Zarautz (Basque Country), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

We were at Gran Camping Zarautz earlier this year (February 2022) and enjoyed our stay. It’s a very comfortable campsite and there’s nothing wrong with the small town of Zarautz but we returned primarily because of the campsite’s close proximity to Bilbao. We were booked on the Bilbao to Portsmouth ferry for travel on 28 September and needed somewhere to while away the last hours of this 2022 tour.

Zarautz beach – as pretty as ever and the perfect place to finish this particular tour

To the east of Zarautz, just 20 minutes drive away, is San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) which, amongst other things, is supposedly Spain’s culinary capital and where the Spanish monarchy used to spend their summer holidays. We had it in mind to visit San Sebastian but the one day we had left is insufficient to do the place justice and this particular tour (Tour 6) must end now. We’ll do it next year…

So ends Tour 6.

Getaria (Basque Country), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

We took the coast road from Zumaia to Zarautz stopping at Getaria on the way. We’d passed through Getaria the day before (after I’d missed the turn off to our campsite in Zumaia) and the small town looked most appealing … and certainly worth revisiting.

We parked on the western edge of Zumaia, just above the smaller of the town’s two beaches (Gaztetape Beach), and then walked up towards the town centre which is dominated by a monument to Juan Sebastian Elkano (1487-1526). Until then I’d never heard of Elkano but he is a most fascinating character and fully deserving of the monument. It was Elkano and not, as I once thought, Magellan who first circumnavigated the globe. Elkano was captain of one of the five ships that in 1519 formed Magellan’s fleet in the search for a western passage to the Spice Islands and it was Elkano who in 1522 brought the sole remaining ship (the Victoria) back to Spain long after Magellan was killed somewhere in the Philippines (1521). I’ve subsequently watched a Spanish TV Series, ‘Boundless’, which tells Elkano’s story in a very engrossing manner (although I couldn’t testify as to it’s historical accuracy).

The view from the Elkano Monument, eastwards over Getaria’s second beach (the Malkorbe Hondartza Beach) towards Zarautz.

Another famous son of Getaria is the fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) whom Christian Dior described as “the master of us all” and whose brand was ultimately taken over by Gucci. A museum dedicated to Balenciaga was opened in Getaria in 2011. I didn’t go in (it’s not quite my cup of tea) but it supposedly rotates some 1,000 of Balenciaga’s creations.

Having checked out the Elkano Monument, Vanya and I made our way down the main street (Nagusia Kalea) of this quaint medieval fishing and whaling village towards the Church of San Salvador. There are a number of pintxos bars on the main street where we could have taken brunch but, from the monument, I had seen a couple of bars on the harbour and thought to eat there and; besides, I wanted a look inside the church.

There’s been a church on this site since the 13th century but this particular church dates mostly from the 15th and 16th centuries (except for some 19th century restoration work to fire damage caused during the Carlist Wars). There’s an attractive upper gallery inside the church on which a choir was practising as I entered. They were seriously good and I had to tear myself away to rejoin Vanya and the dogs waiting outside on Nagusia Kalea.

The centre nave of the church with it’s raised presbytery. The church was declared a National Monument in 1895.

We followed the main street on through a narrow tunnel (the Katropana Tunnel) which goes under the church and past a small crypt to the harbour. It was time to eat.

After eating and checking out the harbour area we walked the dogs back to the Van and then I retraced my steps to the far end of the harbour and up the small mouse shaped hill grandly referred to as Mount San Anton but better known by the locals as ‘The Mouse of Getaria’. Mount San Anton was originally a small island with a lighthouse (Faro de Getaria) and a gun emplacement which was last used in earnest during the Spanish Civil War. The lighthouse is still working but the gun emplacement serves now only as a viewpoint.

Faro de Getaria
A view west from inside the gun emplacement on Mount San Anton

It occurs to me that I have not yet mentioned food and/or drink in any detail. That needs to be corrected because this area is famous for txacoli (sometimes called txakolilocal) and it’s seafood. Txacoli is a traditional Basque white wine, slightly sparkling and very dry, made with the local grape, Hondarrabi Zuri. The wine goes very well with the local fish; talking of which, the ‘Elkano’ is a Michelin Star Restaurant in Getaria which specialises in chargrilled fish. Next time.

Zumaia (Basque Country), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

For the last two days of this tour we are booked into Gran Camping Zarautz (a favourite site during our earlier tour this year but one which is also within easy reach of Bilbao where we are to catch the ferry to Portsmouth). This left us sufficient time to visit both Zumaia and Getaria before our journey home. We started with Zumaia.

Zumaia is just a few miles west of Zarautz at the mouth of the River Urola. It was originally a fishing town but the harbour is now filled with leisure craft and is more of a tourist resort. The area is famous for it’s flysch. These are successive layers of rock which are in effect a 60 million year old record of the planet Earth. I know very little about geology but it seems these enormous layers of sediment stretch more than 13 kilometres along the coast and attract geologists from all over the world. They form the UNESCO recognised ‘Basque Coast Geopark’. I had to see it for myself and after parking the Van up I took off on a quick exploration.

My route took me down and across the River Urola to Zumaia’s old town; past the 13th Century Basque style Gothic Church of Saint Peter the Aposle and; up onto the cliffs. I’d take a closer look at the town on my way back. A narrow track on the cliff leads to a viewing point which provides wonderful views of the flysch (and along the coast in both directions). There’s a series of panels along the route providing rudimentary information about the flysch.

The cliffs are stunning
The flysch is everywhere

Zumaia is not a large town and can easily be seen in half a day. It’s most prominent feature is the 13th century Iglesia de San Pedro (Church of Saint Peter the Apostle) which is an austere gothic church in the Basque style and more reminiscent of a fortress than a church. It has an impressive altarpiece which has been declared a national monument.

There are two good beaches in the immediate vicinity of the town, the Itzurun and the Santiago. The Itzurun is on the west bank of the River Urola and the Santiago is on the east bank near the marina. Playa de Itzurun was being used by a group of surfers as I arrived. Part of it featured in the seventh series of Game of Thrones – John Snow is seen landing here when visiting Daenerys. Part of the flysch forms a backdrop to Playa de Itzurun and it is very pretty. On the cliff top overlooking Itzurun is a chapel dedicated to St Elmo the Patron Saint of sailors.

There is a third beach further to the west of Zumaia, the Algorri (or the Aitzgorri in Basque). It is a rocky beach and submerged each time the tide comes in. With the tide out it is considered to be the most beautiful beach in the area and the best place to view a thin black line in the flysch which dates back some 65 million years and reflects when a huge meteorite hit what is now the Gulf of Mexico and wiped out the dinosaurs.

Apologies. We stopped overnight in Zumaia at Camping Zumaia (a new site in this part of the country and just 10 minutes walk from the town) during the last week of September 2022 and it is now 1 November. Talk about being behind with this blog.

Supper in Camping Zumaia

Zaurutz (Basque Country), Spain February 2022 (Tour 5)

It was Friday 25 February when we arrived at Zaurutz just 17 miles due west of San Sebastian in the Basque Country. It is 27 March as I write this blog.

It is ironic that we were heading back to England from Spain in such a hurry only because Vanya had a Spanish lesson in Brighton on Thursday 3 March (and we had a place booked on the chunnel train). Crazy or what?!?

We stumbled on Gran Camping Zarautz but what a find! We could spend just the one night there but will certainly return. It’s a beautifully located campsite on Mount Talaimendi, overlooking the Bay of Zarautz, and within striking distance of the Spanish ports of Bilbao and Santander and, better still, the French border.

After a quick look around the campsite (which is one of the best we have stayed at in Spain) I reserved a table in the bar restaurant for that evening and then set off on the path down to the town. They site has a proper restaurant above the bar but we wanted the dogs with us and, anyway, all the food is prepared in the same kitchen.

Zarautz was quiet but it is February and neither the town nor the beach with all its facilities will be fully open until Easter. There was however enough to keep me busy for some three hours. If the truth be known, I could have sat and watched the waves for all that time.

I got back to the Van in good time to try the local, seriously strong, txakoli wine and some cider and then call Vanya for dinner.

The food was excellent. Vanya and I shared a whole Monkfish caught earlier that day and I consider it to be the best food of any of our tours to date. I suspect I enjoyed it most because I ate more than my fair share of the monkfish cheeks. Why on earth restaurants tend to serve Monkfish tails and no head is wholly beyond me. I suspect it is to do with cost. The cheeks taste fabulous.

The next day we crossed the border back into France.

Lekeitio (Basque Country), Spain July 2021 (Tour 4)

Joy of Joys! We found an excellent campsite on the edge of Lekeitio which could accommodate us for as long as we wanted.

However, it wasn’t easy going. The SatNav played up almost immediately after we left Bermeo and was at it’s worst ever as we reached Lekeitio. It led us into a particularly narrow, winding lane in the old town centre and once there offered us the choice of either going down a pedestrian precinct (impossible because of a long line of concrete bollards at the far end of the precinct) or going the wrong way up a one way street (before anyone noticed). Any thoughts I had of making a run for it down the one way street were dispelled as the street in front of me filled with a long line of oncoming traffic. There was nothing to do but try a quick twelve and a half point turn, make our way back and find another route through the town. Fortunately, a local guy offered to act as banksman for me (and a good job he did too) and Spanish drivers are so much more patient than the Italian drivers we encountered in Italy last year. We made it in the end but I made a promise to myself that, when moving on from Lekeitio, we would not drive back through the town, no matter the size of the detour we would have to make.

The camp site was perched on a high hill with magnificent views back towards Lekeitio. I’ll not talk about Vanya’s histrionics as we inched up the 40 degree slope with its steep hairpin turns but she had recovered sufficiently by about midnight when she took the second of the two photos below.

The next morning Vanya elected for a bit of a rest day while I strolled down the hill into Lekeitio. I think I got the better of the deal because touring in a Van is not all holiday and rest days are great days for changing the bedding, catching up with the laundry and generally tidying up – Thanks awfully Vanya!

Lekeitio has been described as one of Spain’s best kept secrets. I think that description goes too far. The truth is that much of the truly picturesque parts of the town are surrounded by blocks of flats (and that ain’t pretty) but, it certainly is a pleasant enough place to chill out for a couple of days. It’s primary interest up until the 18th century was whaling but as that industry died with the whales, the town switched to more general, local fishing. There still is a fairly strong fishing sector in Lekeitio but the town is now much more about tourism. Having said that, Lekeitio has not prostituted itself to tourism in the same way as so many towns and villages have on the Costas and it is mostly the Spanish who holiday here.

This small town of some 7,000 people sits on the River Lea on the Basque Coast, almost halfway between Bilbao and San Sebastian. There are two fine beaches either side of the River Lea estuary, the Isuntza on the left bank (which was very busy as I arrived) and the much longer Karraspio (which was starting to fill) on the right bank. Just offshore and facing both beaches is the small island of San Nicolas (also known as Garraitz Island). It is an easy swim to the island or, if you wait until the tide is out, you can actually walk to it along a raised sandy pathway. It is said that the island was used to house a colony of lepers back in the Middle Ages but there are only rabbits there now.

Following the left bank around to the Isuntza Beach and on to the promenade you will pass in front of the Basilica Ascuncion de Nuestra Senora and on to the picturesque old town and harbour. The views back towards the town and across the bay towards the Karraspio Beach from the far end of the harbour are quite special.

It was well gone noon (and getting very hot) by the time I had finished my walk to the far end of the harbour and ambled up and down each and every one of the old town’s narrow streets. I was ready for a glass of wine or beer. It wasn’t difficult finding a bar with an empty seat and table on the harbour front and there is something about a 30 degree heat that lends itself to a couple of glasses of well chilled Rose wine.

Of course I didn’t leave Vanya to all the chores – Upon my return I helped with the laundry by stringing up a clothes line and I started on my Spanish Chicken & Chorizo dish.

Bermeo (Basque Country) Spain July 2021 (Tour 4)

I should have remembered that getting a spot in a campsite on the coast at weekends during the holiday season is virtually impossible in both France and Spain. Vanya tried ‘phoning a few but all were full. So, more in hope than expectation we made our way to the coast anyway, thinking to do a wild camp if we were unable to find an Aire. Our target was Lekeitio, a small fishing port in the Basque Country Region but our route took us through Bermeo first.

Bermeo is perhaps the most important fishing port in the Basque Country. So many small ports in the Basque Country have given up fishing for tourism but Bermeo remains primarily a fishing port. It was very much a whaler’s port and this fact is reflected in the town’s coat of arms which shows an open whaleboat chasing a whale

Sadly, we couldn’t hang around Bermeo for very long. We needed to find a spot to park the Van for the night. That was a shame on two counts actually because, just along the coast from Bermeo is a place I would have loved to visit – the beautiful islet of Gaztelugatxe which is connected to the mainland by a narrow man-made bridge. Gaztelugatxe featured as a film location in the HBO tv series ‘Game of Thrones’ when it became Dragonstone, the former home of Daenerys Targaryen.

And so we continued our journey towards Lekeitio.

Hondarribia (Pais Vasco), Spain – September 2020 (Tour 3)

On the opposite bank of the Bidassoa river to Hendaye, in Basque Country (Euskal Herria in Basque, Pais Vasco in Spanish and Pays Basque in French), is Hondarribia (once known as Fuenterrabia).

Hondarribia is one of the most beautiful cities in the Basque Country and a must see if you are visiting Hendaye. Don’t be put off by its “city” status; with a population of little more than 15,000 people it is not that big. It was granted city status in the 17th Century after fighting off the French in a number of battles. In reality it is an old and very colourful Basque fishing town split into two main areas – the Old Town and the La Marina District.

There is a ferry boat service that took us across from Hendaye for the day and it took just minutes and cost only 2 euros each with the dogs travelling free – a nice little trip and a great taste of Spain. There’s no doubt but that we will head into Spain after this, if only for a few days.

The Old Town dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries and it is filled with narrow cobbled streets each lined with ancient stone houses (most of which have ornately carved eaves and balconies) and it is rich in architecture and history. It is identified as the “Old Quarter” which for the most part sits within the original city walls – It is a must see.

The Santa Maria Gate is the primary entrance into the old quarter and it leads via the Calle Mayor to the Plaza de Armas where the cities two most famous buildings stand – The first of these buildings is the Church of Santa Maria de la Ascuncion y del Manzano which was built in the 15th and 16th centuries on top of the ruins of old walls and a Roman Church.

Inside the Santa Maria de la Asuncion y del Manzano

The second main building on the Plaza de Armas is the Charles V Castle (parts of which have been in place since the 10th Century although the original structure was much developed in Medieval times by Charles V). This castle was destroyed by the French towards the end of the 18th century and remained a ruin until 1968 when it was transformed into the Parador Hotel.

Charles V Castle, now the Parador Hotel

The La Marina neighbourhood is famous for its high concentration of pintxos bars and restaurants (including two with Michelin Stars) and is best visited in the evenings (especially on a Thursday which is Pintxos Day in Hodarribia). We ate lunch in a very plain and simple cafe but the food was seriously good (and a lot cheaper than in France – isn’t everything?).

I wish we had stayed longer but it wouldn’t have been fair on our dogs. If we were to do this again I would visit in July when the four day Hodarribia Blues Festival is on. I would make a point too of eating out in the La Marina area on a Thursday and I would try Txakoli – a slightly sparkling very dry white wine which is unique to the Basque Country.

There was just time to pop inside the Iglesia Parroquia de la Marina before we boarded our ferry boat back to Hendaye… I love the simplicity inside that church.