Saturday, May 5, 2012

More Pais Vasco Highlights

If you don't enjoy food, Basque Country probably is not the place for you.  However, there is (slightly) more to the area than eating.  Despite rainy, cold weather, we enjoyed each day getting to know the Basque Country.  Here are a few highlights of our introductory trip.
LaRioja: vineyards and mountains

The Scenery
So, that rainy weather I mentioned?  That creates a lot of green and lush countryside, which combined with mountains and the sea provides a diverse terrain very different from many other areas of Spain.  As our driver gave us a historical and cultural overview of La Rioja, we were winding down the road through vineyards, picturesque hill towns and ultra contemporary wineries designed by world-famous architects.  As we drove our route between Rioja, Bilbao, San Sebastian and Pamplona, I felt a bit like I was in Switzerland--the architecture, the landscape and the sheep roaming the hills.  We saw the snow covered peaks of the Cantabrian mountains and the Pyrenees. 

And, we spent quite a bit of time gawking at the massive waves crashing over the bridges and bulkheads in San Sebastian.  You can easily understand why this is such a popular beach destination as you stand looking out at La Concha beach and the two mountains guarding the town.  A queen visited for a healthy dose of cold sea water and the town went from sleepy to ritzy.  They haven't looked back since, and today it has the added appeal as an unrivaled dining destination.

Our view of the Guggenheim

The Guggenheim
Its really all about the building...and a pretty cool building it is.  What I find most interesting about the Guggenheim in Bilbao is  its power as transformative object for the city.  Bilbao was (and still is) an industrial town largely avoided by tourists (no longer).  The museum changed all that drastically, making the museum and the city one of the more known destinations around the world. 

The collection varies, but I especially enjoyed some of the permanent installations/large pieces on the main floor and positioned outside.  I'm losing count of how many art museums I have been to, especially in recent years, but I find the contrast between ancient and modern art interesting.  We've had many conversations (and some laughs) at the Tate Modern and Valencia's IVAM over what makes art (the Tate had some particularly "deconstructed" pieces and IVAM's Surrealist exhibit contains some pieces that are almost disturbing).  And, there, I think we get to the heart of what modern art is and why I keep wanting to see more, even if it doesn't hold the visual enjoyment of a day spent at the Prado.  Staying at the Gran Domine Bilbao, directly across from the Guggenheim, we got to enjoy the view of this modern marvel while staying in our own piece of contemporary art.
Hotel Gran Domine Bilbao

The Hotels
The Gran Domine Bilbao was one of many great hotels we experienced during this trip.  I normally wouldn't include hotels on a list of trip highlights, as I feel it's more about exploring than where you sleep.  But, sometimes (especially when the weather is chilly and damp and you need a cozy retreat) a hotel can be a destination.

Hospederia de los Parajes in LaGuardia is a great example.  Perfectly situated in the enjoyable old town of LaGuardia, this exemplifies what all boutique hotels should be.  The owner has a passion for excellence, which you can see in the care she took in personally decorating to the time she spends chatting with customers in the bar/lobby.  This small hotel is big on amenities with a bar, two restaurants, a wine cellar/gift shop (in one of the old wine caves that run below the town) and a small spa.  The room was spacious and beautiful.  The layout was interesting, with most rooms overlooking the center of the building, where they had created a cozy living room.  We sat by the fire with a glass of wine and a good book...perfect after a long day exploring in snowy weather.

We stayed in Hemingway's favorite spot (albeit not the room) at Gran Hotel La Perla.  You can see why he would like it...right in the center, near everything (in Hem's case, all the bars and a hop to the bullring).  They remodeled recently and while they retained his room and some historical touches, it is now sleek and modern.  Our room was a corner room with more windows than our apartment (and just slightly smaller).  This spot would probably be a little too close to the action for any rest during San Fermin.

The hotels all got things right on a couple common notes--great beds (rare in Spain), amazing bathrooms, and deluxe amenities (I am such a sucker for good toiletries and a cozy robe!  Hospederia gave us an array of wine-based beauty products, but Gran Domine wins the award for most toiletries I have ever seen provided.)
La Concha beach, San Sebastian

There is so much to see in the Basque Country.  Here are a few things on my to-do list for next time:
  • Visit a few of the history museums in the area, to get more immersed in to the long history of the Basque people.  Take a detour to Gernika and the Peace Museum.
  • Take the back roads and explore some of the smaller towns along the coast and cross over the border to explore French Basque Country.
  • Visit the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao to experience that art contrast I mentioned, with its collection of some of the top masters.
  • Take even more time to explore the food and drink wonders: perhaps visiting a Sidreria during the season, finding all the small delights at the pintxos bars, splurge on a Michelin-starred dinner and definitely at least one more day at the gastronomic society.
  • Spend some time outdoors (i.e. come during summer), perhaps walking a bit of the Camino (but that's a whole other trip/discussion) or hanging out on the beach.
  • I don't think I'd appreciate the craziness of San Fermin and I'm certainly not running with the bulls, but I might enjoy the smaller bull festival in Pamplona and taking in a bullfight a la Hemingway.

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