Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Weekend Life....Hotel Iturregi, Basque Country, Spain

Hotel Iturregi, Getaria, Basque Country, Spain, May 2012.

The Basque region, which straddles the border of Spain and France, has long been on my travel wish list. While pilgrims from all over the world have been making their way for centuries through Basque country following the Camino de Santiago de Compostela trail, this part of Northern Spain has more recently become a site of pilgrimage for food lovers. So when the opportunity came up at the end of May this year to do a little road trip through Basque country, I naturally jumped at it.

Travelling from the airport in Bordeaux, our first destination was the beautiful Hotel Iturregi situated in the hills above the pretty fishing village of Getaria, 25 minutes drive from San Sebastian. Boarded by vineyards, woods, lush rolling hills, green fields dotted with sheep, and with stunning views towards the Bay of Biscay, this small hotel (only 8 rooms) was the perfect peaceful oasis we were looking for to begin our Basque adventure. Pulling in through the gated driveway which is bordered by olive trees and garden beds filled with masses of white roses, we were greeted warmly by one of the lovely staff members, Susana, who spoke perfect English…which was helpful as our Basque language skills were embarrassingly poor pretty much non-existent. The hotel, which was opened in 2007 and is built on the site of an old Basque farmhouse, feels rather more like staying in a wealthy relative’s private manor house than an impersonal hotel. Our room, Jaizkibel, was located on the first floor of the property and was beautifully decorated in soothing tones of crisp white, olive green and botanical print. The bathroom is entirely open plan with the bedroom (so perhaps not the best choice for a holiday with a new lover unless you are entirely comfortable with, ahem, all bodily functions!) with an enormous walk-in shower and, beneath the bathroom window, a spacious deep bath where you can soak and enjoy the stunning views of the coastline. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors in front of the comfortable bed open to reveal a balcony with a table and chairs and expansive views of the neighboring woods, vineyards and sea. The weather was perfect during our stay so we naturally gravitated to the balcony to breakfast, read, check emails, drink Txakoli* in the afternoon, gaze at the twinkling lights of Getaria in the evening and, one morning, even managed to drag ourselves out of bed early enough to watch a glorious sunrise over the ocean.

 The common areas of the hotel are just as gorgeous as the rooms and never feel crowded due to the restricted number of guests. A lounge area with huge windows framing the view hosts an honesty bar plus a (complimentary) Nespresso machine for morning/afternoon caffeine fixes, a fireplace for the winter months and a stack of glossy Spanish magazines to peruse. A large covered outdoor terrace with enormous comfy sofas feels like an extension of the lounge area and is perfect for a pre-supper drink or curling up with a book (I loved listening to the chirruping of the frogs in the nearby pond in the late afternoon). Leading off the terrace and up some stone steps is the hotel’s stunning pool which is set in the ruins of the old farmhouse and framed by pretty, manicured gardens. Sun lounges border the pool edge and with the only sounds being the gentle lapping of the water, the occasional clang of a cow bell in the distance or bleating lamb, it was tempting to forget all about sightseeing and spend the entire day napping by the pool!


San Sebastian: In an article for Qantas magazine, Australian chef Neil Perry says “If San Sebastián isn’t the world’s best food town, it’s close”. And with three 3-star Michelin restaurants, an abundance of fresh produce (both from the sea and the land) and bars lining the narrow streets serving achingly good pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) I can see why. We started our pintxos stroll in San Sebastian at around 7pm and managed to try 5 different places before our tummies (and feet) began protesting. My favorites?

Bar La Cepa (Calle 31 de Agosto, 7) Try the grilled wild mushrooms with egg, thin slices of buttery, glistening Iberian ham and slivers of smoked salmon and anchovy atop a round of baguette with a dab of crème fraiche. The friendly barman had us mesmerized by his ability to precisely pour Txakoli from a great height into tumblers without looking and without spilling a drop!

Bar Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton 12) On the recommendation of a Spanish-Australian girl who happened to be standing right next to us while we were trying to decipher the chalkboard menu, we tried the mushroom risotto and the beef cheeks slow cooked in red wine. Both were outstanding.

Bar Martinez (Calle 31 de Agosto, 13) Try the warm salt cod and Iberian ham croquettes.

La Vina (Calle 31 de Agosto, 3) We shared a piece of the baked cheesecake which La Vina is famous for. Creamy, light, not too sweet – it was a delicious way to end our progressive meal.

Axtondo: Asador Etxebarri. About an hour’s drive from Getaria, Asador Etxebarri is on many food lover’s “must visit” places (just google it!). Located in one of the prettiest (and tiniest) villages I have ever been and surrounded by mountains (much of Basque country reminds me of parts of Switzerland) it is worth going for the location alone. A grilling institution, the highlight of the meal was the cooked-on-the bone beef chop. In the top 5 steaks I have eaten in my lifetime, it was full of flavor, both from the meat itself and the grilling process.

Tolosa: Casa Julian By far my favorite restaurant from this trip, Casa Julian was recommended by a Swedish friend who knows his food and wine. Entering through what appeared to be the restaurant’s storeroom, we weren’t quite sure whether we were in the right place (the Basque version of a Speakeasy perhaps?) until we caught a whiff of delicious, grilling meat. Shown through into a small room with white cloth topped tables filled with locals, the focal point of the room was the open grill at one end manned by Señor Julian. We were served impossibly thick, fat spears of asparagus in a sweet vinegary sauce, glistening roasted peppers, crusty bread with creamy, peppery olive oil and the highlight, a thick grilled steak prepared expertly by Señor Julian. Not even the 30 minute search for a car park nor the slight incident with a tree (eek!) could dampen our enthusiasm for Casa Julian – it is one of those very special, authentic restaurants that you hope to discover on every holiday to a foreign destination but so rarely do.

Getaria: Grilled fish restaurants. If you are staying near Getaria like we were, the asador restaurants, where super fresh fish is grilled over charcoal, are great for a casual meal overlooking the harbour. We tried The Mayflower and the grilled fish was lovely.

Do: Apart from eating, swimming in the sea and exploring the lovely towns which dot the coastline, this part of Basque country offers wonderful walking opportunities and we saw many walkers making the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage (identifiable by the scallop shell seen dangling from their backpacks).

Getaria is also the home of the Cristóbal Balenciaga museum (Cristóbal was born in Getaria) and while we didn’t have time to visit, it looks excellent.

 *The slightly salty, spritzy young local white wine

 Part 2 of our Basque road trip next week.


  1. Oh, Vanessa. These photos are so beautiful! are you using a film camera?

    -Victor x


  2. Did you enjoy Spain? Such a relaxing place, isn't it? :)

  3. I just wanted more, more, more! Amazing. Book worthy xx

  4. I love Spain! But the Basque region is very beautiful too. Wow, your hotel looks like a private villa. I like the swimming pool. I hope to visit San Sebastian just to eat! Then maybe drive to Burgos to see some art in the Guggenheim Musuem. Will definitely look forward to your next post. Stunning pictures too!

  5. These looks so relaxing and beautiful <3

  6. Beautiful photographs Vanessa! Love seeing these posts in addition to your streetstyle xx Spain is at top of my list of places to travel to & your photographs make me want to go even more!

  7. @Peta Rudd - Peta,you would absolutely love it! Well, probably you would love anywhere in Europe really as it is so different from Australia. Are you planning any holidays soon? I have only been to Barcelona, Valencia and now Basque country in Spain but would love to explore more. On the top of my hit list is Andalucia and Ibiza.

    @Pieri - thanks so much. It was really relaxing - I would like to go back to there right now!

    @Pamela RG - The food was just so good in all of the Basque region (and the scales definitely recorded that when I got home to London!). I didn't actually make it to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim - but that just leaves an excuse to go back in the future.

    @rachel kara - thank you! As I have said before, I am a very bad editor of my photos. Need to leave more out I think.

    @Collections - thank you, as always

    @Laura - loved it! So beautiful and so much to do. We were very fortunate with great weather as well. I think the Basque region is green because it rains quite a lot (but apparently they are short and sharp showers?) but we didn't have any rain while we were there. Lots when we got back to London though :)

    @Victor - yup, it is expensive but I love it!!!

  8. very beautiful pictures!


  9. Ohhhh, how marvelous you have been in Tolosa, the place where i live!!! <3<3<3

  10. Thank you for this great post about the Basque Country, I'm from San Sebastian and I'm just can't wait for the second part...

  11. @Unknown - Have you been to Casa Julian? I loved it so much - it is exactly the type of dining experience I want to have when I am on holidays.

    @Anonymous - So happy I have a reader from San Sebastian! I could have spent a week just pottering around in your beautiful town.

  12. so beautiful. I love how you captured the atmosphere of the place shown in details, especially playing with depth of field. The window with the boots glued in my mind.I would like to go there.

  13. This looks beautiful...I've just got back from my holiday so am eager to start planning my next trip!

  14. These photographs are so stunningly beautiful!! I think that Spain has just shot up to the top of my to visit list....

  15. Dear Vanessa. I was borned and raised in the Basque Country and right now I am a resident in the U.A.E, and eventhough I am from Bilbao, right next to San Sebastian, I cannot be any prouder of my region. I am very thankful for your post. I cannot explain you the mix of feelings I have right now,Ç(I am holding some tears, no kiding..) because I have seen in your pictures what I have been remembering for the past 10 months. I am going home tomorrow, and I can´t wait to eat a seabass in Getaria. I hope your post will open a new window for people to come and visit the Basque Country, because its a unique experience that noone should miss!
    Thanks again, and I hope you come back again!

  16. @chachamisu - thank you so much for your lovely words. I am much better at photographing details I think than an entire scene (too much to think about including or not including!). The boots I photographed just as we finished dinner in Getaria...

    @Sarah - that is the best and the worst things about holidays - as soon as you are back from one, you are yearning/planning for another!

    @My Love Wedding Ring - you definitely should go :)

    @Anon - I am touched by your lovely words: it is truly wonderful that photography can evoke emotion/bring back memories. I would go back to Basque country tomorrow if I could! In fact I have just finished writing my second instalment (on La Rioja ) and I am just itching to jump on a plane and experience it all over again. I can understand how much you must miss being there - it is truly beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. I didn't get to go to Bilbao unfortunately but that is okay - I have saved it up for next time! I hope you have an amazing time when you go home tomorrow.

  17. Where/What town is the church located? Church obsessed :)

  18. @Anon - the church is the Sanctuary of Loyola in the Basque town of Azpeitia. It is built over the birthplace of Ignatius of Loyola. Absolutely stunning church - if you are going to Basque country and you love churches, you should go see it.

  19. Your series of weekend photographs are exquisite but I'm getting a little worried. Always a photo of a 'character' old guy. No sign of people having a good time (whatever one's definition of that might be). Beginning to be a little soulless. Beautiful but brittle.

  20. @Anon - yes, I admit I am not good at taking photos of people candidly (ie groups of people having fun who I don't know) especially if I am holidays. If I was doing it for a client I would force myself outside my comfort zone to do it of course! In terms of my 'character old guys' - I love taking those photos. For me, it takes a lot of courage to go up to someone and ask if I can take their photo. I ask women as well but they generally refuse (in Hong Kong I think I was up to about 15 refusals in one morning!). And I always prefer to ask people and engage rather than just take a photo candidly.

  21. Absolutely beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing

  22. Wow, stunning images, Vanessa! Was just in Basque Country last fall and absolutely loved the French and Spanish sides. Your pictures capture the region beautifully!

    1. @Shannon - Hi Shannon! Gosh I can't believe this was so many years ago!! It was so wonderful and I can still recall the taste of the fish (and the steak!). Thanks so much for your lovely comment. Wish I was going back this year!!!