Last Saturday I went to visit the Museo de la Boina La Encartada - Museum of the Beret (or “txapela”, in Basque), in Balmaseda, Bizkaia. It´s on the former factory that has been making berets for exactly 100 years (1892-1992). The museum - a classic , beautiful XIX century Industrial Revolution building- , surrounded by well kept gardens and a river, has been recently opened and offers a very comprehensive and thorough visit (available in English on demand).
They show the whole process, as some of the machinery is still in good working condition. All the machinery has been restored and, as the power they use to make them work comes from just WATER (thrusted from a turbine moved by the force of the water of the river), it´s constantly in motion. A very good guide shows you how wool is converted through a series of processes into a classic Basque beret, there´s a very instructive video (well, there are two, one is for kids and the other is for adults) and you also visit the home of the owners, kept as it was in early XX century. Entrance fee is very small and they offer berets for sale, at very reasonable prices. Nearby, the beautiful village of Balmaseda, full of beautiful churches, convents and a marvellous mediaeval bridge. A different kind of visit.
The web page is www.laencartadamuseoa.com, it´s just 30 kms from Bilbao and it´s off the beaten path, but worth the visit. Not far from Ferrería (ironmongery) El Pobal and the Rolls Royce Museum.
And this is me with the txapela I bought that day…
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.
I´ve been to the III Basque Tourism Week, held in Donostia-San Sebastián, Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz. Lots of interesting people discussing about how to improve the quantity and quality of visits to our beautiful but alas! so unknown country. There was one sentence, though, that got all my attention, Basque is sexy, and yes, I think we are, and for a lot of reasons…
…because of our love for good food, good drinking and festivals…because there are plenty of places yet to be discovered…because we make one of the best cheeses in the world (Idiazabal) but many others too…because in such a small territory we have sea, beaches, mountains, forests, lakes, caves and rivers…because our fiestas last long and suit all tastes and are really fun…because of our love for rural sports…because of our love for traditions…because of our unique language, euskera, so enigmatic…because we make one of the best wines in the world, the Rioja…because we don´t speak English and signs are in Basque and Spanish and tourists appreciate it…because of our laid back and easy going way of life…because we have the higher number of Michelin starred restaurants per head…because we keep a nice balance between rural and city life…because we have one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (in the world?), San Sebastián…because kids are welcome everywhere and we love to have them around…because of our love for families…and because a sunset from the top of the Hanging Bridge is a lifetime experience…among many other things…
It´s about time you come and visit a place full of positive experiences and emotions…where you will find at home. And this is not just a gimmick!!
Araba is the biggest of the three provinces that make Euskadi-the Basque Country, as it´s called. Its capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz, where the Basque Government and a good part of the Administration is based. Araba is usually ignored by tourism, except for its southern part, the wine region of Rioja Alavesa, where the best wines of Europe are made.
If coming to the Basque Country, try not to ignore Araba. It offers wonderful natural spaces (Valderejo, Gorbeia and Izki Natural Parks, for example), a wide diversity in landscapes and climates, excellent food, a great capital worth a visit and unexplored valleys surrounded by beautiful mountains.
Vitoria-Gasteiz is considered the most livable city in Spain, due to its ample spaces, the high rate of trees per habitant, number of parks, low crime rate and high number of pedestrian areas. Its Old Quarter was declared a Protected Monument in 1997, and keeps the spirit of the old times. The restoration of the old cathedral, www.catedralvitoria.com, can be followed in a guided tour that explains the whole process and has won several awards as Best Restoration Project. Not far, you can have lunch at www.restauranteelportalon.com, a XV century building with a spectacular façade and a beautiful interior, and great food, of course!!. You can´t miss the excellent pintxos served at its many bars, many located in the pedestrian street Eduardo Dato (a popular one is www.sagartoki.es). And, on the way out of town, the sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin of Estibalitz, many girls are named after the matron saint of the province.
Not far from Vitoria-Gasteiz, you can enjoy the reservoirs of Urrunaga and Ullibarri-Ganboa, both offer excellent hikes and places to have great food. The town of Peñacerrada-Urizaharra, still keeps a good part of its mediaeval walls untouched. In Salinas de Añana, further south, near the Valdegovía valley, pure rock salt is obtained as it was done hundreds of years ago, in terraces where water evaporates (guided tours available). And then, the Rioja region…that will be object of a separate post.
Two great museums in Vitoria-Gasteiz not to be missed: Artium, www.artium.org, contemporary art in a spectacular building, and the Museum Fournier of Cards, over 20.000 models of playing cards of all countries.
The suggested routes below are, in my opinion, those places that you should visit when coming to this so much unknown country. Most are easily accessible on public transport and, except in high season, you shouldn´t worry too much about crowds.
1) DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIÁN, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (in the world?), views from Igeldo mountain, pintxos in the Old Town, Chillida-Leku open air museum (www.museochillidaleku.com), the picturesque fishing town of HONDARRIBIA.
2) ZARAUTZ, GETARIA (wonderful promenade almost touching the sea linking both towns), grilled fish at any of the restaurants in Getaria, ZUMAIA and its beautiful church, LEKEITIO, its port, its island and the incredible retable inside its church.
4) SAINT JEAN DE LUZ, BIARRITZ, BAYONNE-BAIONA, in the French Basque Country (also Petit Bayonne, on the other side of the river), great chocolates and gateau basque, apart from picturesque villages and perfect beaches for surfing.
5) BILBAO, Guggenheim Museum (this was obvious!), Old Town (Casco Viejo), Funicular train to Artxanda for spectacular views of the city.
6) The HANGING BRIDGE (Puente Colgante) of Portugalete, a Unesco World Heritage Monument, unique in the world, over 110 years old and running 24 hours a day.
ATXONDO valley, where silence can be heard, spectacular place with the mountains and sheep in the background. And several wonderful restaurants .
9) URDAIBAI Biosphere Reserve and the beaches of Laga, Laida, the town of Busturia, Mundaka (surfers´ paradise), the sea estuary, the caves of Santimamiñe and the PAINTED FOREST OF OMA. Also the steep fishing town of Elantxobe.
10) The walled towns of LAGUARDIA and LABASTIDA and the wine region of Rioja Alavesa. Not to miss the guided visits to the wine cellars underneath the town.
11) The POZALAGUA caves, in the Karrantza valley, a spectacular combination of rare stalactites and stalagmites, now specially prepared for visits with kids,, http://www.karrantza.com/?seccion=cuevas3&idioma=es.
You will not find massive tourism or tourist traps at any of these places, and distances from one to the other are not that big, so plan your visit in advance and you will make the most of this absolutely beautiful corner of the world!!
You´d never thought that the biggest and most important Rolls Royce collection in the world would be located in much unknown area of Bizkaia province in the Basque Country. 75 unique cars, 43 of them Rolls Royce and then Lamborghini, Ferrari, Hispano-Suiza, Bentley…, all kept in perfect working condition in a beautiful tower castle located in a lush green valley just 35 kms west of Bilbao. For detailed info and pictures, torreloizaga.com, unfortunately only in Spanish, but Google offers a free and decent translation service… Sadly, its owner, founder and keeper (he was alsothe ticket seller…) died recently, so there´s some degree of uncertainty about the future of this museum. I was there last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Kids are welcome, you can take as many pictures as you want and the fortress and gardens are perfect for a bit of relax.
Not far, in the Karrantza (or Carranza) valley, there are XIX century balnearies, the Pozalagua caves (one of the biggest in the world), El Carpín Zoo and Adventure Park (perfect for kids)…in an unspoilt environment, tourist-free. Two good web pages for this area are karrantza.com, and enkartur.net, luckily also in English. I also like to go to this area to enjoy “alubiadas” in a restaurant, consisting of slow cooked beans with black pudding, chorizo, bacon…as much as you can eat, followed by a huge grilled (rare, as we like it over here) T-bone steak…all for around 25 euros per person, wine included (as an example, www.enkartur.net/servicio-restaurante-la-bodeguilla-sopuerta-40.html, in Sopuerta).
I can´t help to think that if this museum were located in, say, the UK or the US, it would be a much visited attraction and known worldwide by car lovers. But for some reason it seems we want to hide these little gems from our visitors.