I had barely given this trip a thought, as my American friend had for over a month researched exhaustively every part of the Basque region, leaving no stone unturned.
The Basque region is famous for its food so I was expecting to put on about 10lb in four days, considering the number of Michelin starred 14 course extravaganzas she had planned. Also, every art installation, museum and sculpture park, every pretty village and spectacular vista had been put in our brief schedule. When I saw the vast list of activities, I thought ‘God, how exhausting’, but was happy to go with the flow.
Unfortunately it all fell apart, thanks to the weather, which my friend hadn’t factored in. We flew into Bilbao, where there was torrential rain, not like English drizzle, I mean a full monsoon. Laughing at this point, we went to eat at Porrue, very near the Guggenheim, where I realised that my vegan daughter, far from putting on weight,
might not be alive by the end of this mother/daughter, long weekend, so meat-centric are the menus. It looked like she was going to have to survive entirely on asparagus for the four days. Meanwhile my friend announced to the waiters ‘we are so happy to be in Espana, which was met with a frosty silence, as the proud, fierce Basques want to leave Spain and take great pride in pointing out their differences. Before you go on this trip watch “A Grand Affair’, a movie about a Sevillian boy falling in love with a Basque girl and the situation will become clear.
We dripped into the Guggenheim. The Richard Serra exhibition is permanent and a MUST, ‘Matter of Time’ was especially designed for Bilbao. ‘The Snake’ is
breathtaking in its scope and took $14 million dollars and years to complete. Its minimal lines defy gravity, it is interactional and is disconcerting, a staggering achievement. I am always interested in the source and development of an artist’s work, but to read that just one photographic memory of a ship being launched in a San Francisco dockyard, which Richard Serra had seen when he was six years old, had given him ‘a whole life time’s worth of work, form, time, line and gravity, was fascinating.
The other room that mustn’t be missed is the Anselm Kiefer room, he is my favourite artist and the post-apocalyptic landscapes and sunflowers remain embedded in my brain forever.
If it were a sunny day, you should then go to the Oma Forest, where artist
Agustín Ibarrola has painted thousands of tree trunks in multi colours, I won’t describe it as I didn’t see it, but I was more sad to miss this magical forest than anything else in our schedule.
We were then supposedly passing by the most spectacular vistas in the Basque, which is why the Game of Thrones producers have shot almost the entire series here. I don’t watch Game of Thrones and don’t want to, but my friend does obsessively, so while I concentrated on not crashing into the car in front of me with zero visibility, I was guided to Zumaia, now also a hip surfing town, where my friend got an insane selfie while nearly being blown off the cliff. After that I put my foot down and absolutely refused to go on the sea wall from Getaria to Zarautz, which is an incredible, dramatic hike of 12km, all along the cliff edge.
Sometimes nothing beats a hotel and this was one of those occasions, I have never been happier to arrive anywhere, as we limped into the imperious and grand Maria Christiana. It’s also by the beach (if you could see it through the rain, I couldn’t). I crashed onto the gorgeous large, luxurious bed and decided to spend the rest of the holiday lying down. Little did I know it was not to be enjoyed for long.
An hour later, my friend was knocking at the door, clutching the schedule. We had to go to dinner at Akelarre. Most Basque restaurants are family run, have been handed down through generations and the pride in their food and menus is immense. The vegan request was met with a puzzled silence. I can’t remember much about the dinner (it was good), as the holiday had now descended into “English people don’t leave places because of a little rain or even a lot of rain, however my American friend does and intends for us to leave the next morning. ‘But where?, I wailed, ’it will get better’, I pleaded, but she was already on the app, literally looking for anywhere with a sunny face sign. I went to bed and hoped this mood and the weather would change, it didn’t.
The next morning we went to the Balenciaga Museum, another must and don’t miss the film on him. As Ungaro generously says, ‘he did everything better than us and before us all’. The problem was that the exhibition featured Bunny Melon’s clothes and as she spent most of her life gardening, they weren’t his most glamorous or dramatic pieces. My friend’s mother knew Bunny Melon and this wasn’t what she was expecting, I was past caring but am now obsessed with Balenciaga and will never miss another show that comes to London.
Unfortunately that was the end of our trip and read my next blog to find out where we went next but I felt so sorry for all the hard work that my friend and Indiagare, her NY travel agent, had done in preparation, so this is what you should do, if you had a couple more days and if there is a ‘sunny face’ on the weather page of San Sebastian.
Visit St Jean de Luz, a 40 minute trip from San Sebastian. It’s a very pretty seaside town with a grand promenade and lovely beach, also great for shopping.
Then head on to Biarritz, (25 minutes from St Jean de Luz). Once famous as a seaside retreat for the Spanish aristocracy, it has a new face as a hip surfer town. Explore also the meandering streets in the centre of town, where you’ll get best espadrilles and quirky designer shops and can also catch a glimpse of the building where Coco Chanel had an atelier from 1915-1939. Head to Gaztelgatxe and walk across the bridge to the Hermitage, which dates back to John the Baptist. Take a swim to the tiny islands of Isla se Santa Clara in the centre of La Concha Bay
Arzak is the most famous restaurant, has 3 Michelin stars and you have to book two months in advance!
Mugaritz is an insider foodie address, quite monastic cooking but for foodies a must
Akelarre Kaiku, very contemporary decor and modern spin on the traditional Basque food. I would choose this as a lunch destination.
When I came back, some people sighed and said San Sebastian is so lovely but it always rains, others told me they had fantastic weather. I would take the risk if I was you. I am going back, it’s a stunning region with so much to offer and anyway, if you are a foodie, it doesn’t matter about a bit of rain.