Basque Country

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While we were planning our trip, we both agreed that we wanted to spend part of the trip actually living somewhere instead of hopping to a new city every few days.  We wanted to meet locals, practice a language, make friends, and really get a good feel for a culture.  For the previous six months we had been way too excited to check out absolutely everything and every place around us, so we never actually made it happen.  However, due to a series of fortunate events, we were finally able to settle down a bit in Sopelana, in the Basque Country of Northern Spain.

It’s hard to summarize all of the amazing times that we had during that month in a single blog post.  I’m sure I will forget several things, each of which on their own could probably be an entire post…but I’ll do my best.

A few months before we arrived, I had called my friend Ari who had lived in a few different regions of Spain and traveled extensively.  I told him that we were thinking of settling in Spain for a bit and asked his opinion on where would be a good place to do it.  There were of course a lot of pros and cons to each of the different regions but he mentioned that he still had several friends in the Bilbao region in the north and he would try to get us in contact.  A few days later, I got an email from Ari’s friend Zigor, who — even though he had never met us — offered for us to stay in an extra room in his apartment…for free…for basically as long as we wanted.  I offered to pay some rent but he absolutely refused.  We were so surprised and happy by the offer and we decided to take him up on it.  The only minor issue was that the room wasn’t going to be ready until a few days after we were scheduled to be in the area.  So we found a nearby house on AirBnB that was right on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful beach.

The cliff house was nice and it had a lot of history, but it was the woman that lived there, Tate, and her boyfriend Eneko that really made it special.  Tate was a professor of landscape architecture, and she was advising a student, Trent who had flown in from Winnipeg, Canada.  The downstairs room of the house was set up as a workshop and it was covered with printed maps.  Trent was super nice and he came along with us on a few adventures.

Along the top of the cliff from the house was a jogging trail and several exercise machines that passed by a huge old-fashioned windmill.  The trail actually went for several miles along the cliffs past several beaches.  On some days we would take the bikes out and explore the different beaches.  It felt great to be able to get back into a somewhat regular routine of exercise.  If we went the opposite way from the trails we would get to the town of Getxo where there were several taverns, restaurants, and pintxo bars.  (Pronounced “pin-cho,” a pintxo is a smaller portion than tapas, usually one or two bites of something delicious for an individual.) The local specialty was called a Gilda and it consisted of a marinated olive, anchovy, and green pepper on a toothpick.  They were so good!

Even though we were staying in a small town near the beach, the big city of Bilbao was just a short subway ride away.  We spent a few days going into town, checking out the world famous (and crazy looking) Guggenheim Museum, walking through the old town, checking out the pintxo bars, and shopping for cold weather clothes.  The pintxos in Bilbao were less elaborate than the famous pintxos of San Sebastian but they were still really good.  For example, in San Sebastian you might get pickled pork with mole ice cream or rice in tomato fruit roll up topped with poached egg and tortilla strip (both real dishes at our favorite San Sebastian place: Fuego Negro) whereas in Bilbao, you would be more likely to get something like a really good chorizo with egg or a nice piece of bacalao (fried cod).

One of the cool things about Tate’s boyfriend Eneko, was that he is a surfing and stand up paddle board (SUP) instructor!  All five us spent a day at the Urdaibai estuary which is a biosphere reserve and basically looks like a river that flows several miles from the ocean into a green valley.  Eneko gave us a lesson and we spent three hours riding into the estuary, checking out the diverse plants and animals and castles along the ridge of the valley.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from paddle boarding but we all had a great time.  Eneko also happened to be a great cook, and later on he taught me how to make a super simple and incredibly good soup with chorizo, potatoes and onions.

After a few days at the Cliff House, we had to say goodbye because our new host Zigor was picking us up at the windmill to take us to his apartment.  Right from the start he seemed really friendly, but we soon realized just how awesome he and his girlfriend Myriam were.  After picking us up, he took us to a nearly place to get some txacoli (local sparkling wine) and we drank a little bit while we got to know each other.  Then he picked up Myriam and we all went out to a grilled chicken restaurant in the countryside.  It’s the kind of place that we never would have known about as tourists, but it turned out to be some of the best chicken we had ever eaten.  Then we went to the local Eroski grocery store and we got super excited about all of the local products, cheeses, hams and chorizos.  Then for dinner we did for the first time what would quickly become our routine.  Zigor would could cook something, I would try to help and learn how to cook it also, and we would speak only Spanish in the kitchen.  So I was able to learn to cook some delicious Spanish and Basque dishes and improve my Spanish a lot.  Then we would spend a few hours around the table, having some great conversations and making jokes.  Zigor was really fluent with English (he had lived in the US as a teenager) but Myriam’s was only slightly better than my Spanish so we would take turns helping her with English and then her helping us with Spanish.

Zigor’s apartment also happened to be just down the street from Arriaterra beach, one of the best surf spots in Europe.  Although we never actually surfed, we would hang out at the beach and run and exercise around the surrounding cliffs.  One evening, I took out Zigor’s boogie board and wetsuit and joined the roughly 100 other surfers and boogie boarders.  I spent an hour swimming around and riding waves before I just rested on the board in the water and watched the sun set from the ocean.  It was a sublimely beautiful moment.

After about a week at Zigor’s we got to participate in an awesome Basque tradition.  Four of his friends (and me!) were celebrating birthdays so about 30 of us got together at a txoko (“cho-co”) in the countryside.  A txoko is basically a building that houses the members of a gastronomical society.  You can only go if you are a member (or are invited by a member).  It’s a big clubhouse with a lot of tables, a commercial kitchen and a bar.  Zigor’s friends had been preparing a meal of puerros and potato soup, green salad, roast chicken and ice cream cake in the kitchen.  Then we were able to drink whatever we wanted from the bar and just had to leave a tally of how much we drank.  Everyone was really friendly and we had a great party.  As I drank more, my Spanish seemed to get better and better and I had some solid Spanish-only conversations.  Then we all went back to a surfer bar near the beach where we had an after party and danced until 3am.

The next morning, for my actual birthday, Zigor and Amanda presented me a cake that they had picked up a few days earlier when he had taken Amanda to his favorite childhood bakery near his parents’ house.  Then Amanda and I got ready to pick up our rental car and head out to La Rioja for my 30th birthday weekend.

  • Gettin Fit in Aixerrota
  • Serious Pintxos
  • Puppy at the Guggenheim
  • Standup Paddleboarding In Urdaibai
  • Eneko
  • Beach Near Mundaka
  • Getting the Boards Off the Defender
  • Badass
  • Chorizo and Egg Montadito
  • Eneko Acting Like a Boss
  • Mushroom and Ham Pintxos
  • Ham Montaditos
  • Anchovy and Pepper Sandwhich
  • Standup Paddleboarding In Urdaibai
  • Standup Paddleboarding In Urdaibai
  • Standup Paddleboarding In Urdaibai
  • Taking a Break on the Bridge
  • BasqueCountry-18
  • View From Cliff House
  • Aixerrota Windmill
  • Jogging Path in Aixerrota
  • View From Aixerrota
  • Cliff House
  • Cliff House
  • Mandy Coming Up to Our Cliffhouse Room
  • In the Hatch
  • Mandy on the Cliffhouse Balcony
  • Just Some Typical Grocery Store Shopping
  • Some Weirdo
  • Pulpo and Potato with Paprika
  • Homemade Basque Dinner
  • Fresh Salad
  • Zigor and Myriam
  • Family Dinner
  • Pintxos on Display
  • Txoko Party
  • Happy Birthday Txoko
  • Txoko Party
  • Txoko Party
  • Adam's Happy Birthday Cake
  • Myriam, Zigor and Jun
  • Cin Cin!
  • Hike From Sopelana
  • Ocean near Sopelana
  • Gazing at the Beach near Sopelana
  • Hiking Crew
  • Walking Toward Plenzia
  • Fancy Pintxos In San Sebastian
  • San Sebastian Food Collage

Posted: January 21, 2013

Author: Adam and Amanda

Category: Blog, Continents, Europe, Spain


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