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The Basque Country: From pintxos to pilgrims in Spain's northern star

From the Guggenheim Bilbao to the gastronomic fireworks in San Sebastián, Conor Power takes a tour of Spain's Basque Country

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Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

San Sebastian - tucked into surrounding hills

San Sebastian - tucked into surrounding hills

Hikers walking the Camino at San Sebastian, Spain. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Hikers walking the Camino at San Sebastian, Spain. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Gastronomy: Pintxo is a Basque word meaning ‘tooth-pick’ or‘mini-skewer’

Gastronomy: Pintxo is a Basque word meaning ‘tooth-pick’ or‘mini-skewer’

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Guggenheim Bilbao

Sara, our guide, was tearful at the thought of returning to her home in Madrid. All her relations lived in the Spanish capital, but there was something about life in the Basque Country - and in Bilbao in particular - that had clearly got beneath her skin.

I'd only been there one day, but I'd already sensed something of what she was talking about.

Bilbao (bilbaoturismo.net) is a city set in a ravine just a few kilometres inland from the coast. It was built on heavy industry and trade with Britain, and when that ended abruptly, a decision was made to lift the depressed, post-industrial city by building an enormous and outlandish palace dedicated to art. The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum (guggenheim-bilbao.eus), complete with huge floral puppy out front, is concrete proof of the fact that art is not only good for the soul, but good for business, too.

Today, art and food are the pillars that have replaced steel and iron in Bilbao, and visitors flock to appreciate both. The spirit of regeneration seems to pulse through every boulevard, street and alleyway in a Basque city that effortlessly and stylishly fuses modernity and tradition.

There's an atmosphere of strong-minded independence among the Basques, but that doesn't take away from their equally strong sense of hospitality and a determination to show one another that they are as good as the next person at whatever they put their hand to.

This, explained hosts Igor and Txaro (pronounced 'charo'), was the driving force behind the culinary miracle of Basque cuisine. We were sitting in the premises of ¡Waska! in Vitoria-Gasteiz and had just eaten what was officially the 'best pintxo of 2019' - a delicate and delicious bacalau pil-pil involving gelatine from cod skin, coconut milk, ratatouille filling and black garlic.

Pintxo is a Basque word meaning 'tooth-pick' or 'mini-skewer', and it signifies the wonderful snacks that are similar to tapas in the rest of Spain. Any Basque person, however, will tell you that pintxo culture is very much a separate thing, and the quality of their snacks beats the socks off tapas any day of the week.

Vitoria-Gasteiz, about 60km inland from Bilbao, has a population of 120,000 and, although it's only the third-largest city in the Basque Country, this is the official capital and home to its administrative organisations (see vitoria-gasteiz.org for tours and info).

The main sight is not the huge faux-gothic cathedral built in the early 20th century, but the city's original cathedral in the heart of the old town. During excavation repair works on St Mary's (Catedral de Santa María de Vitoria), researchers found another ancient settlement which they named Gasteiz (hence the official hyphenated name), and you can now take a fascinating tour of its subterranean structure, by prior appointment (catedralvitoria.eus). A lift then brings you to the top of the tower, from where you can see the entire town and off into the distance for several kilometres.

At night, those charming medieval streets fairly burst into life as the lively pintxos scene takes over and old Vitoria-Gasteiz becomes a village of people eating snacks prepared with the Basque passion for perfection, washing them down with local Txakoli wine or cider before moving on to the next bar, snack and drink. The good-natured atmosphere is all the more infectious because the town has not been overrun by mass tourism.

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On the road back towards the coast to San Sebastián, we stopped at the small town of Loyola on the outskirts of Azpeitia. Like many Basque inland towns, it is surrounded by rugged mountains and joyful countryside made up of 40 shades of green.

The main thing that draws thousands of visitors to this special place, however, is the fact that it is the beginning of the St Ignatius Way walking/pilgrimage trail (caminoignaciano.org) and the birthplace of St Ignatius himself - the once-notorious womanising warrior born into a rich noble family who underwent a road-to-Damascus conversion and founded the Jesuit order.

Before heading out on the 460km trek to Manresa in Catalonia, many stop to visit the saint's former family 'tower house' home (loyola.global), surrounded now by a stupendous basilica built in his honour. An excellent audio guide brings you through the house, telling of the man's extraordinary life before you re-emerge blinking onto the plaza in front of the cathedral, ready to understand just why all this effort was made for one person.

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San Sebastian - tucked into surrounding hills

San Sebastian - tucked into surrounding hills

San Sebastian - tucked into surrounding hills

San Sebastián (above) was our final destination and, after the peaceful spirituality of Ignatian country, it felt like a posh city on a grand scale. With its impressive shell-shaped long beach La Concha and its palace hotels, this city of 280,000 souls is a long-established favourite haunt of the rich and famous; past visitors include Leon Trotsky, Mata Hari and nobility from all the main European dynasties.

Our guide for a historical tour, Eskerne (discoversansebastian.com), was also Neven Maguire's main guide when he visited the city for his RTÉ TV series. She took us on a whirlwind tour of some of San Sebastián's best establishments where we had several pintxos, each one of which would have been worthy of a place in a Michelin-star meal.

On the way, we learned a lot about the social and political history of the city, too; about how the pintxos scene began in the earlier decades of the 20th century, due in large part to the traditionally all-male Basque gastronomical societies known locally as txokos.

These clubs have been going for almost 150 years, and with the help of our persuasive guide, we were able not only to be invited into one - 'Ka ñoietan' - but to end up socialising, eating more bacalao pil-pil and drinking txakoli with strangers as if we'd known each other all our lives. But that is just the kind of thing that can happen to you in the Basque Country.

By the end, it was hard to leave. Now I knew how Sara, back in Bilbao, felt at the thought of returning home. As we drove out of this warm, green region, I swear I could feel a little tear forming in the corner of my eye...

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Hikers walking the Camino at San Sebastian, Spain. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Hikers walking the Camino at San Sebastian, Spain. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Hikers walking the Camino at San Sebastian, Spain. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Where to stay

Bilbao: The Hotel Miró couldn't be better located, just opposite an underground car park and the stunning Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. The service is top-class all round, with gorgeous contemporary spacious design in the rooms. Doubles from €130 B&B; mirohotelbilbao.com

Vitoria-Gasteiz: The Hotel Silken Ciudad de Vitoria is a four-star mansion set in a leafy part of the city centre, just a few minutes' walk from the main drag in the old town. It offers a touch of turn-of-the-century class with its own underground car park. Doubles from €110 B&B; hoteles-silken.com/es/hotel-ciudad-vitoria

San Sebastian: We stayed 20 minutes down the road at the seaside town of Zarautz at the Hotel Karlos Arguiñano. The four-star establishment features the legendary culinary talent of Señor Arguiñano in a charming little castle on a 3km-long beach. Double rooms from €148 B&B; hotelka.com

Where to eat

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Gastronomy: Pintxo is a Basque word meaning ‘tooth-pick’ or‘mini-skewer’

Gastronomy: Pintxo is a Basque word meaning ‘tooth-pick’ or‘mini-skewer’

Gastronomy: Pintxo is a Basque word meaning ‘tooth-pick’ or‘mini-skewer’


Bilbao: The city's Plaza Berria is one of the prettiest and busiest hubs for the pintxo lifestyle. Try the stuffed mussels (mejillones rellenos) while admiring the colourful tilework at the Café Bar Bilbao (bilbao-cafebar.com), or the more opulent surroundings of Restaurante Víctor (restaurantevictor.com), then whizz across the square to find copious pintxos in the more modern setting of Zezen Gorri (no website; +34 946 79 39 44).

Vitoria-Gasteiz: This hidden gem of a town boasts the place with the official best pintxo of 2019: a reimagined Bacalau pil-pil in ¡Waska! (restaurantewaska.com) on Fundadora de las Siervas de Jesus Kalea. Another key spot for pintxos is the Bar El Toloño (tolonobar.com), with its modern decor and stunning range of affordable five-star food.

San Sebastian: Borda Berri (+34 943 43 03 42) in the old quarter does traditional pintxos simply and stunningly - best with local cider. The ham croquettes at Atari (atarigastroleku.com) at Calle Mayor 18 made my eyes roll back in my head, while scallops served with almond and garlic cream and coffee vinaigrette at Casa Urola (casaurolajatetxea.es) were the highlight of a gastronomic fireworks display that also included Bar Tamboril (+34 943 42 35 07) off Constición Plaza, and La Cepa (barlacepa.com) on 31 de Agosto.

Ferry

Conor sailed from Cork to Santander as a guest of Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.ie), a 26-hour crossing with a relatively basic économie service - comfy cabins, a bar, shop and canteen-style restaurant. Two sailings are available per week, with return trips from €108pp.

Flights

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly year-round from Dublin to Bilbao and Santander, respectively. See basquetour.eus or spain.info for more.

Don't miss

Torre de Loizaga (torreloizaga.com) is one of the largest private collections of vintage Rolls Royces in the world. Garage after garage of pristine cars from 1910 to 1988 sit alongside a huge collection of other cars that would make a museum in their own right.

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