A Greener Shade of Spain: Three Days in the Basque Country

Though it’s only five hours’ drive north of her home in Madrid, our friend, Rosa, had never been to Spain’s Basque Country, the “Euskadi” as it’s called in the Basque language. And for good reason: during the 1970s and 80s, when Rosa was growing up, the terrorist activities of the Basque separatist organization, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (“ETA”), made the region too dangerous to visit. It remained so for decades, and then in 2011, the ETA declared a permanent ceasefire following an international peace conference and increasing pressure from the global community. But it wasn’t until May 2018 that the group finally disbanded, putting a definitive end to their fifty-year long campaign of violence.

In July 0f 2018, just two months after this historic event, my husband, daughters and I ventured into the Euskadi for a few days to explore the area around San Sebastián with Rosa and her family. While I was aware of the Basque Country’s turbulent history, it was hard to imagine that this serene, green corner of northeastern Spain had so recently experienced conflict of any kind.

Sarasola Zahar

Our first stop in the Basque Country after a three-hour drive down from Bordeaux was Sarasola Zahar, an old stone farmhouse Rosa had booked for our three-night stay. Located in the rolling hills about 10 kilometers inland from the seaside town of Zumaia, we reached this working farm turned “agroturismo” via a rough and bumpy road that wound its way up through verdant cow pastures. The owners lived on the ground floor and we had the rest of this charming, rustic house all to ourselves. After hugging our friends, unloading bags and choosing bedrooms we headed back out to do a little sight-seeing and a lot of grocery shopping.

Cow pasture at Sarasola Zahar
The farmhouse at Sarasola Zahar


With five kids in our group, food was a priority. The plan was to eat out for lunches and cook breakfasts and dinners at home. There was an Eroski hypermarket close by in Zarautz, so we made a beeline there and loaded up a couple shopping carts with what seemed to me to be enough food and drink to feed our two families for at least a full week, let alone three days. But then, I didn’t have boys or a husband who loved red meat as much as Rosa’s husband, Ángel. All that shopping made us adults thirsty, so we couldn’t resist stopping for a pop-up Sevilla Spritz tasting by the meats section.

Grocery shopping in Zarautz

Before returning back up into the hills with our provisions, we walked over to see the beach that has made Zarautz one of the top surfing destinations in Spain. It reminded me a little of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, wide and long with big waves, chilly water and lots of wetsuit-clad surfers.

Surfers in Zarautz

San Sebastián 

San Sebastián, a town known for its natural beauty, cultural treasures and Michelin starred restaurants, was on the agenda for our second day in the Basque Country. Starting at the top of one of its three large hills, Monte Igueldo, we admired the view of San Sebastián’s famous curved beach, La Concha, and the Bay of Biscay, while the kids hit the Monte Igueldo amusement park for a roller coaster ride.

San Sebastián and La Concha

Next up was the historic old town, “La Parte Vieja,” where we wandered through narrow, pedestrian streets walled in by handsome Belle Epoque townhouses adorned with wrought iron balconies and gas lanterns. On their ground floors were small bars displaying heaping plates of “pintxos,” the bite-sized snacks the region is famous for, and boutiques too alluring for mere window shopping. In one of these I bought a pair of tan and white striped espadrilles and learned that this quintessential summer footwear originated in Spain’s Basque, Catalon and Aragon regions. Though the espadrilles have sat unworn in my closet for the past six years, the sight of them there always brings back good memories.

On the northern side of the old town, at the foot of Monte Urgull, we found the splendid Basilica of Santa María of the Choir. A stunning burst of light at the end of Calle Mayor, upon closer examination we noticed a multitude of interesting details in its Baroque facade, such as the statue of the town’s namesake, Saint Sebastián, in front of a window above the main entrance.

Basilica of Santa María in San Sebastián

There were also hidden courtyards and plazas to be discovered in the Parte Vieja, including San Sebastián’s grandest square, the Plaza de la Constitución. Now bustling with bars and cafes and serving as the backdrop for the town’s most important events, I was interested to learn that the plaza had once been a bullfighting arena. The balconies of the houses here still bear the numbers of the old spectator boxes from which bullfights were watched back in the day.

Plaza de la Constitución in San Sebastián


The third and final day of our trip included visits to two more towns along the Basque coast: first Zumaia and then Getaria. We went to Zumaia mainly to see and learn about its unique coastal rock formations on a guided boat tour Rosa had reserved for us in advance. But before embarking on our voyage, it was only prudent to pay our respects at the Church of San Telmo, the patron saint of sailors. Gazing out to sea from its perch on the edge of the cliffs above Zumaia’s Itzurun Beach, there was a distinct feeling of peace and sanctuary around this simple, white-washed chapel that made me want to linger.

The Church of San Telmo in Zumaia

We couldn’t stay long, though, as it was soon time to head down to the marina and board the boat for our tour. After carefully navigating a long, narrow channel that brought us out into the open ocean and a somewhat disconcerting amount of chop, the boat motored westward along the coast. Almost immediately we were able to view the striking cliffs of the Basque Coast Geopark, our guide slowing down in key spots to explain what we were looking at. Designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site in 2015, the Geopark’s stratified rock formations, called “flysch,” are some 60 million years old. Of great interest to geologists, who’ve been able to discover a lot about the earth’s geological history from these “books of stone,” the flysch has also become a Mecca for fans of the television series, Game of Thrones, several scenes of which were filmed here.

Flysch cliffs in the Geopark
Guided boat tour in the Basque Geopark


Once on dry land, we were all ready for some lunch. As usual, our excellent vacation planner, Rosa, had thought ahead and made a reservation at a restaurant in Getaria, a fishing village about ten-minutes’ drive east of Zumaia. Getaria had a salty grittiness to it that I found strikingly different from — but just as appealing as — the elegance of San Sebastian and the geological magnificence of Zumaia. Considered to be the Spanish capital of grilled fish, Getaria still has many of the old streetside charcoal grills, called “parrillas,” that previous generations of village fishermen used to cook their catch while shooting the breeze with friends after a long day at sea.

In a place like this, of course, nothing but grilled seafood would do for lunch. We had ours, accompanied by a nice bottle of the local white wine, Txakoli, on a sunny terrace overlooking the port.

In the streets of Getaria

After lunch we walked down the hill for a stroll around the port, stopping to watch a group of teenagers jumping off the seawalls around the boats anchored there. Realizing that we had not yet been for a swim, ourselves, and that this would be our last opportunity before leaving the Basque Country, we walked the short distance to Getaria’s main beach, put on our bathing suits and joined the chaotic mass of squealing, laughing, splashing, ball-throwing humanity in the otherwise calm blue water.

On the beach in Getaria

Later, back at Sarasola Zahar, the nine of us sat down for our last dinner together by the cow pasture, our grill-master, Ángel, serving up tasty hamburgers and Spanish sausages. Watching the sun melt slowly into the rolling hillsides and sea below, there was so much to feel thankful for: our wonderful friends, this delicious meal and the newly established peace that made it possible to visit this special and extraordinarily green part of Spain.

Our last night at Sarasola Zahar



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