MNTA Holiday to the Basque Country – May 2018

Our members’ reports on each day of this excellent holiday:

Monday - Coastal Area & Txakoli wine The vapour clouds were rising from the hillsides as we journeyed to Guernika to visit the Assembly House and The Tree of Guernika, both of which are the living symbols of Euskal Hernia (the Basque Country).  A region with a poignant history of repression under Franco, of its laws and language and finally the “carpet” bombing of Guernika in April 1937. To this day Picasso’s painting entitled “Guernica”, of the carnage wrought by the Germans, has never been allowed to be exhibited in the town.  However, we were taken to see a recent mural erected in tiles of the painting entitled the “Guernica in Guernika”. As Miren explained, we would need to drop the “c” and add an “x”; “z” or “k” in order to start to understand this unique language. Helpful in that wine, vin and vino is Txakoli in Basque!  The nectar of which we tasted over a lunch of local products, as part of our visit to the family run Gorrondona winery.  A unique grape grown on the hillsides by the sea making the white wine slightly sparkling; as was the view as we looked out across the beautiful valley. It had been an enjoyable day’s introduction to all things Basque and we returned to our hotel for a very enjoyable evening’s welcome meal in the Salon Aranua with it’s magnificent view across Bilbao harbour.                Len & Julia Stacey

Tuesday – Bilbao & the Guggenheim We were up bright and early to visit the Bizkaian Bridge, which spans the river between Santurtzi and Bilbao.  Twenty-two intrepid travellers go up the elevator of the iron bridge and walk across the top and then take the gondola back across the river.  Then on to Bilbao where we have a guided walk through the old town. The group ie split in two and half go to an inside café where we have various pintxos – open sandwiches – some with anchovies and tomato, iberico ham and a delicious one of brie, quince jelly and redcurrants together with two glasses of white wine.  The next stop for pintxos is outside in a lovely square, where the pintxos are warm. Here we taste the red wine. Then on to the Guggenheim, which is a fantastic museum designed by Frank O Gehry.  It is like something out of a science fiction film with shiny titanium covering on one side and a giant spider sitting at the front.  The paintings and sculptures are fascinating, if not to everyone’s taste, but nevertheless are a great talking point. Then its back to our hotel for the evening meal.             Patricia Johnston

Wednesday – Rioja Region; A Day of Fine Wine and Haute Cuisine After a misty start we had a glorious sunny day.  The drive from Santurtzi over the mountains and down onto the plain of Rioja was spectacular and scenic.  The mountains gave way to the neat villages and bodegas and acres of vineyards. Our coffee stop gave us a foretaste of things to come with the beautiful selection of cakes and biscuits.  The hilltop village of Laguardia, meaning the “gatekeeper” or “guardian” is an historical and delightful town, founded by Sancho of Navarre, full of nooks and crannies and cobbled streets.  The Samaniego bodega is situated in the old family home of La Fabulista named after Aesop, and we were shown the ancient process of wine making by hand. The wine stored 7 metres beneath the house in excavated tunnels, which once formed a network under the houses and roads of the entire town, was the site of our first wine tasting where it was explained how to taste and savour the wine in the correct way. We moved on to the ultra modern Bai Gorri Winery, with its state of the art spacious 7 levels, all gravity fed processes and shining metal vats, airy, light and designed by Frank Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; a total contrast to medieval Samaniego, but very impressive.  The piece de resistance then followed: a lunch of three starters and four courses, each accompanied by a different and distinctive wine, all beautifully served and presented. The tables looked elegant, and the view through the large glass window over the terraces across the vineyards for miles, perfect!  It was a very happy group who travelled back to Santurtzi.                                  Anne & Brian Morse

Thursday – San Sebastian Left Bilbao around 9.30 in cool weather with cloudy skies but all in good spirits as we had enjoyed a long lie in.  The coach trip took us through beautiful mountainous terrain covered in forests. The motorways were marvellous with many long bridges and curving viaducts.  In about 75 minutes  (90kms), we arrived in gorgeous San Sebastian. The place made an immediate impression.....compact, fabulous beaches, little island close to shore.  Architecture reminded me of Beritz. Our coach took us high up to a viewing point at one end of town.  From there you could see the layout below of the whole town, shore and landmarks.  From there we descended and travelled along the esplanade past the Spa to an underground bus station linked to the train station.  We left the bus and started our journey on foot alongside the river and past three bridges. One of the bridges was very fancy with four large ornate pillars(maybe too much!!) From the third bridge, which was nearest the sea, we started our walking tour of the old town.  We saw the theatre, church and town hall (converted from a casino when Franco banned gambling) while passing through the picturesque narrow streets full of bars, restaurants and pensions Thereafter we were left to shop, eat and wander until the coach took us all back to Bilbao - Great day!                           David & Pauline Hollywood

Friday – Santander & Santillana Another dull start weather-wise, no Miren, as she is not allowed to work outside her area.  On to Santander, in the Cantabria region, it is the 2nd largest port in Spain.  We met our guide, Pilar, outside the football stadium near the sports complex known locally as ‘The Whale’.  We had a guided coach tour round the city and harbour area and among many other grand buildings on the waterfront was the headquarters building of ‘The Bank’! Next we went to the beautiful Magdalena peninsular.  The Royal Palace there was described to us as their jewel and was beloved by their Royal Family who used it as their summer residence in the early part of the 20th century.  It is now used as a conference centre and a 5 star hotel for academics. Back into the coach to go to Santillana del Mar with its Renaissance palaces and narrow cobbled streets.  Also the Romanesque Santa Juliana Collegiate Church with wonderful models of nativity, crucifixion and other biblical scenes.  Free time for lunch of delicious Pinchos in one of the many little bars. Then onto the Cave of Altamira, a World Heritage Site.  We were not able to visit the original cave for fear of damaging it so an exact reproduction cave has been created.  We saw the unique copies of cave drawings, bison, deer, boars, horses etc. all painstakingly reproduced and painted with natural red coloured ochre, charcoal and water and using the same painting techniques as the 14,000 year old originals. With the sun now shining we returned to Santander to drop off our guide at ‘The Whale’ and had a pleasant journey back to our hotel.          Jean & Rob Stanger

Saturday - Visit to the Azpeitia Railway Museum After a slightly later breakfast than usual, we set out on the coach for Azpeitia, to the east of Bilbao in the direction of San Sebastion.  The weather was bright and sunny and the surrounding countryside was very green. On arriving at the museum we were able to walk along the lines to the shed, which housed many examples of old locomotives and carriages.  The museum has one of the best railway collections in Europe with vehicles of all types, steam locomotives, diesel and electric automotive and different kinds of cars. The amazing facilities of the old electrical transformer plant with its original equipment rectification, mercury vapour, reflect the most modern technology of a century ago. The line between Azpeitia and Lasao is no longer generally operative but is an important tourist attraction.  We all climbed into the coaches and sat on the wooden seats and watched the world go by whilst being pulled along by an ancient locomotive belching forth steam on a 40minute ride.        Paul & Pauline Kerry

The full report with appropriate photos will be in the July Newsletter.