10th December 2017
This week here in Spain we enjoyed a type of public holiday called puente, which is like a bank holiday but it consists of two holiday days with a working day sandwiched in the middle – hence its name, which literally means ‘bridge’. Most people do what I did though, and use up a day of their annual holiday leave to turn the puente into a five day weekend. A few of my friends also did the same, and so it was time for another adventure – a road trip to explore the Basque Country in the north!
We begun pretty early on Wednesday morning, convening at Atocha train station to pick up our car, which they upgraded for free to a fancy Audi. Buzzing with the novelty of being able to connect all our phones to the stereo, we set off and were soon chewing up the miles on the autopistas through Castilla y León, La Rioja and Navarre, where we’d decided to stop on the way to have a snoop around an old castle.
During the journey we made a couple of stops, firstly a refreshment stop where we managed to get locked in a petrol station when the power went out and hence paralysed the automatic doors. Eventually escaping out the rear with our snacks, we then carried on for a while until the next pit stop, where we loaded up on more munch, including a giant sack of oranges which a lady on the roadside sold us for 4€.
Once we had all resigned to the fact that we’d be eating oranges for the entire trip, we set back off and eventually landed in Olite, a town featuring at its centre a huge royal palace. This palace is dotted with towers which offered amazing views over the town and its surroundings, however the first thing to do was to grab some lunch after surviving solely on oranges, crisps and a croissant since 8am.
This little town and its restaurant filled streets were gorgeous, and I was especially keen on the pretty ornate facades adorning some of the buildings around the main plaza.
At the cute little restaurant on the left of the street above, we ordered a selection of raciones to share, including a portion of caracoles (snails) which me and Loredana had dared each other to try out for the first time. We had a lovely lunch (the snails included, they were good!) and then pottered back to the town centre to head into the castle and see what we could see.
The Royal Palace of Olite was like a labyrinth inside, but its steep spiral staircases and confusing layout hid plenty of gorgeous and surprising views. As it was down season it was pretty empty, and so we had the chance to admire everything at our own pace and be as stupid as we wanted taking photos, such as this one of Loredana acting as Rapunzel…
Soon it was time to prepare ourselves to scale some of the tiny stone staircases within the palace’s numerous towers, which stood precariously tall at several of the palace’s corners. Once we had managed to make it up to the top of one, we caught our breath and had to shuffle around a tiny little circular platform without falling back down the stairs. I reckon it was about 1.5m in diameter, but with three of us and another family up there, it made for quite a perilous squeeze! The views, as you can see, were worth it though.
Once we felt we had been sufficiently attacked by the cold wind, we descended back to less dangerous ground and soon headed out of the castle and back to our car. From Olite we headed straight up to our final destination, San Sebastián, a city in the Basque Country where we’d booked a hostel for three nights and which would be our base for the coming days.
Pretty quickly thereafter we rocked up in San Sebastián (or Donostia in Basque) as the sun was setting, and then unpacked in our hostel room before heading out to grab something to eat and a few drinks in the city. We eventually settled in a lovely bar which was full of a spectacular array of pinchos, an eating concept I first encountered back in Barcelona almost two years ago but which I will try to explain in a more informed manner here.
Pinchos are basically small portions of food (that us Brits would probably mistakenly label as ‘tapas’) which are presented on the bar for people to pick up as they please. In this particular bar you were invited to grab a plate and load it up with whatever you fancied, which was then counted up at the counter as you were being served your drink. Another way I’ve seen it work is that each pincho (or pintxo in Basque) is speared with a cocktail stick, and then once you’ve finished eating the barman will bill you based on the number of cocktail sticks on your plate once you’ve finished eating.
Along with my insane collection of food I got myself a cider to remind me of the good times spent in Asturias, which was nice but not quite as good as the ones I have tried (and even had to pour myself) back in Gijón and Oviedo. The pinchos were excellent, and after we’d wrapped up we soon found ourselves hopping between bars before landing back in our beds in the early hours of the morning.
The second day begun with a parking ticket for not moving our car from its street side parking spot early enough (oops), but we were soon back in said car and on the road again, this time going to visit some mystery location, as all I’d been told is that “they filmed some of Game of Thrones there.”
Well after parking on an incline and wandering up a blustery hill, we were soon descending towards said attraction amongst scores of other tourists who seemed to have mainly come from other areas of Spain. Once we’d cleared a set of perilously muddy “steps” (quotation marks as they were more mini cliffs than “steps”), we turned the corner and our destination came into view.
I turns out that the place I had been taken to was called San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (quite a mouthful), and has indeed featured in Game of Thrones, a TV show I could never force myself to enjoy. Even with the pop culture reference being lost on me, it was still an awe inspiring place to explore, with the dramatic cliffs of the islet and its snaking steps which we had to scale whilst being buffeted by the chilly sea breeze.
A lot of panting and climbing later we reached the church at the top, where I decided not to join the huge queue to ring the church bell but rather to sit down and catch my breath. I did take some photos from the summit, but given that all I could really see was sea and the mist, they all came out pretty dull and underwhelming. Once we’d had our fill of the views, we began our descent, making a stop at the “beach” (if you can call it that) where three of us relaxed whilst the other two headed out to look at the little rock pools.
Once we’d scaled the muddy hill back to the car and stopped for a quick drink to warm ourselves up in a hillside tavern, we once again jumped back in our trusty Audi and headed for Bilbao, where we stayed for a few hours. We didn’t really get much done once there, opting rather to hunt for food, have a coffee and chat away a few hours. We did manage to see the Guggenheim Museum – well, its gift shop – before leaving, but it was soon pretty dark and we headed back to San Sebastián for the evening.
That evening it was something along the lines of “pincho Thursday” at the local bars, a deal in which you could grab any pincho and a drink for just 2€. We made the most of this opportunity, and bar hopped for a few hours eating and drinking and laughing as we went. We finally made it to an Irish pub and then tipsily onto a swing set, but I soon found myself back in bed to gather some energy to explore San Sebastián a little better the day after.
Friday greeted us with a downpour, and so I headed to a local shop and bought an umbrella for 3€ as I’d forgotten to bring mine along. This 3€ was probably the worst I have ever spent, but more on that later. Once we’d seen the shoreline during the day we retreated to a little café and got ourselves a coffee and a local variant of cake, which we enjoyed whilst listening to the cold air swirl around the coast outside.
Once we’d warmed up again we headed back out and made our way into the centre of the city, crossing its famous river as we went. There we made the most of my phone’s portrait function, with the girls grouping in front of the city and me standing by where the river meets the sea. This made the river look pretty badass during high tide, as the water rose and sloshed around menacingly as we crossed over it.
Once in the centre we were all somewhat peckish and so went looking for a snack. In a central plaza we stumbled upon a tent we’d noticed the night before, only this time it was open for business with wood artisans, cider barrels and a selection of pinchos aplenty. Me and Loredana made a beeline for a pincho consisting of chorizo cooked in cider and then stuffed in bread, which has to have been one of the richest and most delicious things I ate during the whole trip.
From this tent we decided we wanted something sweet, and so headed then to a cake and dessert shop on the corner across the road, where we found ourselves in a wonderland of chocolate and pastries. I went for a relatively safe option of a “roca de chocolate”, basically cornflakes bathed in chocolate and formed into balls, but the others tried out such delights as double chocolate cream eclairs.
After that the group split, as some of us were too tired and wanted to nap, but me and Loredana decided we would try and battle through the sleepiness and find the old area of the city. To get there we began by walking the entire length of the city’s other beach, stopping to head out on to a rather unsafe looking pier to take some photos.
As I alluded to earlier, the 3€ umbrella wasn’t really worth the hassle. After about 5 minutes of use it was pretty much completely broken, with the material coming off the frame and the actual rod breaking into two when some kind of mechanism just fell out when I opened it. I didn’t want to spend any more money buying another, and so the terrible umbrella became the joke of the afternoon as I battled with the sea breeze to keep it in one piece and covering my head with what little material remained…
We never really did find the old town it would seem, as in the area we thought it was we could only find a lot of empty streets and one coffee shop which was still open. A coffee and a bus ride later we were back in the hostel, and we’d soon headed out for our last evening in the Basque Country. We ate at a lovely little place in the city before moving into the Whiskey Bar next door, where I treated myself to a fancy gin and tonic before heading home for the night as I wasn’t feeling too well.
That final morning however I wasn’t feeling all too bad, and so we spent it down on the beach, writing messages in the sand and petting all the dogs which came our way. We even made friends with one of them, who came over and was sure to give us each a turn at throwing his stick. We all agreed that he was a very good boy.
After a while it was time to head back to Madrid, and so we went and recovered the car one last time and began the 5 hour journey back to the capital. On the way we naturally made plenty of stops for snacks (including the final few oranges), and were even treated to a gorgeous sunset just as we were dropping down into Madrid through its outer suburbs.
Once we’d arrived back in Atocha we waved goodbye to our faithful little Audi and headed back into the station to head home for an early night. My evening was spent watching Netflix in bed with a big packet of crisps and a packet of Oreos, which probably wasn’t the best idea as the lack of decent nutrition and lack of sleep have left me with a bit of a cold today.
Never mind, I have all week to rid myself of that – so long as the staff Christmas meal on Thursday doesn’t get too out of hand! I had a lovely time up in the Basque Country with a great bunch of people, and I’ll be sure to visit another time (hopefully nearer summer so I can avoid any more umbrella dramas). The food is great, the people are lovely and the local language is pretty insane, so I’d definitely recommend anyone visit should the opportunity ever arise.
Anyway, and as ever, I’ll be back with more nonsense from the slowly freezing city all in due course, hopefully before I fly back to England on the 22nd (12 days left) to celebrate Christmas with my family. Until then I leave you with one of the key sing-along songs from the car journeys: Edelweiss – and don’t even bother asking why.