Basque Country: Beyond the stars in Spain's rising foodie region
Holidays in Spain
It's famed for San Sebastian's Michelin-starred cuisine, but the Basque Country has lots of delicious surprises to spring.
There are a few things first-time visitors to the Basque Country are primed to expect. Some of the world's finest dining experiences in the region's culinary capital, San Sebastian - famed for its high concentration of Michelin stars - for example.
There is its startling architecture, including masterpieces by Frank Gehry: Bilbao's Guggenheim of course, but also the rolling mass of rosé-tinted titanium that is the Marques de Riscal winery in Rioja Alavesa.
And, of course, there is a fiercely independent people with a unique language that pre-dates the Indo-European base for Latin.
But what this first-timer hadn't expected was to be side-swiped by one beautiful Basque surprise after another.
How those green bulging hills which nest around industrial-chic Bilbao so swiftly transform from a forested mountainous coastline into a wooded plateau leading to a tumbling landscape of olive groves and vineyards.
How these winelands are spotted with contemporary wineries from world-class architects (Calatrava's undulating Ysios winery, Mezierres's cathedral-like CVNE headquarters, Aspiazu's gravity-harnessing Bodega Baidorri), honeycombed by a warren of cellars in hilltop hamlets like Guardia, and scattered with enough wine-themed museums, hotels and spas to keep the most dedicated of oenophiles sated.
There is the medieval core of the region's administrative capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and coastal routes that keep throwing up real-deal fishing ports built by sea-faring folk who know how to eat, drink and party.
Even well-trodden San Sebastian is full of surprises.
A first-timer could be forgiven for presuming that the Michelin-starred temples dotting the city's hills are rooted in the most rarefied of food cultures, a playground for only the most deep-pocketed.
But it turns out that in the Basque country, food is a great leveller. And you don't have to stray far from the golden cove of Playa de la Concha to find yourself knocking elbows with all walks of society in the common pursuit of a great plate of food and a glass of something local to wash it down with.
Follow the curve of the strand far enough and you'll hit the fishing port with its languid restaurant terraces. But stray inland from here into the narrow Old Town streets and you're in prime pintxos territory.
Pintxos, for the uninitiated, are the Basque answer to tapas - though long since elevated from casual snack to their own elaborate 'nano-gastronomy'.
It's a challenge not to get stuck in gems like Gandarias Jatetxea (restaurantgandarias.com), rightly famed for its foie pintxo, or Bar Borda Berri (Calle Fermin Calbeton 12), where treats like octopus a la plancha with membrillo will set you back about €3 a pop. But that would be to miss the point of pintxos, which is to propel you from one buzzing bar to another, fuelled by numerous glasses of txakoli, the local white wine.
Anyone with a fondness for this zippy tipple can pop into some of the nearby coastal family-run vineyards (getariakotxakolina.com/wineries), as we did with a guide who proclaimed it the "perfect morning wine".
Sipping on a glass of Talai Berri txakoli, watching the mid-morning sun climb over the rolling vines tended by fourth-generation wine-maker Bixente Eizagirre Aginaga and his daughters (one of whom conducts English tours by appointment), I was inclined to agree.
Later, we spun down to the salty walled port-town of Getarria for a peak at the fastidious women canning pristine anchovies at the Maisor workshop. This historic maritime town was home to Elcano, the first man to circumnavigate the globe in 1522. You could happily spend a day here, lunching bayside on chargrilled red mullet before meandering through its cobbled 14th-century streets at pintxo o'clock.
But we had other plans.
A short taxi ride into the hills overlooking San Sebastian brought us to the Petritegi sagardotegia (cider house), where we were greeted by Jokin Otaño, a fifth-generation cider producer (petritegi.com).
"You'll find plumbers and politicians here, painters and bankers - all drinking and eating together," he told us proudly.
It's certainly convivial, with lots of friendly jostling to catch the cider poured directly from the cellar's barrels as the tradition of txotx dictates, before piling back into vast wooden-beamed dining halls to eat slabs of chargrilled steak and salt cod omelette and shout choruses at one another.
It's not hard for an Irish visitor to feel peculiarly at home in this compact, history-soaked corner of green Spain where eating and drinking are excuses for talking and singing. And with San Sebastian's action-packed European Capital of Culture 2016 programme (dss2016.eu) to come, more surprises will too.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct to Bilbao every Tuesday and Saturday.
PESA (pesa.net) offers a direct hourly bus from Bilboa Airport to San Sebastian (€16.50, 80 minutes), and there are several buses every hour from Bilbao city centre with PESA and ALSA (alsa.es).
Rioja Alavesa can be explored by car or bus, with the Rioja Alavesa Wine Route Enobus (rutadelvinoderiojaalavesa.com) linking Bilbao to the winelands.
See also spain.info.
Where to stay:
The Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (hlondres.com) in San Sebastian is a historic four-star in a prime beachside location overlooking Playa de la Concha - splurge on a room with a view.
Hotel Viura, Villabuena, Alava (hotelviura.com) is a modern boutique offering set in the heart of Basque's Rioja winelands. Expect playful modernist cuisine from skilled chef Juan Carlos Ferrando. It's the perfect base in the Rioja region.