For most travel writers the pot of gold at the end of a long winding road is discovering a secret getaway spot. Double bonus points if you’ve somehow stumbled across one in Europe, which is why I am somewhat loath to share this hidden gem, rightfully referred to as Queen of the Basque Country.
The beautifully preserved, medieval town of Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the Basque Country, has won many international awards such as the European Green City Award and the Spanish Capital of Gastronomy award, yet somehow still flies under the tourist radar, which only adds to its authenticity.
The Silken Ciudad de Vitoria is located in the heart of Vitoria-Gasteiz just a short walk to the Old Town. The classic façade opens to a contemporary lobby, a charming interior garden with seating areas and recently refurbished guest rooms. Unwind at the Concept Spa, complete with Turkish bath, sauna, hot tub and a full roster of massage and facial treatments. Bonus points for the bountiful breakfast buffet, sweet service and lively piano bar.
Vitoria’s crown jewel is the Gothic Cathedral of Santa María. This is not just another old ho-hum church (Ken Follet researched scenes for the sequel to Pillars of the Earth here.) It’s a fascinating experience due to a unique “Open for Construction” project. Closed in 1994 because of serious “structural problems” (aka ready to fall down) some brilliant person came up with the idea of offering guided tours of the restoration process. Visitors don hard hats and follow the extremely knowledgeable guides along scaffolded walkways via serpentine stone staircases, from the crypt to the bell tower, where you’ll find marvelous 360-degree city views.
Insider tip: Visit the website to make a prior booking for the 75 minute tour with an English speaking guide. Our infectiously enthusiastic guide, Chus, kept us highly entertained with secret stories and fascinating architectural tidbits. Don’t miss the high-tech sound and light show that divulges how the portico walls were painted.
Upon entering the 25-year-old Ikea, which means “little hill” (no relation to the Swedish meatball chain) you are instantly transported to an imaginary forest environment filled with unpolished wood, native stone and amusing crab lights dancing along the ceiling created by the well-known designer Javier Mariscal. Chef Iñaki Moya adds his signature twist on traditional Basque cookery, which, combined with an excellent international wine list and attentive service, results in a Michelin caliber dinner. Splurge on the tasting menu to fully appreciate the explosion of flavors and textures that Moya delivers in high style.
The locals love their pintxo and Old Town’s cobblestone lanes are lined with a plethora of bars displaying a selection of the irresistible bite-sized creations which run the gamut from a humble tortilla to gastronomical mini-bites such as a coddled free-range egg with shaved truffles, which pair perfectly with an aromatic Rioja Alavesa or Txakoli, the indigenous young, fruity white wine. The award-winning pintxo bar, Sagartoki, is always packed, due in part to their extremely hunky chef.
Insider Tip: Stop in at the tourist office for a “Pintxo trail” map which will come in handy when practicing the art of ‘txikiteo’, the local version of barhopping. Thursday is ‘pintxo-pote’ when many convivial pubs offer a small glass of wine and a snack for €1.
For a more hands-on approach to pintxo, take a class at 220º, which is centigrade for a cooking temperature. The school is run by a local ex-journalist, who spun-off her love for Basque cookery into giving workshops on practical baking, confectionery, cooking and natural cosmetics. We put on our cheerful orange and white aprons (to match the walls) and spent a couple of delightful hours baking up a storm as Elena patiently taught us how to make a traditional Basque cake filled with cherry preserves and talo, a unique flat, griddled corn bread, used as wrappers for the spicy piperade and sausage that Elena had previously prepared for our lunch.
Insider tip: Since you’ll probably be stuffed with Basque goodies afterwards, you might want to walk the perimeter of Vitoria-Gasteiz, which is a planned green belt consisting of six parks and grassy paths teeming with native trees, flowers, and birds.
The best boutiques are found in Old Town between Dato and General Alava Streets, many owned by local designers. Streets such as Cuchillería, Herrería, Pintorería, and Correría are named after the traditional trades that used to occupy the buildings such as smiths, painters and harness makers. A few trendy shops to get you started are The Soul of the Clothes, Olso, a new home décor shop with some great gift items, and Galeria Iradier 9 for some original works by emerging artists.
Insider Tip: The “almond market” named after the Medieval District’s distinctive almond-shaped layout is a monthly market showcasing local artisans.
About an hour’s drive brings you to the Rioja Alavesa area that could rival Napa for its stunning landscape, complete with rolling green hills, lush vineyards and olive groves. The area also provides an eclectic choice of accommodations, creative cuisine, and a full calendar of special food & wine events. There are stunning modern wineries designed by an international “who’s who” of outstanding architects such as Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. For a sleepover, choose the Hotel Palacio de Samaniego, a restored 18th century Palace or for something a bit more modern, try the hipster boutique Hotel Viura, complete with a wine shop that offers guided tasting, a fitness center, and panoramic rooftop views.
We lunched at the trendy Viura restaurant which turned out to be one of our favorite meals of the trip. The uber talented Chef Juan Carlos Ferrando customized an imaginative tasting menu paired with regional wines that reminded me a bit of French Laundry in the early days. The meal burst open with an invigorating Watermelon Gazpacho, followed by a multitude of courses. Standouts were a flavorful grilled Hake and sea risotto, marinated sirloin with frozen vinaigrette and a knockout salty/sweet Guanaja Chocolate dessert. If the food was almost too pretty to eat, at least we paused to acknowledge the fact before eagerly scarfing down every last delectable bite.
Our favorite wine tasting/tour stop was at the landmark Baigorri Winery, an impressive, oversized glass box perched on top of the vineyard affording unobstructed views all the way to the river Elro. This 400 meter glass atrium was created by Basque architect Inaki Aspiazu to give visitors a chance to experience a peaceful moment before descending down seven levels to the actual winery which is built 105 feet underground.
As a matter of fact the atrium is so Zen that they now hold yoga classes there. The remarkable architecture showcases the unique gravity driven production system, which allows the grapes to be fermented completely intact before aging in new French oak barrels. With all these beautiful trappings I was relieved to find out that they also produce excellent, award-winning Tempranillo’s including dynamite Bodegas Baigorri Vino de Garage.
Insider Tip: They offer a great deal for 45 euro that includes a tour, tasting and fabulous sounding (they had me at the “home made pate scented with white truffle and sealed the deal with the slow-cooked Ibearian pork jowl) four-course, prix-fixe lunch with wine pairing.
And now for something way outside the box, head to the Salt Valley of Salinas de Anana, about 30 km from Vitoria Gasteiz, if for nothing else than the chance to bathe your feet in a healing salt pool. However the salt flats offer so much more. Sign on for an interesting guided tour that explains the history of the salt flats which were formed beginning in the Triassic Period as you learn about the ancient craft of the salt workers. Sal de Añana harvests the highest quality mineral salts, both plain and flavored, prized by the area’s top chefs. Pop in to the attractive gift shop where you can stock up on assorted salts (the Salt Infused with Red Wine will elevate your burgers to Kobe beef level) or a spritz bottle of their innovative Basque Liquid Salt, made from natural fresh water that has been filtered through underground salt deposits that formed when a sea dried up 200 million years ago.
Insider Tip: If you would like to explore the Basque country and its people on a deeper, more personal level I highly recommend that you contact Basque guide extraordinaire, David Elexgaray, who is simply one of the best guides I’ve ever experienced. Go to his site at www.basque-ways.com where you’ll find everything from “Ask a Basque” a question to information about his customized tours.
If You Go
For more information visit the helpful tourist site at www.vitoria-gasteiz.org/turismo