Hiking the Basque coastline

Basque, Spain
While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

The food and wine of Extremadura, Spain

Spain, Extremadura, Spain, extremaduraOne of the best things about traveling around Spain is trying out the various regional cuisines. Here in Extremadura, in the southwestern part of the country, the people are known for the quality of their cuisine.

First off, there are these shapely pig legs pictured on the right. Cured and ready to be cut into thin slices, this is called jamón, and is a personal favorite of mine. In a country where people are always saying their regional food is the best, a lot of people seek out Extremaduran jamón. The care and feeding of the pigs is the key.

Spaniards love their pork. While their beef steaks are only OK and their chicken dishes good but unremarkable, they seem to have devised unlimited varieties of pork products. There’s lomo (tenderloin), morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo (sausage with dried smoked red peppers), salchichon (Spanish salami) and a million kinds of embutido (seasoned sausage). I’m very glad I’m not vegetarian.

One surprise when visiting Extremadura was to discover my favorite cheese comes from there and only there. Torta del Casar is a soft white cheese made of sheep’s milk. It comes in a soft cake that is sliced open to reveal the gooey cheese inside. It has a creamy consistency and rich flavor, perfect to put on crackers. Extremadura produces a whole range of good cheeses, but torta del Casar is the most unique.

The region is also well-known for the quality of its paprika, called pimentón in Spanish. Not surprisingly it makes it into a lot of dishes, including cazuela, a paprika butter that’s very good on bread. Like every other region, Extremadura also has its own brands of olive oil, preserves, and sweets.

And let’s not forget the wine! One good line is Habla del Silencio, a full-bodied, slightly biting red of consistent quality. Another is Theodosius, a Tempranillo/Graciano mix named after the famous Byzantine emperor.

Every town in Extremadura has at least one shop selling local food and wine. If you’re in Mérida, check out Serraquesada on Calle José Ramón Mélida 24, close to the Roman museum, where most of the photos in the gallery were taken. This family-owned business focuses on Extremaduran products and stocks pretty much anything you could ask for. The front has rows and rows of jamón, and shelves stuffed with other food and condiments. In the back is a well-stocked bodega with a few tables so you can sit and sample Extremadura’s wonderful food and wine. Their website is still under construction but the business offers international mail order via email at ppserraquesada@gmail.com.

Many of Extremadura’s better-known products such as jamón and torta del Casar can be found in better shops all around the country.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Top five castles of Extremadura!

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