The Basque Country – Bilbao(Spain), San Sebastian(Spain), Biarritz(France)


Just few weeks ago I was fortunate to visit my 6th country, Spain. In weather report I always see a sun shine in this entire country when rest of them are in minus during the winters. The vibe that Spanish territory has is different from other parts of European nations.  In my career as  a G.I.S. professional, I had done lots of road mapping around western European regions so  I always used to be surprised with Spain. The navigation system is densely populated in places like Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona yet highly organised. I was truly impressed then. It was just with the available toposheets and google data. Now I was visiting this country. I was really excited about visiting Spain. Me and my husband like to travel, but we prefer to visit less crowded places around so we made a plan to visit northern region of Spain. Also, weather should be pleasant, so not much difficulty in outdoor visits. We stayed for 4 days in Bilbao. We took a direct flight from Istanbul, new airport to Bilbao. Here we had booked day trips to visit regions around. We stayed at Mercure Bilbao Jardines de Albia hotel.

Tourism industry is really good here. We had planned 2 days local trip on I have done one trip few years back from this site. First one was visiting The Basque country region and other was to winery. Since we were living in the area in the city centre we did Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on our own. The day we landed we just picked up a taxi and went to our hotel. We had some snacks – food and got some rest. Later we planned to visit the Guggenheim Museum. We just used map and walked. The museum was crowded but we could easily buy the entry tickets. In the pictures on the social media you will find these few things. A giant spider along the river side, colorful Tulips, A bridge, A dog with  flowers and metal ball stacked of course the metallic exposure of the museum itself. The Museum is shaped out of titanium metal sheets. All these exhibits mentioned are outside the museum, can be viewed while walking around the museum premises, except Tulips. It is a fine art museum and is very large.  I would recommend to visit this museum only if you have understanding and liking for art. Else you may not really like it. As  I mentioned in my previous blog of Luxembourg – Paris that with the boom in graphics designing, connecting to the exhibits placed in art museum is very difficult. The exhibit which I liked most was huge sheets of curved steel. The moment I saw first sight or few of them  I mentioned my husband, it appears like projections system that we used in mapping industry. Just to understand in a lay man language shape of earth is irregular curved sphere. To create a map from 3-dimensional structure to 2-dimensional map you need to project the curved surface on the planar objects. This helps to spread curved objects surface on a flat surface. More simpler explanation would be, you have full map drawn on a globe, now to make a 2D planar map of it, you will cut the globe in certain places that it remains properly placed with respect to latitude and longitude lines, where all the calculations and directions of travel matches while using any two points on your map. SO, the cuts are very important without your map getting distorted or without any ambiguity. If you find this topic is interesting you can see some YouTube videos on this topic to have a cleared idea. Later as we were moving in between these metal sheets I read the spatial arrangements. SO, I was right on the concept on which the artist was playing with the curved surfaces and arrangements. I have more pictures from the museum exhibits You may like to take a look on my Facebook page “Vari – The divine journey”. There were some of the exhibits which I really wondered as what was the purpose of exhibits and so on. There is a café inside where you get some basic snacks and soft and hard drinks.

As we lived here  I was finding it as a culture shock as there were lots of café or pubs which had little snacks and drinks. The people were sitting with kids, family and friends in it. Water was expensive than hard drinks. Almost every street people were sitting with beer mugs. Very less restaurants with proper food but there several Michelin-Starred restaurants in Bilbao. Here I have one confession to make but it has a reason to it. I searched for Indian food restaurant here in Bilbao. I always wonder why would an Indian who eats Indian food at home would go for a tour and search for Indian food. The reason was, food in cafes that we ate was not sufficient for my appetites. So, we did search and visit an Indian restaurant here in Bilbao. The food was not really great also it was not an authentic India restaurant. It’s a common thing that most of the restaurants in Europe are mostly North Indian food, out of which few are just named as Indian food restaurants but they belong to our neighboring countries. Also, sometimes the chefs are not Indian. That was not a great decision as we cannot eat hot, spicy, gravy food. Besides, later we did find some good restaurants, which served freshly cooked nice food. For me I always want warm food. I cannot eat assembled sandwich or a sandwich from fridge. I need it to be grilled. Even not a big fan of cold sweet dishes. Very rarely I eat ice cream. I am still wondering how people can drink cold water or other beverages. I need to eat good portion of meal in my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I do not keep munching things in rest of the empty hours. This food topic is just to understand the food and type of place that I visit must match my requirement. I have reviewed few places in my TripAdvisor which I really found good places here to eat. Good portion – warm – fresh. In future I may add links to those places in my blog.

As we did this day with walk, we were bit exhausted we walked really for long distances. There are few nicer restaurants in the Bilbao city center area which are pretty good, so I would recommend by any means either you go there early in the evening or book your table. As the restaurants get really full in the night time. We saw many of the people had to return as the tables were pre booked. Luckily, we always went there on time. First day our legs were totally gone. I have motioned this in my other blogs as well. Mostly to visit European countries, make a habit to walk a lot. You will find lots interesting things on each lane to see and admire. You will really walk for almost 20k footsteps a day. SO, before you plan for European holiday, make yourself prepared for long walks also if you are visiting during summer, it is really very hot. They call it Indian summer! Bilbao is place of rich people. You can easily see stretch limo while you are walking around the city. What I could see was there was more tourists in elderly ages between 50s to 60s. Also, the city had a greater number of elderly local population who were managing the kids of the family. Cost of living is bit higher. All the transactions that you do are in euros.

Next two days we did a buffet breakfast at hotel. There were really very less options to eat, but could manage with cornflakes, bread options, eggs, Spanish omelette, fruits, fruit juice and some salad options. it was 13 euro per person. Since we had to step out pretty early, we managed with in-house hotel breakfast. Our day trip booked on Viator was 171.10 USD for 2 people. They pick you from a nearby center location and drop you at your hotel. The van is nice and there is a multilingual guide. The fun part is until the day of travel you do not know who is coming to pick you, car number, driver’s number or even guide’s number and so on, there is simple confirmation on your communication e-mail. Where they keep connecting with you. Also, they ask you for name of hotel you are staying, if you have not given this information earlier over the e-mail conversation. In our trip to Catania in Italy, we booked a trip on it was same method, we did not know anyone from the tour company till they arrive to pick us at Sheraton hotel that time. Not even any phone number other than some helpline numbers. So now we can trust the trips on the site. Timings are better matched, vehicle is neat and clean with air conditioning, wearing seat belt for all the passengers is compulsory. As they take you to all the points and ask you to return at the point at given time which is well followed. We had co passengers in the trip who had booked the same trip form the hotel they were staying.  The cost was also roughly same.

Our first trip was to the Basque country. In our online itinerary it was mentioned to carry a passport. I am such a dumb person. I was discussing with my husband that I will not carry a passport, I have a photo copy of it. Luckily, I carried it after my husband insisted me to carry it. Our visit was on following places Biarritz, Saint Jean de Luz, Hondarribia and San Sebastian. The bus moved while picking up all the people on the tour from different pickup points or hotels. The Basque country language, Euskara is the oldest know language of Europe. Few of the places are in French territory and few of Basque regions lie in Spanish territory. First location that we had to visit of the day was Biarritz. We traveled in the mini bus and as we crossed the border, we were stopped by French border police. All our passports were checked. Luckily, I carried my passport and not the photo copy.

Don’t make the mistake of saying you’re going out for tapas while in the Basque Country – they do pintxos instead. Pintxos are essentially small pieces of bread topped with a variety of ingredients, though some don’t come with bread at all. Pintxos differ from tapas in that they are smaller, are not served on a sharing plate and are eaten by just one person in a few mouthfuls. They are also laid out along the bar and you can help yourself to what you like, as opposed to ordering from a menu. Each pintxo will have a stick through the middle holding it together. Make sure to keep these sticks on your plate so that at the end of your meal, the person tending the bar can count them up and give you your bill. We traveled to a sea side area. This was amazingly beautiful place. We both just loved the beauty of this place. If you see this place in my photos and videos you will realise that you have seen this French beauty in lots of Hollywood movies. Right from old classic movies to latest movies. There are huge vertical cliffs and shore with gushing waves. This place is visited by most of the surfers around the world. The waves here go really high. Before I would discuss more about this place anybody who want to associate this place with any history or Hollywood stories, I would mention this is a Geo-tourism site. There are inclined beds where you can see sea arches, staffs, cliffs and beautiful exposures in this entire area. There is a hill top where you can go up hill with funicular or by your vehicle and see the entire beaches and sea stretching to long horizons. The rock formations are metamorphosed bedding planes those are inclined and uplifted in one direction. At places you can see igneous intrusions as well. Along with sea, all you see is photos with inclined rocks behind. Today it may be a highly visited touristic spot but it is only attracted by its natural beauty. Whatever you might want to associate with it, for me it is one of the naturally beautiful place, located in France. We walked along the coast and I really felt that we could have been given more time to spend on this place to explore or play in the beautiful beach. The place was pretty crowded here but yet it carried a class with it. I have small videos which I am editing to post it and create a YouTube channel “Vari-The divine journey”. It will have the same name as my Facebook page, so to keep updated follow me on Instagram #03kanchan to stay updated and connected with me.

Our next stop for the day was, Saint-Jean-De-Luz this location is also in the French territory. This is an old fisherman’s town located on the river banks of the Nivelle river that opens in the sea along the Bay of Biscay. All the houses here are still the old-style houses that you can see in my photos or videos. There is an old Saint-Jean-Baptise church where King Louis XIV got married. The place is open for tourists to visit. On the day we visited there was some street carnival which we got to see and enjoy. This place is known for its Foie gras – made out of duck liver. We bought some Foie gras. We were given roughly 45 minutes to take a walk-in alley, or watch the church or play around the sea beach, which was really beautiful. I must admit the French coast line is really very beautiful than I imagined watching movies, photos or seen in travel videos and classier. Post this we were supposed to go back to other locations in Spanish territory. I was wondering why was our guide rushing us at different locations and not allowing us to spend more time here. Here most of the places people managed some English. As it was very hot climate, we were thinking whether to have ice-cream or not, but eventually we had the ice-cream. From here we headed back to the border and were back in to Spain. If you are a nature lover or a Geologists, please do not miss to see out all the amazing folded rocks along the road cuttings during the journey. At places I could see Chevron folds in older sedimentary rocks as well. I just missed that spot to take pictures. There are amazing phases of different folding’s through the journey.

As we headed towards our next location, Hondarribia in Spain. By the time we reached here it was almost lunch time and we all were very hungry. Here our guide mentioned us that everything in France was very expensive so many people turn to Spanish regions for food and other activities. So now I realised why were we rushed. Our first half was supposed to be finished in France so that we go to less expensive places and enjoy the food. The Ice-Cream was bit expensive, but never had a thought in my mind that we were saving our money on the tour. I love to find a cost-effective option, always! Hondarribia, is yet another fisherman’s village mostly converted to a tourist’s town now. You can find lots of cafes and pubs around the street. The normal food at these busy cafes was pretty expensive as well. The sea food was really amazing, we really loved it! The day was growing very hot, hotter and hottest! Looking at the menu I thought even the Spanish places in this region were expensive too!

Our final destination for the day was San Sebastian. Here we were allowed to spent time at Motoras Isla Santa Clara. It was beautiful sea side place. Bit crowded at this time of day  around 17:00 hours. You have lots of regular options to eat and also some castles to roam around. We just spent time in walking around and seeing the place and clicking pictures with green backgrounds. With this we ended our tour for the day and were driven back to our respective hotels.

Next day we had a tour to Vitoria and wine region of La Rioja. We had bit bigger bus today. Few of the people were repeat same from our previous day’s trip. The guide Stephen was also same. This day we started our visit with the Vitoria Gasteiz. This place has some historical importance. We were dropped by our bus at Cathedral Santa Maria de Vitoria. From outside it looks like Fort, from inside it is a Cathedral. This was supposed to be very big monument, similar to Notre Dame cathedral in Amsterdam. This Santa Maria cathedral was built 100 years after Notre Dame cathedral. Santa Maria cathedral was never completed due to lack of funds. At the moment there is lots of construction work going on at the structure. Later we walked to the main monument of this Capital of Basque country. In the square of Plaza de la Virgen Blanca there is a war memorial built in the center named La Batalla de Vitoria. This is an important part of history where Spanish people connect with this war memorial with pride. Later we were given 20 minutes to explore the place. As I am not much interested in historical parts, I went to click pictures. Once we were done with this place, we were now going to visit the winery.

Cost of this tour was 170 USD for two people. Same facilities, pickup from center location, drop at hotel. Air-conditioned minibus with driver and guide. Here the cost included entry for the winery and two wine tasting. We visited winery at La Guardia. Here on the way we saw, grapes plantation through the drive. There are lots of wineries in this region. The place where we visited was Pureta de San Juan Church. It as big castle now it is open for tourists to visit, it has municipal swimming pools, to sports center, hospital, tower-fortress, to star Michelin restaurants, tourist information center, lots of souvenir shops and a winery at the basement. This place was nice and not too crowded. Here there was an exhibition in the central region where they were selling lots of vines, cheese and lots of stuff in this region. You can get tourist map from the tourist information center and visit the place at is bit confusing and too many internal lanes to keep you puzzled. Visiting winery was fun, but our tour guide just left us and said another guide will take you in. At the same time, we waited for around about 40 – 50 minutes in sun just kept seeing group of tourists coming out of the door. So, finally we inquired and made our group enter. Here they showed us a huge cubical chamber like well but lined walls and in square/rectangular shape. Here they pour or dump all the grapes de skinned black grapes for red wine. The people crush them with their feet. The grapes are covered and kept for few weeks. Later when it gets naturally fermented (along with wine yeast). The grapes start releasing its juices that is collected from lower vents/pipes. This is actually wine, this is bit young wine. which has less alcohol content in it and bit sweet in taste. As they keep grapes for more days the juices released are more acidic and more bitter with more alcohol content in it. There is next a cellulose filtration process done on the extracted juices and stored in wooden barrels in the dark basements. These barrels are mostly made of Oak tree wood. The barrels are sampled and filled in to 5 different bottles and are sent for quality testing to different labs. Out of this one bottle sample is kept in case of any other requirement of samples. For us there was arrangement of wine glasses made here in the basement. First glass was for young wine, it was less bitter and comparatively less deep red in colour. The second glass was of old wine. Here we were asked to do gargle with the wine before gulping or swallowing it also the glass as we turned, we were trying to take the aroma of it. The old wine must give you a feel of layer inside mouth and also give little bitter feel in the end of the tongue. Hope I have remembered the correct process. More than anything I was worried that we are having it empty stomach. I just pulled out some nuts from my bag. This came very handy option. If you are visiting winery you can keep pieces of cheese and some nuts in your bag. I am a typical person who considers all possible ways of troubles on the journey and preparatory measures or precautionary measures everything will be available in my bag. Once I finished my college, I kept my geometry box properly managed. People were surprised when I give them things from my geometry box. Now, I feel uncomfortable to not have geometry box in my bag. In makeup pouch and geometry box. I will always choose geometry box.

Post winery we had our lunch. Here all the restaurants are having Spanish menu. So, you can always order for known options and give a trial of single portion. Since the place was crowded, we made quick picks in the menu and gave the order and also ensured that count was known correct by the Garson. We had a lady on the same tour from China. She was giving us company for lunch. Her sister was working in Bilbao. She had an online boyfriend from the same area since past years. So, she was on visit to her sister and boyfriend. As they were working, she asked hotel to make her a custom tour to spend here day. Luckily our orders came on time and we had nice fish meal. We finished with the day and were dropped back to hotel.

I really wished to visit Zumia region. Which is little away from the Bilbao region. It had half day tours on but the pick-up and drop were not feasible. So, this is in my Wishlist’s to visit next. I definitely have reasons to visit Spain again. If you want to do tour in Bilbao you also have train options from Madrid. As Madrid will be having most of the international connecting flights. You can check available number of days for holiday and plan Madrid have less crowded yet beautiful regions, you may visit Bilbao and surroundings.

Vari The Divine Journey!


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