Monday, 30 July 2012

The Basque Country

We the left Bayonne the morning after the Dylan concert and headed south, crossing the border into Spain and following the coast road west towards the little fishing village of Getaria.

It’s a really beautiful drive along the northern Basque coast and we decided to stop in a little town called Zarautz. Zarautz is a lovely town and like Getaria, it is located in the Gipuzoka province of the Basque country.  Zarautz is a very popular summer destination for the Spanish inlanders as it is cooler and has one of the longest stretches of sandy beach anywhere along the Cantabrian cornice  coastline. The population triples in the summer months. 

It was just before midday when we arrived, so relatively quiet, but being Sunday the town was already starting to buzz with life. Parking the car was surprisingly easy but getting the ticket required determination, patience and a detective mind.

Eventually we found a ticket machine but when you choose the option ‘English’ it stays in Basque. After some time we realised that you had to punch in your vehicle number plate first in order for the option of payment to be issued. You then have to put in the exact money or it will not give you a ticket, so the search for change began. Anyway, we solved the puzzle and I hope this information will help anyone visiting Zarautz in the future.  

The town is split into two with the beach front being separated from the narrow streets of the old town by the main road. The beach is very clean and lined with colourful, rather English-looking punch and Judy tents.

It’s a great surf spot but for now we were interested in finding lunch! As is tradition in the Basque country, gastronomy is very important and Zarautz is no different being full of little tapas bars. One of the most famous Spanish chefs Karlos Arguiñano also has a restaurant here

We wandered the streets stopping here and there for a drink of either local crisp white wine called Txakoli, a glass of joven Rioja or a Basque cider coupled with a selection of delicious tapas. Prices vary, but in general it is cheap and a tapas will cost you €1.60 apiece, a wine or beer €1.90 and a plate (raciones) €6-9 (apart from the Bellota ham). 

I can recommend the Bar Naparrax for a good selection of wines by the glass, a plate of ham and pimentos and a couple of tapas. Also the Jai Txiki Taberna for a glass of Txacoli and the Iruna for ham croquettes and gambas a la plancha. If you can’t find them, not to worry because out of the five or six bars we tried out, all were very good indeed!

We enjoyed some beach time and then continued along the coast to the neighbouring and much smaller town of Getaria.  The further along you get, you begin to notice that this is very much a wine region. We were staying high in the hills of the incredible Txakoli DO wine appellation which spreads across Gipuzkoa, Bizkaiko (Biscay), Arabako (Alava), Cantabrian Chacolí and Burgos. 

The DO is very small and Gipuzkoa, where we were, is only around 170 hectares so vineyards are very hard to come by.  Txakoli is for the most part a crisp, dry, spritzy white wine made from the local varietal Hondarribi Beltza. I have to constantly ask my good friend and Basque winemaker Maitena how it’s pronounced and when she does it sounds nothing like its spelt! The vines are cultivated on a pergola system called ‘parra’ but guyot vertical row systems are now also beginning to be used. 

Our Hotel ‘The Iturregi’ was right the heart of the vineyards with the most stunning sea views from the gardens and bedrooms. Our room, called Jaizkibel – the Basque name for the mountain that divides Spain and France – was fantastic. Our huge balcony looked out over the peninsula known as the ‘Ratón de Getaria’ (the mouse of Getaria) and down onto the vines and a great pool. The service was fantastic, too and I can highly recommend a stay. 

 After settling in we took a taxi down into Getaria as I had booked us into for me (and many winemakers will agree) one of the best  fish restaurants known. Called Kaia, it overlooks the small harbour of Getaria, and has the most diverse Spanish/French wine list with lots of back vintages at very tempting prices. There was plenty of time before dinner as the Spanish don’t even turn up to restaurants until 10pm so we had a walk around the old town, having the occasional drink and constantly resisting the temptation of the tapas!

The restaurant has two entrances; one down by the harbour and the second up behind on the town ramparts. As you pass the lower entrance you can see the fish chef outside with his huge BBQ, grilling the various fish on the coals. We went upstairs and were seated with the beautiful view over the harbour. I spent about 15-minutes reading about a quarter of the wine menu, but I had known what we were going to order since the moment I left the restaurant last year! 
To start we had a superb 2011 Rías Baixas Albariiño from Terras Gauda with white tuna, pimentos and freshly cooked prawns whilst the whole turbot was being grilled down below.  For the main course I chose a 2001 Gran Reserva Rioja from Bodega Muga which, with the elegance of age, was a superb match to the divine turbot.

Another great time in Spain. Back in the Chai now, and harvest is approaching!


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