Zumaia is a beautiful town that is, quite surprisingly, not visited by foreign tourism. Located on the coast, it offers a unique experience, though: the visit of the Flysch (“an association of certain types of marine sedimentary rocks characteristic of deposition in a foredeep“). Its Geopark offers a stunning view of the magnificent flysch formations by the crashing of the waves against the cliffs, stretching a total of 5 miles. It can be easily seen from the Church of San Telmo, on top of Itzurun beach.
Geologists from all over the world come to this area to study the Earth´s formation and the different prehistoric periods, and some say that the Zumaia flysch covers up 100 million years back.
The area is also stunningly beautiful and there´s a beautiful walk along the cliffs, that is part of the Way of St James pilgrimage. A must see during your visit to the Basque Country, taking into account also that Zumaia is close to the quaint fishing ports of Mutriku and Deba.
Rioja wine region is divided into Rioja Alavesa (Basque Country), Rioja Alta (La Rioja) and Rioja Baja (La Rioja and Navarre). It´s mostly small family wineries, but of course there are also some big ones among them too. A visit to a winery in Rioja is always a delightful experiences, as you spend at least a couple of hours learning how they´ve been making wine during centuries. No wine bars like in Napa valley…it´s a much more enriching experience.
Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly
But there´s more to Basque Rioja than wine. When you drive along the roads surrounded by vineyards, you will for sure find a beautiful medieval town on your way. Or several prehistoric monuments, like dolmens and funerary burial sites. Or incredible churches that keep inside amazing altarpieces. Or a walled town, just where lied the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Castile and Navarre. Or maybe just a town with nothing special on it but full of flavor and a particular relaxing atmosphere, where one of its neighbors may invite you to his place for a homemade meal.
Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar
Next time you´re there, don´t forget to visit walled Laguardia and the façade of Santa María de los Reyes (a must), Labastida and its fortressed church, medieval Labraza surrounded by nothing but vineyards, Samaniego, Lapuebla de Labarca, Baños de Ebro, Kripán, Elvillar, Elciego and the Marqués de Riscal winery (designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim arquitect)…you´ll find a lovely atmosphere in places where the path of time seems to be slower than in the rest of the world…
Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja, and Marqués de Riscal Winery in Elciego,Rioja Alavesa
This monastery is located near the town of Bolibar (yes, Simón Bolivar the liberator of the Spanish colonies in South America had his ancestors here), belonging to Markina-Xemein (a beautiful but unknown town, where the University of Jai-Alai-Basque pelota- is located). The building is not magnificent, I´d say it´s humble and appropriate for praying and silence…but it is surrounded by a most beautiful scenery, green meadows and valleys, one after the other, and by the magnificent mountains of the Basque Country. It´s open to visitors and it´s also a hospice, where you can rest and share the meditative life of the monks. For more info, http://monasteriozenarruza.net/, available in English and other languages.
Absolutely off the beaten path, and hardly visited by any foreign tourist, in Zumarraga lies the “cathedral” of the Basque hermitages. It´s believed that this amazing church was built on the remains of a XII century fortress. While the outside walls and façade are austere and without much interest, the interior is surprisingly outstanding, completely covered in oak wood coffering. There´s a complex wooden framework all over the ceiling, that makes of the inside of this big hermitage a beautiful, relaxing sight. If there´s someone singing on the choir, as it happened during my visit, the effect is simply breathtaking.
Together with the sanctuaries of Loiola and Arantzazu, it is part of the Route of the Three Temples in the Ignatian Land (founder of the Jesuits). The legend says that the church is made of the stones thrown by the Giants that inhabited the Basque Country before the arrival of christianism, who wanted to destroy it, as churches were a menace for their survival.
If you really want to see a different church, in a non touristy part of the Basque Country, but close to eveywhere you may stay…this is the place.
You have surely heard of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, as they are present all over the world. But I´m sure you didn´t know that the founder was born in 1491 in the heart of the Basque Country, in Azpeitia. Iñigo de Loyola (born Iñigo, a Basque name, that he changed later to Ignacio), of a noble family and educated in the best manner, soon became a soldier serving the King of Castile. In 1521 he was injured while battling in Pamplona, and retired to his fortress in the valley of Loiola, near Azpeitia and Azkoitia. During his long recovery he got used to reading religious books, that made him rethink his whole life. Once recovered, he started a life of sanctity that led him to the foundation of the Jesuit order, probably the most influential in the history of the Catholic church.
The 18th century basilica is located in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a park full of trees and by the Urola river that flows through the mountainous scenery. As you can see by the pictures, it´s a magnificent but at the same time a modest building, with a great dome covered in baroque paintings and designs. On its left hand side you can visit the birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola, a.k.a. Iñigo de Loyola, that has been beautifully restored to its original state. You can visit both buildings, and in the fortress tower you can see the rooms as they were in the 16th century.
Right by the Basilica (or Sanctuary) there´s a nice, cozy hotel and some rural housings, as well as fine restaurants, in an atmosphere surprisingly almost tourist free. The valley offers very interesting visits, like the Ferrería de Mirandaola (Ironmongery) in theIron Valley or the town of Idiazabal, where the world famous Idiazabal sheep cheese is made (also, the Cheese Museum deserves a visit).
In the very centre of what´s knows as The Almond (due to its peculiar shape), that is, the historic district of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country, there´s the Old Cathedral of St Mary´s. A few years ago, a very interesting project was born: the restoration of this Cathedral to stop its decaying process, seemingly unstoppable at the time. They have a great motto, Open For Reworks, (Abierto Por Obras, in Spanish), and they offer guided tours with experts that show you why the Cathedral was about to collapse, what are they doing to prevent it from falling down and how are they “reconstructing” some walls and columns so the building stays as it is for several more centuries. Extremely interesting for art and architecture lovers, for families and kids and for everyone interested in History, with capital letters. The Old Town of Vitoria-Gasteiz offers a great array of historical monuments and it´s also well worth a visit (the Jewish quarter is very well kept and its buildings are beautiful). This project has received a good number of prizes, based on its universal interest, and you can have all relevant info on www.catedralvitoria.com, also available in English.