Category Archives: Gipuzkoa

The Flysch of Zumaia, Amazing 60 Million Years Back in History

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Church of San Telmo and FlyschZumaia Flysch and beach

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.

View of the coast and FlyschGeologists 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.

ZumaiaThe 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.

 

 

The Church (Hermitage) of Santa María de la Antigua, Zumarraga

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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.

 

The Basilica of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits

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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 the Iron Valley or the town of Idiazabal, where the world famous Idiazabal sheep cheese is made (also, the Cheese Museum deserves a visit).

 

Arantzazu Sanctuary and Oñati

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The sanctuary of Arantzazu is an oddity in the world of monasteries. A franciscan monastery for the past 500 years, it´s located on the steep road that leads to the highest mountain in the Basque Country, Aitzgorri (Red Rock, in Basque). The legend says that the shepherd Rodrigo de Balzategui saw an image of the Virgin Mary hidden in a thorn tree…and he exclaimed “Arantzan zu!!”, that means “You in the thorn”, in Basque. Thousands of Basque women are called Arantzazu or Arantxa following the name of the Virgin of Arantzazu. The franciscans built the monastery on the mountain, and in 1954 they decided to build a new one, after several fires had severely damaged the building. The “new” monastery is spectacular, perched on the  rocky slope leading to the Urbia meadows on the way to Aitzgorri, there´s a visitor´s centre and a hotel, and the inside offers the remotest idea you´d have about a monastery. The walls are painted, there are poems and sayings, and it looks quite “70´s modern”. Outside, on the front wall, 13 apostles (yes, thirteen), or some figures that look like them.

Down, the town of Oñate (Oñati, in Basque). You can´t miss the University, founded in the XVI century, and the first one in the Basque Country, that closed in 1901. Also, its magnificent church, crossed by the river, that can be seen from inside the church. The rest of the town is also full of magnificent buildings and it´s well worth a visit. Nearby, the famous cider houses, Idiazabal cheese farms,…

A Pintxo is not a Tapa…and a Tapa is not a Ración…

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pintxos BilbaoMany 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?pintxos Donostia

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…pintxo ganador

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.

Cozy and Comfy Rural Lodging

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For those of you visiting the Basque Country and that don´t care much about accommodation in the town center, the sensible alternative is rural lodging. By “rural” I mean “out of town”, but it may also imply closeness to nature, farm life and beautiful and idyllic surroundings. If you decide on a stay in the Basque Country on a rural home, you´ll get very good accommodation with all your primary, secondary and even tertiary necessities covered, a very good price, wonderful homemade breakfasts and all the peace and tranquility you long for, but also nice talks with the house owners, local and ecological products at hand, horse rides, beautiful trekkings,…

Some houses are better prepared than others, some have swimming pool, others offer their kitchen for private use, you may have a jacuzzi or not…but all of them pass a quality certification every year to make sure that the accommodation level is keep high.

I´m very fond of this kind of tourism, perfect to get a better understanding of our particularities. The evental language barrier will be quickly overcome by a warm welcome and a sense of immediate belonging to the place. I make my reservations through two webs, www.nekatur.net and www.agroturismosdebizkaia.com (this one, just for the province of Bizkaia), but you sure know how to google using the right words…

Basque Ferrerías, Ironworks of the Middle Ages

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el pobalOne of the main characteristics of the Basque soil is (well, it was) its rich content in high quality iron. Up to the XVI century, there were around 300 foundries! producing iron for all of Europe. Nowadays, iron still plays an important role in our present industrial activity (unfortunately, not as before…). At the very beginning, the foundries were located on top of the mountains and they used the wind as the main force to produce iron, using coal as their source of heat (in a very anti-economical way). Soon they found out that it made more sense to have the ironworks close to a water stream, and so “modern” foundries were established in many Basque towns.mirandaola

I´ve been to two of these foundries, both recently restored and open to the public . You can visit them (visits are also available in English) in order to watch “live” how iron was formerly obtained. The historical reconstruction is very well performed and what you see is probably very close to what it really was, they take great pride in transforming iron “the old way”. One of them is near Bilbao, in Muskiz (Bizkaia), Ferrería El Pobal, www.elpobal.com (this link will redirect you to another page available in English)- press here for a 4´youtube video of a visitor-. You can also see how they got flour from wheat with a water mill. Entrance tickets are cheap and very interesting, kids find it really amusing.

mirandaola2The other one is located in Legazpi, Gipuzkoa, where there formerly were 7 foundries. This one is Ferrería Mirandaolaon this link (not the best of webs, but at least it´s in English), located in the middle of a beautiful park where you can enjoy the incredible and beautiful landscape surrounding it. There are restaurants nearby where you can have a good meal after the visit, and even get all the way to Azpeitia, to the Museo del Ferrocarril (http://www.nekatur.net/museo-vasco-del-ferrocarril-de-azpeitia), where you can take a ride for half an hour on a real XIX century train powered by coal, apart from an interesting collection of old engines, trams,  buses, fire trucks, the workshop, etc…