GETARA, BASQUE COUNTRY — The lovely coastal highway (N634) that runs along Costa Vasca (Basque Coast) is dotted with some fascinating pit stops, and David, my guide, insists we visit each.
“The N634 is one of the prettiest drives in the Basque Country — a very exciting route because there’s lots of hairpin turns. I feel like a Formula 1 driver every time I travel this route,” says David as we start out early one morning from Bilbao on the super highway AP-8, which flows into the N634 at Zumaia, our first stop and one of the most visited places in this amazing autonomous region of Spain.
As the road twists and turns along the rugged coastline, the beauty of this region surrounds me — on one side of the road is the tempestuous Atlantic, its foamy surf crashing against mighty cliffs; on the other the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees jut into a cloudless sky.
“I like turn off on the the N634 here because it makes me slow down and it reminds me just how beautiful this part of the Basque region truly is,” says the Englishman as we reach a spot overlooking one of Zumaia’s two spectacular beaches.
Above: The coastal road between Bilbao and San Sabastien is filled with lots of surprises.
David orders me to follow him down a sandy path and soon we come upon a breathtaking sight — majestic jagged cliffs topped with emerald green pastures form a natural shoreline fortress and spread out as far as the eye can see.
“This is the Basque Country’s world famous flysch,” he boldly proclaims.
For the uninitiated, like me, a “flysch" is “a sequence of sedimentary rocks that is deposited in a deep marine facies in the foreland basin of a developing orogen. Flysch is typically deposited during an early stage of the orogenesis. When the orogen evolves, the foreland basin becomes shallower and molasse is deposited on top of the flysch.”
Thank you Wikipedia.
“These flysch contain 100 million of years of history,” David tells me. “Geologists love it here because this is the longest continuous rock strata in the world.”
Zumaia’s Itzurun and Santiago beaches are lined with lots of flysch, which contain a smorgasbord of geological treasures that scientists come here to feast on. Zumaia is also where many pre-historic fossils have been unearthed. Scuba diving, surfing, underwater fishing, bird watching, kayaking and bodyboarding are also popular activities in this recreational paradise.
Back in the car, David tells me that many people in this coastal area speak Euskera, the native language of the Basque people, and most still make their living off the sea.
Above: Geological wonders, historic towns and tributes to national heroes line the coastal route in Basque country.
The landscape continues to get more impressive as we get closer to our next stop, Getaria, a small fishing village on the Urola Coast which is best known as the hometown of Juan Sebastián Elcano, a legendary seaman who was reportedly the first man to circumnavigate the globe.
“A festive mood always hangs over Getaria,” says David, who tells me that many American expats have taken up residence in the town, whose narrow streets sweep down to a harbour lined with handsome homes and restaurants.
“The specialty here is grilled fish — people come from all over Spain to have the grilled fish of Getaria,” says David as the car comes to a stop in front of one of the town’s two Michelin-star restaurants.
“But I want you to tour the Balenciaga Museum with me before we eat,” he says.
So, we trudge up a small hill until we each the entrance of a modern-building that stands out from the town’s traditional Spanish architecture. The Balenciaga Museum was built to honour the creative genius of another Getaria hero, Cristóbal Balenciaga, a world renowned 20th-Century fashion designer whose haute couture creations made him as famous as his French counterparts of the day, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. The museum is filled with Balenciaga’s beautiful silk dresses and gowns — his designs were much in demand because of their elegant simplicity, impeccable cut and daring colour combinations.
“This is actually one of the biggest tourist draws in the San Sebastián area (Getaria’s close proximity to San Sebastián qualifies it as a suburb of the movie town that is a favourite of the Hollywood elite),” says David. “Many movie stars from the 1940s to the 1960s wore Balenciaga’s creations.”
I must admit, the Balenciaga Museum keeps me entertained with its creative displays, and its modern architecture is a work of art in its own right.
“It’s time to eat,” says David.
Above: The port town of Getaria is one of many along the route that features 'affordable' Michelin-star restaurants.
This area of the Basque country is crawling with Michelin-star restaurants — there’s over 30 between Bilbao and San Sebastián — and they range from one to the maximum three stars.
“There’s Elkano — meals there range between 50-85 euros ($70-$120 Cdn) — where we can have fish, or Restaurante Kaia-Kaipe — 37-74 euros ($50-$100 Cdn), which specializes in barbecue meats. Both have one Michelin star,” he says. “Or we can just go to one of the small restaurants down near the harbour and have grilled fish and a bottle of white wine for about 10 euros each.”
I opt for the latter and while walking through the town’s narrow streets en route to the harbour-side restaurant where we eat, I’m excited by the scent of fish baking on charcoal fires.
Over a glass of white wine, we tear into the perfectly grilled fish that only a few hours earlier had been swimming offshore.
“I often think about returning to England (where David was born to Basque parents) but then I come here and eat the fish, smell the air and drink the wine, I quickly realize that life does not get much better than in the Basque Country.”
Maybe that’s why many visitors find it hard to leave. •
- For more on Spain's beautiful Basque country, please go to http://www.basquecountrytourism.eus
About the Author
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he's been there on numerous occasions.