A vacation in Basque Country

Monica and I have been exchanging options and ideas for a long long time as to where to go on vacation this year and it was mostly hard to find a location where we’d both be able to fly to in a fairly decent way. That was really hard in the beginning of our search, but when we got it, al the pieces suddenly fit together seamlessly.

All of a sudden we found a good flight to Bilbao from Barcelona, I got a great flight to Barcelona with a few days extra over there and we found terrific housing in both Bilbao and San Sebastian. The flight to Barcelona didn’t show much more than clouds all the way…

I arrived in Barcelona on September 16 and before we’d go on vacation we had some time to spend in Barcelona. I arrived well enough on the Saturday to have some time then and then we’d still have a whole Sunday in Barcelona before we’d go on our vacation. We visit an open house in an Art residence that evening. The artists house isn’t open to the public often and we were able to get an interesting view into the artists’ workspaces. Also there’s music and -much alike to the typical art styles- the music is rather experimental and some of the very young visitors find it a bit too much to take in. But at least the location is absolutely gorgeous and very, very artistic and the view over Barcelona on the terras is breathtaking.

Experimental music isn’t to everyone’s taste
Colorful view over Barcelona from an artistic rooftop

We end the evening in a bar with a bluesband to finish Saturday with a bit more ‘normal’ music. Sunday is a relaxing day, the weather is great and there are various stages in Barcelona with music all over. We visit a bluegrass-band at Placa de Vila de Gracia and after that we head to the harbour to visit a vintage market. As a treat to end the day we head up to Tibidabo and enter the amusement park there where we enter the attraction that will bring us to the highest possible point for a far view all over Barcelona, it’s quite the view. After that back home as we have a flight to catch!

Looking over Barcelona from the Tibidabo amusement park

Monday morning we start our vacation and for that we have to be up really early. We made it well in time to the airport and had a good flight to our destination: Bilbao. From here we took a train to San Sebastian. As a traveler’s tip: you can go directly to San Sebastian by bus from the Bilbao airport, however going by train from Bilbao costs about a fourth of the bus trip and you get to see a lovely landscape and loads of little train stations on the way instead of the highway you’d see by bus.

There are some really beautiful bridges over the canal in San Sebastian

Once in in San Sebastian we only had a short walk to the pension where we’d stay for the next few days. Once we were installed, we headed out for a first view of San Sebastian. Unfortunately it was drizzling a bit, but we came prepared with (matching ;) ) rain-suits.

Not very sunny yet in San Sebastian, but we’re at the beach at least

We check out the beaches of San Sebastian and visit Parte Vieja (the old part of the city) for our first taste of the famous San Sebastian pintxos. Enjoying the evening in the old part of the town we end our first day of our vacation.

There’s love in the air in San Sebastian

According to the many weather apps after a few days of good weather only Monday was going to be a rainy day and as we wake up on Tuesday the weather is absolutely fantastic. Lots and lots of sun and we’re full on into vacation mode!

Off to the sea

We first head to the Zurriola beach and enjoy the sun there for a while. I try and shoot surfers for a while, but really need to get into the water a bit deeper for really good shots. The waves a certainly a lot higher and aggressive then on the other side of Spain (Barcelona that is).

Waiting for the perfect wave

We head to the Parte Vieja where we stop for pintxos. I have to admit that I’m not extremely adventurous when it come’s to ‘frutti-di-mare’ but regular fish is terrific and thankfully there are also many, many non-fish-relates versions.

Pintxos, pintxos, pintxos everywhere
Along the sea

A little later we head to Concha Beach and walk all along the beach to Monte Igueldo. Here we take the funicular (a small tram that takes you up a mountain) to go to the top for a grand view of the beach, the sea and San Sebastian. It looks gorgeous, especially as the sun is setting.

A full view of the bay

Once down the mountain again we take the advantage of the last bit of light to see the sculpture “Peine de Viento XV” or “Comb of the Wind”. When the light is finally gone we take a bus back to the center of San Sebastian.

The ‘Peine de Viento XV’ or the ‘Combs of the wind’

The next day in the morning we climb Monte Urgull, the other side of the bay. It’s far less walking to get there, but without a funicular it means we have to walk all the way up and as it’s warm, it is a bit of an exercise. After a long walk up the mountain you then have a last climb up to the fortress but then again you get a really grand view, this time from the other side.

As our days in San Sebastian are limited and we want to have a little external excursion, we head to Hondarribia by bus. Hondarribia is a coastal town that borders on the French border. Cross the canal and you arrive in France. It’s a lovely little village with a picturesque village center. A great way to spend the afternoon.

A colorful street in Hondarribia

And suddenly -the next morning- we’re already on our last hours in San Sebastian as we’ll head to Bilbao by the end of the afternoon. At Sakona we have our last coffee (seriously: as a coffee lover I must tell you that you HAVE to visit Sakona Coffee Roasters when you’re in San Sebastian!) and we head to La Viña in Parte Vieja for their famous cheesecake and then spend a little time at the beach.

All of San Sebastian is being prepared for the film festival that will start the next day. Sadly we’ll miss all of that, as we head to Bilbao in a short time. The trip by train is absolutely great and seeing all the locations along the way we see that we really, really want to return to the area sometime to visit some of the villages along the way.

The train takes us through many little towns between San Sebastian and Bilbao

In the evening however we arrive in Bilbao. After the long trip and the checking in into the hotel, we take it a bit easy in the evening. Still… after sitting in the train for so long it’s good to stretch our legs a bit and we we do a short walk in the old part of the city. Seeing as it’s late in the evening it’s not a huge surprize that we find most places have already closed. That mean’s there’s plenty more to discover tomorrow!

Bilbao by night

Next morning it turns out it’s somewhat drizzly in Bilbao and we take out our raincoats again to discover what Bilbao has to offer. A walk along the Nervión river brings us to the harbour and a little stroll later to the Guggenheim museum. Now that is a work of art, the building is incredible. A huge sculpture of a spider next to it is engulfed in smoke every hour and that looks amazing.

Attack of the 50 foot spider!

We also visit Casco Vieja, the oldest part of Bilbao, which has a good atmosphere, however the really great discovery is on the other side of the river: Basquery, a Basque bakery that is also a restaurant, a diner and a bar. In the morning they serve great coffee with really delicious breakfast (and cookies!!!) and in the evening you can have a diner or beers from a good selection of several (local) beers. The location looks great and I’ve immediately embraced it as the go-to place for the mornings :)

Deserted wine-glass along the river

On the 23rd of September we go for an external excursion from Bilbao and we head to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a little island on the coast of Spain. It is apparently also well known as ‘Dragonstone’ for fans of Game of Thrones (although searching for that on Google it seems there’s a friggin’ big castle in that series that I certainly did not see when we were there). The bus takes us to the village of Bakio and from there we have to walk a few kilometers to reach the island. Luckily the drizzly rain of yesterday is gone and we walk in gorgeous weather.

On our way to the ‘Dragonstone’

After a muddy, unbalanced descend we arrive at the castle where we have to climb 241 stairs to reach the little church on the island. It looks like a fairytale, but it is a bit of a walk. At the beginning there is a plaque that explains you ring the bell at the church three times and make a wish. Once we arrive we take our time to take in the views. The location is really terrific. However for our way back we take the long way around. It might be a bit more walking, but at least it’s not up slippery, muddy stairs.


We’re halfway to the church… hooray!
The path to the church is almost more impressive then the island itself

Back in Bilbao I’m just in time to make a few panoramas in the sunset and after a little rest we head into the center to have some pintxos at Cafe Iruña. It’s a bit of a shock, but this was already our last full day in Bilbao.

Panorama in the sunset

The next morning we check out our hotel and leave the bags there as we have almost all day before our flight back to Barcelona. There is one thing we still had to do in Bilbao: to go by the funicular (the small tram up a mountain, remember?) that takes us to Mirador de Artxanda, a grand view over Bilbao. Here we take our lunch. That is, we try. We have goats cheese from San Sebastian and bread an jam from the Basquery and a dog that’s also in the park can’t resist the smell and almost makes off with my delicious sandwich.

Bilbao from a height

And then it’s already well into the afternoon. We pick up our luggage and take a bus to the center where we await the bus to the airport, taking some sun as we wait.  The flight back to Barcelona is quick and gives a few vies to a beautiful coastlines.

Basque coastline

We arrive back in a Barcelona that is somewhat divided. On one hand there’s the protests about the Catalan referendum, on the other hand there’s the national holidays of Festival La Mercè with lots of activities all over Barcelona. Monica is still free on Monday and so we go around some activities in the day. For starters we see some stick dancing (folklorish dance where people dance in a circle and clash sticks together) and then we head to Ciutadela Park where a lot more activities are to be seen, foodtrucks for when you get hungry and all in all we simply have a really good time. The weather is terrific and it’s a truly beautiful day.

Goat herders in Ciutadela Park

On Tuesday however Monica’s vacation is not truly over when she heads back to work and after a last morning in Barcelona I have to head back to the Netherlands again. The vacation in San Sebastian and Bilbao was really good and we have packed a lot of activities in one week. And as late as it was in the season, we had superb weather and we’d both love to go back there sometime.

Dreaming of Unicorns – My last round in Barcelona before heading back

Photos by day
Barcelona – September 16
Barcelona – September 17
San Sebastian – September 18
San Sebastian – September 19
San Sebastian – September 20
San Sebastian /Bilbao – September 21
Bilbao – September 22
Bilbao – September 23
Bilbao – September 24
Barcelona – September 25
Barcelona – September 26