Walking the Basque Country of Spain (and a Wee Bit of France)—Live

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure where we can tour AND eat all the delicious food we want without worrying about the calorie count! As always, all opinions are our own.

Click here for part one of this adventure!

DAY SEVEN: The Way of St. James—and a Way to Throw a Real Basque Bash

A marker show the view of the Basque Country on the Camino de Santiago
A marker shows us the view that we are missing

We begin our day with a short drive to a section of the Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St. James.

Each year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make a trek from all over Europe along several trails that all meet at Santiago de Compostela.

The tradition began over a thousand years ago because it is believed that the remains of the saint are buried at the Cathedral in the town.

Our tiny leg of the journey won't take us anywhere near that end, as we plan to cover only a few kilometers.

A pilgrim walks along the Camino de Santiago on a blustery day. The Way of St. James

In fact, that small step is even shortened due to the weather turning downright blustery on us.

Being troopers though, we go ahead and trudge along the path and get to meet a couple of true pilgrims along the way—and, firsthand, begin to understand what an undertaking The Way truly is.

Horses along the Camino de Santiago on a blustery day. The Way of St. James

Pilgrims hang a scallop shell on their backpacks with walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France. In English, it's called the Way of St. James

We had seen a pilgrim or two back in San Sebastián as well, identified by the scallop shells attached to their backpacks.

The shell has become a symbol for the saint and an identifying mark for pilgrims along the many trails that make up the Camino.

Horses along the Camino de Santiago on a blustery day. The Way of St. James

As we walk our guide, Txaro, tells us the story of The Way and how it incorporates several different parables about bodies washing ashore covered in shells (we'll write about the entire story soon).

Accepting the way of the pilgrim, we embrace the symbolism rather than try to dissect it.

Not wanting to risk any slips or falls, we get back aboard our bus for a brief ride to Monte Jaizkibel above the town of Hondarribia.

Horses and riders at Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain

Little did we know that a huge celebration to Our Lady of Guadalupe was taking place.

Actually, Txaro knew but she didn't want to spoil the surprise.

It is all part of the Alarde, commemorating the city's survival of a siege by the troops of King Louis XIII of France.

In the summer of 1638, Hondarribia was surrounded and the citizens swore to the Virgin of Guadalupe that if they managed to escape they would hold an annual procession to her shrine.

The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain

Every year a special mass is held at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe and we just happened to hit the day. On any other day her ancient statue inside the church would be the main attraction, but today it is all about the parade.

Firing the cannons at Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain

After cannon fire is coordinated to punctuate, and we do mean strongly, certain parts of the service and signal the end, the priest leads the congregation out into the streets.

The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain begins with men in tall sheepskin hats

First comes dozens of men in huge sheepskin hats and long black beards, a reminder of the townsfolk who snuck past the enemy disguised as sheep in order to seek help from neighboring villages.

They are the rock stars of the procession and the crowd goes crazy.

The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain begins with men in tall sheepskin hats

The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain

Next, several companies of fife and drum corps march past, followed by a huge troop of riflemen.

The armed contingent stops in front of the church to fire a salute, which seems to signal that it is time to make way for the main city below.

We walk down the path to Hondarribia and prepare for the scene to repeat, this time with a much larger crowd of spectators.

The entire old town within the medieval wall is wall-to-wall merrymakers.

The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain fills the old town

Every balcony is filled with spectators.

Every balcony is filled with merrymakers The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain

This is Txaro's hometown, and to help us fit in like locals she had instructed us to wear white shirts and then gives us all red bandanas to wear around our necks.

The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain fills the old town

It was a wonderful touch that, even though most folks could tell we were visitors from afar, we were made to feel right at home.

We wade into the crowd and do as the Hondarribians do.

Our ears are filled as music, peals of church bells and cannon fire surround us; each square that we enter has revelers singing, waving flags, drinking beer.

The Alarde in Hondarribia, Spain

Hotel Obispo in Hondarribia, Spain

The afternoon turns to evening before we find our hotel, the Hotel Obispo, a palace built just inside the defense wall of the city in the fourteen hundreds.

We crawl into bed while listening to the celebration well into the wee hours...

 

 

 

DAY EIGHT: A Peek into Basque Life in France

A statue of Don Cristóbal de Rojas y Sandova stands in Hondarribia, Spain

Since Hondarribia is the town where Txaro (pronounced Charo, by the way) lives, she will be our exclusive expert guide through the city this morning.

We begin at our hotel, Obispo, which means bishop.

The name is for the square that the hotel shares with the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the apple tree.

A statue of Don Cristóbal de Rojas y Sandoval, who served as the Archbishop of Seville, and chaplain to King Charles V, stands facing the hotel.

Old town Hondarribia, Spain

The Hotel Obispo in Hondarribia, Spain incorporates the old city wall

Both the church and hotel date back to the fourteen hundreds, and are contemporary with the defensive city wall.

The hotel even incorporates the wall in its construction.

We move on through the town, amazed at how well yesterday's mess has been cleaned up, and make stops at the city hall and a sixteenth century home where the wedding between Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa of Spain was arraigned in1659.

King Louis will come into play again later today after we cross Txingudi Bay on the ferry and land in Hendaye, France.

Old town Hondarribia, Spain from the water

From the water, the old town of Hondarribia shows us her best side, rising from Bidasoa River.

Once off the boat, it's time for the serious portion of today's walk, starting with a along the boardwalked beach.

Diligent urfers try their best to catch a ride on what appear to be inadequate waves. Children romp on the shore. Speedo guys soak up the sun.

The boardwalk in Hendaye, France

The beach in Hendaye, France

A walk through the French Basque woods

From the waterside promenade, we head into the woods and walk another couple of miles along the coastline, stopping only for the amazing views of rocky seashore—and to glance backward at an approaching storm.

We try to pick up the pace but—just a few steps from our meeting point with the VBT van—the sky opens up and lets us have it.

A walk along the French Basque coast

Shaking off like dogs, we climb gratefully into the truck, and practically kiss Txaro's feet as she whisks us to dry land.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France

Church of St. John Baptist, in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France,  King Louis and Maria Theresa tied the knot sealing the deal of the Treaty of the Pyrenees

Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a très French seaside resort town. Though we are only a few miles from the border, things have drastically changed.

The constant however, is that both sides of the border are culturally Basque.

The village's main claim to fame remains the big wedding of 1660.

At the Church of St. John Baptist, King Louis and Maria Theresa tied the knot sealing the deal of the Treaty of the Pyrenees.

Peace reigned across the land… for a little while.

A txoko in Hondarribia, Spain. A txoko is a  Basque cooking club that in the past were only open to men. These manly men would gather to cook, and of course eat, while trying out new recipes and ideas along with a healthy dose of socializing.

Our peace for the evening was to be found at a txoko back in Hondarribia.

A txoko is a Basque cooking club that in the past were only open to men.

These manly men would gather to cook, and of course eat, while trying out new recipes and ideas along with a healthy dose of socializing.

Sociedad Klink Elkartea

Times have changed, so now many of the clubs welcome women and Txaro just happens to be a member of the Sociedad Klink Elkartea.

This means that we get to spend an evening in a most quintessentially Basque fashion.

We all pitch in to make dinner, and stick to fairly simple dishes, beginning with salad.

Cooking tortilla de patatas in the Basque Country of Spain

Cooking tortilla de patatas in the Basque Country of Spain
Believe it or not, too many cooks did NOT spoil the tortilla!

Then Txaro shows us how to make tortilla de patatas, egg with potatoes, that is much more like an omelet than what we North Americans think of as a tortilla.

We finish with two main courses, chicken with carrots, leeks, and garlic, and salt cod in a cream sauce.

None of our fare required being a gourmet chef to prepare, but like the old Shake-N-Bake commercials, it was delicious because we helped.

DAY NINE: Wine, Scary Giant Heads—and a Better Shot at the Camino de Santiago

A sign points The Way through Hondarribia, Spain on the Camino de Santiago
A sign points "The Way" through Hondarribia, Spain on the Camino de Santiago

We begin our day with a walk to Hondarribia's marina.

The boardwalk in Hondarribia, Spain

The harbor of Hondarribia, Spain

The beginning of the walk takes us past sites we have already seen during the parades, but it is cool because on this, our third day in Hondarribia, we are actually starting to know our way around and feel a bit like locals.

Txaro fills us in on the history that we had missed on our own and tells stories of the fishing and whaling traditions of the Basque region.

With a morning walk under our belts, it is time to get a little more serious and climb up to the Hiruzta Winery.

The Hiruzta Winery in the Basque Country of Spain

The Hiruzta Winery in the Basque Country of Spain

What better excuse for a chilled glass of rosé than a bit of a hike on a hot day? Perfect for gazing out across the vineyards down the valley.

So we sip and enjoy pintxos, especially the gilda—peppers, anchovies, and olives on a skewer—then switch to the most common white wine of the region, txakoli.

The Hiruzta Winery in the Basque Country of Spain

Unlike much of what we have been seeing, Hiruzta is quite new, only being here for about the last ten years.

Gigantes y cabezudos march and dance through Hondarribia, Spain

Back in Hondarribia, we find ourselves in the midst of the most wonderfully weird part of the festivities that are still going on in the old town.

Engulfed in another parade, this time with giant dolls and creatures with enormous heads, the gigantes y cabezudos, we are delighted to be overrun.

Gigantes y cabezudos march and dance through Hondarribia, Spain

A cabezudo chases a child in Hondarribia, Spain

Taking our cue from the locals, we chase the odd figures into a large square, where hoards of children mock the scary looking cabezudos.

In return, the kids are chased around and "beaten" for their mischief.

Traditionally the cabezudos carry whips, but here in Hondarribia a netted, nerf-like ball is used.

Cabezudos chase and beat children in Hondarribia, Spain

A cabezudo chases a child in Hondarribia, Spain

Though taken aback at first, we had to giggle at the pure fun of the atmosphere.

And were pleased to see that many of the cabezudos went out of their way to high-five the littler ones as they raced by.

A cabezudo high fives at toddler on her father's shoulders in Hondarribia, Spain

Because we have some free time this afternoon, Txaro and David work it out so that we can return to the section of the Camino de Santiago that we walked in the rain a few days ago.

On that day we could barely see our hands in front of our faces, but what a difference today!

View of Hondarribia, Spain from the Camino de Santiago

From the ridge we can look out all the way down the coast of Spain and see where it makes a hard left turn to the north, becoming the coast of France.

This "L" of shoreline is what forms the Bay of Biscay stretching out before us.

 

the sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with the famous Black Madonna

We also get another chance to see the sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with the famous Black Madonna inside.

This time we don't have to squeeze through thousands of festival participants so we enjoy a peaceful moment inside of the church.

The statue of the Madonna was found centuries ago and is one only three so-called black Madonnas in Spain.

The owner of  Hotel Obispo in Hondarribia, Spain, Bittor Alza, treats us to his open kitchen

As our journey is drawing to a close, just one more day, we celebrate with a farewell dinner tonight.

Bittor Alza, the owner of the Hotel Obispo that has felt like home for the last three days, treats us to an amazing meal by not only cooking it, but showing us how it's done in his open kitchen.

Duck dinner at Hotel Obispo in Hondarribia, Spain

We learn how to make the classic Basque green sauce for the hake we are having, and how to debone and skin the fish.

He also shows us a trick or two about sautéing onions just right, so that they caramelize evenly without burning any spots.

These will go with some duck breasts that turn out good enough to make us all daffy.

DAY TEN: Crazy Architecture, A Giant Flower Puppy, and an Epic Last Meal

It is our last day so we say goodbye to Txaro this morning, so, so sad to see her go but so, so happy to have met her, and board our bus for Bilbao.

The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain

The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain

Our first stop, and the big attraction for the day, will be the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which is where David will be leaving us in the good hand of a hand selected VBT guide who knows art (and not just what he likes!).

Unlike most museums, the Guggenheim's most impressive work of art may be the building itself.

Acclaimed architect Frank Gehry designed spectacular space along the Nervion River to blend into the surroundings while standing out as the city's signature landmark.

The Guggenheim's Flower Puppy in Bilbao, Spain

The gleaming titanium walls intertwine in shapes reminiscent of waves, or perhaps ship's sails, and seem to flow right into the water.

Before we even enter we encounter one of the most famous works in their collection, the massive Puppy by Jeff Koons, better known to the locals as Flower Puppy.

That's one big puppy!

Tulips, by Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain
Tulips, or how to take seven mirror selfies at once!

Koons also has another work along the river, Tulips, and while we are admiring it our fellow traveler, Joe, realizes that he has built tables for the artist back in Pennsylvania.

Sometimes the world truly is small.

Inside the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Spain
The art inside may not be photographed, but the fantastic architecture is fair game.

Maman by Louise Bourgeois outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain
Maman by Louise Bourgeois, an impressive giant spider and
a tribute to her mom who was a weaver

Browsing the works inside the museum we find several by Picasso, and Andy Warhol's iconic One Hundred and Fifty Multicolored Marilyns, but are most impressed with the work of Richard Serra.

The scale of these sculptures is mind boggling.

All in all, there are eight sculptures as a collection entitled The Matter of Time.

These pieces are made with hundreds of tons of free standing solid steel sheets hundreds of feet long that fill a gallery the size of an aircraft hangar.

Bilbao, Spain

Bilbao's other main attraction is Casco Viejo, the old quarter.

This ancient city was built within protective walls with narrow lanes leading to several churches, the main one being the Santiago Cathedral from the fourteenth century.

The name is in honor of the apostle Saint James the Great, Santiago in Spanish, because the northern branch of the Way of Saint James runs right through the old town.

The Camino has been a constant companion on our journey.

Paella in Bilbao, Spain

With dinnertime upon us, which even at eight is still about two hours earlier than the locals, we realize that we have been in Spain for two weeks and haven't had any paella.

This must be remedied and tonight is our last chance.

With nothing more than luck to guide us we pick one of the many eateries available to us and happen to get a good pan of the classic seafood and rice dish. Mission accomplished.

Not a bad way to end our trip. All together we made a dozen new friends, walked about a hundred miles, ate what seemed like a thousand new dishes, and made about a million memories...Click here for part one of this adventure!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure where we can tour AND eat all the delicious food we want without worrying about the calorie count! As always, all opinions are our own.




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