northern spain

Favorite Destination of 2014: San Sebastian, Spain

Of all the places I visited this year, one was my clear favorite: San Sebastian, Spain.

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

It was one of those rare cities where I felt I could actually live.

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

My family and I spent a few days there, on the tail end of our Spain trip.

I was so glad it worked out that way. San Sebastian definitely closed our vacation on a high note.

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Sebastian is one of those rare beach towns that feels cosmopolitan.

It has historic buildings, great shops and restaurants, and a river running through it. (It reminded me a bit of Boston and Cambridge.)

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Gorgeous beaches flanked by hills make up its coastline. And the city has an active vibe that I loved: I saw so many surfers, bikers and runners.

Zurriola Beach, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Sebastian also has some of the most unique, inventive and delicious food I’ve come across during my travels. The city is Spain’s unofficial pintxos capitol—small bites served in bars, alongside txakoli, an effervescent Basque wine.

Atari Gastroteka, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

But more about pintxos in a few.

Hotel Okako, a small boutique, was our home base.

Hotel Okako, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

The rooms were tiny, but clean, comfortable and artfully decorated. (That’s my single, below.)

Hotel Okako, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

It was in an ideal location, just minutes from Zurriola beach and Parte Vieja, the old town.

On our first day, one of Okako’s employees recommended Bodega Donostiarra, a restaurant just a few blocks away.

Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We had a delicious lunch that included prawns and rice…

Prawns and rice, Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and seafood skewers.

Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

It was a fantastic first meal in San Seb. And so good that we actually went back two days later for more tortilla…

Tortilla, Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…blood sausage…

Blood sausage, Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and veal ribs.

Veal ribs, Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Bodega Donostiarra, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

On our second morning in town, my mom, E and I walked along San Sebastian’s beaches…

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…to the funicular at the edge of town.

Funicular, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Funicular, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We rode it to the top of the hill…

Funicular, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and arrived at a bird’s eye view of the city.

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

There was also a children’s amusement park that was closed.

Amusement Park, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Amusement Park, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Amusement Park, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Too bad. I kind of wanted a trip through the Casa del Terror. (Muah ha ha ha.)

Amusement Park, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We made sure to have a few hours of beach time, each day.

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

One afternoon was warm and sunny—we all took advantage of it, and enjoyed long, post-lunch naps.

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

But since it was early October, not every day was bikini weather. Two afternoons were chillier.

San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

That still worked for me—I didn’t mind bundling up to nap.

Because I needed to rest up for going pintxo bar hopping each night!

It’s hard to capture the essence and allure of pintxos in words. I didn’t really get what was so great until we actually experienced them in San Sebastián.

But I can best describe the scene like this: Imagine a number of bars in one area of town. (In San Seb, they’re mainly in Parte Vieja.) When you walk into each bar, you’re faced with some of the prettiest, most delicious-looking platters of finger food that you’ve ever seen. You can order short glasses of txakoli or beer, and tell the bartender which pieces you want from the platters. Plus, you’ll order one of their hot specialties, which is also about the size of an amuse bouche.

When you’re done eating, you’ll throw your napkins on the floor, then pay your tab. (The amount of crumpled napkins is a good indication of how good the food is.)

Then, you’ll continue from bar to bar, sampling food from each.

We did this all three nights we were in town.

Our favorite pintxo bars included:

Zeruko, a stylish, modern bar with updated takes on pintxos—each plate was so pretty and elegant!

Bar Zeruko, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We tried several pintxos: octopus, blood sausage topped with egg, marinated mushrooms topped with egg.

Bar Zeruko, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Bar Zeruko, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Borda Barri looked like a dive bar, but had a surprisingly sophisticated menu: veal cheeks, duck breast, mushroom risotto, sweetbread ravioli.

Borda Berri, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Borda Berri, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Not surprisingly, it was crowded every time we went there. (And it was on our hit list, all three nights.)

Borda Berri, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

At Bar Ganbera, the platters of fresh mushrooms beckoned.

Bar Ganbera, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We tried them grilled…

Bar Ganbera, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…along with grilled prawns.

Bar Ganbera, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We were clearly happy with our selections.

Bar Ganbera, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Bar Ganbera, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Bar Nestor is known for two things: tortilla and steak. To get a slice of the tortilla, you have to arrive early and put your name on a list. Same with the steak. You have to be there close to when they start serving, to get a seat at the bar or a table outside. We managed the latter.

Bar Nestor, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

From our table, we could order txakolis through the window. (Note the pour: Basque bartenders always serve the drink a couple feet above the glass.)

Bar Nestor, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We enjoyed each of Nestor’s specialities as they arrived. First the tortilla, which was as delicious as it was hyped up to be.

Tortilla, Bar Nestor, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

The the tomato salad—fresh and delicious with lot of olive oil and flaky salt…

Tomato salad, Bar Nestor, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…followed by charred peppers…

Peppers, Bar Nestor, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and then the famous steak, also perfectly cooked and simply seasoned with more of that flaky salt.

Steak, Bar Nestor, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Atari Gastroteka, a hopping bar with an innovative menu, had one of my favorite pintxos: a slow cooked egg in a pea puree.

Atari Gastroteka, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Atari Gastroteka, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Atari was in a prime location, right across from the gorgeous Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus.

Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Outside of Parte Vieja, we had amazing pintxos at Bar Bergara.

Bar Bergara, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I couldn’t get enough of their tortilla or risotto.

Bar Bergara, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Bar Bergara, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Pintxo-crawling was some of the most fun I had with my family: Deciding which bars to try, picking out pintxos, savoring the flavor combinations in a setting that’s unlike anything in the States.

Peter, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

M&H, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Pintxo-hopping, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Pintxo-hopping, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

(We talked about what the scene would be like if someone transported San Sebastian’s pintxo bars to NYC: crowded. Unbearably crowded and expensive.)

I feel incredibly lucky to have shared that experience, in such an awesome city, with some of my very favorite people. My family doesn’t often take big vacations together, so I’m thrilled that our Spain trip turned out to be so wonderful.

Fam, San Sebastian, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I’m looking forward to more memorable journeys in 2015. Here’s to many travels in the new year!

And wishing Mal, my sister, my very best friend and other half, a happy birthday—it’s her big 3-0 today!

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La Casa de las Chimeneas: Our Picos de Europa Inn

We didn’t have an easy time finding lodging in the Picos de Europa—both before or during the trip!

We wanted to stay in one of the mountain villages, not too far from a good trail. Our ideal place was an independent inn that was both rustic and nice. Guidebooks offered few recommendations. Online searches lead us down a rabbit hole of useless links.

After spending way too many hours evaluating every inn in the Picos, Mal finally came across La Casa de las Chimeneas, via Rough Guides. The inn is located in Tudes, a village that appeared close to Potes, a town that seemed to be a jumping off point for exploring the Picos. Plus: They had cats all over their website!

Needless to say, we were sold.

The route from the caves of Monte Castillo to Tudes was long and winding. As the sun set, we drove through tiny villages at the base of the mountains—some comprised of just a few houses! Tudes, where we were headed, was up a long, mountainous road. By the time we reached it, the sun was long gone and we arrived in total darkness.

La Casa de las Chimeneas was at the entrance of the village. Tony, a Brit who owns the place with his wife, Lucia (from Santander), showed us to our apartment.

Las Estaciones, La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

It turns out that he lived in that house, with his family, until a few years ago, when they moved upstairs from the pub they opened on premise.

The bedrooms were cute and cheery, with a rustic-meets-Ikea aesthetic.

Bedroom at La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

Bedroom at La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

You could definitely tell that the building was built a while back. The floors creaked. Rooms and staircases were quite narrow. (I felt like I was going to wipe out every time I set foot on the stairs!) Still, it was comfy and cozy.

Staircase at La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

The next day, we were able to get a much better look at Tudes and Chimeneas. The inn is actually comprised of several buildings: the one we were staying in, the adjoining bar, a few more across the road.

La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

I loved the wooden trim and stonework, both outside our house…

The porch at Las Estaciones, La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

…and in…

Inside apartment 8, La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

…as well as on the historic church, across the road.

Stone church, Tudes, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We also learned that Tudes has all of 30 inhabitants!

…though that’s not too surprising, when you see it from above.

Tudes, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Tudes won Cantabria’s Village of the Year award in 2010, which came with grant money to restore some of the buildings.

And as for that pub on the premise? I have to admit, we were grateful it was there! There were no other bars or restaurants in town. We ended up dining there two nights in a row.

The pub at La Casa de las Chimeneas | nycexpeditionist.com

On the evening we arrived, we were so tired from driving and being out all day, that we had wine and dinner there. The food was basic (spaghetti, salads, omelettes), but hearty and comforting. And the next day, after hiking in the Picos, we were way too tired to go anywhere else! Photos from that (awesome) hike to come, next. 🙂

Loredo and the Caves of Monte Castillo

On our fourth day in Spain, we left the Bilbao area and headed west to Asturias. We’d heard great things about that part of the country: that it was one of Spain’s greenest regions, with gorgeous landscapes and few people. Plus, some of the prettiest northern Spain images we’d come across on Pinterest were of Asturias. How could we not swing through there?

We were headed for the Picos de Europa, the dramatic mountain range that spans across Asturias, Cantabria and Castile-León. But to break up the drive, we decided to stop at a few places along the way.

Ever since we spent a few hours near the coast, at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, I was craving a little more beach time.

Even if it were just an hour or two.

That’s how we ended up stopping in Loredo, a small coastal town. It’s known as a surfing and resort area, though it looked like it had seen better days. Perhaps because it wasn’t high summer, but we didn’t feel vibrant energy in the town. Much of it looked like it could use a little sprucing up.

We stopped for lunch at El Pescador, a seafood restaurant near the water.

El Pescador, Loredo, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We sat outside and ordered the local beer, which was definitely the best brew of the trip…

Raquera | nycexpeditionist.com

P and M, El Pescador | nycexpeditionist.com

…and had huge platters of grilled fish. The food was a bit pricey, but everything was fresh and well-cooked.

Afterwards, we walked to the beach.

M & P, Loredo Beach, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Since the day was overcast and cool, there was no one out sunbathing.

Loredo, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Still, we couldn’t resist kicking off our shoes and dipping our toes in the water.

Loredo, Cantabria, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Our next stop was the Monte Castillo caves, in Puente Viesgo. We’d only heard of them that morning, while looking at our guidebook, and were intrigued. They’re a UNESCO World Heritage site, discovered in 1903, where you can see ancient cave paintings. Two of the four caves are open to the public.

We arrived at the El Castillo cave late in the afternoon, in time for the final tour of the day.

Cuevas del Monte del Castillo, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I’ll admit—I was a bit skeptical while we were waiting for it to begin. We were waiting in what could best be described as the “cave lobby”—an area with informational signs—from where we could see another group standing inside the actual cave, listening to a guide speak. Was this the whole cave tour?

El Castillo Cave, Cantabria, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Once ours started, we soon realized that you go through a doorway that leads much deeper into the cave. Our guide, who relayed the information in both English and Spanish (though in much more detail in Spanish) walked us past intricate stalactites, and pointed out hand prints and animal paintings on the walls. (We weren’t permitted to take photos inside the cave.)

After reemerging from the cave, we departed Puente Viesgo…

Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and headed on to the Picos.

A Few Hours in Bilbao, Spain

Though we stayed three days in the Bilbao area, we spent very little time in the actual city. Friends who’d visited Bilbao before were neutral on it. The city hadn’t wowed anyone, but they all felt it’s worth exploring for a day or so.

And that’s about all the time we had for it—the afternoon following our visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. (And that impromptu dinner on our first night in Spain.)

Bilbao’s biggest claim to fame is the Guggenheim. My mom and E actually wanted to go into the museum. Mal, Peter and I were eager to check out the Frank Gehry architecture and outdoor sculptures, but not necessarily the galleries. (I’m not a huge museum fan. If I only have a short time in a city, I’d rather wander around outside, unless there’s an exhibit I’m dying to see.)

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I have mixed feelings about Jeff Koons’ art—some of it feels a little too earnest or overdone. But I loved Puppy, which stands guard right outside the Guggenheim.

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I couldn’t stop talking pictures of it.

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

It’s funny. Koons’ Split-Rocker was outside Rockefeller Center (where I work!) all summer, and I barely looked at it. Yet, this freaking dog captivated me.

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

As did the Guggenheim’s metallic exterior.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

While my parents went inside, Mal, Peter and I walked around town.

Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

The streets near the museum seemed to be a big shopping area, with lots of clothing and shoe stores. (Both international retailers like H&M and Hugo Boss, as well as local chains.) We ducked into a few, got coffee, then wandered back to the Guggenheim.

By that point, we were hungry and tired from a long day in the sun. (Hence, the lack of photos!)

Since it was around 6:30 and too early for dinner, we headed to Diputacion, a hopping street with bars, restaurants and lots of outdoor seating. We settled into El Globo, a cozy bar for pintxos and raciones. (Pintxos are small bites, just a tad larger than your standard canape or amuse bouche, eaten with drinks—usually the Basque wine txakoli—in bars. Raciones are larger plates.)

This was the first time I saw the cute little beer glasses that are served at pintxo bars, along with pintxos, themselves, looking all pretty, lined up on the bar. Those were some tasty bites!

Pintxos and beer at El Globo, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and just a preview of what was to come a week later, in San Sebastian, Spain’s pintxos capitol.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain

Gorbea Natural Park was one big reason we stayed at Hotel Ellauri. In our desire to detox from city life, we wanted easy access to nature, and Ellauri sits near the edge of the park.

On our second day in Spain, we went hiking in Gorbea. Kepa and Randa, Ellauri’s innkeepers, were very knowledgable about the trails. They gave us several options, ranging in length from two to eight hours. We weren’t quite feeling an all-day hike, so we chose a nearby trail that would take an hour and a half to ascend, and an hour to descend.

After breakfast, we went to Zeanuri’s tiny store for fruit, bread and cheese. That afternoon, we drove through the tiny town of Areatza and up a narrow, winding road to the trailhead. We parked in the Pagomakurre area, then started the Arraba-Kargaleku trek.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

It was the perfect day for hiking—sunny, yet cool.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

The gravelly path made for pretty easy walking; the ascent wasn’t very steep.

Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

Along the way, we passed a few other hikers, most who were on their way down. That was one nice thing about the trail—there was never a point when we were hiking alongside or behind anyone.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

About 20 minutes into the hike, we came across a herd of grazing goats. Each one had a bell tied to his neck. The collective sound was a mellifluous symphony.

Goats at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Shortly after, we came across some cows. They, too, had bells around their necks, though of a different size from the goats. They created their own melody.

Cow at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Cows grazing at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Farther along the way, horses grazed. Of course, they had their own bells.

Horse at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Horses at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I’d never hiked a trail with so many animals—and such musical ones! The sounds of the different bells, plus the green landscape, were incredibly soothing and relaxing.

After about an hour and a half of hiking, we reached what appeared to be the summit of our trail.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We stopped for a snack…

M & P at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and just enjoyed the view.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

As we ate, we realized that hikers were coming over the ridge. It was possible to go from summit to summit. We asked how far to the next one; it would take about an hour and a half.

We debated whether to continue on. Peter was game, but Mal and I weren’t sure we were up for walking another 4+ hours. (There and back, plus returning to our car.)

So we took a few more photos…

M&P, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

H&M, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…before hiking back down.

Hotel Ellauri: Zeanuri, Spain

We began our northern Spain trip in Basque Country. The autonomous region’s most well-known destinations include the coastal cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian, though we opted to start with neither.

As you might have gleaned from my previous entries, I was feeling a little burnt on city life—as was my family! We wanted to start our trip somewhere quaint and relaxing, away from tightly packed buildings and lots of people.

That’s how we ended up at Hotel Ellauri, in Zeanuri. The pretty little village is in the countryside, about 45 minutes outside Bilbao. It has all of 1,100 inhabitants.

Hotel Ellauri is up a narrow, winding road, on a hillside outside the town center.

Hotel Ellauri | nycexpeditionist.com

Mal, Peter and I arrived on a Thursday afternoon (a day before our parents) and were the only guests there! Not that we minded.

Ellauri is the kind of place I love patronizing. The owners, a lovely couple named Randa and Kepa, built the hotel five years ago. They’re Zeanuri natives, and I could feel the care that went into the place. Each element seemed to highlight the natural surroundings. My room was bright and airy; I especially loved the vaulted wood ceiling and lively green wall.

Hotel Ellauri room | nycexpeditionist.com

The fixtures and bedding were all high quality. And best of all, there were double doors that swung open…

Hotel Ellauri windows | nycexpeditionist.com

…to reveal this view!

Zeanuri, from Hotel Ellauri | nycexpeditionist.com

Just what I’d been waiting for.

Hotel Ellauri felt wonderfully away from it all.

And it was.

On our first night, we tried to have a quick dinner nearby. Randa had hinted that there were no real dining options in Zeanuri or Areatza, another medieval village, and that we’d be better off driving into Bilbao or Vitoria-Gasteiz, larger cities about 30-40 minutes from the hotel, in opposite directions.

But, we figured, how slim were the local pickings? A quiet dinner in the village sounded good to us!

We drove into Areatza to try one of its three bars. (An actual restaurant didn’t seem to be an option.) The hamlet was quiet, and the bars looked like empty townie sports bars. Not quite what we had in mind for our first meal in Spain.

So we headed into Bilbao with no specific restaurant in mind. In our sleep-deprived/jet-lagged/famished state, we spent an embarrassing amount of time circling Casco Viejo for parking. After an hour and a half, we finally realized we’d passed an underground garage multiple times. Once we’d parked, most restaurants were winding down service for the night. But we had a simple yet satisfying meal at La Deliciosa, on Calle Jardines. Though anything would have been deliciosa, at that point!

DSC_0757

The following evening, once my parents had arrived, we ate at Ellauri’s restaurant. Kepa and Randa prepared a fabulous meal of rice and cockles…

Rice and cockles

…and steak and peppers. It was one of the most delicious steaks I’ve ever eaten.

Peppers and steak

Ellauri proved to be in a prime spot. During our time there, we explored more of Bilbao and the Basque coast, as well as Gorbea Natural Park—whose mountains you could see from the hotel.

Hotel Ellauri | nycexpeditionist.com

…more on those places, in posts to come!