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-Mari 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 Mari cooks alongside his daughter, Elena, voted best Female Chef in the World in 2012, and their restaurant consistently ranks among the world’s best.
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 medieval villages, Gothic churches and Baroque interiors. Here there is 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 was named European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Bilbao. Fly at c. 2.00pm (British Airways) from London Gatwick to Bilbao, Calatrava’s spectacular airport. Overnight in 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 medieval village of Laguardia. Introductory tasting in the hotel cellar. First of two nights in Laguardia.
Laguardia, Marqués de Riscal. 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 Santa María de los Reyes. Morning tasting at Bodega El Fabulista, where 32,000 litres of wine are produced annually by treading the grapes. The bodegas of Marqués de Riscal are among the most venerable in the region. The visit includes a tasting in the cellars of their Gehry-designed hotel, followed by lunch.
Ordizia, San Sebastian, Vera de Bidasoa. Brief stop in the historic market town of Ordizia, followed by lunch at one of the most famous restaurants in Spain, Arzak. Despite its three Michelin stars and status as one of the best restaurants in the world, it remains very much a family business. Vera de Bidasoa nestles in the Pyrenean foothills close to the French border. First of four nights in Vera.
Ainhoa, Espelette, Bayonne, Hondarribia. 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. Cross back into Spain for a short stop in Hondarribia, a superbly preserved fortified town on an outcrop overlooking the sea with narrow streets, balconied palaces, a 14th-century castle and a Gothic church.
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. Some free time to see the elaborate historicist architecture of the 19th-century extension and Moneo’s arts centre.
San Sebastian, Lasarte-Oria. Morning visit to the Chillida Leku open-air sculpture museum in San Sebastian. Continue to lunch at Martín Berasategui’s three Michelin-star restaurant in Lasarte-Oria.
Bilbao. Drive to Bilbao for a visit to the Fine Arts Museum and a little free time. Fly to London Gatwick arriving at c. 7.30pm.
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. Twitter: @GvanHensbergen | Website: gijsvanhensbergen.com
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,670 or £3,560 without flights. Suite supplement in Vera: £50 (per person based on 2 sharing). Single occupancy: £3,910 or £3,800 without flights.
Air travel on British Airways flights (Airbus 320); private coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, five lunches and four dinners (two 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. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
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. A good level of fitness is essential. Although distances travelled are not vast, the coach is used 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.'