Vitoria’s appeal also lies in its proximity to many attractions, all within an hour’s drive away. The Rioja wine region, south of Vitoria, is known worldwide for its local wineries. From Vitoria, we drove through a winding road across the Sierra de Cantabria, and down to the valley of Rioja.
The 360-degree view of the imposing Cantabrian mountains behind us, and the vast valley that seemed to stretch endlessly before us was just stunning! We visited the Izadi winery in Elciego, which is owned and run by Lalo Anton, a second-generation wine entrepreneur. I found out that Izadi sourced its wine from small vineyards in Villabuena, and has steadily grown its market among the Rioja wineries. We visited its hillside bodega, which was undergoing major renovation to cater to the growing demand for authentic winery tours. Later, we stopped for coffee and tortilla de patatas in Laguardia, a lovely medieval hamlet perched on a hill with traditional bodegas.
Barely an hour outside of town, one can reach the Basque coast with the beaches expectedly packed in the summer with surfers and beachlovers. We drove up one Sunday to the coast of Zumaia where the beach landscape was made more interesting by the cliff formations that dropped to certain parts of the shoreline. The unique rock formation, called flysch, was a result of sedimentation of thin layers of silt and sandstone, formed millions of years ago. On the kilometer stretch of Itzurun beach, there must have been hundreds of people, many basking under the sun, while some were swimming in the 20 degree water! The water was too cold for me, and the beach was the most crowded I’ve been to. Try walking four steps from your towel and you’re right on the next person’s beach mat! No one minded though, as everyone was too busy enjoying the sun and hot weather.
The next weekend, a long weekend as Monday was a holiday, we headed northwest to Mutriku where I had my first village fiesta. The fiesta was not as big as Pamplona’s wild San Fermin, but it was just as crazy and fun! A small fishing village on the northern coast of the Basque Country, Mutriku’s town center sits on a slope, with narrow cobbled streets, plazas with traditional bars, quaint houses painted in white, blue and peach, and a scenic marina right when one enters the village. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and silently watched the houses awash in golden light and the pretty white boats at the dock.
From Amaia’s apartment which was overlooking the Old Town, we could already hear the music. It was barely a ten minute walk down to where all the noise was coming from. A stage was setup in a square where old and young people were huddled in groups, talking, laughing, and drinking. We sauntered up the street to the main square, the Churruca Plaza, filled with more people, and a band of young guys with their cymbals and amps all bolted to a rolling contraption. Some teenage girls, obviously fans of the band, were dancing and singing along, as kids were running around, their parents not the least worried. In villages like Mutriku, the person next to you was likely a friend of your neighbor’s cousin.
The whole night, more and more revelers came out, cramming the squares and bars and streets–teenagers, cuadrillas (group of friends), old couples, and families with small kids. It seemed liked the entire village of 5000 were out celebrating Mutriku’s fiesta! The air turned cooler towards midnight, but the crowd kept growing thicker, as more bands played. We hopped from one plaza to another, slipped in and out of different bars as the party lasted until morning.
We spent the next day by the marina, where Amaia and I did nothing but stare out into the Cantabrian Sea, while Manu and Lu went swimming. Amaia’s sister Marijo and Juan joined us for lunch back at their apartment. We started with tomato and olive salad from Marijo’s organic farm, some asparagus and Idiazabal cheese (sheep cheese) from the mercado in Bilbao. The highlight of course was Amaia’s grilled bonito, juicy and cooked just right, paired with some fried green peppers. It was the typical Basque lunch that lasted the whole afternoon, as stories and laughter filled the room. Later that evening, the plazas and streets were once again alive with music, dancing and singing. We made some silly and unforgettable memories in Mutriku for sure, thanks to the small town-festive atmosphere, and our fun-(beer) loving host-friends.
Driving northeast, we headed towards Hendaye Beach in southwestern France. On the way, we made a brief stop in Hondarribia for some pintxos. Not only was I impressed with how creative they can be with their pintxos, but I was in awe at the charming fishermen houses–three-storey narrow houses with their main floors now converted to bars and shops. While walking down the row of bars and cafes, we saw a quartet playing folk music. The lady strumming her guitar and singing in a foreign language, looked oddly familiar. Their ensemble of guitar, bass, accordion and violin was too interesting to miss. After a few songs, I realized they were the same group I had watched on a sidewalk in San Sebastian last year! What a sweet coincidence. I later learned they were a Peruvian band, and two of them were brothers.
Across the river from this border town was Hendaye, where a ferry took passengers every half-hour. We took the car over the bridge and drove to the beach quarter, a 3-kilometer stretch of sandy beach. The water was a few degrees warmer, mostly flat, and some beginner waves. The refreshing swim and easy afternoon by the ocean was just the right antidote to the morning’s resaca! We made it back to Vitoria by dinnertime, which in this part of the world during the summer means half past nine. A relaxed homecooked dinner by Lu perfectly capped off the lovely weekend.
It wasn’t hard to see how the locals generally lead a charmed life in the Basque Country, especially in Vitoria. Located in a temperate zone, they enjoy a relatively mild climate. The city has successfully become a green and livable city, without losing its character and traditional lifestyle. On most evenings I passed by Cuchillera St, I saw how the pintxo bars were full, not with tourists but locals. I spent some afternoons at the cafe by the Florida Park, and would watch many couples, in their 60s to 90s, all smartly dressed, sitting on the benches, talking like young lovers, and later dancing. The locals generally kept to themselves, and seemed almost shy, but never rude or unfriendly. Those I’ve met through friends easily warmed up to me. And luckily, I’ve had many chances in experiencing how the Basques take their food tradition to a whole different level. After all, good food is key to a good life. This alone was enough reason for me to begin planning the next trip.