce is created. Other favorites are kokotxas (nuggets of cod jaw) and pimientos de piquillo (sweet red peppers stuffed with tuna or cod).
Navarra is famous for beef, lamb, and vegetable dishes, including menestra de verduras (a stew of artichokes, green beans, peas, lettuce, potatoes, onion, and chunks of cured ham). La Rioja has meaty stews and roasts in the mountains and vegetable dishes in the Ebro River basin.
The local Basque wine, txakolí, is young and white, made from tart green grapes. It is a refreshing accompaniment to both seafood and meats. La Rioja, south of the Basque Country, produces many of the finest wines in Spain; purists insisting on Basque wine with their Basque cuisine could choose a Rioja Alavesa, from the north side of the Ebro. Navarra also produces some fine vintages, especially rosés and reds—and in such quantity that some churches in Allo, Peralta, and other towns were actually built with a mortar mixed with wine instead of water.
Don’t miss any chance to go to a sidrería, a cider house (in Astigarraga, near San Sebastián, there are no fewer than 17), where tortilla de bacalao (cod omelet) and chuletas de buey (garlicky beefsteak grilled over coals) provide traditional ballast for copious drinks of hard apple cider.
Bilbao and the Basque Country Hotel Reviews
The largely industrial and well-to-do north is an expensive part of Spain, and this is reflected in room rates. San Sebastián is particularly pricey, and Pamplona rates double or triple during San Fermín in July. Reserve ahead for Bilbao, where the Guggenheim is filling hotels, and nearly everywhere else in summer. Another lodging option is the Agroturismo lodging network, which often offers rooms in Basque caseríos (farmhouses). Check with local tourist offices for details.