Located in Markina-Xemein, the town considered the University of Jai-Alai (Basque ball game), this is a very odd church. It´s part of my childhood memories, when it was a place just known to locals and you had to ask for the key to the lady living in the caserío (Basque farm) next door. The present church is relatively new, XVIII century, and has no particular artistic value. The interest comes from within the church, a natural megalitic construction formed by three huge stones that are the remains of a mountain of the tertiary period. People in the area thought that the Basajauns (Lords of the Forest, according to Basque mithology) had brought these huge stones to this place, and considered it a magical place, where they performed pagan ceremonies. Later, when the Basque country was christianized, they built a church (not the present one) and dedicated it to San Miguel, and placed a statue beneath the arch formed by the three stones. It´s now the main altar. In summer, and thanks to the great sonority of the place, they held music festivals inside the church.
Many potential visitors to the Basque Country tend to ask about The Best Tapas Bars in town. Well, I normally answer telling them that, first of all, there´s no such thing as Tapas Bars. Most bars offer tapas or pintxos. And also, that a Tapa is not a Pintxo. To make it more complicated, a Pintxo is not a Tapa and a Tapa is not a Ración and Pintxos can be divided into Banderillas and The Rest while The Rest may have another subdivision, Pintxos You Eat With Your Hand and Pintxos Served On A Plate…it seems a bit complicated, uh?
Let´s start by the very beginning: Pintxos (or pinchos) were (and still are) small portions of food that are placed on the counter and you pick them with your hand. The classic one is the Spanish Omelette, served on a piece of bread. You get into the bar, order your drink, and grab the pintxo with your hand. There´s normally a big selection of pintxos on the counter, you can have as many as you want, but the local custom is to have just one with a “zurito” (half a beer) or a glass of wine or cider. In some selected places, mainly located in the Donostia-San Sebastián area, they also offer Pintxos made on order, more elaborate, more expensive, and that are nomally eaten using a fork.
Tapas are not Pintxos. Tapas are complimentary served in many parts of Spain, for free, to go with your drink. They are more basic than a pintxo, and may also be smaller. In some places they call Tapas to Raciones. A Ración is something that is served hot, you have it seated, in an informal way, and normally share several with your friends. And is not free. You may order A Ración of Calamares, of Patatas Bravas (spicy potatoes), of Albóndigas (meatballs), Champis (mushrooms), etc…
One of the effects of the Pintxos becoming more and more popular is that in many bars in San Sebastián they give you a plate and tell you to place your pintxos on it, then they charge you for them. That is an outrage!! Pintxos and drinks are always paid when you finish and should NEVER be eaten on a plate. It´s not our way and it should never be, pintxos are eaten with your hand and the etiquette says that they are paid based on an honor system: the waiter asks how many you´ve had, and you tell him the truth. No need to count…
Every year we hold a Pintxos Championship. The winner bar will be famous forever and customer will flock in to taste his small culinary preparations…For more info, a useful web is www.todopintxos.com.
On the west of Bizkaia there exists the land known as Encartaciones, “The Chartered Towns”, a succession of green and mountainous valleys that hide beautiful places with a long mediaeval tradition, and that have always been a “different” part of Bizkaia. They had their own Casa de Juntas de Avellaneda, an ancient way of ruling themselves, parallel to the one in Gernika, and still there. But, once again, you will see no tourists at all on this area, probably the least visited in Bizkaia, despite its enormous offer of interesting attractions for those that seek the “untouched” areas. Basque is hardly spoken on this area.
Among its several attractions, the town of Balmaseda, with its mediaeval bridge and the amazing church of Saint Severino. They hold a magnificent live recreation of the Passion of Christ on Easter (Holy Week). Not far, the best and biggest Rolls Royce museum in the world, already mentioned on this blog. Also, the Ferrería del Pobal, a faithful recreation of how ironworks were made in the past centuries, using just the force of watermills and fire. This land used to be full of iron mines and has a long tradition of ironworks, as most of the Basque Country. In Karrantza you have the Pozalagua Caves, the biggest cave in the world in its part known as Torca del Carlista (500 mt long, 240mt wide and 135mt high), with the highest concentration on earth of unique excentric stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes, even the weirdest ones.
For fun, Karpin Abentura, www.karpinabentura.com, a place where wild animals are treated from injuries and live in its spacious areas and also where kids will enjoy the “live” dinosaurs. Also, a great place for families is Sopuerta Abentura, http://www.sopuerta-abentura.com/, fun in the trees…
Regarding food and accommodation, I can recommend Hotel Amalurra (www.amalurra.com), a different experience, it offers a complete Spa service and great food in its nice restaurant. Perfect for relax and to enjoy nature, it has huge gardens and children are most welcome. Also, the very new Hotel Ibaia, luxuriously located on an ancient convent in Gordexola, beautiful town full of palaces and manor houses (and where my grandpa was born, by the way), www.hotelibaia.es. Also, a very special place is www.casavicentepallotti.com, a balneary run by the Palotinos Fathers, Catholic priests, for those that look for relax and meditation in a romantic scenery. And almost any restaurant in the area of good, honest food at unbeatable prices.