Straddling the Pyrenees and divided between France and Spain, the Basque Country has wonderful and varied scenery, a magnificent range of art and architecture and a culinary tradition which ranks with the best in the world. It is a land of abundance in many things, though there is one striking exception: tourists are in short supply.
The landscape reaches from the Atlantic coast, indented with natural harbours and the fishing communities from which the wealth of the region has derived since ancient times, to the hills and mountains majestically clothed with broadleaf forests. Both the highlands and the fertile rolling lowlands provide the raw ingredients which supplement the seafood and inspire gastronomic greatness.
The best of Basque cooking mixes a strong sense of tradition with startling innovation. From the all-male dining clubs, where friends cook for each other, to the indoor markets spilling over with smoked idiazabal cheeses and gleaming fresh fish, from the rustic cider clubs to the chic new bars vying for the ‘tapas of the year’ prize, Basques remain obsessed with the quality and provenance of their food.
Juan-Marie Arzak is the most famous restaurateur in Spain. As godfather to New Basque Cuisine, he has inspired an entire generation of chefs including Martín Berasategui, Pedro Subijana and Hilario Arbelaitz. Together they share no fewer than ten Michelin stars. Today Juan-Marie cooks alongside his daughter, Elena, voted best Female Chef in the World in 2012, and their restaurant ranks in the world’s top ten.
From Bilbao we drive a loop through the Rioja Alavesa, the northern rim of the most prestigious wine-making area in Spain and up to the Pyrenees. Between visits to restaurants, wineries and specialist food shops, we linger in mediaeval villages, Gothic churches and Baroque interiors. There is here some fine contemporary architecture by Gehry, Calatrava and Moneo, while nestling in the upland valleys and clamped to hillsides is a doughty vernacular of remarkable distinctiveness and beauty. San Sebastian, arguably the most gastronomic city in the world, has a swathe of flamboyant turn-of-the-century buildings and has been named European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Bilbao. Fly at c. 8.30am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Bilbao, Calatrava’s spectacular airport. In the afternoon, visit the Fine Arts Museum. Overnight Bilbao.
Bilbao, Laguardia. The morning is spent studying Gehry’s extraordinary titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum. Lunch is at the restaurant here run by innovative chef Josean Alija who learned his trade at El Bulli. Leave city and industry behind and drive south through increasingly attractive countryside to the undulating plains of the wine-growing region of La Rioja-Alavesa and the mediaeval village of Laguardia. Introductory tasting in the hotel cellar. First of two nights in Laguardia.
Laguardia, Granja de Remelluri. Laguardia is the most picturesque of Riojan villages, perched on a hillock within a circuit of fortified walls. Walk the ramparts and see the outstanding 14th-century portal of Sta Maria de los Reyes. Morning tasting at Bodega El Fabulista, where 32,000 litres of wine are produced annually by treading the grapes. Lunch and vineyard walk at the bodegas of Nuestra Señora de Remelluri, installed in 14th-century monastic buildings in countryside.
Marqués de Riscal, Lasarte-Oria, Vera de Bidasoa. The Ysios winery below Laguardia is a magnificent building by Calatrava. The bodegas of Marqués de Riscal are among the most venerable in the region. The visit includes tasting and the cellars of their Gehry-designed hotel (subject to confirmation). Lunch at Martín Berasategui’s 3 Michelin-star restaurant in Lasarte-Oria. Vera de Bidasoa nestles in the Pyrenean foothills close to the French border. First of four nights in Vera.
France: Ainhoa, Espelette, Bayonne. Cross into the French Pyrenees to the spick and span villages of Ainhoa and Espelette with their red and white timbered houses sporting clusters of red peppers, a local speciality. Sample ewe’s milk cheese with cherry compote. Encircled by formidable Vauban ramparts and straddling the River Nive, Bayonne is a colourful town with Gothic cathedral, arcaded streets, riverside markets and famed for fish, ham and chocolate.
San Sebastian. This is the gastronomic capital of Spain, sweeping elegantly around one of the finest beaches on the northern coast. Behind the ancient fisherman’s quarter is the compact grid of the old town with a wonderfully harmonious arcaded square at the centre and traffic-free streets lined with bars. A tapas trawl is followed by lunch in a private dining club, a rare privilege (subject to confirmation). Some free time to see the elaborate historicist architecture of the 19th-century extension and Moneo’s arts centre.
Hondarribia, San Sebastian. Hondarribia is a superbly preserved fortified town on an outcrop overlooking the sea with narrow streets, balconied palaces, a 14th-century castle and a Gothic church. Return to San Sebastian for lunch at the most famous restaurant in Spain, Arzak. Despite its 3 Michelin stars and status as the 8th best restaurant in the world, it remains very much a family business.
Drive to Bilbao for the flight arriving London Heathrow at c. 2.00pm.
Gijs van Hensbergen
Art historian and author specialising in Spain and the USA. His books include The Sagrada Familia (2017), Gaudí, In the Kitchens of Castile and Guernica and he has published in the Burlington Magazine and Wall Street Journal. He read languages at Utrecht University and Art History at the Courtauld, and undertook postgraduate studies in American art of the 1960s. He has worked in England, the USA and Spain as exhibitions organiser, TV researcher and critic and is a Fellow of the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies at the LSE.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,460 or £3,310 without flights. Suite supplement in Vera: £50 (per person based on 2 sharing). Single occupancy: £3,750 or £3,600 without flights.
Air travel on British Airways flights (Airbus A320); private coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, six lunches and four dinners (three of which are light) with wine, water and coffee; all wine and food tastings; all admissions; all tips for waiters and drivers; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Gran Hotel Domine, Bilbao: 5-star hotel opposite the Guggenheim; contemporary in style. Hotel Villa de Laguardia: 4-star hotel on the outskirts of the town; comfortable rooms and attractive public areas. Hotel Churrut, Vera de Bidasoa: 3-star hotel installed in an 18th-century military building; family owned with 17 spacious, well decorated rooms and comfortable sitting areas.
Evening meals tend to begin at 9.00pm and some late nights are inevitable. There is a fair amount of walking on this tour, some of it uphill or on roughly paved streets. Although distances travelled are not vast, there is the need to use a coach every day of the tour. Average distance by coach per day: 60 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
'Our lecturer was absolutely outstanding, such a wide range of knowledge. Of my many MR trips this was one of the very best.'
'I particularly enjoyed the Guggenheim and Lasarte Oris.'
'Very enjoyable. Excellent guide. Would use Martin Randall again in the future.'
'The two 3 Michelin star restaurants were incredible – a lifetime’s dream.'
'We liked the mix of cities and small country places.'