Jessica Colley Clarke
JESSICA COLLEY CLARKE
The beach in San Sebastian
Take a cooking class in San Sebastian, hop between wine bars in a seaside coastal village, or taste Rioja’s luscious red wines from the source.
A trip to the Basque Country will likely include visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao and sampling the latest in molecular gastronomy at one of the region’s many Michelin-rated restaurants. Yet this corner of northern Spain has much more to offer beyond its striking architecture and forward-thinking food—especially if you can find the time to slow down.
Instead of just devouring San Sebastian’s legendary pintxos, why not get in the kitchen and learn how they are made? After dining at the biggest-name restaurant, how about opting for a no-name casual spot in one of the region’s small coastal fishing villages? Instead of chasing down a favorite wine in its native land, you could use your trip to discover new, smaller producers from Rioja that don’t always find their way to the shelves of our wine shops back home.
These three escapes offer the chance not only to get a taste of the Basque Country, but to engage with the region’s traditions and learn about the stories behind the big flavors.
1. City escape and cooking lessons in San Sebastian
“One bite—you must devour it all in one bite,” said chef Mikel Gallo. Donning an apron, I stood in the kitchen of ni neu, a stylish restaurant on the San Sebastian waterfront, holding a Gilda. This city is famous for its pintxos and snacks on sticks, but the best-known bite might just be the Gilda, named after a sultry Rita Hayworth film character from the 1940s who was equal parts spicy, salty, and sharp. A pickled Basque hot pepper (called a piparra), a fat whole anchovy, and a marinated olive are skewered—and served with instructions: one bite.
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While we assembled our Gildas, I asked Gallo, a San Sebastian native, about some of his favorite pintxos. “There’s a really old bar called Zaldundegi in Urnieta—a village next to San Sebastian—where they make a fried pig’s ear. You must try it,” he said. “Around town, my favorites are A Fuego Negro in the old quarter, or Bodeguilla Donostiarra in the neighborhood of Gros.” We raised our skewers and after a sort of seafood cheers, obeyed the one-bite rule. First the vinegar of the pepper hit, then its heat, and finally the clean ocean rush of the anchovy—one bold, balanced bite.
Where to Stay: Hotel de Londres overlooks La Concha beach and the sea. The film theme continues in this classic hotel, filled with glamorous black-and-white images of film stars who were guests over the years during the San Sebastian Film Festival. Opt for a sea-facing room and leave your balcony doors open in the early evening for a serenade from musicians down below.
2. A glimpse into village life and txakoli at its source
The sun had set hours ago, but the locals in Lekeitio were in no rush to get to dinner. They all had a first (or third) glass of txakoli in hand—the refreshing, local white wine—and were catching up with neighbors and friends while kids played in the pedestrianized square nearby. This is a scene I had left the cities to find: a quiet evening in a seaside village, surrounded by sounds only in Basque or Spanish—not a single word of English. The evening unfolded one croquette at a time, with a small, cold pour of txakoli followed by a short stroll to the next overflowing bar.
After a night of nibbling my way through Lekeitio, I set out along the meandering coastline to taste txakoli at the source. At Elkano, a txakolinería located high above the fishing village of Getaria, owner Jose Luis Zimmermann greeted me under the vines—literally. All the vines here are trellised, making it possible to stroll beneath a canopy of grapes—with over 150 days of rain here on average, it is essential to keep them up and off the damp earth. As we popped open a bottle of his txakoli after a winery tour, Jose Luis debunked a common myth about the Basque wine: “You don’t have to pour txakoli from high above,” he said with a grin. “Locals definitely don’t go in for that kind of show—we simply pour, drink, and then pour again.”
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Where to Stay: On the perimeter of the charming seaside village of Lekeitio, Hotel Zubieta is set in an 18th-century building that was once the stables of a nearby palace. A shady, peaceful patio is ideal for an afternoon coffee after drinking one too many lunchtime glasses of txakoli. Located at the edge of town, this small property offers countryside quiet within an easy stroll of the village’s packed wine bars and restaurants.
3. Escape to wine country: Rioja Alavesa
I crossed the threshold into Laguardia, a medieval walled village in the heart of Rioja Alavesa (the section of greater Rioja wine country that is located within the borders of the Basque country), aiming for one landmark: the oldest house in town. Dating back to the 11th century, Casa Primicia has a modest exterior and a storied interior, complete with enormous stone vats from the 14th century beneath the floor. The tour begins standing on top of these vats, on a piece of glass that enables visitors to peer below, where 20,000 kilos of grapes once filled each vat and the process of winemaking began.
I enlisted the help of a local—Carmen Romo, founder and director of Romotur, a Bilbao-based travel specialist—to narrow down the dozens of local wineries according to my interests. Carmen helped identify not only wines worth traveling for, but wineries with a long and fascinating history. While I tasted a few of Casa Primicia’s wines, I learned that the old house has many stories to tell. It is where the church collected “taxes” from farmers in the form of part of their harvest. The cellar contains a secret tunnel that leads to the outside of the walled village. Did I know that wine was once transported in the skin of a goat? These are the kinds of tales that I don’t find in the bottom of a glass of Rioja back home.
Where to Stay: Wine country here is full of architectural surprises—including Hotel Viura, a designer hotel with a distinct exterior of teetering boxes. Set against the backdrop of a traditional village, this boutique property offers a convenient location for winetasting afternoons or vineyard hikes. There is also a spa and a cozy bar with an inviting patio on-site. And, for the morning after, a decadent breakfast.
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