Spain’s Basque Country, La Rioja and Burgos
Experience fascinating Basque culture, captivating towns and cities along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, spectacular scenery, Rioja wines, an inspired gastronomic heritage, and one of the worlds most avant-garde museums.Euskal Herria better known to us as the Basque Country is wonderfully varied and blessed with its own distinctive identity. Spanning northern Spain and southwestern France, it is a region of immense beauty and diversity, crowned by the dramatic peaks of the Pyrenees mountains which seem to pierce the sky. Hills lushly carpeted with broadleaf forests rise and fall into fertile lowlands, dotted by classic red-and-white farmhouses, before reaching the vivid blue waters of the wild Atlantic. Along the rugged coast are sweeping natural harbours with beaches of fine sand, home to charming fishing villages.
The price of this holiday is per person based on two people sharing a twin room. Single rooms are subject to availability at the relevant supplement. The price includes:
ARRIVAL IN BILBAO
On arrival, we transfer by coach to San Sebastin, where we stay for three nights at the four-star Silken Amara Plaza. Located along the River Urumea, the hotel is a pleasant 10-minute walk to the cathedral and a 25-minute walk to the old town.
SAN SEBASTIN & FREE AFTERNOON
Gloriously sited on a shell-shaped stretch of the Bay of Biscay and framed by fine white-sand beaches, San Sebastin is one of the most enchanting coastal resorts in Spain. Manicured parks and belle-poque buildings are elegant reminders that this was once the preferred holiday destination of the Spanish aristocracy. Since 1953 the city has played host to an annual film festival, which attracted legends including Alfred Hitchcock. San Sebastin is flanked by two hills Monte Igueldo in the west and Monte Urgull in the east and this morning we explore the bay between the hills. Admire the grand buildings including the Miramar Palace which was designed by a British architect, and the luxurious Hotel Mara Cristina. As we walk through the old town well see its highlights, such as Constitucin Square, which was once a bullring where spectators reserved seats on the numbered balconies and placed their bets.
The tour concludes at a traditional bar, giving you the opportunity to sample pintxos. Not to be confused with tapas, they tend to be more elaborate, particularly in San Sebastin, where their creation has become an art form. So popular are they that txikiteo has become a local pastime going from bar to bar in the evenings enjoying pintxos and drinks before settling down to a main meal.
The rest of the day is free. Perhaps visit the San Telmo Museum dedicated to Basque history, or ascend Monte Urgull to see the remains of the old city walls. San Sebastin was named a European Capital of Culture in 2016 and boasts a staggering total of 17 Michelin stars, so theres plenty to see, do and taste.
BAYONNE & LA RHUNE RAILWAY
This morning we cross the French border to Bayonne to experience Basque culture in the north. Situated where the River Nive meets the Adour, Bayonne was once a fortified Roman town. Following Eleanor of Aquitaines marriage to Henry II of England in 1152, the city prospered in the Middle Ages under English kings, represented as lions in the citys coat of arms. During our guided walking tour, well see colourful half-timbered buildings, the remains of 17th-century ramparts and the stunning Gothic cathedral, seat of the former Bishops of Bayonne. Although the city bears a French appearance, Basque is widely spoken here. Dont miss the opportunity to sample Bayonnes fine chocolates and cured ham for which the city is known; there are even annual festivals celebrating the centuries-old traditions of chocolate and ham production.
We then journey inland to La Rhune, an imposing mountain sacred in Basque mythology at the western end of the Pyrenees. The La Rhune cog railway takes us past typical Basque villages with red-shuttered houses and rolling countryside, home to Pottok ponies, Manex sheep and birds of prey. From the summit that towers on the border between France and Spain, we are treated to breathtaking views of the majestic Pyrenees and the Bay of Biscay. After a wonderful day of sightseeing, we return to the hotel.
PAMPLONA & RIOJA WINERY
Today we travel to the wooded foothills of the mighty Pyrenees, passing beautiful landscapes of rolling countryside and rocky gorges. We arrive in Pamplona, capital of the fiercely independent Kingdom of Navarra and a popular stop on the Way of St James, one of the most important Christian pilgrimages in the Middle Ages. Little was known about this historic gem until its annual San Fermin festival was brought to the worlds attention in Ernest Hemingways novel, The Sun Also Rises. The week-long celebration honours the martyr, San Fermin, and features colourful parades of giants and big heads. Each morning the running of the bulls takes place a tradition that is said to have begun with butchers shepherding their bulls to the bullring, their apprentices running ahead to entice the animals forward.
During our guided tour well see Pamplonas cathedraland pass shops selling elaborate papier-mch heads for the festival. One of the countrys best-preserved military structures can be found here in the 16th Century citadel, built in a pentagon shape with imposing bastions at each point.
This afternoon we follow the pilgrimage route through La Rioja, Spains legendary wine region centred on the Ebro River Valley. Rows of olive trees and vines colour the undulating landscape with stripes of green and ochre, while medieval fortified villages crown hilltops overlooked by the jagged Cantabrian mountains. We have a guided tour of one of the regions traditional wineries, to learn how their grapes are crafted into the noble drink.
Later we continue to Burgos and its eponymous capital, where we stay two nights at the four-star Abba Burgos Hotel. Located just 350 yards from Burgos Cathedral, the hotel offers guests complimentary use of its heated indoor pool, sauna, gym and tennis court. The hotel has a caf-bar and a restaurant, which serves fresh seasonal dishes, and features a garden terrace with lovely views over Burgos.
BURGOS & FREE AFTERNOON
The 9th-century city of Burgos played a significant military and political role in Spanish history. Founded as a fortress to defend the Kingdom of Navarra from the Moors, it became the capital of Castile and Lon for five centuries. Like many Castilian towns, Burgos prospered from the wool trade and its wealth funded the outstanding architecture that can be seen today. During our guided tour this morning, we learn about the citys volatile history and explore the old quarters maze of twisting streets, dominated by the 13th-century cathedral, one of Spains glittering jewels of religious architecture. Our tour of the cathedral includes an audio guide, so you can admire this Gothic masterpiece and its numerous treasures at your own pace. Observe the majestic faade, the intricate Chapel of the Constable and the splendid tomb of Burgos most intriguing son, El Cid.
You are free this afternoon to seek out more of the citys highlights. As a prominent stop on the pilgrimage route, Burgos has many more churches to discover, such as the remarkable Church of St Nicholas. A stroll across the river takes you to the spectacular Monasterio de las Huelgas, a Cistercian monastery founded and lavishly endowed by royalty.
This evening we dine at an excellent restaurant specialising in Castilian dishes.
Today we journey to Bilbao, the largest city of the Basque Country and one of its great treasures. Surrounded by green hills of Artxanda, Bilbao has a very attractive and lively medieval centre with pretty parks and attractive architecture. It shot to worldwide renown in 1997 with the opening of the European branch of the Guggenheim Museum on the banks of the River Nervon. Architect Frank Gehry drew inspiration from Bilbaos maritime heritage to create the titanium-clad masterpiece of modernist architecture. We enjoy a visit to the Guggenheim to see an array of works by modern Spanish and international artists.
After some free time to admire the museums collection, we transfer the four-star Hesperia Bilbao,situated across the river from the Guggenheim in a striking building with a colourful glass faade.
SANTILLANA DEL MAR & ALTAMIRA CAVE MUSEUM
We drive through the stunning Cantabria region, dominated by lush forests and the dizzying peaks of the magnificent Picos de Europa mountains in the distance. Set inland is the medieval town of Santillana del Mar, one of the most picturesque in Spain and a joy to explore. Nicknamed the village of three lies, it does not have its own saint (santa) and it is neither positioned on a flat plain (llana) nor situated by the sea (del mar). Wander its well-preserved cobbled streets and admire the charming ensemble of 15th- to 17th-century golden houses. At the heart of the town is its Romanesque Collegiate Church, which has its origins in a 9th-century monastery. Why not refresh yourself with a drink at one of the many cafs or visit one of its interesting museums. Discover the fate of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition at the fascinating museum of torture not one for the faint-hearted!
Our journey of discovery continues in Altamira, one of the most important prehistoric caves in Europe as it contains some of the worlds finest examples of Ice Age art bison, deer and ibex have been masterfully rendered in charcoal and red ochre. The painter Picasso was said to have been so enamoured after a visit that he declared, after Altamira, everything is decadence. We visit the cave museum nearby to see its remarkably accurate facsimile, built to protect the original paintings its every bit as astonishing as the original and enables us to have a detailed look at the fascinating facets of this complex masterpiece. Later we return to our hotel in Bilbao.
Please note: for some departures it may not be possible to visit the Altamira Cave Museum, in the event of this an alternative itinerary will be offered.
Transfer to the airport for your return flight.