Missing Itzulia

This week sees the 59th running of the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco) and we’re not there, again! We’ve watched this stage race continuously from 2011 but were forced to miss the last two years’ because of issues with my beloved’s hip. It’s now happily mended but sadly pressure of work has prevented the resumption of our visits. To console myself, I thought I’d write a bit about this year’s race which started today.

La Concha beach San Sebastian regularly voted best in class

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scatter across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soar high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines share the waves. The dazzling architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao modern-art museum and the glittering resort of San Sebastian draw enthusiastic crowds, while traditional small towns, such as Lekeitio and Hondarribia, are also thriving, making the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

The race route (in red above) typically covers a significant part of the Spanish Basque Country visiting some old favourites, such as its capital Vitoria-Gasteiz and the climb to Arrate from Eibar. But none of it’s ever too far away so it’s possible to base yourself in one hotel and travel daily to each of the start and finish lines.

To watch the race, we’ve peviously stayed in some lovely locations such as Getaria, a small fishing resort on the coast not far from San Sebastian.

Getaria

And we’ve stayed inland among those dark satanic hills.

Home from home

But, wherever we’ve stayed, Basque hospitality has been delightful, plentiful and very reasonably priced!

This year’s race kicks off in Zumarraga, as it did back in 2011, so it’s a place we’ve visited a few times. In the town centre, there’s the charming arcaded square in the middle of which is a bronze statue dedicated to Miguel López de Legazpi, conqueror of the Philippines. Those Basques sailed everywhere! Plus, there’s a 19th century neo-classical town hall, the Itarte and Uzkanga houses, and a16th century Gothic church, Santa María de la Asunción. 

Interestingly, this year’s race begins (rather than concludes) with an individual time-trial which will be short (11.3km) but intense because the final  2.3km has an average gradient of 9.7%, reaching a maximum of 21% in the final 100 meters. This is pretty typical of climbs in the Basque Country, short but rarely sweet!

As is customary, the second stage starts where the first one leaves off in Zumarraga, finishing 150km or so later in Gorraiz after 4,800 metres of climbing. There are hardly any flat roads in the Basque Country – I speak from bitter experience. Gorraiz is in Navarra, not too far from its main town of Pamplona.

Typically, the parcours visits all the autonomous community of the Basque Country plus the Foral one of Navarra. We’ve never visited Gorraiz but I suspect it has been included on the parcours to showcase its its recently rebuilt 16th century palace and church of San Esteban (pictured above right).

Day three starts at one of yesterday’s sprint points, the ancient town of Sarrigurenat which is now home to an EcoCity dedicated to preserving the ecological habitat of its surrounding plains. It’s the longest stage of the race with an undulating 191km finishing at 12th century Romanesque Estibaliz Sanctuary (above), dedicated to the patron saint of Álava. We’ve not previously visited either of these towns, although we’ve cycled around Navarra, watched the start of the Vuelta a Espana in Pamplona and seen the GP Miguel Indurrain in Estella several times.

The fourth stage starts in the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz which has a simply lovely Old Town with some of the best preserved medieval streets and plazas in the region, plus two cathedrals. The stage, another undulating one, finishes in Arrigorriaga, a small town just outside of Bilbao, which has a parish church dating back to 9th century. While, we’re very familiar with Vitoria-Gasteiz, I don’t recollect ever visiting the finish town.

The event now starts to hot up with what is often its race defining penultimate stage, finishing in Arrate. Just look at the snaggle-toothed race profile, those boys are going to have weary legs! We’re back on very familiar  territory [to us]. The entire final climb will be lined with enthusiastic and knowledgable Basque cycling fans, most of whom will have ridden up the ascent. I have to hold my hand up here and admit we always drive up!

I can still remember Samu Sanchez winning here in 2012, his third consecutive win on this climb, before going on to lift the overall.

Though possibly the most entertaining victor at Arrate was Diego Rosa who in 2016 lifted his bike aloft before soloing across the line on foot!

The final day has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

So, there you have it: 784kms over six stages which include an individual time-trial and tackle 22 summits. I’ve no idea who’s going to win this year’s race. It’ll have its usual sprinkling of mountain goats and Basque riders. The locals will be hoping that one of the latter manages to climb atop the podium, preferably onto the top step. It’s a race much prized for its tough parcours and ability to get riders to peak for the Ardennes Classics or in form for the Giro d’Italia. I have friends riding so I’ll be watching the race every day on the television and cheering them on – aupa!

12 days of Christmas: day 4

This is a photograph of the old fishing port in Saint Jean de Luz, in France’s Basque country. I chose this one because I love the reflection of the traditional Basque houses in the water and the way the puffy clouds are focused on the hill behind.

Today the port has a small-scale fishing operation undertaken in small boats with lines and hooks that concentrate on a qualitative rather than quantitative selection of fish; typically anchovy, tuna, sardine and hake. Of course, back in the 15th century, it was a much more active port with fishermen catching tons of cod, and even going whale hunting as far as Newfoundland.

12 days of Christmas: day 3

Before spending two weeks vacation in San Sebastian, we had a couple of days in Rioja, specifically the old walled town of Laguardia. This is one of the many glorious views taken from the gardens surrounding the village, looking out over the vineyards, as the clouds rolled in.

With its beautiful rolling landscapes, medieval hamlets and exquisite wines, Rioja is Spain’s Tuscany. The wine country is subdivided into three regions: Rioja Alta (where most of the oldest vineyards are located in and around Haro), Rioja Alavesa (which also belongs geographically to the Basque Country, and is home to some of the prettiest towns such as Laguardia and Samaniego) and Rioja Baja (further southeast, a larger, more arid region whose main hub is Calahorra). Even though we were only there for a couple of days, we managed to try lots of its wines!

12 days of Christmas: day 2

This is a photo of La Concha beach in San Sebastian, taken on the first night of our vacation, just as the sun was setting. The broom like shapes on the beach are the canvas shelters which have been folded back and tied down. You can just see a few boats bobbing on the water in the bay and, while it’s not obvious, there is a channel between the two hills to the left of the photo.

The furthermost one is the Igueldo from which bike riders descend and race to the finish line on the Boulevard in the La Clasica race, the other is Isla Santa Clara. The beach was voted 2017 Trip Advisor Best Beach in Europe. Regular readers of my blog will know how much I love the Basque country and, in particular, San Sebastian. It should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Looking back on our trip to Saint Jean de Luz

Saint Jean de Luz is a fishing port on the Basque Atlantic coast and a famous resort, known for its architecture, sandy bay, the quality of the light and cuisine. The town is located south of Biarritz, on the right bank of the river Nivelle, opposite Ciboure. The port lies on the river estuary while the resort nestles in a sheltered bay, just a few kilometres from the Spanish border.

The town’s wealth stems from its port and its past, as a fishing town and a haven for Basque pirates. Indeed, English sailors used to call Saint Jean de Luz the “Viper’s Nest”. The town’s prosperity peaked during the 17th Century when it was the second largest town in the region, just behind Bayonne.

The town is renowned for its royal wedding connections as Louis XIV married Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain, on 9 June 1660 in its cathedral, the main door of which was subsequently bricked off allegedly so no other couple could walk in their footsteps.

We’d previously visited the town on earlier trips to the Basque country, and had ridden all along the coast in both directions, but had wanted to stay here again for a few days to better get to know the town and enjoy the facilities of its Thalassotherapy centre in our hotel.

It might seem odd that, living as we do on the Med, we head to the Atlantic coast for a vacation but it is quite different. Saint Jean de Luz has a real bucket and spade family holiday feel to it, largely because of its beautiful sandy beach, which our stoney beach at home really doesn’t invoke.

We spent our five days here just pottering about, enjoying the fine weather, the beach, our hotel, the market and the largely pedestrianised town. We ate breakfast each morning in one of its many excellent patisseries, enjoyed lunch either in the hotel or out at another restaurant while dinner was largely a glass of wine and some tapas while listening to/watching entertainment put on by the town. While we much enjoyed our stay, five – seven days here are sufficient to really get to know the place.

Holiday photos: day 18

A complete change of landscape as we’re in Rioja country. We’ve not spent much time here in the past, just the occasional foray to watch either a stage start or finish in the Tour of the Basque Country cycle race. In particular, we’ve never had time to appreciate and learn more about the region’s many wines.

The place I had booked was utterly lovely, in one of Spain’s  prettiest villages which overlooked acres of vineyards, bodegas and a few wildlife wetland refuges. We arrived in time for lunch which didn’t disappoint. It augured well for the rest of the week-end.

There are around 200 different vineyards in Rioja but we were never going to fit them all in over a week-end, though we could at least make a modest attempt. Many of the Bodegas in the town offered tutorials and tastings for a few euros. We were happy to accept. It could best be described as a bar crawl around the town where we discovered much to our surprise (not) that we pretty much like all Rioja has to offer!

Of course, no bar crawl in Spain is complete without tapas or, as we’re in the Basque country, pinxtos. We’ve found a bar which serves quite possibly the best tortilla either of us has ever eaten. Tomorrow we’ll head to our final destination, San Sebastian, for a two week stay in an apartment overlooking La Concha beach – sheer heaven.

 

Holiday photos: day 17

Our stay here in the French Basque country is drawing to a close. We’ve had a wonderfully relaxing time on partly familiar territory but it’s time to move on. Five days in Saint Jean de Luz was enough. We’re now packing our buckets and spades for a few days inland in Spain, more specifically, the Spanish Basque country.

Again, it’s an area we know, love and never tire of visiting. Our first holiday in the region was largely thanks to the recommendations of one of my dear cycling friends, who’s a former professional cyclist. I wasn’t too sure whether it would be as fantastic as she claimed. But she was so right and we’ve been visiting regularly ever since.

It’s hard to put into words exactly why we both love the Basque country but it’s that intoxicating mix of culture, cuisine, architecture, scenery and the Basques themselves. Not forgetting, how fabulous a place it is to cycle around. Of course we’re not always wild about the weather, far too much rain. But it’s a small price to pay for the spectacular Basque landscape.

Rest, relaxation and thalassotherapy means that my leg is now as good as new. Sadly, the same cannot be said for my beloved’s which is still causing him (and me) gip. I suspect that this is because he has been overdoing it in the gym!

 

 

Holiday photos: day 12

Vive la Revolution! We celebrated Bastille Day in Bayonne, a city we’d only previously visited. The weekend changed all of that as we happily pottered around the Old Town, the cathedral, the market and along the banks of the Adour and Neve rivers. As usual I was snapping away at all the buildings.

It had rained the night before and the day was warm and muggy which necessitated quite a bit of refuelling as we ambled along the cobbled streets of the Old Town. We were now in the Basque country so there were bars, cafes and restaurants a plenty. I was tempted by some octopus which I begrudgingly shared with my beloved. Don’t you just hate it when someone says they’re not hungry and then proceeds to eat your lunch?

Late afternoon we tottered back to the hotel to put our feet up and enjoy the complimentary aperos and nibbles, followed by the magnificent televised concert and firework dusplay from Paris. On the hotel terrace we enjoyed the local, and more modest than Paris, firework display though our thoughts were with the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice two years ago.  Vive la France!

Postcard from San Sebastian

We first visited the fabulous town of San Sebastian in 2010 to watch the Clasica San Sebastian and have been visiting regularly ever since. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why I like the place so much. But, in short, it’s all about the city’s Belle Epoque architecture, its beautiful sandy beaches, Basque culture, Basque cuisine and overall ambience. When friends ask me for recommendations for a week-end away, I never hesitate to mention San Sebastian. Its appeal is evergreen, just like the surrounding hills.

It helps that San Sebastian is cradled in a perfectly shaped bay and boasts four beautiful sandy beaches right on its doorstep. It’s a global gastronomic giant, with more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in Europe – yes, even Paris! There are plenty of festivals throughout the year and last year (2016) it was the European City of Culture.

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San Sebastian has an interesting history. The city was largely destroyed by fire in 1813 by the British and Portuguese. The tragedy left just one street standing, now renamed after the deadly assault, 31 de Agosto, and home to some fabulous eateries. The place was gradually rebuilt from scratch, albeit initially still within the confines of the city walls. Thereafter, the previously compact town began to spread along La Concha beach. In 1854 it took over as the regional capital of Gipuzkoa from Tolosa and continued its inland expansion, demolishing the old city walls in the process, part of which can still be seen in the underground car park on Boulevard.

It’s a place that’s easy to walk around so come with me for a gentle stroll. If we look at the city from left to right, Monte Igeldo towers above the western end of Ondarreta beach. Access its summit via a quaint funicular railway that runs up its eastern flank. Can I suggest you ride up and walk down. It’s worth it alone for the views from the top. Ignore the hotel and fun fair at the summit, instead stop for a delightful lunch at Rekondo on your way back into San Sebastian – more stunning views, fabulous menu and an amazing wine cellar.

While you’re walking off lunch. Walk round the headland to see Pieno del Viento, one of Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s most well-known works at the western end of Ondarreta beach. Three steel sculptures are twisted into shapes designed to comb the prevailing wind. The one facing the rocks represents the past, the one looking out to sea is the future and the one you can touch is the present. As you stroll back into town, you’ll pass by the Miramar Palace on your right which marks the divide between the two beaches. It’s the former site of El Antiguo Monastery which was pretty much all there was in San Sebastian back in the 12th century. On the left you’ll see La Perla, re-built in 1912, the white Victorian edifice which now houses a Thalassotherapy Centre and several bars and restaurants.

At the eastern end of La Concha beach, you’ll see the fishing port lined with restaurants, fishermen’s cottages, and now home to the Aquarium. On the way over, you’ll pass by the Yacht Club which forms part of the sea wall. It looks like a ship and is a stark contrast to its surrounding buildings. It’s not far from the Town Hall or Ayuntamiento, completed in 1887 and originally built as a casino but the 1924 prohibition on gambling rather thwarted its original purpose. Out front is the Alderdi-Eder park designed by the same gardener who designed the gardens of Versailles. The non-native stumpy tamarind trees were a present from Napoleon III to the city and burst into purple flowers during August, a sight to behold.

On the opposite side of the Town Hall, you’ll see El Dual, a hole studded sculpture which commemorates San Sebastian’s victims of the Spanish Civil war. Behind it you’ll see  the fisherman’s  church, Capilla de San Pedro Apostol. Presiding above the fishing port is Monte Urgull which sports a ruined castle, the English cemetery for soldiers who perished in the Carlist wars and another emblematic sculpture, the Sagrado Corazon (sacred heart).

Now, turn right and head into the Old Town past the beautiful Inglesia de Santa Maria. It’s the third church on this site and, aside from the beautifully sculpted stone, is notable for the ship’s emblem and crown that adorn its top. Look down the street and you’ll see the spire of the Catedral Buen Pastor which can hold up to 4,000 and has a gi-normous organ. The cathedral sits at the end of the Plaza Buen Pastor, in front of a simply splendid main post office and the Koldo Mitxelena Cultural Centre.

As you wander along the famous 31 de Agosto road, do find time for some local specialities, such as a glass of txakoli (local wine) and some pinxtos (tapas). My favourite haunt is Gandarias. Continue along to the Museo San Telmo, housed in a 16th century convent, the museum of Basque society and citizenship, whose newer extension hosts temporary exhibitions. It’s well worth stopping off in its delightful restaurant for coffee and cake or, at another time, lunch.

Head back towards the Plaza de la Constitucion. At one end is the old city hall, in use until 1940, and one of the first buildings built after the 1813 fire. There are numbered apartments on three sides of the square from which people used to spectate dances and bullfights for free. The Old Town is a delight to wander around though many of its quaint old shops are (sadly) being replaced by high street names. On the far side of the Old Town, alongside Boulevard, you’ll find Le Brexta which plays host to one of San Sebastian’s two markets and, bizarrely, a McDonalds!

Across the road  you can see the Belle Epoque Victoria Eugenia Theatre, next to the swanky Marie Cristina Hotel, named after the queen consort of King Alfonso XII who was largely responsible for the town’s emergence as an upmarket holiday resort. The hotel has been a city landmark since the queen inaugurated it in 1912.  Recently completely refurbished, the hotel just shouts glamour, opulence and elegance from its soaring ceilings, intricate mouldings, towering marble pillars to its polished grey and white marble floors. Well worth a visit, if only for a coffee.

Cross over the Puente de Zurriola or Kursaal bridge to check out Gros and yet another of San Sebastian’s beaches, the Zurriola surf beach, which often features exhibitions along its boardwalk. Last year there were Henry Moore sculptures, this year there’s the exhibition of wildlife photographs which we saw last year in Gijon. At the far end of the beach is the Okendo Cultural Centre. Alternatively, you can head along the river Urumea to the Parque Cristina Enea, probably the best of San Sebastian’s many green spaces, which is a real oasis, chock-full of exotic plants, next to the Tabakalera, a former tobacco factory now turned into a centre for contemporary culture.

Our stroll has only touched upon a few of San Sebastian’s sights, there’s many more besides. One of my favourites is the Gipuzkoa Plaza, an English style park surrounded by arcades fashioned after those on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris and bounded on one side by a major bank with the most splendid wrought iron doors. Everywhere you look in San Sebastian there are delights to discover. But, don’t take my word for it, visit it yourself.

12 Days of Christmas – day 3

I just had to have a photograph from the Basque country in my final dozen. We visit the Basque country at least twice a year, largely for two cycling events: the week-long Tour of the Basque country and the one-day Clasica San Sebastian. Some years, if we’re lucky like this year, we manage to fit in a third during the Vuelta a Espana. This was taken by my beloved in early August from the port of San Sebastian looking across the bay to the old pavillion.

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La Concha Beach, San Sebastian

Playa De La Concha (shell) is the best known and smallest of the three main beaches in San Sebastian, right in the centre of town and close to the Old Town. The beach is approximately 1,350 metres long and 40 metres wide, depending on the tide, and occupies approx. 54 sq metres, 5 metres below ground level. It’s one of the many jewels in San Sebastian’s crowns and is ranked among the top 15 European beaches.