Luxury & boutique hotels
Basque Country, Spain
When to go
The Basque Country owes its greenery to the fact it’s one of Spain’s damper regions – the Atlantic fronts bring wind and drizzle throughout the year. July and August are driest, hottest and busiest, so aim for May or September – but still pack an umbrella.
PlanesSeven miles outside the city centre, Bilbao’s architecturally impressive Sondika airport is the largest in the region, with direct flights to a number of European hubs, including London Stansted via EasyJet. A half-hourly bus takes travellers into the city; taxis cost around €20. There are smaller airports at San Sebastián and Vitoria, and, on the French side of the border, Biarritz airport has connections to London Gatwick and other UK cities.
BoatsP&O operates a leisurely paced car ferry between Portsmouth and Bilbao and Brittany Ferries pootle between Plymouth, Portsmouth and Santander.
TrainsVitoria is on the daily Paris-Madrid sleeper line and Bilbao’s Estación de Abando is connected with larger towns throughout Spain by the Renfe network. The Basque Country is criss-crossed with smaller, more scenic railways, linking Bilbao, San Sebastián, Guernica, and Hendaye on the French side of the border with smaller towns along the coast.
AutomobilesUnless you remain city-bound, hiring a car is ideal for village-hopping through the Basque countryside and motoring through the mountains. Avis (www.avis.com) have desks at Bilbao and Biarritz airports.
TaxisIn San Sebastián, Bilbao, Biarritz and other large cities, cabs are easy to flag in the streets or pick up at taxi ranks. In smaller towns, you’re best booking ahead. Try Teletaxi Vallina (+34 94 340 4040) or Taxi Donosti (+34 94 346 4646; www.taxidonosti.com) in and around San Sebastián.
With inventive pintxos to nibble on and a constellation of Michelin stars, the Basque Country is home to Spain’s most enthusiastic eaters. It championed slow food before it became a gastronaut rallying cry, and each region has a distinct delicacy and vintage.
Known for Idiazábal sheep's cheese from Navarra, black cherries from Itxassou, Lekeitio paprikas and spicy guindillas from Ibarra. Sparkling txakoli wine or still cider are the refreshments of choice.
Fish and crustacea frequent Basque menus, as do veal cheeks, jamón and marmitako tuna stew. Modern pintxos can be simple brochetas or avant-garde El Bulli-influenced offerings: anchovy toasts with blueberry jam or salad served in a hamster ball – yes, really.
• Still rather than sparkling, but definitely not flat, Basque cider involves a great deal of showboating. Head to 16th-century sidrería Gartziategi – in Astigarraga, outside San Sebastián – where merry Basques pour from oversized barrels heartily yelling 'Txotx!' – you'll soon follow suit.
• Fragrant, sparkling, refined: Gaintza vineyard's txakoli wine is one of the best. Just a half-hour drive from San Sebastián, this dynastic vineyard also offers local light bites and a guide who's more than willing to waffle about viticulture.
• San Sebastián may have Michelin stars to spare, but Biarritz's seafood restaurants serve up splendid fish dishes. Fresh catches of all ilk are served at Chez Albert, Port des Pêcheurs, and Ilura, Pointe Sainte-Barbe; and Les Halles market has plenty for pescetarians to pick at.
Stay at Astoria7, at the heart of gourmet hub San Sebastián. There are no less than three Michelin-starred eateries within walking distance: Arzak on Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, Akelarre on Paseo Padre Orcolaga and Martin Berasategui at 4 Loidi Kalea. Bars such as Txepetxa and mod Zeruko make it an excellent place to plan a txikiteo (a pub crawl with pintxos).