Monday, Bilbao – arrival at the airport and picking up the car. This trip just got real! The flight was uneventful (a good thing when flying) and I was able to catch up on all the latest movies. We’ve been through Amsterdam airport before but we’re always too worn out to really enjoy the different shops so we quickly make our way to the transfer to Bilbao. Another uneventful flight to one of the smallest international airports we’ve ever seen! Our first interaction with the local native speakers as we check out the rental car (upgraded to automatic). Somewhat confident of our directions to the hotel we leave for Meliá Bilbao Hotel. Thanks to driving apps on the smart phones, we’re feeling comfortable driving here. Our first impressions of the city is how clean it is. The architectural style of the city buildings are pleasant to the eyes, and the modern mixes well with the historical. We pass by the Guggenheim museum on the way to the hotel and we’re excited to see it the next day.
Meliá Bilbao 4 Hotel – we check in, park in the tight underground garage (our upgraded vehicle almost doesn’t fit) and take in the modern elegance of the Meliá. The hotel is beautifully designed and our room view over the park is fantastic. Waiting for us is a chocolate plate and welcome message! Wonderful! The only complaint we would have is the ‘queen’ bed is actually two twin beds pushed together. This made our night sleeps a bit uncomfortable. The hotel location is perfect for walking around the city, parks and local museums. We could have spent the entire trip here and been happy. We would have missed a lot however so the two days spent in Bilbao were wonderful, restful and prepared us for the next steps of our adventure here.
Tuesday, Guggenheim museum and city strolls. I am fully recovered from the flight and ready to explore every corner of Bilbao but Mihaela is still feeling the jet lag. We shop briefly at the only mall in Bilbao (very small mall by American standards) which is conveniently located across the street from the hotel. Next we wander over to the Guggenheim and circle the incredible structure, totally amazed and we haven’t even entered it yet. Inside we see some really cool art pieces we love, some we scratch our heads about and some we wonder just what was the artist thinking! All and all, lots of interesting fun. But we’re hungry and held out to find what would turn out to be our most favorite thing in Spain – Tapas! These little shops serving small ham sandwiches, beer and fresh squeezed orange juice are really one of the surprising highlights of the trip. We spent many hours searching out little eateries to experience the many different Spanish appetizers.
Wednesday, Vitoria. Starting very early one of our most fun days of the trip! We enjoyed a delightful final breakfast at Meliá Hotel before checking out and squeezing our rental car out of the cramped underground parking. Parking the rest of the trip was a breeze after this garage! We travel south to Vitoria making good time on the well maintained toll roads. Only one wrong turn in Vitoria but I quickly navigate to the parking garage (much bigger thankfully) and we go to the meeting point for our bicycle tour. We met our guide, Aitor Delgado Morales, and spend the next few hours cycling through Vitoria and the beautiful city parks. Aitor is a well-travelled local guide and we really enjoy his company, stories and the easy rides. Afterwards Aitor took us to three different eateries to try the local quinine, tapas and wine. So tasty and fun! Time is too short and we run to our next tour meeting point, The Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria. This historic cathedral is just too amazing and we spend several hours in the great halls, steep and narrow stairway passages, and narrow ledges along the roofline. Honestly, we didn’t understand half what our tour guide was telling us but she was so pleasant we had to smile, thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Finally, it was time to find our home for the night, La Casa de Los Arquillos Boutique Hotel, or what we Americans call a Bed and Breakfast. This amazing little B&B is right in the heart of historic Vitoria next to ‘The White Virgin’. Our hostess/owner took great care of us and we had one of the best night’s sleep in the updated modern rooms hiding within the historic building. The evening was spent wandering round and round the central square, shopping and enjoying the occasional Tapas. We wish we had another day here to explore the city further!
Thursday, Rioja Alavesa Region. We enjoy a small but tasty continental breakfast at the La Casa de Los Arquillos Boutique Hotel before collecting our car from the garage and driving further south over a mountain range with beautiful vistas even on this cloudy morning. We arrive in Samaniego and all our maps and GPS fail us. We cannot find our next stop, the Bodegas BAIGORRI Winery. After several turn circles of the same town we decide to drive to our hotel, Viura Hotel in Villabuena de Álava. Wow, I can’t say enough about this hotel but I will get to that shortly. The kind receptionist quickly points out the location of the winery on a map for us, then calls the winery to let them know we’re running a few minutes late. All the maps and GPS were off by a kilometer! We easily find the Bodegas BAIGORRI Winery and join the tour. We are blown away by the unique winery! Built into the side of a hill, levels of cement and steel flow along with the hill from the top vista-viewing reception area, down through the office and showrooms where a very nice and pretty tour guide tells us about the products. The tour continues down into the production areas which are sparklingly clean and highly organized. We are off-season so no wine is being pressed but you can still smell the sweet, dry aroma of fine wines. Next we enter the wine barrels holding area which seems to go on forever with stacked wooden barrels, including some barrels big enough to have a small party inside! Finally, to top it all off, the bottom level overlooking the valley of vineyards is a gourmet restaurant. We are treated to one of the best meals yet on this vacation! Served with matching wines, each course is a delight upon delight! The service is tops as well. Each course tops the last and the desert is dreamy. After several hours and much wine we head back to the hotel, the Viura Hotel. This hotel is an architect’s dream, uneven boxes appearing stacked haphazardly create a building that gives you a sense of wonder and inspiration that is only matched by the interior of the hotel which incorporates elements of the local winery culture throughout it. Our room is a modern delight with unique design touches including a purple glass wall separating the bedroom from the bath! At check in the receptionist gives us a wine cork and informs us we are invited to a wine tasting that evening. More wine, yay! The village here is small with narrow streets and appears to have only one shop next to one beautiful old church. We discover the hotel has complimentary bicycles and we head bike around the village before heading to the vineyards for several hours of fun. We even discover a stone park with apricot trees bearing fresh ripe fruits, yum! We return our bicycles and go exploring a bit more when we hear heavenly singing. A small mass is being held in the old church and seems every woman in the village is present. We take a peek inside to see when a man tells us that women must sit on one side and men on the other. We tell him we’re just curious and not going in but we strike up a conversation with the man who turns out to be a local wine producer himself, Pablo de Simón of the Bodegas De La Marques creating the Valserrano line of wines. He leads us over to where we are set to have our wine tasting. Pablo is friends with the wine master of course! We spend a highly entertaining and enjoyable evening peppering Pablo about the local area, customs and history of the region’s wineries. Finally tiring we thank Pablo and tell him we’re going to the hotel restaurant for dinner. To our surprise (again), he takes us there through a tunnel entrance below the wine tasting building through to the hotel restaurant! Wow! Saying our goodbyes to Pablo we have a quick dinner and go up to our very comfortable room for a very good night’s rest. Sadly we must check out the next day and start our next leg of the journey.
Friday, San Sebastian. Driving from Rioja to San Sebastian is uneventful but the tolls are adding up! We pass beautiful mountains and go through many tunnels which are large, brightly lighted and very well maintained. Signage is making navigation so easy. We arrive and drive directly to our hotel, The Astoria 7. This movie stars theme hotel is really fun and interesting. We find ourselves in the ‘Antonio Banderas’ room. Photos of the actor adorn the modern and comfortable room. The hotel includes DVDs you can check out (free) of actors and actresses best pictures. More movies than we could possibly watch! Also, we are impressed by the parking garage below the hotel. It is by far the largest, cleanest and easy to navigate garage on the whole trip. We explore the city which seems to be endless streets of fashionable shops, Tapas bars and bakeries all wrapped in historic buildings and squares. We are due for our next tour at the local produce shop Lurlan which specializes in locally produced vegetables, cheeses and meats. We meet our tour guide Amaia and sit down for a two hour feast of all of these plus local tapas of sardines with peppers and olives on skewers. We can’t eat it all so the shop owners, two lovely ladies who speak fluent Basque, wrap it up for us to enjoy later. This little shop was a delight! We walk off the meal on our own further exploring the city, its famous beaches and water fountains. Sadly, the weather is turning cooler and have to duck into shops to avoid rain clouds. By the time we’re back to the hotel the rain really starts up and grab ‘Breakfast at Tiffanies’ DVD to watch in our room (which has a great view of the area). Saturday, San Sebastian. The Astoria has a wonderful breakfast for us in the morning but we try not to overeat so we can enjoy our lunch at lunch at the 3 Michelin Starred Restaurant AKELARE, DE PEDRO SUBIJANA. We take the local bus up to the hillside overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and find the restaurant down a short drive. This restaurant serves food as art and each dish is a master piece. Our waiter tries very hard to explain each dish but between his accent and the exotic names of the plates, we hardly know what it is before putting the fork to the mouth! The final deserts are nearly beyond description and we take many photos of each plate to show our friends back home. While we enjoyed this 4 hour culinary experience, a huge wind storm has blown in and our view out the windows from our table is spectacular but we know we are also going to have to brave it to return to the city below! Wow, what a weather-full experience that was! Back in town, we hungry again. Those fancy restaurants put on a good show, but you’re still going to be hungry soon! We hunt out interesting tapas bars and try to go to every clothing shop in San Sebastian! With the spotty weather we can’t explore as much as we want to but we still go up the canals and around the old churches and bridges. The waves are crashing dramatically on the ocean breakers as clouds fly by. We take our last photos and head back to the hotel for our last restful evening in The Basque Country, Spain. End Notes: Tour and travel; http://basquetour.net/index.aspx http://www.hagoos.com/en Airline; http://www.klm.com/home/us/en Wineries; http://www.bodegasbaigorri.com/ http://valserrano.com/en/ Tour Guides; http://www.aitordelgado.com/ Shops; http://www.lurlan.org Museums; http://www.guggenheim.org