Basque Country by Margaret Carpo
posted by Vicki in Gypsetters Guide
Every town in Spain celebrates a local fiesta during the summer it can be a fun time to visit. In the Basque Country in Northern Spain ‘culinary fiestas’ are practically the national sport. Where else in the world can you find an entire fiesta dedicated to a fish or a day in honor of the potato?
Aste Nagusia or Semana Grande is celebrated in Bilbao every third week of August. Festivities include nightly fireworks contests, free concerts, cultural dances, and athletic competitions, dancing in the streets and the largest culinary contest in the Basque Country. It is definitely worth checking out.
During Aste Nagusia, participants from neighboring towns come to Bilbao to compete in the bustling six-day affair, where the best cooks are crowned the txapeldun or champion. Set along the banks of the historic river Nervion, participants are asked to prepare a different dish each day ranging from a simple tortilla de patata or Spanish potato omelette, to more elaborate dishes such as rabo de toro or ox tail stew. They have been doing this for over 30 years, and let me assure you it is a fantastic fusion of people, culture, food and competition in a unique one-of-a-kind spectacle.
In the Basque region some of the best dishes are prepared in txoko’s, small privately owned kitchens and dining rooms that are owned and operated by members. A favorite local past time includes spending an entire day cooking and preparing a meal with close friends. In San Sebastian, the famed gastronomy mecca, txokos are called sociedades gastronómicas. An “authentic” txoko is a pillar of Basque culture, both timeless and simple and the foundation of a region known for having some of the best gastronomy in the world. If you decide to come visit here are some recommendations.
Why go: Amazing food, beautiful scenery, unique culture and local museums from the modern Guggenheim in Bilbao to the Balenciaga museum in Getaria. The picturesque coastal towns, rustic farmhouses and green hillsides spotted with sheep are wonderful backdrops to the delicious pintxos, seafood and great wines of the region.
What to pack: An umbrella, the weather of Northern Spain can be unpredictable even in the summer. That is why everything is so green.
Must Do: Explore the local bar culture and tradition. Walk into a local pintxo bar and do like the locals order up a zurrito (small beer) or a café con leche, have a pintxo or two or three. Throw your napkins on the floor like the locals. Tip: A sign of a good pintxos bar when walking around Bilbao or San Sebastian is a lot of tissue paper on the floor of the bar. It means that lots of people have come through and the pintxos are popular.
Stay: Three to five days to allow for enough time to explore and plan epic meals. Depending upon on your style, boutique hotels or charming bed and breakfasts offer good deals. In the cities you won’t need a car, but if you whisk off to the wine tasting region La Rioja, you should rent a car or hire a driver to take you to the different wineries. Each provincial capital has a unique character and charm. Bilbao is modern and classic with lots of upcoming places to discover. San Sebastian is picturesque Belle Epoque and sits on the sea. Vitoria is undiscovered, with one of the best preserved medieval quarters in Spain and countless award winning pintxo bars.
Eat: Hungry? Head to a Basque sidreria in the spring and enjoy a traditional menu with all you can drink local apple cider. Great for groups, be sure to book in advance. The town of Astigarraga, 15 mins away from San Sebastian has many established sidrerias that are worth checking out. Other times of the year you should order the local dish bacalao a pil pil in any good restaurant. Or head for the bars in the Casco Viejo in San Sebastian, Bilbao or Vitoria and sample the local pintxos.
Drink: Drink the locally produced white wine called txakoli and tour a local bodega.
Do: Dine with a group of friends in an authentic Basque txoko, a place where private gastronomic societies get together, socialize and cook. You will need to book this in advance and go with a group.
Shop: Check out the bustling local markets, Mercado de la Ribera of Bilbao, or La Bretxa of San Sebastian, to discover the region’s best delicacies, freshest produce andwide selection of seafood.
Read: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, inspired by his travels through the Basque Country and set during the festival of the Running of the Bulls.
In the know: Places are closed on Sunday in the Basque Country, best to make plans for experiences in advance. Best times to travel are the late spring through early fall. Most fiestas take place over the summer months. Locals speak Euskera or Basque, have lots of pride and are not fans of Real Madrid. The North of Spain has a completely different character from the South and they are very proud of their culture. To organize a txoko meal, wine tour in La Rioja or plan a group trip check out TravelBasqueCountry.com to connect with local guides and learn about unique experiences in the area.
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We are two friends who were former magazine editors. Having moved onto other things, we both realized that the creative flow the publishing world used to offer us was missing from our lives. Armed with a common love of travel to the exotic and familiar, a penchant for the bohemian, an obsession with food and a lust for writing, we decided to collaborate our unique and fashionable journeys through life together in one passion project.
We are The Gypsetters.