In July & August, we spent about 3 weeks in Spain: First in the Pyrenees around Ordesa Valley, then in Basque Country along the coast in San Sebastian, Getaria and Bilbao. Here, with a delay of just a couple of months, are some travel notes.
Ordesa Valley, Torla
Day 1 / Ordesa Valley
Today’s hike: Faja Racon
11 km, 580m ascent, 5-6 hours
“This path under the northern cliffs is overlooked by many visitors but it’s one of my favourites. You really get close to the cliffs walking directly underneath them and get an idea of the scale of the valley. There’s a lovely contrast between the bare rock of the cliffs on your left and the lush green woods sloping away to your right. There’s a good chance of spotting sarrios (chamois) on this route as well as lammergeier.”
This was a beautiful hike with great views of Vale de Ordesa, but also very seriously steep hike in places. Highly recommended.
Day 2 / Ordesa Valley
Today’s hike: The valley floor, aka the horse’s tail
16 km, 450m ascent, 6-7 hours
“Most day hikers take the path on the valley floor. A good easy to follow path winds through lovely beech and silver fir woods with cliffs flanking you on either side. You pass several fantastic waterfalls before the woods open up to meadows that are filled with flowers in early summer. The trail ends at the waterfall in the Circo de Soasa with Monte Perdido dominating the skyline above.”
Day 3 / Ordesa Valley
Glorious nothingness but strolling, eating, reading.
One small caveat: It seems I’ve somewhat put out my back, so visit the the local emerging room. I leave with a handwritten subscription—literally handwritten on a piece of blank paper—and get some meds.
Day 4 / Ordesa Valley
The meds seem to be working, but I figure it’s better to take it easy today.
Day trip to Jaca for a lazy stroll in the mid-day heat, and a visit to the mid-19th century citadel. We skipped them military miniatures museum inside.
Day 5 / Ordesa Valley
Vale de Bujaruelo. Another extremely lovely, very accessible walk. Shorter, much shorter, than the other ones, so we did two rounds. Back’s getting better.
At night, loud moo-ing and the hollow clanking of cowbells wakes us. A cow herd is driven by the hotel along the only street along the valley. It’s hypnotic, almost ghostly, to see these cows slowly ambling by in the 4:30am darkness.
Day 6 / Ordesa Valley
We tried to find another super easy route while my back is in recovery. We poked our heads into a few different caminos, but they were all quite steep and rocky, aka not-back-friendly. In the end, we ended up walking along the valley on a very lovely route along the river through the woods, then sat and chatted, feet in the refreshing river, until our toes got almost numb. Perfect!
More cows at 4:30.
Day 7 / Ordesa Valley to San Sebastian via Pamplona
Last night’s cow herd was later, but much larger than the previous nights.
It’s pouring. It’s been pouring all night. We grab a last breakfast at the spot that has become our go-to place, then off to Pamplona. On the way, we stop by at the medical center once more to check if we’re owing any money; the doc had been vague about that, or maybe our Spanish wasn’t up to snuff. We settle the bill, and are off to Pamplona.
On the way, we rip through a large part of the excellent S-Town podcast.
Pamplona makes for a great lunch stop. We park near the bullfighting arena—the last annual bullfighting week happened was a week or so before we got here—and stroll the city. The old town is quite lovely. Above the market hall we find a restaurant that serves an excellent watermelon gazpacho, then are off to our final destination for the day, San Sebastian.
Our apartment is smack in the center. The city is bigger than I remembered. Full with tourists, but very laid back. An upscale beach & food town, essentially, which is just what we’re after. After scouting out the beach and our immediate neighborhood, we eat pintxos (Basque tapas) at Atari Gastroteka, where we also put in another reservation for the day after tomorrow.
Day 8 / San Sebastian
Sakona coffee roasters & Kafe Botanika & La Cuchara de San Telmo. In between, lots of strolling, swimming, a couple of concerts at the jazz festival.
Day 9 / San Sebastian
After coffee at Sakona, hiked to Pasaia/San Pedro for lunch. Gorgeous 3h track, but upon descent no decent food. Back to San S!
Swing-by at the art fair, which was largely ok but not super inspiring. Discovered a fun & playful artist, though, Daniel Sueira.
Some laptop time.
Botanika for a vegetarian dinner (at long last, the food has been incredibly meat-centric) over live music. Caught a bit of The Lucky Chops’ concert at the jazz festival’s beach stage.
We’ve been lucky to absorb a lot of gigs in passing thanks to the ubiquitous jazz festival.
Day 10 / San Sebastian
It pours. Not all day, but frequently. After running some errands (haircut, post office, etc.) we do a lot of walking and reading, hiding out in cafés whenever necessary. It’s almost warm enough to go swimming in the rain.
In the evening, we’re back at Atari for a massive, long dinner. We sit outside under the awning. Across from us, the church’s front steps are teeming with people having drinks and pintxos.
Day 11 / San Sebastian
We’re surprised by a public holiday, so most things are closed. We take it easy, swing by Sanoka roastery, take a longer walk along the river. We check out former tobacco factory, now cultural center and museum Tabakalera—gorgeous building and a noteworthy, lovely little shop downstairs for art prints and some cute clothes.
Later we visit the excellent San Telmo Museum which featured a range of exhibitions including paintings from 5 centuries, photos from fashion photography pioneer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, an exhibit about the changes in Basque country throughout modernity, and a big one on Alfred Hitchcock and his works.
Day 12 / San Sebastian
Today, some friends are joining for the next few days. V, a close friend from my days in Sydney, and his travel companion J. We pick up Vinci at the Guggenheim in Bilbao (J sticks wants to spend some extra time at the museum) and head on up the coast for lunch.
Afternoon swimming at the beach. First time since my back troubles, and it feels fantastic.
Bar hopping for pintxos in the evening till late.
Day 13 / San Sebastian
After a yummy breakfast at Sakona & picking up some beans for home, we took a walk around the little peninsula that stands out into the sea behind the old town.
For lunch, we hiked up part of Mount Ulia for the degustation menu at Mirador de Ulía, which was spectacular. Between 14:30 and 18:00—a proper San Sebastian lunch!—we sampled some 9 main courses plus some in-between-courses like pre- and post-desserts. The food is matched only by the view, which is also incredibly. Highly recommended!
A swim later, we’re back in old town for more pintxos, this time at Atari Akademi (Atari’s “lab”) and La Cucharra de San Telmo.
We’ve managed to properly adapt to the perfect state of being in San Sebastian: A mellow state of mind coupled with a constant readiness to enjoy a bit of excellent food or drink.
Day 14 / San Sebastian
After avocado toasts at Sakona and some light shopping with M & V, we rent bikes. The city has excellent bike paths, and we circle the city in maybe 30 minutes. It’s a small town after all! Along the way we stop at the hill on the western end of the beach and take the funicular up the mountain to a somewhat derelict theme park.
My rule of thumb is: Never miss a chance to visit a derelict or abandoned theme park! You never know what you can see. In this case the view down on San Sebastian is spectacular.
We somehow miss the lunch slot, so quickly get something at the super market deli around the corner to eat at home. A little later, dinner brings all of us back to Atari for a proper sit-down feast, followed by a long stroll along the waterfront.
Day 15 / San Sebastian
We’re nearing the end of our stay in San Sebastian. J has left, but V spontaneously decides to do a few days of hiking along the coastal route of the Camino de Santiago, which goes from here along the coast west-bound. We’ll meet back up in Getaria, two days of hiking west.
For now, we have a shared lunch, visit Tabakalera—the culture center in a former tobacco factory—again for some art prints only to find the shop closed for siesta, and way beyond. A stroll later, and we’re off to the beach for a long swim as V heads off on his mini pilgrimage.
To recap, some of our favorite restaurants from San Sebastian at a glance:
Excellent pintxo. Also veggie options.
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Non-fussy, innovative tapas bar.
For no-nonsense steak & tomato salad
Viewpoint of Ulia
1 Michelin Star. Great view. Offers tasting menus (lunch & dinner).
Basque Culinary Center
Offer a tasting menu by the chefs of tomorrow
Paseo Juan Avelino Barriola, 101
Requires reservation up to a month in advance, only available May/June. We missed this, but I wouldn’t mind trying this if we’re ever back in town.
Day 15 / Getaria
After breakfast we hit the road west towards Getaria, a small Basque fishing village—and get there within less than half an hour. We take it easy for the day. I while away the afternoon with some pintxos and some reading at a terrace café, with a view of the old harbor.
Our hotel is on the edge of the tiny old town and has a lovely little garden and terrace with a spectacular sea view.
Day 16 / Getaria
We join forces with V once more for a day hike from Zarautz to Deba, where we first had lunch with him a week or so ago.
We start at Zarautz, walk along the promenade to Getaria, then follow the Camino seashell first to Zumaia where we break for lunch, then onto Elorriaga. There we spontaneously reroute and follow not the Santiago route to Deba but a GR branch as this one hugs the gorgeous coast. It’s a much harder route, but a more rewarding one. We catch the very last train back from Deba and finish the day with grilled fish in Getaria.
Day 17 / Getaria
M comes down with a bit of a cold, we take it extra easy. I’ve been meaning to surf, but today the waves aren’t there. So later in the day we do a little stand-up paddling, which turns out to be fun.
Day 18 / Bilbao
We arrive in the early, drop our car off at the airport, and head straight to the Mercado de la Ribera for lunch. A long stroll and some window shopping later it becomes clear that Bilbao is quite charming indeed.
Day 19 / Bilbao
From our base in the old town, we head on over to the Guggenheim. I’d been here before, more than 10 years ago. It’s still a gorgeous building, and luckily there’s a great Bill Viola exhibition on in addition to the regular exhibition.
The afternoon turns to evening at a local tapas bar & hang-out spot. The next morning we’re off to southern Germany.
Day 20-22 / Southern Germany
Family time for a few days.
As an aside, on the drive from the airport, next to a country road, I spotted a potato vending machine. A potato. Vending. Machine.