Viva España! What else can I say? I just returned from a holiday in Northern Spain, enjoying all the good things the country has to offer. Way too much good food, a lot of tasty drinks and a whole lot of sunshine. We had been planning to go to Spain since 2020, but the wedding we were supposed to attend got postponed… and postponed again. This year however, things are different. Less covid, more fun. So we turned on our out-of-office replies, shut down our computers and set off for our three-week journey.
The first wedding
First stop was exotic Zoutelande (Zeeland, the Netherlands) for The Wedding: Part I. Our friends (he from the Netherlands, she from the Basque Country – yes, we would say Spain, but that did not go down well so I will keep it like this) always dreamt of getting married on the beach. It turned out that this was not possible in Spain, but a beach club in Zoutelande was able to facilitate this. So the official wedding ceremony took place on a beautiful day, in the sand, with the sea in the background. Given the international setting (bride and groom from different countries, friends and family from yet more countries) they could not have found a more perfect person to preside over the ceremony. The civil servant that married them was fluent in Dutch, English and Spanish and she even spoke a number of sentences in Basque. It was a lovely day, with a very happy couple, good food, some solid dancing to both Spanish hits and 80s rock in a random beach club and lots of shots. This confession is long overdue: I like drinking shots. Maybe I should go partying with the Finnish prime minister one day. My friends generally do not share my enthusiasm, only on rare occasions. The more surprised I was when my boyfriend suggested to order shots. And that once we had ordered the first round, other people started ordering more. It is the simple things in life…
Aliens living among us
After this very happy day it was pedal to the metal, straight to the South of France. We settled in St. Jean de Luz, a small beach town just south of Biarritz. It is part of the Basque cultural region. I had been to the Basque Country communidad in Spain before, but never to a French part of the greater Basque Country. A long time ago, I studied Romance languages and cultures, focusing on Spanish. One day, the teacher spoke about the origins of the Basque people and their language. I was immediately fascinated. Unlike Catalan, Basque is not even remotely similar to Spanish. It is a so-called ‘language isolate’ in Europe, the only one. As far as researchers can tell, it is not related to any of the large language families in the world. Basque apparently developed before the arrival of the Celtic and Romance languages on the continent. And it is not just the language which origins are unknown, the same holds for the Basque people. Their genetic make up is different from the peoples surrounding them, leading to wild speculations that they might be extraterrestrial. Turns out that is not the case, but that their century-long isolation (not in the least because of their mountainous homeland) led to a deviating genetic path.
The best food in Spain
To me, it does not really matter where the Basque people come from, I just know that they have the best food in Spain. I learned so the first time I was in San Sebastián, pintxo capital of the world. A pintxo is basically the Basque word for a tapa, a small bite. However, San Sebastián pintxos are no mere tapas, they are culinary works of art. So we decided to go on a self-organised pintxo tour. We visited 10 different bars on one day and the food was delicious. From pig’s ear to simple pimientos, from squid in its own ink to veal cheeks. It was a feast! Only to top it off with the best cheesecake in the universe from La Viña. I have had many different types of cheesecake, but never the Spanish variety, with its caramelised top and jiggly insides. I think they also sell other pintxos at La Viña, but during the half hour we were there, I did not see a person order anything besides the famous cheesecake (whether to take out or to eat in). If you speak Spanish and want to have a go at it yourself, RTVE has the recipe.
In San Sebastián, you can pretty much walk into any bar and get a tasty pintxo. But we had only one day to spend there, so we wanted to make sure our tour would take us to pinxto heaven. Ok, without feeling too guilty about eating half a farm and robbing the sea of its inhabitants. I was already completely lost, haven forgotten my Lonely Planet, but luckily Google was there to help us out. A local chef from Chile (I am still wrapping my head around that one as well) had some great suggestions. So if you ever find yourself in Donostia with time to spare, this is where we went. Most bars are concentrated in a few streets, so no need to wear yourself out.
- We were hungry and in the mood for coffee so we just went into the first place we saw: Senra. Apparently famous for their tomatoes, we could not but order the ham with tomatoes and an exquisite tuna with anchovies.
- Next up was Cuchara de San Telmo, a lovely little bar where the pinxtos look like they have been prepared by Rembrandt or Monet. The veal cheeks (carilleras de ternera) were one of my favourite pintxos of the day.
- Gandarias is rather touristy, but they serve great food. We had a scampi brochette and a pepper stuffed with crab. And some cava to make it go down smoothly.
- After that, we waited for about 20 minutes before we could take a seat at Ganbara. They were closing soon thereafter, but we decided to try it anyway. We had pimientos, calamares and a Basque sausage wrapped in pastry. Definitely worth the wait.
- Donostiarra is on a corner, with a counter filled with a lot of croquetas and other yummy items. The mushroom croquette (croquetta de seta) was another favourite of the day and combines well with the sangría they serve.
- Our next stop was Oiartzun, to satisfy our sweet cravings. A delicious palmero de chocolate and a typical Basque pastry and all was well. We were actually hoping to be able to try a rascacielos, a type of pastry typical for the city, but unfortunately they were sold out.
Things got a bit tough around then so we decided to walk around for a bit and take a ride on the tourist train. After that we were good to go again!
- Bettijai Berria is a more modern pintxos bar. Not the most cosy atmosphere, but we had some delicious mussels and salmon with anchovies.
- Borda Berri should definitely be at the top of your list. Their menu is not extensive, but what they have is different from the usual and extremely tasty. We had the pig’s ear (oreja de cerdo), which, I have to admit, did cost me a bit to enjoy because of the image that kept on popping up in my head.
- The name of the bar got lost along the way, but we decided to sit down, drink some water, some more sangría and finally have that squid in its own ink (chipiron en su tinta).
- Last, but most certainly not least: cheesecake (tarta de queso) from La Viña.
The second wedding
In Bilbao, it was time for The Wedding: Part II. With the official part taken care of in the Netherlands, the Basque wedding could be all about tradition, food and dance. Buses took us to a beautiful location close to Lekeitio, where the bride is from. Up in the mountains, green, and even with an ocean view. A wonderful setting that reminded a bit of Southern Germany, and not just because one of the waitresses was from Germany and spoke German with all the Dutch guests. After a lovely ceremony, there was a performance of traditional Basque dance, including the bride demonstrating her skills. I learned that Basque weddings have two main ingredients: lots of food and lots of dancing. We settled down for a copious lunch and spent the next four hours eating, yet again, delicious ham, shrimps, steak and stuffed peppers. Of course accompanied by more than decent wine and a lemon sorbet with cava. Cherry on top of the cake was dessert. The wedding cake was made out of tiramisu, my favourite! I was almost exploding, so more than happy to get up on the dance floor. The couple of hours spent there were just enough to make room for some tasty pintxos served right before we boarded the bus home. I think I am going to look for more Basque friends that are about to get married because I definitely would not mind having another day like that.
Running up that hill
With some days of our holiday looking like scenes from La Grande Bouffe, some compensation was required. So we spent a week hiking and canyoning in Picos de Europa, a mountain range in the northwest. Our campsite already had mountain view, but our hike was of extreme scenic quality. When we started, it was cold and we were covered in fog. We were hoping for the sky to clear once we reached higher grounds, but were not sure whether we could climb high enough. About to lose hope, we ran into a few hikers returning downhill. They ensured us that there would be sun! So we picked up our pace and it was not before long that we climbed over a ridge and had the sun warming our faces. The hike continued in a valley lying in between a number of peaks. The fog trying to creep in, but being kept out by those peaks was an extraordinary sight. The canyoning was quite an adventure too. I had never done it, but it was great fun! Wearing a wetsuit, you find your way following the course of the river. While doing so, you cross waterfalls, go abseiling and jump off of rocks.
Mastering the Jaizkibel
It had been decided before: this would be the holiday during which I would conquer my first mountain top cycling. Our bikes were ready, the weather was good and the Basque Country is a great place for cycling, so we set off. I had asked my colleague, a perfervid cyclist, for some advice on going uphill and coming down. Unfortunately, that did not prevent me from making some rookie mistakes like going way too fast on the way up and rounding the corner way too wide on my way down. Luckily for me, Spanish drivers are very polite and cautious when it comes to cyclists. Because there are so many cyclists (not the crazy city cyclists like in the Netherlands, but real road cyclists like those that ride in the Tour de France), drivers are quite aware. Even trucks keep as much distance as possible. I did not feel rushed at all, which made cycling on roads where cars pass by at 80 km/h a bit less scary. We picked the Jaizkibel as our target for the day. A 500 metre altitude gain, with an average gradiënt of 5,6%, this should be doable for me. And was, once I discovered that you can, and should go, really slow. The Jaizkibel often features in the Clásica San Sebastián, which took place a couple of days after we were there. I came, I saw and I conquered. That was difficult, but for me the most frightening part was the descent. I am a bit of a wuss, but I made it down. Lots of breaking, my legs were covered in dust coming from my break pads and my arms were trembling from squeezing my breaks. It was a great experience though and I think it is something I can become better at. Though training in the Netherlands will not help much…
Earlier this year, we decided on a number of upgrades we wanted for our campervan before we would take it on its second Eurotrip. We did not manage all, but the ones that we did finish provided some much-appreciated luxury. No more struggling with blankets as curtains that come down because the magnets are not strong enough. Our new window covers are super easy to put on and take off and provide some insulation against the sun as well. Our fridge will never go warm again as we nog have our very own household battery. We did not quite get around to putting the solar panels on the roof yet, but it was already great to be able to park the van in 35+ degrees and not worry about the cheese melting. Our reading lights and phone chargers were also perfect. In addition, we now have an easy way to mount our bikes under the bed. All in all, very happy with the new upgrades. During our holiday, we decided that we want to have the van finished somewhere next year so it will be even better next year!
We will be back
Spain was lovely, once again. I would not have expected differently. Beautiful nature, picturesque cities, the ocean, an opportunity to practice my Spanish: it was all there. I am certain that we will return, but when and to which part, that remains to be seen. One can never really go wrong with this country.