Things to Do in Basque Country - page 2
San Telmo Museum (STM) is in the heart of the Old Town, housed in a 16th-century Renaissance convent structured around a lovely cloister. For the second half of the 19th century, the convent was used as a barracks and slowly fell into disrepair. It was rescued from dereliction and in 1932 became the city’s municipal museum. The year 2011 saw the addition of a new gallery coated in aluminum, creating a seamless blend of Renaissance and contemporary design.
The museum—San Telmo Museoa in the Basque language, or Museo San Telmo in Spanish—examines the development of Basque culture from Neolithic times to present, helped along by the 11 murals in the chapel painted; these were painted by José María Sert in the 1930s and highlight the main events over the centuries. The fine-art collection contains lots of gloomy oil paintings, with a couple of standout masterpieces by El Greco as well as fine portraits by Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla. There’s special interest taken in the industrialization of the region—and its subsequent financial flowering—in the 19th century, illustrated with a rare collection of black-and-white images. Temporary art exhibitions are held on the ground floor.
With over 10,000 works of Spanish, European, and Basque art spanning from the Middle Ages to present day, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao) is one of the most-visited museums in the Basque Country. Highlights include masterpieces from El Greco, Francisco de Goya, and Mary Cassatt, plus regular temporary exhibits.
Picking up where San Sebastian’s main La Concha Beach ends at a rocky outcrop called Pico del Loro, Ondarreta Beach (Playa de Ondarreta) is a shorter stretch of sand that’s nonetheless just as lovely. It offers the same postcard-perfect views of La Concha Bay, Santa Clara Island, and Monte Igueldo and Monte Urgull, the two hills that bookend the bay.
In the middle of Bilbao’s modern downtown stands this large Neo-Gothic monument, fortified with brick and stone and topped with a five-foot-tall bronze statue of Jesus. The structure—Church of the Sacred Heart (Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón)—was built as the new home of the Jesuits, who constructed the residence along with a church in the early 19th century. The building was designed by architect José María Basterra in his own modernist style. The two original pinnacle towers of the church were dismantled in the 20th century, but this monument’s facade was restored.
The bright colors and intricate decoration of the interior were unique to the architectural style at the time it was built. With a combination of traditional elements such as stained glass and a main altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and a distinct modernist style, the monument stands as a decorative representation of Bilbao’s past and present.
The Sopelana Beach (Playa de Sopelana) area is known for its rising cliffs, fine golden sands, and surf—just a quick 20 minutes from urban Bilbao. Also known as Arrietera-Atxaribil Beach and at 800 meters in length, it’s one of the longest beaches on the Bizkaia coast.
Though the waters are usually calm and great for swimmers, winds often pick up in this area. Waves sweep both left and right, making this a popular surf spot. Availability of rock climbing, hang-gliding, and surfing also make this an ideal place for those seeking adventure in the Basque Country. If you’re not up for surfing, rent a hammock or an umbrella and relax on the beach, or take a stroll along the sand. There are several terraces and bars on the beachfront area to stop for drinks or tapas along the way.
The Guggenheim isn’t the only waterside architectural wonder in Bilbao; just up the river sits another impressive construction, the Euskalduna Palace. The building, which was inaugurated in 1999, features mosaic-style windows, and massive exterior walls of rusty looking corten steel. The inspiration behind the look: to stand symbolically as the last vessel built in the dry dock of the former Euskalduna Shipyard, which played an important role in the city’s growth and history.
The architecturally acclaimed Euskalduna Palace houses over 50,000 square meters of space, and boasts both the largest and second largest stages in Spain. The multipurpose venue serves as an opera house, concert hall and conference center, and therefore hosts a range of events from cultural to corporate. Temporary exhibitions are held here as well.
Bilbao’s growth and its maritime history go hand in hand given the city’s 20th-century growth as one of Europe’s prominent port cities. The River Maritime Museum dives into this history, going deeper than just Bilbao’s seafaring past to also reveal the background of the port, the people that lived along the estuary, and how it all impacted the city’s evolution.
The museum is appropriately located along the dry docks of the old Euskalduna shipyard (built in 1900 and closed in 1984), a kid-friendly space that features both indoor and outdoor exhibitions. Inside, visitors can watch an intriguing video on Bilbao’s history, and spy model ships and boats, along with life-sized ones too, including a reproduction of the fancy wooden Consulate’s felucca. Then, outside, you can explore the dry docks, other exhibits, and walk along the estuary.
Surrounded by two beaches on either side, it seems impossible not to slow down and enjoy the peaceful pace of this coastal Basque town. Take in the ocean views from the waterfront and from up the hills, taste freshly caught fish from the bay, or stroll through the well-preserved old town. The area is also known for its local white wine txakoli and the vineyards that produce it, which are easy to explore nearby.
Of course it would be remiss not to mention the beach town’s most famous resident — fashion icon Cristóbal Balenciaga, and there is a museum here devoted to his work. There is also a small peninsula close to the fishing port that ends at San Antón Mountain, and it is affectionately called Ratón de Getaria (“mouse of Getaria”) for its unique shape. You can climb to the top for panoramic views of the town and the coastline.
For the best views in town, take the short and cheap journey to the top of Mount Artxanda via the Artxanda Funicular (Funicular de Artxanda). The almost 100-year-old rack railway links downtown with nearby Mount Artxanda, and, even better, views of Bilbao and beyond.
Opened in 1915, the Swiss-made track-mounted wagon climbs over 200 meters during its three-minute ascent, eventually dropping riders off at the summit. There, you can take in views of valley-cradled Bilbao, with its iconic Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, and the River Nervión as it slithers through the city.
You’ll also discover more than just views, but a recreational area filled with gardens, a hotel and sport complex. And, if you’ve worked up a hunger, stop at various restaurants, where you can sample regional cuisine such as pinchos, essentially Basque tapas with an almost-gourmet twist, or sip on txakoli, a local dry white wine.
At just under a euro per ride, and centrally located, the funicular remains the best way to take in Bilbao, and is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
One of San Sebastián’s most-seen sights is in fact probably one of its least accessible: that’s because it’s an island. Santa Clara Island (Isla de Santa Clara in Spanish or Santa Klara Uhartea in the Basque language) is situated in the middle of La Concha Bay, and stretches 400 meters across and 48 meters up into the sky, where it’s topped by uninhabited lighthouse.
The island isn’t just for looking at from afar, though, as ferries make regular journeys there during the summer (and those with more physical prowess can get there by rented kayak). What waits for you on the other side? Santa Clara Island is noted as being home to San Sebastián’s fourth beach, a miniature, 30-meters-in-length stretch of land that only reveals itself for a few hours during low tide. It may be small, but given its popularity, a lifeguard watches over the shore.
If you miss the beach, there are other things to do here, too. You can trek up to the top of the island to – if you’ve planned accordingly – enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the tables. Or you can just take in unique views of the coastline and San Sebastián’s old quarter, which sit right across the water. The island is also home to a small bar, where you can restock on refreshments and snacks during your visit or before taking the short journey back to the city’s port.
More Things to Do in Basque Country
Just steps away from San Sebastián’s old quarter sits the Victoria Eugenia Theatre (Teatro Victoria Eugenia in Spanish or Victoria Eugenia Antzokia in Basque). The commanding Belle Époque-style building stands watch over Okendo Plaza, as well as the River Urumea, which flows out to the Bay of Biscay.
Francisco de Urcola designed the early 20th-century property in response to the Basque city’s growth as a destination for Spanish and European aristocrats. Now, it’s considered one of the most beautiful buildings in San Sebastián and also as one of the most prestigious theaters in all of Spain.
And upon seeing it, there’s really no surprise as to why. It boasts an attractive sandstone exterior, whose columned front façade is adorned by four prominent sculptures, each of which represents opera, tragedy, comedy and drama. Meanwhile, the interior dazzles with golden balconies filled with red velvet chairs, and a ceiling of frescoes illuminated by an elaborate chandelier.
Apart from shows ranging from opera to dance and musicals, Victoria Eugenia Theatre has also played host to the San Sebastian International Film Festival, as well as various movie premieres.
Once Bilbao’s only central green space, Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park, with its tree-lined paths, bubbling fountains and duck-filled pond, remains the city’s favorite outdoor destination.
This almost 100-year-old park was named after former Bilbao resident Casilda Iturrizar. Much to future Bilbaínos’ fortune, she had married a wealthy businessman and, after his death, dedicated her life to charity. Without any heirs, when she finally passed she decided to leave the Bilbao space to the public. Eventually, it was turned into a park with French- and Romantic-style gardens in 1907, and has been a central getaway for locals ever since.
Nowadays, Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park (or, as it is affectionately called by the locals, Duck’s Park, due to the pond) is a bit smaller than it used to be, with the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum occupying one of its corners since the 1940s. Within its now 85,200-square-meter boundaries, you’ll come across monuments, sculptures, basketball courts, and a classic merry-go-round. The park also offers other sights, like the duck pond where you can rent rowboats, or a dancing water fountain, which comes to life with light and sound shows during the holidays.
Basque Country is more than just home to idyllic fishing villages, mossy green mountainsides and some of the world's best cuisine: it also boasts a rich culture, unique language, and a proud history worth getting to know. Immerse yourself in this “country” within a country by making a trip to the Basque Museum (Museo Vasco de Bilbao), located in the region's largest city, Bilbao.
The Museo Vasco, or Basque Museum, occupies what used to be a 16th century convent. Within its walls, you can peruse its comprehensive collection, which covers Basque ethnography and history, and delves into their history as shepherds and fishermen. Visit its galleries, browse photos, ceramics, textiles, and even the gigantic figurines that are typically used in parades (common in other parts of Spain as well). Get to know the lay of the land better too – literally – while studying a three-dimensional map that covers both the city and its surrounding region.
While the majority of the museum's exhibits do not offer English translations, the displays -- for the most part – sufficiently communicate the story, thus giving visitors insight into the region's past.
Set off the Gran Vía shopping district, and amidst a park of towering trees and manicured lawns, you'll stumble upon one of Bilbao's most worthy, albeit lesser known sights, San Vicente Martír de Abando Church (Parroquia de San Vicente Martir de Abando).
The church, constructed back in the mid-1500s, sits sandwiched between other neighborhood buildings that line the Albia Gardens, a park-like square of tree-shadowed patches of flowers and plush lawns. From a bench, you can spy and admire the San Vicente Martír's rather modest Renaissance facade, which is decorated with a triple-slotted bell tower and a soaring arch entrance.
Unlike the exterior, the interior is really anything but basic, with many people even hailing it as more alluring than its more famous Bilbao counterpart, the Santiago Cathedral. Indeed, within its relatively humble outer walls, you'll find a sparkling baroque altar that glows under towering white-washed ceilings and stone-vaulted arches.
Given that it's cost-free to enter, and has a picnic-able park at its front door, San Vicente Martír Church should make for a worthy addition to any Bilbao itinerary.
The attractive walled Basque town of Hondarribia (Fuenterrabia in Spanish) sits on the banks of the River Bidasoa on Spain’s Atlantic coast 20 km (12.5 miles) east of San Sebastian. Considered one of the prettiest Basque coastal towns, Hondarribia is almost on the Atlantic border with France and is backed by the austere peak of Mount Rhune.
This historic town is blessed with a lively marina; a sandy beach and a waterfront esplanade; a gaggle of wooden-balconied fishermen’s dwellings; and through an ancient stone archway, an ancient heart of labyrinthine cobbled lanes in Parte Vieja (Old Town), lined with stone palaces and traditional medieval townhouses.
Currently enjoying something of a moment in the sun for its explosion of gourmet restaurants, Hondarribia has a number of tasty pintxos bars along tree-lined San Pedro Kale, where these Spanish mini-kebabs can be enjoyed along with a glass of local cider. In fact you’ll find restaurants to suit every pocket, from downhome and casual through sleek wine bars to the Michelin-starred Alameda.
This little village of some 5,000 people might seem like just another town outside of San Sebastián, but really it’s a small place with some pretty big fame, thanks to its cider and, more precisely, its cider houses. That’s because in these parts,sidra – a fermented alcoholic beverage made from apples–is pretty important, making Astigarraga quite special too.
It wasn't always this way, though. While cider drinking in these parts dates back many centuries, it went through a rough patch during the Spanish Civil War, partly due to the rise in popularity of wine. But now it’s back and better than ever, and so are the cider houses that serve it, many of which are located in what is considered Basque Country’s cider epicenter, the village of Astigarraga.
Indeed, Astigarraga’s typically farm-style cider houses–calledsagardotegi in Basque –famously serve the bubbly beverage and massive (and often steak-filled) meals to go along with it. They provide quite the tasting experience too; as is custom, the apple libation is usually decanted from the barrel at a distance so that the liquid splashes upon contact and therefore infuses a certain effervescence into the drink.
There’s still more apple magic to be experienced in the Basque town of Astigarraga. While there, you can visit the Sagardoetxea Museum, which not only covers the history of the drink but also has a proper orchard, along with an area where you can sample the alcoholic apple juice.
Situated atop Hondarribia’s highest point, the Castle of Charles V (Parador de Hondarribia) has watched over the colorful Basque fishing town for centuries now. The construction of the historic fortification, in fact, dates back to the 10th century, when it was built under the orders of Navarre’s King Sancho Abarca. Later, in the 16th century, it was updated by King Charles V, hence its modern-day name.
Come the 20th century, the hilltop castle’s former splendor had been turned into ruins. Fortunately, its glory days have been revived thanks to a renovation done in the late 1960s. With its role as a military fortress and once a royal residence in the past, the castle now lives on as a Parador—a hotel belonging to a chain of the same name, whose establishments are typically situated in historic and enchanting buildings.
Within the fortress’s borders, you’ll discover all manner of castle goodness, from its stony, tapestry-covered walls, to its ethereal inner courtyard and its expansive outdoor terrace with views of the Bidasoa River below and the French coastline beyond.
The Oma Forest (Bosque de Oma) is a large modern work of art created by Basque painter and sculptor Agustin Ibarrola that is also known as “the painted forest.” Located outside of Guernica in the Urdaibai forest reserve, the work features dozens of Monterrey pine trees vividly painted with images of humans, geometric shapes, and animals. Nature is the artist’s canvas, and what you see depends upon where you stand. The colorful paints on the tree trunks express the relationship between man and nature, with some of the art only visible from certain vantage points.
Seeing this alternative form and medium known as “land art” is a unique experience, where the arts jump to life in the middle of a Basque forest. Walking through the trees is a journey of shifting perspectives, as some works are visible on a single tree and others across several that appear only when viewed together. In this way, the visitor is active in shaping their own relationship to the art in an open-air museum.
Gaztelugatxe is a small islet connected to the Basque coast by only a narrow stone bridge and a winding staircase. Dating back to the 10th century, the island was crowned in the name of John the Baptist and remains a small hermitage with a modest monastery. Two-hundred steps zig and zag up to the top of the mountain where the chapel sits, carving a scenic path visible from the top. The rocky island looks like a castle rising from the sea, which is where the island Gaztelu-aitz or ‘castle rock’ gets its name.
The rough waters of this coastline have carved several arches and caves dotting the edges of the peninsula and giving the island its unique, rugged look. This majestic spot is believed to be a former convent of the Knights Templar, as well as a former conquest of Sir Francis Drake. Climb to the top for the best views of the surrounding area.
The Euskadi Biodiversity Centre seeks to educate the public about the many ecosystems of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, declared such by UNESCO in 1984. Through permanent and traveling exhibitions, a calendar of activities, and educational workshops, the center shares the importance of preserving the wildlife and biodiversity of the Basque Country.
The center is split into two areas: one focusing on research called the ‘knowledge center,’ and one focusing on awareness and education, called the ‘area of public participation.’ There is particular emphasis on the consequences of species extinction. Housed in the newly restored Torre Madariaga, the exterior boasts a beautiful stone clock and bell tower, and there are expansive views of the surrounding wetlands, Laida Beach and Izaro Island from the balcony at the top of the tower, as well as telescopes and binoculars for closer viewing.
Along the rocky coastline of Basque Country, long waves sweep onto the shores of this fishing village that make it an internationally famous surf spot. Sand banks created by the nearby river result in some of the longest barrel waves that are known to surfers worldwide. The small town was once a site of the World Championship of Surfing, but with its medieval houses and fisherman’s dwellings facing the sea it’s worth a visit even if you aren’t planning on getting in the water.
Mundaka is located within the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, with a charming old town, fresh seafood, and a scenic harbor to explore. Take lunch in one of the many cafes, perhaps with an ocean view, and note that local sea bass is a favorite. Even if you’re not there just for the famous surf conditions, you can always watch the surfers as they take on the unique sets of waves.
Santimamiñe Cave (Cueva de Santimamiñe) was one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the Basque Country, with cave painting and artifacts dating back to the Magdalenian period of the Late Paleolithic era (13,000 BC). Its discovery in 1916 was a complete accident, by two local boys who were playing by the cave’s entrance.
Archaeologists discovered primitive depictions of bison, deer, horses and bears from several different ancient cultures painted on cave walls, as well as large stalactite and stalagmite formations throughout. Geological conditions and excess of iron oxide have created white and red coloring on many of the cave walls.
The location of the caves is scenic in itself, sitting on the bank of the River Urdaibai with Ereñozar Mountain as the backdrop. Though restorations are underway, the cave can be visited with a private tour by a local guide.
Vizcaya Bridge (Puente de Vizcaya) is the oldest transporter bridge in the world and the singular UNESCO World Heritage site in the Basque County. Built in 1893 and made of iron, it is considered to be one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century and a symbol of progress in the Industrial Revolution.
It links the towns of Portugalete and Las Arenas high over the Ibaizabal River. Designer Alberto Palacio brought engineer Ferdinand Joseph Arnodin in to the project to connect the two towns without disrupting the shipping traffic of the Port of Bilbao. Much of the iron used to construct the bridge was mined in nearby areas, while the lightweight steel twists designed by Arnodin were the first of their kind. It is recognized for its industrial heritage and combination of beauty and functionality.
At 164 meters long, the bridge still transports cars and passengers every eight minutes using a suspended gondola. Visitors can take a lift from a few of the bridge’s pillars to walk out onto the platform and take in views of Abra Bay and the port.
The town of Haro is the wine capital of La Rioja region, known for its local red wine production and many bodegas. Its annual Haro Wine Festival draws in visitors from all over the world, and the climate, soil and infrastructures built by the French — who came to La Rioja to grow wine in the 19th century after pests attacked their own vineyards — all contribute to the prime conditions for growing grapes here. With clay soils sheltered by the Cantabrian mountain range, the vineyards here grow some of the best wine in Spain.
Wine is the cultural and economic center of life in Haro. There is even a Museo del Vino (wine museum) in town, with tasting courses available, and each year Haro hosts a citywide “wine battle” where two sides pour thousands of liters of wine on one another. Haro also has an artistic heritage with homes and taverns in the Casco Vierno (Old Quarter), as well as the historic Santo Tomás church.
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