A Basque country foodie road trip is not the first think people think of when planning a trip to Spain. This autonomous region in the north of Spain contains a dramatic scenery of rugged coastlines, interior mountains and rolling vineyards, with strong culinary and cultural traditions existing alongside avant-garde art and architecture, all of which is well-worth a visit.
But let’s get right to heart of the matter: the food. We’ve sampled tapas, or pintxos as they are called here, in many parts of Spain, but nothing compares to what you find in Basque Country. The attention to eating well is part of the culture, from the simplest of snack bars to the more formal restaurants. It is said that the revolution in Spanish cuisine witnessed over the past few decades originated here and then spread to the rest of the country and beyond.
So if you don’t like great food and wine, then the essence of Basque Country will escape you. If you do, then dive in with us! Story and photos by Paul Bachant.
DAY 1 – BILBAO TO VITORIA-GASTEIZ
After landing in Bilbao, we immediately noticed that we were in what is called the “Green Belt” of Spain. As the car whisked us to Vitoria-Gasteiz, the regional capital just one hour away, we were welcomed by the lushness of the green, forested hills. And while the rest of Spain was baking, we enjoyed the mild temperatures and a refreshing breeze.
Our first lunch in Vitoria-Gasteiz was at the intimate Taberna Tximiso where we were treated to an exquisite assembly of pintxos, each one more toothsome than the last, washed down with a crisp, local white wine. The owner explained each one with passion and even treated us to an off-menu item. The bill? A mere 23 euros for two. The evening meal consisted of a sampling of the many pintxo bars lining the streets of the medieval quarter, where the strolling and chatting and eating and drinking crowds contributed to a festive atmosphere.
Day 2 – Vitoria-Gasteiz
We spent the second day casually exploring the medieval quarter alternatively known as the “Casco Viejo” or the “Almendra”, almond in Spanish and a reference to the shape of the streets that radiate from the center. The tour of the Santa Maria Cathedral is a must-do while here. The church has been under restoration for many years since nearly collapsing and the tour takes you on a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the work being done.
Dinner was at El Portalon: the food here is more traditional and relatively pricey, but the setting of this 15th century inn is mesmerizing and well worth a visit.
DAY 3 – VITORIA-GASTEIZ TO RIOJA ALAVA
After a quick breakfast, we hopped into the car and hit the road to our next stop in the Rioja Alava wine region. As we climbed the mountain range that separates the region from the rest of Basque country the forest grew thicker and the clouds heavier. But just after going through the Herrera Pass things changed dramatically. The clouds and fog dispersed and before us was a landscape more typical of Spain: rolling hills the color of honey punctuated by green bursts of scrub trees. It took about an hour to arrive at our destination, the small village of Villabuena de Alava. There is not much to see or do here; the purpose of our visit was a stay at the Hotel Viura. The hotel is tucked into the hillside at the bottom of the village and is a strikingly modern juxtaposition to the surroundings. It is one of many examples in the area of contemporary architecture, most notably seen in the hotels and wineries, some designed by internationally renowned “starchitects” (more on that later).
For lunch, we headed to the mountain top village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra (a lengthy name in dramatic Spanish flair) just over the border in Rioja proper and only 10 minutes away. Casa Toni is on an unassuming street at the end of the village, not a place where you would expect to find some of the most inventive cooking of the region. Soon after ordering we were presented with an amuse bouche of goat cheese and truffle between thin pastry crust, accompanied by beet sorbet presented in a lipstick tube. Amusing and delicious. And delicious and original were the appetizer – sardines with mackerel roe, garlic ice cream and olive oil – and the main dish, shredded pigeon with mushrooms, thyme and hazelnut vinegar.
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