An Excursion Into The Basque Highlands

A short drive from San Sebastián, south on the A-1, will take you into the Goierri, the Basque Highlands, a region surrounded by the Aralar Mountains.  Continue on the road to the attractive, and very Basque, tiny village of Zerain, a postcard perfect setting, which lies midway between Donostia and Vitoria.  On the way you’ll pass through the region known as the Tolosaldea, comprised of 27 small villages and the main village of Tolosa, the red bean town on the banks of the Oria River, former provincial capital of Gipuzkoa, where the wicker baskets, chisteras, used for pelota and jai alai, are produced.  Further on is Ordizia, the village famous for its Wednesday weekly market, which this year celebrates the 750th anniversary of it’s founding in May of 1268.  A little south you’ll find Idiazábal, the ewe’s cheese village that lies between the Aralar and Aizkorri mountain ranges.  The production of Idiazabal cheese, named after the village, follows a centuries-old recipe used by the Basque shepherds of the area.  If you can, try to be there the first Sunday in May when the village of Idiazabal holds the Día del Queso, the annual Cheese Day celebration.  This area hasn’t been tarnished by as much industrial blight as other areas in the Bilbao-San Sebastian area.  It makes a wonderful, idyllic day trip from the coast.


The village’s Saturday market day, considered the largest market in the Basque Country, is when local farmers gather to sell their products.  Situated on the left bank of the Oria river, the market was totally renovated a few years ago and is where you will find the regions most famous produce, the Alubia de Tolosa, the tasty black bean, which is honored each November during the bean festival, La Fiesta de la Alubia, or babarrunaren astea in Basque.  Tolosa, celebrating it’s 750th anniversary, is one on the principal stops on the Inland Way of St. James, one of the alternate routes leading to Santiago de Compostela through the Basque Country.  

Alubia de Tolosa
Alubia de Tolosa

Tolosa is also the birthplace of Edurne Pasaban, the Basque Counties most famous mountaineer and the first woman to climb all 14 eight-thousand meter high mountains in the world.

Lunch in Tolosa

Besides sampling pintxos in the local bars, or waiting until the parrilleros gastronomic festival in early December, you can stop by one of the best Asadores Sidrerías found anywhere in the Basque Country, for an unforgettable experience, a true red meat temple at Casa Julián Matias – Gorrotxategi.  This carnivore’s delight, which opened in 1954, is housed in what appears to be, at first glance, a scruffy warehouse, at Santa Clara, 6, across from the bridge, but press on and you’ll find a dining room and kitchen in the back, which has housed sophisticated diners from all over the world, including the most famous chefs of the Basque country.  Julián offers a 50-page wine list, heavy on reds with labels from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Douro, Argentine and Chile, plus all of the Spanish appellations, with a few wines for under 15€.  The current chef-owner is the son of the original Julián.  Number 12 of the top 100 European Heritage Restaurants for 2018.  It’s also rated highly in all the Spanish gastronomic guides and has a counterpart in Old Madrid, Julián de Tolosa, on Cava Baja. Closed Sundays.  Prices remain very reasonable. Call (+34) 943 671 417 to reserve at table.  


Just across the bridge, on the other side of the river at Avenida Zumalacárregui, 7, you’ll find another noted asador, Casa Nicolás, which began in 1953 as a bar near Tolosa’s Plaza de San Juan Arramele, Tolosa’s Chinatown, where young Nicolás Ruíz taught himself to work the grill.   Less rustic then Casa Julián, it delivers a fantastic meal in slightly more upscale surroundings.  The chef, Pedro Ruiz, or his son Xabier, the 3rd generation, will take your order and deliver you a fabulous meal, along with a bottle of red wine from the 40,000 bottle cellar.  Closed Sundays for dinner.  You can reserve a place at (+34) 943 654 759.

And please don’t think about leaving Tolosa without seeking out Spain’s best and most famous confectionary shop, Rafa Gorrotxategi 1680, now at its new location, Polígono Industrial Usabal, 14, on the south end of Tolosa.  Rafa, the 3rd generation, continues the family tradition.  The Pastry Workshop is open Monday-Friday from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm.  There used to be a number of pastry and confectionery shops in this town, but they began closing down one after the other, unable to compete with the cheaper industrial products.  José María Gorrotxategi, Rafa’s father, was very much interested in Basque lore, began buying all the sweet-making equipment in those shops, one, Xaxu, had been operating in the same building since the 17th-century.  José María bought the building and opened the very interesting Pastry Museum with a display of over 400 traditional confectionery utensils, but which is seldom open.


A few minutes south of Tolosa, this small medieval village with an old quarter filled with lovely homes and hosts one of the oldest markets in Spain, dating from 1512.  The traditional market is held each Wednesdays in the large covered square, which was finally covered in 1925.  In early September the village celebrates its “Euskal Jaiak” (Basque Festival), held each year since 1904, and includes the International Idiazabal Cheese contest, with the Wednesday Market Day being the special day during the festival.

Lunchtime in Ordizia 

You’ll find a great dining experience here at Restaurante Martínez 1890, Santamaria-Andre Mari Kalea, 10, whose chef, Xabier `Martínez, the 4th generation, is taking his mother’s classic asador in more contemporary and creative directions.  Tel: (+34) 943 880 641.

Tximista, a typical cider house, is located in the center of Ordizia and offers a traditional cider house menu for 30€, Monday-Friday from noon to 4:00 pm and on weekends from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm.  Open Thursday-Saturday evenings for dinner at 8:00 pm.  Guided tours available for small groups.  Tel: (+34) 943 881 128.

Continuing on the loop


From Ordizia, you venture a few kilometers west on the GI-2632 t0 the village of Zumárraga where you can visit the 15th-century hermitage La Antigua, known as the hermitages’ cathedral, which sit in the hills above the village.  And if you are thinking about lunch, then Kabia, meaning ‘nest’ in Basque, can be found in the village at Calle Legazpi, 5.  With two Repsol suns, and recommended in the Michelin Guide for 2018, chef Juanma Hurtado, who began his career working at Restaurante Akelarre, offers a weekly lunch menu for only 20,90€, including bread, wine and VAT.  Closed Mondays.  Reservations highly recommended. Tel: (+34) 943 726 274.


Further south on the GI-2630, in the Valle del Hierro, the Valley of Iron, you’ll find the village Legazpi along the banks of the Urola River.  The village’s main festival, Santikutzak Txiki, takes place the 1st week of May.  While here, you can visit the Park Mirandaola, a complex that includes a iron mill from the 18th-century that you can see at work on Sundays between noon and 1:00 pm only, from Easter to September, and the farmhouses where Idiazabal cheese and artisan breads are made.

From Legazpi, it’s only a short drive to the tiny village of Zerain, population 250, on the slopes of Aizkorri Mountain Range, one of Gipuzkoa’s best viewpoints and where you can visit the furnaces of Aizpea.  From here you can visit the village of Idiazabal, well known for its cheese more so than its 12th-century Romanesque-Gothic style parish church of San Miguel and stately houses, before returning to San Sebastián, either on the A-1, back through Tolosa, or on another scenic route that will take you to Beasain, then up GI-632 to Zumárraga before heading up through the valley on the GI-631 to Azpeitia and Zestoa, finally connecting to the AP-8, which will take you back to San Sebastián-Donostia in no time.

On the Idiazábal Cheese Trail

The GR 283 is a circular route designed for walkers over a period of 6 stages, covering 95.7 kilometres, covering the Goierri, Alto Urola and Alto Deba regions, but it is also possible to follow the route of the Idiazábal cheese by car starting in Segura, southwest of Idiazábal, then up to Mutiloa and on to Legazpi.  From here, you’re next stop would be Oñati, over the Biozkorna pass, the highest point on this part of the route, finishing at the Sanctuary of Arantzazu.  From Oñati you head up to the meadows of Urbia, where you can see megaliths and huts, then southeast through the Aizkorri-Aratz nature park, a massif, the highest point in the Basque Country and an ancient route dating from the time of the Romans.  From there, you brieftly cross into Navarra before heading back into Gipuzkoa to the village of Etxegarate.


Contact Iberian Traveler – Maribel’s Guides to request a custom itinerary to explore the wonders of Portugal.


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