Industry meets artistry in the natty northern port city of Bilbao, where conservative Spanish locales sit seamlessly alongside contemporary architectural spaces, and the hard-working populous boundlessly pound the pavements of the mountain-framed metropolis. But if all that sounds a bit too exhausting, busy yourself with an adventure outside the urban centre and bask in the bounteous offerings of the beautiful Basque Country.
Everyone loves to be beside the seaside, and the coastal delights of nearby Getxo are likely to put a salty smile on everyone’s face. The untamed exquisiteness of the region can really be seen from the clifftops at La Salvaje (literally, The Wild) beach, where surfers expertly ride on the whipped up waves rolling in from the Bay of Biscay. If the mood takes you, locally operated schools will give you a taste of the ocean up close through one of many watery experiences on offer; you’ll find scuba diving, canoeing, surfing, and boat trips all readily available.
If you’re doing a loop back to Bilbao from here, be sure to take the slightly longer route around via the Vizcaya Bridge – a remarkable 120 year old iron structure, designed by the very same man who dreamt up the Eiffel Tower and, currently, the only functioning example of its kind in the world.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
In the Basque dialect, ‘gaztelugatxe’ means ‘crag of the castle’, a description that, while accurate, doesn’t quite do justice to this seriously cool retreat on a rock. An agoraphobic instagrammer’s dream, this miniscule island houses just one building – an ancient hermitage devoted to John the Baptist that has, in its time, been set on fire, sacked by Francis Drake, served as a medieval burial ground, attacked by the English and been consistently pummelled by rough seas and high winds. It really is no wonder that there’s a legend stating that anyone who can make it up the 230 steps and ring the bell thrice gets a wish granted.
Located near the traditional fishing town of Bermeo, a place inundated with the kind of delightful idiosyncrasies you can only find in communities outside the city, and the similarly singular settlement of Bakio, with its distinct cubic buildings and madcap cultural events, the 10th Century sanctuary is worth a hike even if the weather takes a turn for the worse. Be safe in the knowledge there’ll be a delicious supper of fresh fish waiting for you when you return.
Known largely due to its depiction by an artistic chap named Picasso, this village to the east is one with a heart-breaking past, suffering as it did in the spate of bombings conducted by the Luftwaffe in 1937. Two great symbols of survival remained after the terrible event, the Biscayan Assembly and Gernikako Arbola (an ancient oak used as a meeting place and ceremonial location) and since then a beautifully resolute Basque town with plenty to be proud of has risen from the ashes.
As well as the aforementioned highlights, there are plenty of churches, museums, sculptures and sporting venues to visit, this being an area where the thrilling game of Jai Alai is held in the highest regard. Heed the local saying, ‘Lunes gerniqués, golperik ez’ (Not a stroke of work gets done on Mondays) and be prepared to be swept up by the throng if you visit on this customary market day.
A double helping of exceptional exploratory opportunity awaits you in this outstanding UNESCO national park, so much so that ticking both items off the list will win you some serious travel brownie points back home. First up is the Cueva de Santimamiñe, an ancient cavern that transports you back in time to the tune of around 12,000 years, where paintings created by the men and women of the Palaeolithic era can be seen adorning the walls. It’s a rare chance to come face to face with our ancestors, made even better by the addition of a very 21st Century virtual tour in the nearby San Mames interactive centre.
Secondly is the enthralling Bosque de Oma – an ‘enchanted’ forest filled to the brim with art. Dreamt up by Agustín Ibarrola in the 1980s, this is a woodland walk like no other, where the patterns and figures painted on the towering pine trees change depending on your personal perspective. A living, breathing Rorschach test for the mind, body and soul, it’s a safe bet that none of your neighbours will have experienced anywhere quite like it.
A traveller-centric alternative to the hip streets of San Sebastian, this less far less famous inland city is just as much of a food fiend’s haven as its coastal counterpart. Head to Calle Laurel for the very best of the lively local bars which peddle delicious bite-sized pintxos (a gourmand’s take on tapas), and outstanding wine flowing in from the La Rioja region’s abundant vineyards.
Once you’ve had your fill, the streets of the former Roman settlement are themselves something to savour and you’re highly likely to happen across more than one fascinating historical feature as you explore. The museum, located in the 18th Century Espartero Palace, offers insight into the area’s deepest roots – including its dark side during the Basque Country witch trials – while the Knight’s Templar’s mysterious ‘Jego de la Orca’ (Game of the Goose) will pique the curiosity of all. Those seeking something a bit more spiritual may wish to take a trek along the Camino de Santiago, a well-worn pilgrim’s route that people have been tramping since medieval times. Religious or not, you’ll find the panoramic views very enlightening.
1 hour 35 minutes