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.
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.
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.
8) 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!!