3 days in Basque country – I loved it!

22 Jul

Wow, there is so much to tell. First, let me say that the way to see Basque country is by way of 2 charming Basque hosts: Borja and his aunt, Ana. I would not have seen or known about 1/10th of the towns we visited and history without my wonderful hosts and tour guides. At top is a shot of Bilbao, but let me start by posting a map so you see where Basque country is in comparison to Barcelona:

If you look the right on the map, you’ll see “Balearic Sea” and above that on the eastern coast of Spain is Barcelona. Then, if you look into the upper left of the map near the red line dividing France and Spain, you’ll see the “Bay of Biscay”. Below that you’ll see San Sebastian, then below that is Bilbao and then below that is Vitoria.

Ana and Borja picked me up from the train station in San Sebastian. I tried to take the train to Vitoria, which is where they live and 1 hour closer, but it was “completo” (full) for 3 days since the Vitoria Jazz Festival was happening. Ana found parking near downtown, and they showed me one famous surfing beach and we walked through a market where we saw all kinds of amazing produce and cheese from Basque country.

Then, it was onto pintxos! Essentially, pintxos are the Basque word for tapas. But, in Basque country, you don’t sit down at a table and eat a ton of them all at once. You go to pintxo bars and take 1 or 2, along with a glass of hard cider (“sagadora” in Basque) poured from on high, and then move onto the 2nd bar where you take one or two more pintxos and a glass of sagadora, and then you move onto the 3rd bar…. So fun! I love eating this way. The only issue is that the sagadora sneaks up on you. So, after 2 bars and 2 glasses of sagadora, I needed a bit more walking before lunch. Yes, lunch comes after the pintxos.

So, we walked through more of the town and Ana explained the history (she lived there for 15 years). We saw the traditional plazas where people gather and kids play. We saw more ports:

Then, we hopped in the car and drove to a small town called Getaria for lunch. We dined at a restaurant called Elkano, which has 1 Michelin star. See http://www.restauranteelkano.com for pictures of the restaurant and some food. But, I’ll go through our lunch menu, below.

We started out with one bite of beautiful pink bonito (tuna) with a shallot vinaigrette that tasted much like a traditional mignonette for oysters:

I also had my first taste of txacoli, which is a very young, white wine that is served throughout the region. I love it! That will definitely be on my list of imports, along with sagadora. It’s meant to be had young and very cold, which is perfect on a hot day. Here’s what our bottle looked like:

Since Elkano is famous for seafood, being that it’s right on the sea, we ordered all seafood and what they were famous for, which is the cocochas. Cocochas are the collar/jowl area of a fish. We ordered cocochas of hake. Wow, knocked my socks off. We ordered them 3 ways: 1) breaded, 2) grilled, and 3) with the traditional fish fumet and garlic. The grilled ones – just grilled with olive oil and nothing else – were my favorites. Here’s a pic:

Then, we ate another traditional dish which was squid stuffed with caramelized onions. Again, simple and so delicious because all of the seafood was incredibly fresh. Here’s a pic:

Then, we moved onto a very traditional crab dish. The meat of the crab is pulled apart and mixed with tomatoes, then put back in the shell and baked in the shell on the grill. It was my least favorite dish because I thought the tomatoes overwhelmed the crab. If it’s fresh crab, I think it’s best to leave it alone or with a little butter and/or lemon, as the beautiful flavors should be the predominant thing you taste. Anyway, it was still good. Here’s a pic:

Onto my second favorite dish: fresh turbot. They showed us the fresh, whole fish and then cleaned it, put it in a metal grilling contraption and then put it directly on the open flame on the grill out back. I wished I would have snapped a picture of the outdoor grill and the grilling contraption behind the restaurant. Amazing. Simple. Never going to be allowed in the U.S. due to the potential liability – darn it!

Here’s just my portion (so imagine how big the fish was, as 3 of us had portions that big and we couldn’t finish the fish):

Onto dessert. Since most everything was grilled, Ana and I decided to keep with the grilling theme and go with the grilled cherries over burnt caramel topped with a caramel crunch ice cream. The grilled cherries were really nice atop the burnt caramel and the rich ice cream brought it altogether as we finished our txacoli.

After lunch, Ana wanted to visit the Balenciaga museum. For you non-fashion buffs out there (like me), Cristobal Balenciaga was the one of the world’s foremost fashion designers of the mid-late 20th century. His high fashion dresses lined the runways of Paris and draped some of the world’s most famous and rich women from the 1930s-1960s. He was born in 1895 in Getaria and died in 1972. Nonetheless, his influences can still be seen in much of fashion the socialites wear today.

Here’s a pic of the brochure with a picture of one of his dresses on the front:

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, as the dresses we saw were more than mesmerizing. I couldn’t take any pictures, as they weren’t allowed and the lights were so dimly lit as to not ruin the fabric. But, the museum building was fabulous! Part of the building was home to a person called the marquis of Casa Torres, and the building itself called Palacio Aldamar was constructed in 19th century. This is the facade of the house-turned-museum as it was in the 1800s:

Behind the facade is a very post-modern building made of glass and metals. Here’s one shot from the 3rd floor, looking at a wall:

After an hour of walking through 4 floors of gorgeous dresses, I fell in love with Balenciaga. Me encanta! Borja was a VERY good sport as Ana and I chatted away about the designs as if I were an expert on fashion. I’m so glad I at least had the good sense to wear a skirt and heals that day!

After the Balenciaga exhibit, we did a bit more light walking to the water before we got in the car and drove to another small town called Zarautz. Borja lived there for a bit and he helped a friend start a gastropub. Borja created the dishes on the menu, which was fun to see.

The gastropub is called Anima Gastroteka. The owner is apparently phenomenally gifted in making microbrews and liquor, and in his wine palette. He enters Spain’s wine tasting competition and usually beats some of the best sommeliers and master sommeliers out there. He was really sweet and gave us each a bottle of his latest home liquor creation.

The “Patxaran” creation contains anise, chamomile, cinnamon, and something called “endrinas” which is a purple fruit from Basque Country that looks like a black grape. Interesting combination. Here’s a shot of the liquor (note to self – it freezes, so it might have been a bad idea to put in the freezer. We’ll see).

I took a sip of it in coffee and it’s delicious, but I’m a bit afraid to take more than a sip. I’m going to wait until C returns and test it on him – ha!

After some light walking through the town, we rolled up to some chairs on the boardwalk overlooking a long stretch of beach for some late afternoon coffee. We watched the sunset and then got back into the car and drove to Vitoria. Ana drove us right downtown for a night tour of the city. Vitoria is the capital of all of Basque country, so it’s a very clean, quaint, quiet town that is pretty sleepy Borja tells me, other than when the jazz festival is in town. Even then, it seemed VERY quiet to me. Below are some pics of Vitoria at night. It’s also known as the “green capital” of Europe. The streets were indeed very clean and there were recycling bins everywhere. Honolulu, take a lesson!

Here’s one plaza where we sat and listened to a swing band from New Orleans while a group of fun swing dancers showed off their stuff under the stars:

Here’s another plaza we walked through to get the plaza above:

And, finally, a cool statue in a plaza:

At midnight, Ana dropped Borja and I off at his mom’s place, where she waited up to greet me. That was the end of day 1. 1:00 p.m. to midnight. We covered some serious ground!

As this post is getting really long and I have to clean in anticipation of my mom’s arrival tomorrow, I am going to conclude it here and say stay tuned for 3 days in Basque Country, Part II, tomorrow!

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