Saint-Jean-de-Luz If you come in to Saint-Jean to shop and would like lunch during the high season, I highly recommend taking refuge from the hordes, far away from Rue Gambetta, Place Saint Louis and the… More
The Spiritual Capital of the Pays Basque
For genuine, un-touristy Basque flavor, venture a little further up the coast from the elegant, bustling resort of Biarritz to the quintessentially Basque city of Bayonne, or Baïona in Basque, once the most important commercial port on the coast and the spiritual capital of the Pays Basque. Straddling the Rivers Ardour and Nive, and home of the largest summer festival in France, Fetes de Bayonne, the city was founded by the Romans and is still protected by the ancient ramparts, complete with a fort built by Maréchal Vauban, Louis XIV’s leading military engineer. On a side note, during the many armed conflicts of the 17th-century, soldiers in Bayonne, running out of ammunition, shoved knives into the barrels of their muskets, thus inventing the bayonet.
Unlike Biarritz, Bayonne, with its hard working population of 45,000, does not “pretty up” for tourists. Not putting on airs, it is what it is. While many of the whaling merchants’ mansions facing the rivers may still be in need of a fresh coat of paint, and the city still shuts down for siesta, it’s a charming and totally authentic place to spend the day, or even a few days, as a base to explore the immediate area.
If you are not driving to Bayonne, you can reach the city from Biarritz by bus: Chronoplus Bus (about 22 min), or on the 816 ATCRB Bus from the Biarritz-La Négresse bus stop near the train station, or from the Biarritz Airport. The 816 ATCRB Bus also runs between St-Jean-de-Luz-Ciboure and Bayonne several times a day.
If you don’t want to take the bus, then you can hop on the train (highly recommended) between St-Jean-de-Luz, (36 min), Biarritz (16 min) and Bayonne, and save on parking and fighting the traffic during the busy summer months. Once in Bayonne, the in-city bus (centre-ville), La Navette de Bayonne, is free and operates Monday-Saturday, running every 10 minutes between 7:30 am to 7:30 pm. It also operates on Sundays in December.
Bayonne celebrates a Chocolate Festival May 10 – 22, a Cider Festival May 29, a Ham Festival three days before Easter, a mid-July Jazz on the Remparts Festival and their famous Fêtes de Bayonne, riotous five-day celebration from July 25-29, 20218, with Basque brute strength sports, jai-alai matches, music, fireworks, parades of giants, bull running and bullfights, when the entire city dresses in red and white, ala Pamplona’s San Fermín. If you’re in Bayonne in early July, all the store windows will be decorated in red and white, in anticipation of the festival.
Bayonne has a few major tourist attractions besides the culinary ones of Bayonne ham, chocolates, honey and Basque liqueurs, that prove to be time very well spent. Stroll along the pedestrian rue Port-Neuf, Grand Bayonne’s major thoroughfare, where you’ll find Bayonne’s most famous purveyors of fine chocolates. Bayonne in fact introduced chocolates to France and at one time had more chocolate artisans than all of Switzerland-and seven of the original chocolate artisan shops remain.
While there are far better known chocolate cities in Europe, Bayonne is the “unsung capital of cacao”. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the edict of Nantes allowed Jews in France to worship freely, and because Bayonne was a port city, the Spanish Jews, after taking refuge in Portugal, took refuge here, bringing their chocolate making skills and imported cacao from the New World, and began the chocolate industry in 1496, settling in St. Etienne, in the St. Esprit quarter, across the River Ardour, where a small synagogue still exists on #33 rue Maubec as well as a Jewish cemetery.
If driving, you should park in the municipal parking lot off Place de Charles de Gaulle, near the Mairie de Bayonne, and walk back across the bridge, Pont Mayou, to visit Petit Bayonne. Another option is to use Parking Porte d’Espagne or Parking Lautrec. Paid parking is between 8:30 am and 7:00 pm. All of the parking areas have a free shuttle to take you to the city center.
The city’s fine arts museum, originally a gift from Leon Bonnat, a Bayonne-born 19th-century artist, was closed in 2011 due to extensive water damage, but is now scheduled to reopen in 2019 after a complete renovation designed by Bordeaux architects Brochet/Lajus/Pueyo, that will more than double its space to 5000 sq meters. As part of it’s permanent collection of more than 7000 works, you’ll find paintings by Bonnat himself, Botticelli, Degas, Dūrer, Murillo, El Greco, Rubens, Goya, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Delacroix, Géricault and Ingres. This collection is among the richest in France.
One of the finest and largest ethnographic museums in all of Europe, the Basque and History of Bayonne Museum, at 37, quai des Corsaires, will educate you in the history, culture, religion and general way of life of the Basque people, explain how Basque society is organized and the role of the port of Bayonne in the 19th-century. Originally la Maison Dagourette, a bourgeois home built in the 17th-century for a wealthy merchant, this is a truly fascinating museum. Printed tour guides are available in English, German and Japanese. In July and August it’s open everyday from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm and until 8:30 pm on Thursdays. Closed on Mondays and public holidays the rest of the year. Entry is 2,50€, and free if under 18. Free the first Sunday of the month from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Accessible for those with reduced mobility.
Bayonne’s third monument of note is its twin towered Gothic Cathedral of Saint Mary, Our Lady of Bayonne, with its enormous cloisters, considered the largest in France (great photo op from here) and beautiful stained glass windows, and the area immediately surrounding it, the small but atmospheric place Louis Pasteur. Originally built between the 12th and the 15th centuries, Bayonne’s whalers funded its construction, as the bishops demanded from them one tenth of their profits. The towers were added in the 19th-century when the cathedral was restored. A UNESCO World Heritage site, you may see modern day pilgrims here, as Bayonne’s cathedral is a staging area for the trek down to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the long Road of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela. The view of the illuminated cathedral at night from the bridge to the St. Esprit quarter is lovely. The cathedral is normally open Monday-Saturday from 8:00 am to 12:45 pm and in the afternoon from 3:00 to 6:30 pm, and on Sundays from 8:00 am to noon and 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm.
If you need a break after visiting the Cathédral, a few minutes walk away, at at 6 Rue Port de Castets, is Kitchen DADA, where you can have a coffee and snack, or a simple lunch with a gastronomic touch like a sautéed pork with mustard and homemade mashed potatoes, mushrooms with walnut oil and a vanilla crème brûlée.
Built in the 12th-century near the cathedra, was once the official residence of the governors of the city, belongs to the military and is not open to the public.
The Jardin botanique des Remparts, located at the Avenue du 11 Novembre and Allée de Tarride, near the city hall, is only open from April 17 to October 13 in 2018.
Sitting on the right bank of the Adour River, this citadel-fortress overlooking place Paul Bert and Petit Bayonne, was built by Vauban as part of the reorganization of the defensive system along the Spanish border. Part of the Basque Museum (in Petit Bayonne), it can only be visited on special occasions, like the National Day of Patrimony, he third weekend of September.
Inside the Grand Bayonne one can still see the oldest structures in the city, the so called “tower of the old meat shop”, the only remaining part of the Roman defensive wall, dating from the 4th-century. In the 12th-century the wall, which extended to the river Nive, was covered in native yellow stone, and in the 16th-century became part of the work undertaken by Vauban to improve the cities defenses.
Les Halles de Bayonne
Like its counterparts in Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Bayonne’s covered market at 2, Quai du Commandant Roquebert, opened in 1994, is the center of activity. Sitting on the banks of the Nive River, it’s 22 shops offer fresh produce and regional products, and are open daily until 1:30 pm. It’s also where you will find our favorite breakfast stop when staying in Grand Bayonne, Chez Pantxo Le Bistrot des Halles.
The outdoor farmers’ market day at Les Halles is Saturday. Other public markets in Bayonne are Place de la République, Place du Marquisat Blvd Jean d’Amou and Place du Polo (Fridays), Place des Gascons (Wednesdays and Fridays) and Rue Sainte Catherine (Sundays).
You can cross the Adour River from Petit Bayonne using the Pont Saint-Esprit to this neighborhood that was once part of Gascony. Here you will find the 19th-century Beaux-Arts style train station, Gare de Bayonne. The 16th-century Citadel de Bayonne, considered a Vauban masterpiece, sits behind the rail station, but is not open to the public. Nearby is L’Atelier du Chocolate workshop (see below). The St-Esprit quarter became the Sephardic Jewish ghetto because Grand Bayonne was, at that time, off-limits for residence by non-Catholics.
Linens & Things
For traditional Basque handicrafts, linens, hand painted ceramic dish ware, music, bèrets, you’ll find them all under one roof at Atmosphere Basques, at 21 Rue de Luc, which intersects rue d’Espagne.
Monsieur Léoncini is one of the remaining three artisans who still hand make the famed makhilas, the Basque walking stick with concealed dagger. His shop can be found in the old quarter of Grand Bayonne at No. 37 rue Vielle-Boucherie, near Place Montaut, the street found at the top of the rue d’Espagne. If these walking sticks strike your fancy, and you’d like to make a purchase, you can do so online from the other famed makhila maker, the Atelier Ainciart-Bergara in the village of Larressore.
For unique scents for both men and women: perfumes, lotions, soaps unique to this area, see Parfums et Senteurs du Pays Basque at 4 rue de la Salie (between Pont Marengo and Pont Pannecau). Their wares make nice gifts. There is another branch in Espelette and headquarters in La Bastide Clairence. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm.
Food & Wine
The famous chocolate factory, L’Atelier du Chocolate with its workshop, is at 7 Allée de Gibéléou in St-Esprit, a 20-minute walk from the train station, or about 5 minutes by taxi. Tours to the facility last 1-1/2 hours. They also have a boutique store in at 37 Rue Port Neuf. The Cazenave, founded in 1854, and next-door Daranatz chocolate shops, under the archways on rue Port Neuf, Grand Bayonne, are world famous for their chocolate creations. The former will tempt you with their famous hot chocolate, mousseux de chocolat, made by beating the chocolate with fresh farm milk, and served along with thickly buttered toast, in Limoges china decorated with tiny pink roses. The latter is known for its chocolate bonbons filled with Cointreau, Cavados and Grand Marnier. The Creole is a dark chocolate filled with rum and ganache (mixture of cream and chocolate), and the Moctezuma, is flavored with Mexican spices and orange flowers. And at 1 Rue Argenterie, you’ll find Chocolaterie Puyodebat.
Chocolate was first introduced in Bayonne by the Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition at the beginning of the 16th-century and was an important contribution to the city. Most of the chocolate in Bayonne now comes from South America, whereas Belgian chocolate is imported from Africa. Bayonne celebrates Les Journées de Chocolate, the Chocolate Days festival, over two days in May.
You’ll find one of the best Bayonne artisan hams at the L’Atelier Pierre Ibaïalde workshop at 41 Rue des Cordeliers in Petit Bayonne. Pierre gives a demonstration then a tour of the drying room, ending with a sample of his delicious wares. Tours are free, reservations not required. The Ibaïona hams come from year old pigs fed only cereal and the ham is coated with a mixture of sea salt, garlic and ground red Espelette pepper powder before being hung to dry. As you make your way from the cathedral to rue d’Espagne to see the food shops, is the Pays Basque’s leading charcuterie, and our personal favorite, Pierre Oteiza, at 70 Rue d’Espagne, where you’ll find the finest in gourmet items (hams, cheeses, black cherry jams) plus Irouléguy wines. Open from Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. And the charcuterie Maison Montauzer, at 17 rue de la Salie, is yet another purveyor of fine Bayonne ham.
The “petit prince” of scrumptious Basque pastries and chocolates, and European pastry champion, Thierry Bamas, has a shop, Pâtisserie BAMAS, at 83 rue d’Espagne, next to the Bar Du Palais. Other stores can be found in Anglet and Biarritz. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and in the afternoon from 3:00 to 7:00 pm.
There’s also a branch here of Biarritz’s Pariès at 14, rue du Port-Neuf, which is famous for its kanouga, a chocolate caramel created for the visiting Russian dukes in 1905, flavored with coffee, vanilla and hazelnut.
Before leaving Petit Bayonne, you’ll also want to stop at 52 Quai des Corsaires, next to the Basque Museum, for a sample at the Loreztia confiture shop, selling the best black cherry jams and honey in the Pays Basque. Tours are available (free) and last 45 minutes to 1 hour. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and again from 2:30 until 6:30 pm, and in July and August from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm.
Dining in Bayonne
If you don’t wish to spend that much money on your dining, there are plenty of casual restaurants with outdoor terraces along the River Nive quai where you can have an inexpensive lunch.
La Table de Pottoka
21 quai Amiral Dubourdieu
Tel: (+33) 559 461 494
15 Quai Amiral Jauréguiberry
Tel: (+33) 559 256 013
Côtes et Braises
9 Quai Amiral Jauréguiberry
Tel: (+33) 524 336 314
Le Bistrot Itxaski
43 Quai Amiral Jauregiberry
Tel: (+33) 559 461 396
26 Quai Galuperi
Tel: (+33) 524 461 784
38 Quai Corsaires
Tel: (+33) 559 256 119
Auberge Du Petit Bayonne
23 Rue des Cordeliers
Tel: (+33) 559 598 344
Auberge du Cheval Blanc
68 rue Bourgneuf
Tel: (+33) 559 590 133
A quick 15-minute drive up the autoroute from Saint-Jean-de-Luz is the elegant, stately, and formerly very staid, international resort, the crown jewel of the Côte Basque, Biarritz, a Four-Flower Village (Ville Fleurie) with a climate similar to Carmel, California. The more time we spend in Biarritz, the more we fall under its spell. While it can’t boast the exciting nightlife of its Spanish cousin San Sebastián-Donostia, just an hour away, it is a small city of great style, with a gorgeous coastline and stunning Belle Époque architecture.
A former playground of British and European aristocracy, it’s now inhabited in the summer by a mix of old money, of the Belle Époque style, and a large contingent of young surfers of the bohemian persuasion, making it less snobby, more friendly, hip and even affordable, if you know where to look. While it doesn’t have as much a true Basque flavor other than its neo-Basque architecture, a “modern” version of a traditional Basque farmhouse, it remains very posh, sophisticated, and beautiful summer resort favored by many Parisians.
Biarritz was first made famous in the 19th-century by Napoleon III and his Spanish wife, Empress Eugénie, and has adopted to its new claim-to-fame as the surfing capital of France, along with being a popular golfing destination. In July it hosts an annual Biarritz Surf Festival, drawing around 150,000 spectators, and in May 2017 hosted the ISA World Surfing Games. The annual International Summer Bridge Festival will be held from Friday, June 29 to Tuesday, July 10, in 2018. Think Cannes without the show biz glitz, or Monte Carlo without the Grimaldis, mega yachts, and high-rise condos and heavy police presence.
At the Casino on the Grande Plage you can stop for an ice cream, brunch, tea or a drink and survey the surfing scene at Dodin, facing the beach since 1923, or walk over to Le Bleu Café and have a coffee, cocktail on the terrace and watch the sunset. Both have fairly reasonable prices considering the prime real estate.
The Basque coast is one of cliffs and jagged rocks, but sheltered within that rugged coast are Biarritz’s six beaches; Miramar, La Grande Plage, Port-Vieux, Cote des Basques, Marbella and Milady. The long, immaculate beach of Grande Plage, close to the town center, is one of Europe’s best surfing beaches, but for a swim, one must be very aware of the tides. The former fishing port area, Port Vieux, has a small, secluded beach, sheltered from the winds and is popular with the locals year around. There is a free shuttle from the town center. But for families, the beach of Saint-Jean-de-Luz is safer. Marbella beach is currently undergoing restoration of the cliffs due to major storm damage during the winter of 2016-2017. The walkway should reopen by May 2019.
Marché Couvert Les Halles
I always begin my Biarritz day with a 9:00 am visit to the animated covered market on rue des Halles, in the center of the city, and enjoy it far more than its rival in Bayonne, particularly during the busy summer months when it buzzes with life. The market is open daily from 7:30 am to 2:00 pm and from July 12 through August 23 it’s open in the evenings 6:00 to 9:00 pm.
Here you’ll find the finest in fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, including the famous Bayonne or Ibaïona ham at Maison Montauzer (since 1946), or Boucherie Ferreira, and delicious cheeses from 1001 Fromages, Chailla or Olga. And there are no less than three Bolangers to choose from; Les Délices de Biarritz, Chez Flo, and Maquirriain, who also offers traditional gâteau basque. For artisan pastries, there is Gusto and La Croustade d’Odette. Have a delicious coffee, or glass of wine at Chante l’Oiseau at the western end, in the right corner-a tiny spot with only 6 bar stools, or a coffee and tortilla at L’amuse gueule at the opposite end of the market.
Across the street from the market, at 8, rue des Halles, is Carlier Traiteur, a recipient of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Best of France 2007. This award-winning delicatessen, offering jambon de Bayonne, Axoa d’Espelette, foie gras, chaperones and mussels, is open Tuesday-Saturday from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and in the afternoon from 3:30 to 7:00 pm.
Be sure to include in your own tour a stroll over to the Rock of the Virgin, an outcropping topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary and reached via a long iron footbridge made by Eiffel workshop. If it’s a clear day, you’ll enjoy views of the entire Basque coast.
The former Musée de la Mer reopened in 2011 after a major renovation that doubled its size, children will enjoy the art deco Biarritz aquarium on the Esplanade, on your walk to the Rocher. Open daily in high season, July 7 through August 31, from 9:30 am to midnight, until 8:00 pm, April through July 6 and September 1 through October 31. Closes at 7:00 pm in the winter. They feed the seals daily at 10:30 am and 5:00 pm. You can watch the sharks being fed every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 2:30 pm, but only during school holidays (France). Admission is 14,90€ for adults, 11,90€ for teenagers and 10,50€ for children. Purchase your tickets ahead of time so you don’t have to wait in line.
If you have the time, don’t forget to see the Cité de l’Océan (city of the ocean) at 1, avenue de la Plage, in the la Milady section of the city. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, construction of the new facility was completed in 2011, in conjunction with the reopening of the aquarium, and celebrates the city’s link to the sea. In July and August it’s open daily from 10:00 to 10:00. Tickets are 12,50€ for adults, 9,90€ for students (13-17) and 8,50€ for children (6-12). There is a discount if buying combined tickets for both the aquarium and city of the ocean.
On your way to the Rocher you can visit the charming and beautifully maintained neo-Roman-Byzantine church sitting on top of the hill, facing the old port and beach. Dating from 1856, it was dedicated to Sainte Eugenie, patron saint of Eugenie de Montijo, wife of Napoléon III and Empress of France. The stained glass windows by Luc-Olivier Merso, painter and illustrator who’s work can be found in the Musée d’Orsay, help make it one of Biarritz’s major landmarks. The church offers weekly concerts during the summer; jazz, gospel and chamber music. Check the performance schedules. Tickets are sold at the door. Open all year. Entrance is free.
Then stroll down to the former fisherman’s quarter at the Port Vieux, the old port. You can have an exemplary outdoor seafood lunch looking up at the Eglise at the highly regarded Chez Albert. Open for lunch at 12:15 and for dinner at 7:30 pm. menus here start at 40€ (Closed Wednesday except in July and August). Tel: (+33) 559 244 384
After lunch, take the longer walk up to the northern end of the city to the lighthouse, Le Phare, for even more expansive views of the entire coast, and climb the 249 steps to the top for even more amazing vistas.
If you tire of walking there’s also the Petit Train de Biarritz to take you around the compact downtown area (but only goes up to the lighthouse with groups). It departs from the Casino on the Grande Plage every 30 min.
On your walk to the lighthouse, you’ll want to stop to visit the Russian Orthodox Church, at 8, Avenue de l’Impératrice, overlooking the opulent Hôtel du Palais. Built in 1892, it was designed by local architect, M. Tisnés, and decorated with icons from St. Petersburg. In Biarritz’s heyday as the aristocrats’ playground, so many Russians came down by train from St. Petersburg that they found the need for their own blue-domed Byzantine church, which they built across the street from the Empress’s villa, the present-day Hôtel Impérial. Open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm and on Wednesdays during school holidays. Entry is free.
In the same neighborhood peek in at the Imperial Chapel on rue Pellot, an 1865 creation of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. Designed by French architect Émile Boeswillwald in a combination Roman-Byzantine art with Hispano-Moorish style, and dedicated to the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), it was declared a historic monument in 1981. Open Thursday and Saturday afternoons from 2:30 to 6:00 pm, July-September, and on Saturdays only during the rest of the year. Currently under renovation.
Museum lovers should include the city’s Museum of Oriental Art, which displays 1,000+ works from Nepal, India, China and Tibet, and is considered one of the best oriental art collections in all of Europe. It’s located at 1, rue Guy Petit, directly opposite the Hôtel Louisiane. One can rent an audio guide in English. Open Monday-Friday from 2:00 pm to 6:30 pm and until 7:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is 10€ for adults, 8€ for students 13-25 and 2€ for those 8-12.
A few minutes away, at 5, Avenue de la Gare, is the tapas bar Restaurant Txango, (Trip in Basque) should you need to take a break for lunch with their 17€ menu. Open Tuesday-Saturday at 12:30. They will be closed February 11-26, 2018 for the annual winter holiday.
Linens & Things
You’ll find world class shopping radiating from the Place Clemenceau on Rue Mazagran- rue Gambetta-rue Espagne and Av. Edouard VII. Park in the underground Halles Clémenceau parking garage at 16, Avenue Foch, at the corner of Ave. Jaulerry.
There’s a branch of Hermès at 19, Avenue Edouard VII, and a Mephisto shoe store at 4, Avenue du Maréchal Foch, offering styles not seen in the U.S., and a branch of Galeries Lafayette at 17-19, Place Georges Clemenceau. For a unique Basque Gift, stylish linens are your best bet here – you have a vast assortment from which to choose: There’s Jean-Vier’s new collection, Biarritz 1930, available at 25, rue Mazagran and Helena, with two shops in Biarrtiz; 27 Av. Edouard VII and 33 rue Mazagran. For more rustic linens, see Euskal Linge at 14, rue Mazagran. For very chic, contemporary linens of the Artiga brand, there is a store at 23, Rue Gambetta.
The super star Parisian chef, Alain Ducasse chose Jean Vier table linens to adorn the tables for the Auberge Iparla restaurant in Bidarray, now under the direction of chef Stéphane Carricaburu, and Jean Vier bathrobes for the 5-star guest house Auberge Ostapé. I purchase cream and white bath towels (collection blanc), robes, slippers and baby bibs from Helena, table linens from Jean-Vier and kitchen towels, panieres, trays and other accessories from Maison Charles Larre (now closed). Check their web sites to compare styles and colors, see what most appeals and works best with your color schemes and convert the measurements of your dining table to the metric system.
Although Jean-Vier does have a shop in Paris at 43, rue Boissy d’Anglas, in the 8th arrondissement, the selection is better here and at the stores in St-Jean-de-Luz (3), Bayonne and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. You can also purchase the very chic Artiga linens in their boutiques in Espelette, Bordeaux, Pau, St-Jean-de-Luz and Magescq.
Head to Boutique 64 Biarritz, 16, rue Gambetta, below the covered market, for very “in vogue” t-shirts and other casual sportswear items for men, women, children and babies. They represent perfectly the casual-chic Côte Basque life style, and the co. is named for the department 64 of the Pyrénées Atlantiques.
A father and son team at Cazaux Biarritz, 15, rue Larréguy, produces beautiful hand made ceramic vases, bowls and tiles in their trademark blue and lavender, continuing a tradition dating back 6 generations. Their gallery is located at 10, rue Broquedis.
Food & Wine
Typical Basque food products, wines and brandies can be found at the fine gourmet shop Maíson Arostéguy at 5, Avenue Victor Hugo, and Les Mille et Un Fromages, across the street at No. 8. For outstanding Jambons, saucissons, pâtés, plats and fromages du Pays basque, stop by the Pierre Oteiza shop in Biarritz at 22, Avenue Foch. No need to go out to the farm in Les Aldudes unless you want to see where the fabulous Kintoa ham comes from. For chocoholics, you’ll find great chocolates at Daranatz at 12 Ave. du Maréchal Foch, below the Clemenceau parking garage, on the left side, walking towards Place Clemenceau. There is also Chocolaterie Henriet, Place Georges Clemenceau. For caramels (kanougas) mouchous, a type of macaroon, and gourmet Basque chocolats, there’s Pariès, at 1, Passage Bellevue.
The Celliers des Docks, which started as Celliers des Halles in 1991 in a small store across from the market, eventually outgrew the original space and opened a new store at 5, Bis Rue Luis Mariano, out near Gare de Biarritz, the train station. They have a great selection of Irouléguy wines plus Gaillacs and Cahors and supply many of the restaurants in the Pyrénées Atlantiques with their wines. But for your convienience, there’s a handy Nicolas wine boutique (a nationwide chain) at 6, Place Clémenceau (unbeatable prices).
Biarritz also has an interesting Planète Musée du Chocolat, 14, Ave. Beaurivage, which offers 45-minute visits ending with sampling for 6,50€ for adults. Also offers a course on Basque chocolates. Open daily from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and from 2:00 to 7:00 during July and August, until 6:30 pm during French school vacations. Closes annually from January 7 through February 4.
For A Break From Shopping
For an afternoon spot of tea or cup of hot chocolate with separate bowl of whipped cream, head straight to Miremont Biarritz, at 1bis, Place Clémenceau. Very much a “ladies who lunch” type of spot, this elegant tearoom has large picture windows with lovely views of the beach scene below. For nice lunch break, have the 30€ gourmet menu on the lovely terrace facing the ocean at Le Galion at 17, Boulevard du Général de Gaulle. For a simple salad as a main course head to the place Sainte-Eugénie next to the church and bandstand, to one of the outdoor terraces of the brasseries on the square; Le Luna, Le Napoléon or Café de la Mer, or dine indoors at La Cantine d’Eugénie in the Hotel Florida.
Dining in Biarritz
Tapas Bars & Hamburger Joints
For a choice of Spanisn-style tapas, gambas (grilled shrimp), tortillas (omelets) or parrilladas (grilled fish medley), cross the street from the market to the always-lively Bar Jean, 5, rue des Halles, in the same spot since the 1930s. Reservations not required, but be prepared to wait for a table.
Around the corner is the newer, and more sophisticated, Puig & Daro, at 34, rue Gambetta, while up the street at No. 21 you’ll find Casa Bixente. Further up rue Gambetta, at no 66, is the popular California Kitchen.
And if you don’t mind a short walk, our new favorite, Bonheur, La Maison de Hamburger, can be found at 30, Ave. Victor Hugo. Well worth the walk, and the wait if you’re not there early enough.
More Good Dining Options
Besides an excellent array of tapas bars and newer hamburger joints, Biarritz has some good options for lunch, or dinner if you are staying in the city.
Le Bistro Gourmet
8, Rue de la Bergerie
Tel: (+33) 559 220 937
5, rue d’Alsace
Tel: (+33) 559 510 367
La Table d’Arranda
87, Ave. de la Marne
Tel: (+33) 559 221 604
Le Pim’pi Bistrot
14, Avenue de Verdun
Tel: (+33) 559 241 262
5, Avenue du Maréchal Foch
Tel: (+33) 559 225 150
Ville Eugene, L’impratrice or Hippocampe
Hôtel du Palais
Tel: (+33) 559 416 400
Known as Donibane Lohizune in Basque, is a charming, lively, sophisticated, but extremely busy in summer, tuna, sardine and anchovy fishing port with 5 sandy beaches, turned tourist draw. Take a walk atop the seawall on the Promenade Jacques Thibault. Survey the sardine boats moored in the small, protected harbor, or stroll along the soft sandy beach, la grande Plage, which is the very best way to appreciate the town’s fine architecture. The beach promenade runs from the end of Rue de la République to the elegantly restored Edwardian-style Grand Hôtel, which overlooks the beach and where you can have afternoon tea.
Saint-Jean’s beaches are family friendly with several children’s beach clubs, plenty of tents and lounge chairs for rent and fine, soft sand, making for a perfect family beach day and safer swimming than you’ll find in nearby Biarritz. But go very early in the day during July and August, as it will be packed with sun seekers. You can even have spa thalassotherapy (seaweed) treatments at the Hélianthal Hotel, Place Maurice Ravel. And golfers can play at the historic Golf de Chantaco, 66€ for 18 holes (July-October), 46€ for 9. Rates vary by season. Book your tee time 24 hrs in advance. Golf clubs and carts can be rented.
Once the center of Basque corsairs during the 17th-century, Saint-Jean-de-Luz became famous as the setting of an historic royal event when in 1660 a twenty-two year old Louis XIV married the daughter of Phillip IV of Spain, the infanta María Teresa, in the Église-Saint-Jean-Baptiste (while still under renovation). After the royal wedding, the main church door was walled up forever.
Don’t miss seeing this lovely Basque church with its 3-tiered wooden balconies, scale models of traditional sailing ships hanging from the ceiling and the most beautiful altarpiece in the entire Pays Basque. In summer there are often evening concerts offered by the Maurice Ravel Academy of Music (9:30 pm) in the church, and there are Basque choral CDs for sale at the information desk.
You can also visit the beautiful 17th-century shipowner’s mansion on a guided tour. It was built for a wealthy ship owning family, the Lohobiagues, during the “Golden Age” of Saint-Jean-de-Luz (1640-1660), and was used by the Sun King as his temporary residence in the days preceding the extravagant wedding. Sitting beside the Hotel de Ville, it is closed annualy, opening the beginning of Easter Week (31 March 2018) and will close again from November 5, 2018, until April 5, 2019. Opens daily at 11:00 am, but closed on Tuesdays during the season. Admission is 6,50€ for adults.
The principal shopping area is along the pedestrian, boutique-lined Rue Gambetta, which connects the fishing port to the beach. Unfortunately in and among the sophisticated shops, one will now find an abundance of tourist trinkets, and trying to get around in July and August can mean complete gridlock. Nonetheless, there are lovely handicrafts and delicious Basque gourmet treats to be found.
Look for caramels at “La Maison du Kanouga”, the house of caramels, Maison Pariès pastry shop at 9 Rue Gambetta. There are all sorts of wonderful gourmet products down the street at No. 32, Maison Thurin. White, red, and blue pottery and table linens can be found at Jean-Vier, No. 48, with a another beautiful store at the port on 1 Rue d l’Infante.
Stylish t-shirts and casual sportswear can be found at Boutique 64, 79 Rue Gambetta. Soft, cream colored Helena table linens and towels, robes, slippers are available at 8 Rue Louis-Fortuné Loquin, and a branch of Bayonne’s L’Atelier du Chocolate is at No. 13. And let’s not forget Chocolaterie Henriet, 10, boulevard Thiers, a 2-minute walk away.
And try the world famous macarons, made here since 1660, at the Maison Adam on the main square, Place Louis XIV, which for me, taste even better than at Ladurée in Paris. These macaron were served at Louis XIV and María Teresa’s wedding. The maison also sells a delicious gâteau basque and gourmet chocolats.
Don’t forget to visit the terrific, popular, covered farmers’ market, particularly on Tuesday and Friday mornings all year long and on Saturdays in July and August when the purveyors of fine farm produce set up stands outside. Renovated in 2012, the market now has space for 43 stalls inside, including 8 for fishmongers, where you can buy fresh line-caught hake every morning. Go early, before 9:00 am, to be able to park in the public lot across from the train station, or try the underground parking garage on Boulevard Victor Hugo, at the theatre acoss from the Market. Be sure to pick up some fresh bread and Ossau-Iraty cheese at the market. Irouléguy wine is available across the street at the Nicolas wine shop for that lunchtime picnic in the park.
Nota bene: Although Saint-Jean-de-Luz has everything one could want in a Pays Basque coastal fishing village; pretty setting, interesting history, lovely beach with play areas for children, nice dining, upscale shopping, water sports, golf, spas, a lively market, painters at work on the leafy square, complete with bandstand, surrounded by outdoor cafes, little tourist train, cesta punta (jai alai) at the frontón, and on and on… it suffers from tremendous crowds in July and August. It’s the Laguna Beach of the French Basque coast. Rue Gambetta will be as crowded as the wait to ascend the Eiffel Tower during high season! Go in early June or better yet, off-season!
Dining in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Cibour
If you come in to Saint-Jean to shop and would like lunch during the high season, I highly recommend taking refuge from the hordes, far away from Rue Gambetta, Place Saint Louis and the touristy “restaurant row” of rue de la République, with two notable exceptions, the first on rue de la République and the second a few steps off Place Saint Louis on rue Mazarin.
17, rue de la République
Tel: (+33) 559 261 320
43, Boulevard Thiers
Tel: (+33) 559 263 536
6, rue Mazarin
Tel: (+33) 559 080 123
3, rue Salagoïty
Tel: (+33) 559 512 080
30, Boulevard Thiers
Tel: (+33) 559 510 522
Le Bar Basque
22, Bd Thiers
Tel: (+33) 559 851 663
18, rue du Maréchal Harispe
Tel: (+33) 559 851 070
18, avenue Jean Poulou (Ciboure)
Tel: (+33) 559 471 075
37, ave du Commandant Passicot (Port of Socoa, Ciboure)
Tel: (+33) 559 471 373
In the Alt & Baix Empordà
Take a driving tour of the highly picturesque, beautifully preserved, charming, atmospheric medieval villages of Pals and its castle tower and rice fields (but is perhaps a bit too-well restored and overly manicured), and the nearby tiny Sant Feliu de Boada, with its lovely 12th-century Romanesque church. A little further inland is the beautifully preserved walled village of Peratallada, with its defensive walls still intact, a moat and castle-palace, 13th-century church of Sant Esteve and lookout tower-its name means “cut stone”. Palau-Sator, a sleeper, has a little farm museum that’s open from 12:30 to 9:00 pm is a 10-minute drive north of Peratallada. Ullastret, a few minutes west of Palau-Sator, is another village surrounded by defensive walls. You can also visit the ancient ruins of the Poblat ibèric d’Ullastret (Puig de Sant Andreu), the oldest known Iberian settlement, set on a lush hillside just north of Ullastret. It was inhabited continually from the 7th-century BC until its mysterious abandonment in the 17th-century. And if time allows, end your driving tour in picture postcard perfect Monells, where the river divides the town-Old Quarter. It has a pretty porticoed square and flower lined streets.
The villages of Peratallada-Pals-Palau Sator are architectural jewels and form the “Golden Triangle” of the Lower, Baix Empordá, which is often called Catalonia’s version of Tuscany. The villages are close to one another so you can hit them on one long driving excursion.
For lunch on this loop we recommend the Restaurant Ibéric in Ullastret (their fish comes directly from the Palamós pier), the Mas Pou in Palau-Sator (a Bibi Gourmand selection for value in the Michelin guide), the Can Bonay in Peratallada, Can Dolç in Sant Feliu de Boada, on the main square next to the church, with a children’s play area, and L’Hort del Rector on the outskirts of Monells, run by a Catalán/Canadian couple. You’ll find this last one on the Monells-Madremanya road, just in front of the Saint Genís church, which has a Gothic apse and a Baroque façade. Its catalán name means “The Parish Priest’s Kitchen Garden”. But here you should enjoy cod, as most of the main courses are versions of cod in its many guises, the house specialty, although there are main courses and starters for non-cod lovers.
See the splendid Greco-Roman ruins and Museum of Empúries + lovely sandy beach under shaded pines of Sant Martí d’Empúries next door. The drive to Empúries from Girona will take about 45 minutes. These ruins are considered some of the finest, most fascinating ancient archaeological sites in Spain, if not in all of Europe. The Greek settlers who arrived here in the 6th-century BC developed “Emporion” (the market place) into one of the most significant Greek trading centers in the western Mediterranean. In 218 BC the Romans invaded, and towards the end of the 2nd-century AD they established a settlement here for their veteran soldiers to the west of the Greek town. The Roma and Greek settlements were united as one during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The decline of this once-flourishing city set in around the end of the 2nd-century.
After an Empúries visit you can explore the nearby village of Sant Martí d’Empúries with its beach of golden sand and have a meal at the Impressionist painting-filled Mesón del Conde on the Plaça Major at No. 4. It has an outdoor terrace and is a local favorite. This could be an unforgettable day of art, history and nature.
While in the area be sure to visit L’Escala, the anchovy capital, with an anchovy museum. Buy a tin of local anchovies. The Museum of Anchovies & Salt is open from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 5:00 to 8:00 pm. Admission is 2€.
For one Michelin star dining in L’Escala, you have El Roser 2 with prime views of the bay at Passeig de Lluís Albert. Chef Jordi Sabadi helms the kitchen and his brother, Rafel, acts as the sommelier.
Visit, dine and/or shop in the lovely hilltop market town filled with 19th-century indiano mansions and crowned by the remnants of a 17th-century castle, once used as a defense against frequent pirate raids. The top of Begur commands extensive views of the central Costa Brava and the town itself attracts an international crowd in the summer. Many of its indiano homes, some porticoed with fading frescoes, have been restored by noted catalán architects, and plaques have been placed in Spanish and English explaining the history of each home.
What is an indiano?
The indianos were locals from all over the Costa Verde (Green Spain) who in vast numbers immigrated to the Americas: Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to seek their fortunes. Once they had amassed considerable wealth in the textile, tobacco and banking industries, they returned to Catalunya, Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia and the Basque Country and built huge, ostentatious palaces to showcase their newly minted fortunes. In early September Begur will celebrate its annual Fira Indians Festival, a 3-day event that commemorates the relationship between the town and Havana, Cuba.
Salvador Dalí’s over-the-top, wildly extravagant Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres in the Upper (Alt) Empordà attracts more visitors than any other museum in Spain, apart from Madrid’s Prado. In addition to the museum, Figueres has a pleasant, prosperous old center. There is underground parking at Placa Catalunya and the Dalí Museum is walkable from there. A regular Thursday morning outdoor market is held on the Rambla lined with plane trees. To visit the Teatre-Museu it’s best to look online in advance, noting the opening hours of each month, and to avoid a long line during high season, purchase your tickets (14€) online at Salvador-Dali.org.
The 11th-century castle that Surrealist Salavador Dalí purchased and restored for his Russian wife, Gala, in this sleepy little village in 1970, the Gala Castell Dalí Púbol, is one of the three points that make up the so-called “Daí Triangle”. The artist himself lived in this palace until 1984 but moved back to Figueres after being badly injured in a fire here. The third point is found near rather isolated Cadaqués, his equally outré home, the Salvador Dalí House in Portlligat.
Figueres also boasts another small museum, Museu del Joguet de Catalunya, the Toy Museum of Josep Maria Joan Rosa, at Carrer de Sant Pere, 1, a short walk from Teatre-Museu Dalí.
For lunch after a visit to the Dalí museum, we recommend the dining room of the Hotel Durán at Carrer Lasauca, 5, nearby, off the Rambla, in business since 1855, serving traditional catalán fare at moderate prices. It’s open daily, and its famous all over Catalunya.
On a slighter longer trip from Girona, taken during the week to avoid horrendous weekend traffic on a tortuous road, would be the journey to the Aegean looking, bohemian, artsy whitewashed fishing village of Cadaqués, home of Surrealist Salvador Dalí. If you venture here, wear extremely comfortable shoes as the steep streets of the old quarter, the Barri Vell, are paved with large, rough stones. There is a market held on Mondays at Riera de Sant Vicenç, Mercadillo de Cadaqués. The town featires an interesting museum, the Museu de Cadaqués, at Carrer Narcís Monturiol, 15, with displays relating to Dalí’s work and excellent exhibitions of local art. And the 16th-century Esglesia de Santa Maria is highly photogenic. It has an ornate gilded altarpiece and the 3rd side chapel on the left was painted by Dalí. The seafront offers a pebble beach, artist shops, street musicians and cafes and restaurants where Dalí and writers, such as García Marqués, used to congregate. Read all about the village in 36 hours in Cadaqués.
The best restaurant in town is Compartir at Riera Sant Vicenç. The dishes here are meant to be shared (hence, the name, “compartir”=to share). The three chefs here trained at El Bulli and have opened a gastronomic restaurant in Barcelona, Disfrutar, which made number 55 on Restaurant Magazine’s The World’s Best Restaurants for 2017. It also earned two “suns” from the Repsol Guide and the personal recommendation of Joan Roca, of Girona’s 3-Michelin starred El Celler de Can Roca. Another attractive dining spot with lovely views overlooking the bay is Es Baluard.
Dalí’s home at neighboring Portlligat, a rambling collection of fishing huts, is a fascinating museum that can be visited by advanced appointment only, bookable online.
Don’t forget to try the ‘Taps de Cadaqués’, small buns shaped like corks, eaten at afternoon tea or flambeed with rum as a dessert.
While in the area, you can visit Empordàlia, a wine cellar and olive mill. There is also the Cellers d’en Guilla near Rabós d’Empordà, and Mas Estela in La Selva de Mar. Call or email for reservations.
Attend the daily fish auction from 4:30 to 5:30 pm on weekdays, Tuesday-Friday, at the port in Palamós, south of Begur. At the port there is a small Fishermen’s Museum, Museu de la Pesca, which explains the past and present of the fishermen’s work. Fishing is a huge business in Palamós and its red prawns, gambas de Palamós, are highly coveted and quite pricey. This thriving town, home to the fishing and cork-producing industry, has a life of its own, independent of tourism. Its old quarter is a bustling knot of pedestrianized streets centered on its town square, Plaça Major, full of shops, cafes and restaurants. The tourist office sits at Passeig del Mar 22.
At the working port there is a small Fishermen’s Museum, Museu de la Pesca, which explains the past and present of the fishermen’s work. Fishing is a huge business in Palamós and its red prawns, gambas de Palamós, are highly coveted and quite pricey. The museum is open May, June and September Tuesday-Friday from 10:00 am to 1:30 pm and from 3:00 to 7:00 pm. On Saturday, Sunday and holidays it opens fro 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and 4:00 to 7:00 pm. In the months of July and August it opens Monday-Sunday from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. The Espai del Peix was opened in 2011 next to the town’s interesting interactive Fish Museum to raise awareness of the industry and local gastronomy. It runs a variety of cooking classes/demonstrations.
Have a lunch of the acclaimed prawns at La Salinera, at Avinguda 11 Setembre, 93, a Bibi-Gourmand (great price to quality ratio) selection of the Michelin guide. During the week it’s only open for lunch but on Fridays/Saturdays it also opens for dinner. Another Michelin recommendation is La Menta at Tauler i Servià 1, with an outdoor terrace, open for lunch and dinner but closed Tuesdays. Or a more rustic fishermen’s tavern founded in 1936, a local institution, La María de Cadaqués, with a wood beamed interior hung with artworks, where Truman Capote dined during the two years he lived here while writing In Cold Blood. You’ll find it on the same street as La Menta, at number 6. From September 1 to June 22 it closes on Sunday evenings and all day Mondays/Tuesdays. In July it closes only on Mondays and in August it closed for Monday lunch.
In Palamós the celebrations of the summer solstice, the Festa de Sant Joan on June 23, 24 and 25 are especially lively with music, dancing and fireworks.
Spend the day in the multi-layered, beautiful city of Girona, one of Catalunya’s most prosperous and colorful cities, sitting on the banks of the river Onyar. The highlights of Girona include the Cathedral of Santa María and its museum, with the Romanesque Tapestry of the Creation and 12th-century Romanesque cloister, Museum of Jewish History, its interesting Cinema Museum, the Arab Baths (actually 12th-century Christian), its ancient medieval Jewish Quarter, El Call, and walking along with city ramparts, the Passeig de la Muralla. It will take about an hour for the drive from Llofríu to the parking lot at Correos (the Post Office), which is the most convenient parking in the modern city, where you can cross into medieval Girona via the Eiffel-designed iron bridge.
Have lunch in El Call of Girona at Cal Ros, located on an atmospheric square and considered one of the city’s best tables for traditional Empordanese cuisine.
Tour the recently renovated and enlarged Cork Museum, Museo del Suro, in the center of Palafrugell, to learn all about the world of cork and the importance of its production here in the Empordà. Cork reserves in the nearby cork forest are manufactured mainly into bottle corks. A boom set in when catalán wine growing expanded following the 19th-century birth of cava, the catalán sparkling wine. Palafrugell is still the most important cork manufacturing location in Catalonia today.
Visit the Castle and Gardens of Cap Roig just south of Calella de Palafrugell, a cliff top, 8-hectare botanical garden, which took 50 years to lay out and was finished in 1927. It was constructed by a White Russian colonel named Voevosky and his English wife. It boasts exceptional views of the headland of Calella amidst a colorful display of flowers and plants from all over the world. An all-star music festival is held in the gardens each summer from July 4-August 15. The botanical gardens are open in summer from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Admission is 6€.
Ribera’s earliest underground cellars, with their distinctive stone chimneys, called zarceras, were built in the 13th century in towns across the region and still serve to protect the wines from the extreme climate changes. The limestone caves, dug by hand, provide the perfect conditions for aging these fine wines. One of the best examples of these cellars is the 400 meter long wine storage cellar of Bodegas Ismael Arrouyo-Valsotillo in Sotillo de la Ribera.
Although the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) of Ribera del Duero has only been in existence since July 1982, starting with just 8 wineries, winemaking in the region dates back more than 2000 years to the time of the Romans who had a settlement, Clunia, in what is now the small village of Baños de Valdearados in the province of Burgos.
As of October 2017, the Ribera del Duero counted 255 commercial wineries with 35,000 hectares in production (about one third the area of their rival, Rioja to the north) scattered along its 115 km length. Major winemaking is centered in and around the towns of Peñafiel (Valladolid), Roa and Aranda de Duero (Burgos) and San Esteban de Gormaz (Soria), all of which sit along the banks of the Duero River.
The “Magic Mile” lies just west of Peñafiel, where most of the vineyards are located in lower elevations. Here the wineries employ special towers to move the heavier, colder air that settles in over the river valley to protect the grapes from the dangers of an early fall frost, common to the area.
On average, the vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are planted between 2,500 and 2,800 feet (760 to 850 meters) above sea level (with some vineyards as high as 3,100 feet or 945 meters), resulting in considerable differences, up to 30 degrees F, between nighttime and daytime temperatures. The predominant grape, the Tinto Fino or Tempranillo actually benefits from this dramatic change of temperature. It likes to cool off or “sleep”, lie dormant, at night and warm up during the day. These conditions yield smaller berries with loose clusters and tougher skin, resulting in more skin-to-juice contact, promoting full-bodied, powerful wines, but retaining the grape’s renowned elegance, which is a signature of Ribera del Duero wines.
The maximum yields are limited by the D.O. to 7,000 kilos per hectare, but the average yields for the past 25 years have rarely exceeded 3,600 kilos per hectare, as the wineries have reduced the quantity in pursuit of quality.
The Wines of the Ribera del Duero
The red wines produced in the Ribera del Duero are designated as Joven, Joven Roble, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, and all will benefit from decanting.
“Joven Roble” and “Joven Barrica” are terms that refer to wines aged in oak barrels from three to six months. These wine tend to be fruity and vibrant and are meant to be consumed when young.
Aged for 2 years with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels, these wines are released after the first of October, two years following the harvest. They have well balanced tannins with a full-bodied and velvety feel.
Aged 3 years, a minimum of twelve months in oak; these wine can only be placed on the market after the first of October of the third year following the harvest. Reserva wines are bottled after 12 months and laid down to sleep until ready to be released. They are typically elegant and intense.
These are wines of outstanding quality, made in select vintage years only. Aged a minimum of 5 years, a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels, followed by additional bottle aging, and cannot be released until five years after the October harvest. The wines are complex and structured, with great balance and vitality.
The area does also produce a small quantity of rosé, rosado, and Bodegas Valduero produces an outstanding white, García Viadero, made from the albillo grape.
Celtic Galicia, Spain’s Ireland
You will need a few weeks to properly explore Spain’s lush, misty, and verdant northwest corner: a land very different from southern Spain. This lush, misty, and verdant northwest corner of Iberia, facing the fierce Atlantic, is a place of spectacular seaside cliffs and mighty rivers gushing through deep gorges, of chestnut, pine and eucalyptus forests, of Celtic heritage, legends and myths, of bagpipes, dolmens and petroglyphs. Romanesque and pre-Roman ruins, and stunning medieval architecture, dot the countryside along the various pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. The “land of a thousand rivers” is also where you will find wild horses roaming the high Serras, dense wooded valleys with green medows, stately granite manor homes covered with blankets of moss, lively outdoor markets with bubbling cauldrons of pulpo a feira (octopus), and more festivals that one can begin to count. There are beautiful sandy beaches and sheltered harbors flanked by towering cliffs and some 1,200 kilometers of rugged coastline with unique Rías, or low estuaries, that supply the region with an astounding bounty of fresh seafood and shellfish.
On the Route of the Wines of Galicia
Galicia is blessed with a unique mix of favorable microclimates which, along with lemon, orange, oil and palm trees, afford it’s five principal wine making regions with their own official Denominaciones de Origen, three of which we have toured in depth: the Ribeira Sacra, Rías Baixas and Ribeiro. These three wine producing areas encompass the provinces of Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra and are currently enjoying a growing international recognition for excellence, and we promise that once you try them, you will definitely be hooked.
Meandering in the Riberia Sacra
Using the Parador of San Vicente do Pino, a reconverted Benedictine Monastery, in the town of Monforte de Lemos as a base, we spent four intensive days touring the out-of-the-way, exquisitely rural, ancient Ribeira Sacra, or ‘Sacred Bank”, noted as such for its wealth of monastic retreats. Without a doubt, it is one of the most stunningly picturesque wine growing regions of Spain! The rich, rugged canyons formed by the Miño and Sil rivers are covered with steeply terraced vineyards, vines cascading down the precipitous slopes to the very edge of the meandering rivers below. The harvests here, like in the Alto Douro, require arduous, back breaking labor to collect the grapes from the steep, plunging slopes.
Smaller than the Rioja, but slightly larger and with an even more dramatic landscape than the Priorat, the Ribeira Sacra has been growing grapes for some 2,000 years, its terraces (bancales) dating back to the Roman occupation. They produce lighter, lively, fruity, mineral-rich wines, primarily mencía-based reds and godello-based whites, along with fine liqueurs, or orujos. Adegas Vía Romana and Adegas Regina Viarum enjoy two of the most spectacularly beautiful and panoramic locations of any winery we’ve visited and are truly “must sees” for wine lovers. The Ribeira Sacra wines continue to attract world-wide attention, and we promise that once you try them, you will definitely be hooked!
Along with winery visits, we toured the area’s vast array of Baroque monasteries and Romanesque hermitages and purchased ceramics from the artisan hamlets of Gundivós and Niñodaguia.
Navigating the Rías Baixas
Road signs in Galicia can be challenging, but navigating the Rías Baixas (Lower Estuaries) region proved to be most difficult due to poor or non-existent signage. Therefore, when touring the area, the help of a local guide is strongly advised.
Like the Ribeira Sacra, this D.O. is divided into 5 sub zones, the largest being the Val do Salnés, Salnés valley, consisting of rolling fields laced with stone and wire trellises (parrales) used to lift the vines away from the damp soil, towards the sunshine and to provide ventilation and prevent rot. The vineyards are planted predominately with the resistant albariño grape (Spain’s most expensive), and these rather feminine wines taste intensely fruity- peach, pear, citrus flavors.
Along with the Palacio de Fefiñanes, located in the wine capital of Cambados on its handsome medieval square, we found the countryside Pazo de Señorás and Agro de Bazán to be the most charming and welcoming. Both boast stunning Pazos, or ancestral manor homes, these usually with private chapel, garden, hórreo (stone granary built on stilts) and dovecote. And both wineries produce delicate, aromatic wines that pare perfectly with the region’s superb seafood.
Although we based at the Parador del Albariño in Cambados, we can also recommend the elegant, Belle Epoque spa hotel, the Eurostars’ 5-star Gran Hotel La Txoa, on the pine covered island of A Toxa, as a pampering, relaxing base.
While in the area one should also visit the 12th-century Monastery of Armenteira, the 16th-century Monastery of Poio and picturesque village of Combarro with its lineup of hórreos facing the river.
Into the Ribeiro
Ribeiro (Ourense province), the oldest appellation in Galicia, in medieval times, under the reign of King García I, saw its wines, the potent tostados, exported from the court of Ribadavia to almost the whole of Europe. Ribadavia’s thriving Jewish community became rich thanks to the pre-Inquisition wine commerce. In the 16th-century Ribeiro wine was revered throughout Europe and even shipped to America. Cervantes described Ribadavia as Spain’s “Mother of Wine”. But in the 18th century the vineyards suffered a sharp decline as foreign wine merchants moved on to Porto. Then in the 19th-century a vine plague devastated the Ribeiro wine industry.
The vineyards here are situated in the deep green hills that slope down to four rivers that irrigate this pastoral land. (Ribeiro in the Gallego language meaning “River Bank”). At his Viña Mein estate in Leiro, ex-attorney Javier Alén has been a pioneer in the renaissance of Ribeiro wines, returning to its native grapes, and bringing the Treixadura, called the “queen of all white grapes”, on to the world’s stage. Adjacent to the winery, the owners have created a cozy and charming 8-room B&B from the original stone farmstead, which makes a delightful retreat for oenophiles. Viña Mein also owns a strikingly avant-garde, boutique hotel, a member of the prestigious Rusticae group, in the hamlet of San Clodio, adjacent to the Monastery.
Other noteworthy wine estates to include on your Ribeiro itinerary: The Coto de Gomariz dating from the 10th-century, and Casal de Armán, an 18th-century winery with atmospheric 6-room hotel and delightful bistro with heavenly views.
Northern Portugal’s Minho River Valley
From the Ribeiro we crossed the Miño river and stepped back 30 years in time. The Portuguese Minho, far more pristine than its Spanish counterpart, is endowed with a number of highly photogenic fortress towns with their defensive walls and watch towers intact, filled with magnificently restored churches, beautifully manicured gardens, quintas (noble estates) and mosaic cobbled squares, along with thermal spas. Vila de Cerveira, Caminha, Monçao and Melgaço all delight visitors with their Old World charm.
In Melgaço, gateway to the Peneda-Gerês National Park, we dropped in to sample the area’s crisp, refreshing, slightly effervescent alvarinho vinho verde. Sampling here couldn’t be more pleasurable in the village’s Solar do Alvarinho wine center, a showcase for these fresh white wines, along with local cheeses, sausages, honey and handicrafts, including exquisite embroidered linens.
And a visit to the northern Minho valley wouldn’t be complete without an unforgettable gourmet lunch at Adega do Sossego in Peso. A tucked- away charmer, it serves gargantuan portions of local specialties, such as grilled trout stuffed with country ham, washed down with the house alvarinho wine, and ending with a complimentary miniature vat of their homemade digestif.
The festival in Valencia, Spain’s 3rd largest city, is similar in many ways to the Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona; open and welcoming, people of all ages and stature coming together, long days and late nights in a city that never sleeps, thousands of participants immaculately dressed in traditional regional costumes, food stands serving chocolate y buñuelos (hot chocolate and fritters), massive crowds filling the streets and plazas, daily bullfights featuring the country’s most prestigious matadors, spectacular fireworks, 700 streets blocked to traffic and all the pageantry surrounding the Feast Day of San José.
But Las Fallas has its own unique level of intensity and beauty, one created with papier-mâché and flowers, ignited by gunpowder and fire.
Spread about the city squares are more than 750 Fallas, which are enormous monuments, created from wood and papier-mâché. These structures are composed of artfully painted and sculpted figurines, the Ninots, which serve as humorous or satirical caricatures of local and national public figures and current events. These genuine works of art, scattered all over the city, create a huge open-air sculpture garden. And all but one of these figures, the ninot indultat, the “pardoned one”, go up in flames on the fiesta’s final Night of the Bonfires.
Marching bands, like the Peñas in Pamplona, play tabalets (traditional drums) and dolçainas (woodwind instruments) on every street corner, and each day at 2:00 pm, a deafening explosion of some 250 pounds of gunpowder, the mascletà, takes place in the Town Hall square. This unique pyrotechnics spectacle is often described as a fireworks “concert with barrage upon barrage of sheer rhythmic noise”.
On March 19, Saint Joseph’s night, the burning, or Cremà, of all of this artwork takes place in hundreds of bonfires throughout the city. The fallas are doused with gasoline, packed with fireworks then set ablaze. Tradition dictates that the fire must reduce each monument to ashes, purging away the sorrows or the evils of the previous year, like a dramatic “spring cleaning”.
First, the children’s fallas are set ablaze, then the full-scale monuments, then the crescendo an hour later at 1 am, the burning of the city council monument, which belongs to all Valencianos, on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. With our press passes we were able to witness the burning of this enormous Falla from the City Hall roof top, above the tens of thousands of spectators, and we marveled at both the intense heat and at how only a handful of firefighters managed to control this enormous blaze.
Like San Fermín’s Pobre de mí, this is both a sad moment, marking the end to the festival, but also a happy one, symbolizing the coming of spring and the start of the preparations for next year’s Fiesta
And just as the municipal sanitation workers undertake their heroic chore of cleaning Pamplona’s streets after the chupinazo on July 6, for the daily encierro and following the Pobre de mí ceremony on July 14, the Valencia municipal fire brigades perform their own Herculean task of collecting the ashes and debris so that the following morning the city can return to normal.
One of the most beautiful and moving aspects of this unique festival is its religious act – the Ofrenda. This is the solemn procession of the Fallas commissions, the falleras and falleros dressed in richly embroidered silk costumes, who parade from their neighborhoods to the Plaza de la Virgen, accompanied by their marching bands. In front of the Basilica of the Our Lady of the Forsaken, la Virgen de los Desamparados, a 15-meter high wooden structure is erected, topped with the face of the Madonna and Child. On March 17 and 18, from 4 pm to the early morning hours, a steady stream of falleras and falleros makes the pilgrimage to the square to present their floral offering to Valencia’s patron saint. The falleras hand their bouquets to the Virgin’s “dressers” who create a stunning tapestry of flowers which form the Virgin’s mantle, the design of which changes each year. Along with these bouquets, the falleros place flower baskets at the feet of the Virgin. During this ceremony an astonishing 25 tons of flowers are used.