This is the blog of journalist, Lonely Planet author and photographer Stuart Butler. It features news and travel updates from the regions in which Stuart works, including northeast Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan), Yemen and Sri Lanka.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Spanish Basque Country Travel Guide for Independent Newspaper

If you're in the UK then get hold of a copy of todays (18/6/11) Independent newspaper which contains a major feature/supplement on the Spanish Basque country which was co-written by me. For those not in the UK my original text is below (note that the final printed version may differ). If you want to read about Bilbao, Vitoria and inland areas then you'll need to get the paper which contains the other writers features although i shall try and scan a copy up here when I can.

Decathlon: San Sebastián

(1) Sample the sands
The glorious coastal city of San Sebastian is both glamorous and supremely playful – and its beaches are the envy of coastal cities across Europe. There are three to choose from. Playa de Gros (Playa de la Zurriola) in the east is the most popular with locals and its exposure to Atlantic swells also makes it a great surfers’ hangout. But it’s Playa de la Concha, and its western extension Playa de Ondarreta, that is the real heartbeat of San Sebastián’s quest for fun in the sun. This perfect curve of sand, lapped by gentle waves, gets many people’s vote as the most attractive urban beach in Europe and throughout the long summer months a youthful party atmosphere prevails. From June to September you can take a five minute boat ride (or you can swim!) out to the rocky islet of Santa Clara, which sits in the middle of the bay. Boats depart roughly every hour from the harbour.

(2) Get a flavour of the old town
San Sebastián’s old town, which is centred on both the 16th Century Gothic Iglesia de San Vicente (church of San Vicente) and the Plaza de la Constitución which once doubled up as a bullring, is rumoured to contain more bars per square metre than anywhere else on Earth and in almost every single one of these the bar top is overflowing with tiny pintxo (the Basque name for tapas). There are also plenty of small, independent boutiques and quirky back street shops to delve into. With its funky and funny designs Kukuxumusu (; tel-00 34 943 421184; Calle Major 15) is probably the best known local clothes designer.

(3) Fish for compliments
Drop by the city’s superb aquarium (; tel-00 34 943 440099; adult/child €12/6) just beside the harbour and get to know the fishy denizens of the deep in a little more depth. Highlights are the vast open ocean pool with its sharks, rays and turtles, the tropical reef exhibits and the collection of slippery, flippery things hailing from the Bay of Biscay. The aquarium also houses exhibits relating to San Sebastián’s maritime culture and past.

(4) Aim high
For great views of the city, take a walk to the summit of Monte Urgull and the statue of Christ which overlooks the old town. However, for an even more spectacular viewpoint head to Monte Igueldo (; admission €1.80, rides extra) at the far western end of Playa de la Concha and Ondarreta. From the base of the hill you can ride the funicular railway (adult/child €2.60/1.90) up to the summit where you’ll be greeted not just by a breathtaking view over the entire San Sebastián bay, but also by a small rollercoaster, a house of horrors and various other amusement park attractions.

(5) Tour for some top tastes
The chefs of San Sebastián are a competitive bunch who endlessly push each other in the creation of ever more sublime pintxos. Few would doubt that the hidden-away La Cuchara de San Telmo (www.; Calle de 31 Agosto 28 is not one of the finest. Unlike in many bars the pintxos are not displayed on the bar top and you need to order from the list chalked up on the board.
Penetrating the complex culture behind San Sebastián pintxos is no easy task, but Jon Warren is one of the few foreigners to really know his stuff and his company, San Sebastián Food (; 00 34 634 759503), offers highly regarded guided tours of the city’s finest pintxo bars (Guided tour €85 per person) as well as a range of cookery courses (Cooking course €145 per person).

(6) Get surfing
Playa de Gros, with its (comparatively) mellow waves is one of the better beaches in the region on which to learn how to surf. The surf lessons organised by the Pukas Surf Shop (; from €53 for 3 hours) will have you hanging ten in no time. If you already know how to surf you’ll find the eastern end of the beach, which gathers the most swell and tends to have the best quality waves, the most rewarding part of the beach.

(7) Kursaal
Overlooking Playa de Gros, the double cube shaped Kursaal (; 00 34 943 00 30 00; Avenida de Zurriola 1) is easily the most eye-catching building in San Sebastián. Designed by Rafael Moneo, this award winning, translucent congress centre and exhibition space was designed to look like two beached rocks. Numerous events, including live music, film festivals and dance shows, are held here. Over the last half of July this year the centre will play host to numerous live jazz gigs as a part of the International Jazz Festival ( Hour long guided tours of the building run Friday to Sunday at 12.30pm.

(8) Take a walk on the wild side
The three-hour hike along the coastal cliffs between San Sebastián and Pasajes takes in wild seascapes and a deserted beach or two. The walk starts at the eastern end of Playa de Gros and is clearly way-marked. Once in the pretty port town Pasajes (which involves taking a small ferry boat over a narrow channel) treat yourself in one of the superb seafood restaurants, such as Casa Camara (tel-00 34 943 523699; San Juan 79) which is renowned for its crab and lobster dishes. A full meal will cost around €40 excluding wine. It’s closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

(9) Museo Naval
With a maritime past awash in tales of pirates, whales and far flung expeditions (some say the Basques were quietly slipping off to the cod fishing grounds off America long before Columbus even knew what a compass was) it’s natural for San Sebastián to be home to an excellent naval museum (; tel-00 34 943 430051; Calle Muelle 24; adult/child €1.20/free). Sadly signage is mostly in Spanish or Basque.

(10) Dine out in style
San Sebastián is one of the best cities in Europe in which to eat – and it’s safe to say that gastronomy will be the enduring memory of anyone’s visit here. There are also a huge number of Michelin stars being hoarded here. One of San Sebastián’s greatest chefs is Juan Mari Arzak, whose three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Arzak (; tel-00 34 943 278465; Avendia Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273)  is widely considered one of the best eating experiences in Spain. Expect to spend around €160 per person on a meal and reservations, months in advance, are essential.

Where to Stay
Pensión Amaiur Ostatua (; 00 34 943 429654; Calle de 31 de Agosto 44; doubles from €50 Breakfast not included) This budget hotel in the old town, with its crazy mix of decoration styles, stands head and shoulders above the rest. The best rooms have miniature flower bedecked balconies overlooking the street.

Pensión Bellas Artes (; 00 34 943 474905; Calle de Urbieta 64; double from €99 Breakfast not included) With its spacious rooms (some with glassed-in balconies), exposed stone walls and excellent bathrooms this is easily one of the best value hotels in town. It’s also the friendliest and the staff take genuine delight in helping their guests explore the city.

Hotel María Cristina (; 00 34 943 437600; Paseo de la República Argentina 4; double from €275 with breakfast) When the glitzy and glamorous  hit town for San Sebastián’s film festival ( in September this decadent hotel is where they will stay.

More information: The city’s helpful tourist office (; tel-00 33 943 481166; Boulevard 8) is open Mon-Thu 9am-1.30pm & 3.30-7pm, Fri-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun and holidays 10am-2pm. In July and August it’s open Mon-Sat 9am-8pm & 10am-7pm Sun and holidays.

Park and Hike

Santuario de Arantzazu
The hills of the central Basque country make for impressive hiking country, and Oñati, roughly equidistant from both Bilbao and San Sebastián, is at the heart of this region. The town itself contains some memorable architecture, but it’s in the lush green surrounding hills that the real interest is to be found. The drive from Oñati to the love it or loath it pilgrimage site of Santuario de Arantzazu is a stunning wobble up and down mountain roads. From the Santuario itself numerous hiking trails fan out. Oñati’s tourist office at 14 San Juan  (00 34 943 783 453) offers comprehensive information on walking routes.

Parque Natural de Gorbeia
Inland of Bilbao the great rolling massif of Gorbeia ( forms part of the largest natural park in the Basque country. From Bilbao take the N240 to the small village of Areatza and then follow road signs to Pagomakurre, which is little more than a picnic area under the shade of beech trees. From here a fantastic walk leads to the Ojo de Atxular (eye of Atxular), a huge window-like stone arch. You could content yourself with the views from here or complete a five-hour loop through twisted limestone landscapes, dense forests and open pastures. There’s a park information centre in Areatza (Plaza Gudarien s/n; tel-00 34 946 739279) open 10am-2pm & 4-6pm.

Parque Natural de Urkiola
Driving the A8 motorway between Bilbao and San Sebastián there’s no missing the massive hulk of the Anboto mountain, mythical dwelling place of the Basque goddess Mari. Anboto sits inside the Parque Natural de Urkiola (, which is best accessed from the Puerto de Urkiola halfway along the BI623 which runs between Durango and Vitoria. From the Puerto de Urkiola the most popular hike is the five-hour ascent of Anboto itself, which starts off as a gentle ramble over the pastures before climbing steeply through forest toward the summit. However, be warned that the final part is only for those with a serious head for heights. There’s a park information centre at the Puerto de Urkiola (Tel-00 34 946 814155) open 10am-2pm & 4-6pm.

Oma Forest
One of the more unusual walks in the region is the easy stroll in the Omo forest. Local artist Agustín Ibarrola has enhanced nature’s natural art by painting the trunks of all the trees in rainbow colours and surreal swirls and bands. The forest is several kilometres north of the small market town of Guernica and all the trails around it are family-friendly. See for further information.

Lakes of Laguardia
A little less challenging than the previous hikes, this gentle stroll around the protected wetlands below the wine town of Laguardia is nevertheless a rewarding way to walk off all those boozy meals. The wetlands here, which are a protected RAMSAR site, are home to over a hundred bird species including great-creasted grebes, white storks and rails. There are bird-watching hides and a disabled accessible walkway of 2.5km. the best time for bird watching is September to March. Laguardia tourist office (Tel-00 34 945 600845; Plaza de San Juan s/n) can provide more information on the lakes. It’s open Mon-Fri 10am-2pm & 4-7pm, Sat 10am-2pm & 5-7pm, Sun 10.45am-2pm.

Basque Culture

The Basques are different. How different they really are though is open to interpretation and subject to political manipulation. The Basque’s claim to be the oldest Europeans and to speak a language unrelated to any other European language. Whilst there is no doubt that the Basques have inhabited their western corner of the Pyrenees almost forever, almost everything else about Basque origin and identity is open to interpretation and no one theory has been fully proven. One thing is clear however, the Basque language (known as Euskara) is the most important aspect of Basque cultural identity. In fact, so important is it that the Basque name for the Basque Country is Euskal Herria, which translates as Land of the Basque speakers. After many years of suppression the Basque language is enjoying resurgence and has become the language of choice amongst young Basques.

The Basque Coast – Five Great Stops

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
The tiny island and hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe overlooks some of the wildest and most impressive coastal scenery in the Basque country. The hermitage (which is often closed) dates from the 10th Century and, according to local legend, was once visited by St John the Baptist. On 24 June, 31 July and 29 August the island, which is accessed via a pretty bridge (and far too many steps), is the focal point of large processions. The island sits between the small towns of Bermeo and Bakio.

The Basque coast is serious surfing country and below the pretty little town of Mundaka can be found a wave that is regarded as one of the best surf spots in Europe. On its day, it offers a 500m-long, heart-in-the-mouth sprint over a shallow sandbar. The town itself has resisted becoming an international surf ghetto and retains a distinctly Basque fishing culture. Beginners shouldn’t attempt to surf Mundaka at any size, but the Mundaka Surf Shop (; tel-00 34 946 876721; €50 per person for 4 hrs) at Txorrokopunta Ibiltokia 8 will get you in the surf somewhere suitable to get to grips with it all. While in the area don’t miss the chance to explore the beautiful Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve (

One of the most attractive villages along the coast, the tiny hamlet of Elantxobe clings to the edge of such a steep cliff face that it’s likely to give vertigo sufferers fluttering hearts. Its precarious position, as well as the lack of a beach (the locals dive in to the water off the harbour walls) has meant that tourist development is minimal. The waters here are always calm thanks to the shelter provided by the surrounding cliffs and headland. There are no hotels here but you will find a couple of simple bars selling seafood pintxos down by the waterfront.

With an old quarter filled with wonderful Belle-Époque buildings, an overstated 16th Century Gothic church (the gold plated alter piece is one of the largest in the country), lots of fantastic seafood and two stunning beaches (the one just east of the river and the town, with a small rocky mound of an island just offshore, is the prettier of the two), bustling Lekeitio is the highlight of the central Basque coast. The tourist office is on (; tel-00 34 946 844017; Plaza de la Independencia).

Largely overlooked in Spain-France border crossing, graceful Hondarribia consists of a wedge of colourful, old town streets surmounted by a castle turned luxury hotel, the Parador de Hondarribia (; tel-00 34 943 645500). It was built by Navarran King Sancho Abarca in the 10th Century and is as regal as you’d expect.  San Sebastián locals flock here at weekends in order to enjoy the unusually calm, sandy town beach and tuck into some of the most delicious seafood and pintxos in the whole region. While you’re here don’t miss walking out to the Higuer lighthouse to watch the sunset over Spain and France at the same time.

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