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Basque Country: San Sebastián, Bilbao & Camino del Norte

Updated: Jun 18, 2018

Hola Spain! We finally made it to our fourth country of the trip - and as we had both only been to the south before (Barcelona, Malaga, etc), we were quite excited about exploring the north. Furthermore our first destination would be Basque Country (Euskadi) and the stunning San Sebastián, followed by meandering along the coast towards Bilbao.

There aren't many campgrounds close to San Sebastian, and the closest two we could find are to the west of the city past the steep Igueldo mountain meaning biking in and out would be problematic, if not impossible, and Brigid would probably kill Daniel if he tried to suggest it. We therefore chose Camping Igueldo Lekua as even with a rating of 3.7/5 (which was similar to the 3.9/5 of the only other option), had a much better public transport link to the city; with buses running every 30 minutes from 07:30 to 22:30 (the 8 minute journey to the city is €1.75 and you can buy the tickets on the bus).

As we arrived on an overcast evening, we parked up on a relatively muddy spot that we were assigned. We therefore positioned the van as best as possible to avoid the previous holes and water logged ground where someone had clearly previously got badly stuck. We then cooked a quick pasta, had some amazing hot showers (free and unlimited), and got on top of our washing (and had to use their useless dryers given the lack of sun). TIP: If you have the option to choose your own site after exploring the area first, we definitely recommend it. While obviously everyone wants the site with the best view and privacy, also keep in mind the angle of the ground, shade and also how well the water drains in that area. If it looks muddy and bogged down, it's likely you will get stuck. A slight angle is fine to park on, and we recommend you have step-up wedges to help correct your angle in the camper (as otherwise both sleeping and cooking are tricky).

Following another early start crawling out of bed at around 11am, and a feed of bacon and eggs, we jumped on the bus which was bang on time and headed in to explore and hopefully catch some rays of sun on the beach. Once again the weather gods were not favouring us, and this beautiful city was shrouded in cloud during our visit. Nevertheless, there is a lot more to see in San Sebastián than the beaches, and here are a few of the top spots based on a few recommendations from friends (thanks Tom Newton).

  • Urgulleko Historiaren Etxea - also known as 'the giant Jesus statue on the hill'. A small hike up from the old town center to the original keep, and a breathtaking view of San Sebastián. It's free to enter the museum (which you need to go through to get to the highest viewing platform under the statue). Unfortunately the museum is all in Spanish, however it's still worth a wander, and the exhibits on the original town layout, cannons and clothing are quite well done.

  • The Old Town - once we had learnt where the original town was located, this became immediately obvious when wandering the tight little Pintxo laden streets within it (see further down). Founded in the 13th century, definitely worth a look.

  • Miramar Palace - home to the Queen of Spain in 1893, and whilst not the most attractive palace you will ever see, it does offer a nice view of main two beaches. There's also some excellent clean toilets on the west side of the building.

  • Restaurants - the world is your oyster when it comes to eating in San Sebastián, with a ridiculous range available for all budgets. This is definitely a city worth planning to eat out in. Even if you're on a budget, you have to plan for taking in the local flavours, and especially when in areas with such a high concentration of foodie goodness. To avoid the decision overload of trying to choose ourselves, we ended up going with a recommendation from a friend, and headed to Bodega Donostiarra (get directions) for their skewered meats (from €12-16 each). We also ordered an amazing Spanish Huevos Rotos (Broken Eggs) dish for only €7 (of which we would go to order several other times throughout Spain). We were not disappointed and the food was amazing. Following this taste explosion and a beautiful bottle of vino tinto (€12, although there were options from €8), we headed back to the old town to the main Pintxo area.

  • Pintxos Bars - Pintxo's are the Basque's country's unique take on tapas, and are quite unlike the tapas throughout the rest of Spain (see a few snaps further down in Bilbao). There are hundreds of these bar's with their delicacies on display throughout the old town. We headed to Atari Gastroteka, right near the Koruko Andre Mariaren basilika, and had some of the strongest Sangria we have ever had - which made the bus ride back to the campground mighty interesting...

  • Beaches - OK so we still have to mention the beaches. Even with our balmy 19°C and cloudy skies, we could very easily see why this city is such a destination for U.K. tourists or any tourists for that matter. The beaches are simply beautiful, and there are not one, but THREE, all within easy walking distance of each other. Both Ondarreta and the main La Concha Beach are large beautiful swimming beaches, with very clam turquoise water protected by the unique shape of San Sebastián. The third beach, Zurriola hondartza, is a damn good surf beach. Either join them (hire from Pukas Surf Eskola), or chill out with some cans and watch (we did the later - and luckily the sun even came out for about 40minutes).

As we were already a few weeks behind schedule, we couldn't wait for the sun and instead continued our way along Spain's northern coast. We ended up at our best campground yet, which was right on the northern route of the Camino de Santiago.

  • Camping & Bungalows Itxaspe - high up the the hillside, most sites look directly out at the ocean. The facilities are excellent and it even has an infinity pool looking down the coast (although unfortunately for us it didn't open for another week). There's a little restaurant right there, and other than that your isolated amongst farm land, with only the birds around you and cow bells in the distance. It's easy to see why this place has a rating of 4.7/5 as we could have stayed another night. As we were in the low season, it was only €25 per night with electricity. Check out their website and location.

  • Camino de Santiago - following setting up Gary, a quick Halloumi and Quinoa Salad and a short nap (Brigid's favourite hobby). We headed for a 6km hike along to a cliff point which we had noticed on the way in. With breathtaking scenery along this rugged coast, during the walk we saw various markers and quite a few walkers. It turned out this was actually part of the northern route of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage to the shrine of St James the Great (no not you James Elder III) in the Santiago de Compostela and where we would be in a few days. While we will probably come back and do the full pilgrimage on foot one day (it takes 4-6 weeks), for now Gary is helping us do it a little faster (well only slightly faster).

The next morning we packed up and were Bilbao bound - only a short 1.5 hour drive. As we were now always avoiding tolls, as getting off the highways is often the most scenic route (whilst also a lot cheaper), unfortunately this was not the case for this drive as it involved a lot of roundabouts and towns without any character. Eventually we arrived in Bilbao, and to be honest it's not the most attractive city on first impression.

We headed up to Área de Autocaravanas de Kobetamendi, a unique campground high up above the city Brigid had found. While a great view, it didn't do much to alter our first impression. However once we walked down into the center, we were blown away by the architecture and heaving energy of Bilbao. Here's a few of our musts from our exploring.

  • Architecture - Bilbao has an eclectic mix of modern architecture that has created beautiful and unique lines amongst the colourful old town. We walked down from our camper site on Altamira hill into the city via the river - passing some gems like San memes, Palacio Euskalduna, Parque de Ribera, Puente de La Salve bridge, Puente Zubizuri bridge and the Guggenheim Museum.

  • Guggenheim Museum - the perfect rainy day activity... and we have been needing more of these lately. The Guggenheim Museum appears to be dancing with its unique curved architecture, surrounded with giant sculptures and installations you get a taste of what's to come inside. Adult tickets are €16 and we spent just over two hours exploring the three floors. We cant share too many images from inside as photos are forbidden... though we were unaware of this till half way through... whoops. Filled with modern & contemporary art some exhibitions were better than others. The huge rusted steel sculptures by Richard Serra: The Matter of Time were amazing. Some other pieces were less appreciated...

  • Pintxos - following a solid two hours in the museum, we were famished. Luckily, Bibao's just as gastronomically focused as San Sebastián and we soon found two excellent Pintxo Bars. La Vina del Ensanche and El Globo. Furthermore as the heavens had opened up, we ended up staying at the later for about three hours, and several tapas and vinos later, once the rain finally stopped, jumped in a cheap taxi back to the campground (€9.50).

A great example of not judging a book by it's cover. Bilbao was well worth the visit, and while we probably wouldn't go well out of our way to pop into the city given the nightmare spaghetti highway structure, if you are cruising the north of Spain, then we'd definitely recommend a day here.

So after a full on three days in Basque Country, an overall excellent place to eat and drink your way through if outdoor activities are not practical, we continued west towards some ever elusive beaches and sunshine.

Happy travelling,

Bidi & Dan


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