Whether you're on a trip around Western Europe or just out for a quick jaunt within Spanish borders, mind that you might find yourself in Basque Country.
It's independent, soulful and rugged, and three days with a rented moped will be just enough if you travel swiftly and without the burden of luggage and indecision. This region was the backdrop for one of Ernest Hemingway's earliest and best works, The Sun Also Rises. Above all, traveling Basque Country by moped is a good chance for reflection and to enjoy, like Hemingway, dining frequently and luxuriously.
On the bus (#3247; $2) from Bilbao airport to the city center, forget what you know about Spain — the climate, the landscape, the food, the people, even the language — because everything here is going to be different.
Not Just Bombs and Berets
A brief primer: Basque Country lies in the northeastern territory of Spain along the Bay of Biscay and in the southwestern region of France. The political map is much more complex, but, suffice it to say, a minority of the population in Basque Country supports actual independence from Spain and an even a smaller percentage stands behind the separatist group, ETA, responsible for blowing up people and things over the past 50 years. The Basque people, who claim to be the oldest Europeans, are proud and welcoming.
DAY 1: Play Hooky From the Art Museum
Bilbao is the largest city in Basque Country and, until recently, a polluted eyesore thanks to years of industrial abuse. But in 1997, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum put Bilbao on the map for art enthusiasts and for tourists in general. The city has retained its working-class feel, which means that prices are reasonable across the board. Like most European cities, there's also no need to drop extra cash on cabs in Bilbao. The metro and tram stop everywhere and will run you just $1.50 per ride.
Begin day one downtown at Cafe Iruna, the 100-plus year-old institution right in the heart of the city. Don't be tempted by the glossy croissants; they're virtually inedible anywhere in Spain. Stick with the local grub — cafe con leche (coffee with hot milk) and a slice of tortilla de patatas, a dense omelet made with egg and fried potatoes.
Many of the hotels in Bilbao offer free or dirt-cheap bike rentals. It's a good way to make your way around the city and check out some of the attractions. Among the most unique are the bridges, including the Zubizuri by famous architect Santiago Calatrava, and the Colgante, a vaulting iron bridge with a moving mechanical platform. It's also worth taking a trip to the Zorrozaurre neighborhood. It's run-down and covered in graffiti — a little like parts of East Berlin a few years back — and will give you an idea of pre-Guggenheim Bilbao.
Food as Art
Now, let's be realistic — you want to skip the Guggenheim museum. The queue is easily an hour, so take a good look at Gehry's industrial-and-shipbuilding-inspired architecture and then skip the collections and the entrance fee altogether. Head upstairs to Restaurante Guggenheim, one of the region's best restaurants under the guidance of renowned chef Martin Berasategui. A three-course lunch, including wine, will run about $25.
Spaniards usually check out for siesta in the afternoon, so do the same if you're feeling weary or wander the Casco Viejo (old town) getting tight on small glasses of wine and snacking on pintxos (pronounced pinch-os).
This brings us to dinner. In the rest of Spain, small plates like olives or nuts or chips (tapas) are served with every drink. In Basque Country, bars are lined with pintxos — a variety of mostly seafood-based snacks that are pay-for-play. They're cheap and tasty, so grab a plate at Xukeia in the old town and dig in. The local specialty is baby octopus served with mushroom, a balsamic reduction and big flakes of salt. It's pretty awesome and about as oily as the Prince William Sound after Exxon's little accident. If you're man enough to stomach it, go on to dinner at local favorite Rio-Oja, and try the rabbit or the squid served in its own ink. An indulgent dinner for two with a few bottles of txakoli (local, slightly sparkling white wine) will run about $60.
Crash at Pension Mardones, an inexpensive but comfortable hotel on Calle Jardines, or check with the tourist office for information about available rooms.
Total cost (assuming two travelers): About $100
DAY 2: San Sebastian and the Open Road
Wake up early and catch a cheap and quick bus to San Sebastian, the legendary resort and surfing town an hour west of Bilbao. It's touristy during the summer, but a good launching pad for days two and three. Here, the power play is to drop $150 on a Piaggio Fly 150 moped at Alokamoto. Most rental places require an international drivers' license ($15 by mail through AAA, if you plan ahead), but we at AM found that they sometimes forget to ask for any permit at all. Just don't leave the deposit in cash.
Why a moped? If you've got just a few days to cover serious territory, about one-third of the time is on the road — so you better enjoy it. What's not to like about two-lane roads hugging sheer rock faces on one side and the Atlantic on the other? Seeing Basque country by moped is also practical. In cities with heavy traffic, tight roads and limited parking, you'll be able to drive between cars, take advantage of shortcuts and park anywhere you want. The 150cc engine has enough torque under 30 mph to make quick decisions, and on highways it rides comfortably up to about 60 mph. It also means you're forced to travel with just a light backpack, room enough for a change of clothes and some basic necessities, like cigarettes and a bottle of wine. Compared to life at the office, a moped means freedom, son.
Take a Dip
Take your new wheels for a test ride up Mount Igueldo on the west side of the bay and check out the best view of the city. A few minutes’ drive to the other side of the bay is Zurriola beach, known by surfers as one of the most consistent beach breaks around. You've got no time for lessons, so rent a surfboard for two hours ($20) and paddle around out there the best you can.
Hit the road going east back toward Bilbao by mid afternoon. The two lane N-634 is a secondary highway that winds along the coast and through lush Basque countryside. There are any number of destinations along the way, but the the Holy Grail, if timed right, is a fishing village of 2,500 called Getaria. In early August they celebrate the sea's bounty with a tuna festival. It's a weekend of partying and big slabs of fresh bonito grilled right in the town square. A plate of fish with a bottomless cup of local hard cider served right from the cask will run you about $5. If you miss the festival, any of the restaurants on the harbor serve fresh fish grilled outdoors over charcoal.
There's really no need to book lodging ahead of time when you're traveling Basque Country by moped. You'll have greater flexibility during the trip and the tourist offices can always point you to an affordable room within a few minutes’ drive.
Total cost: $200
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DAY 3: The Long Road Home
Before you leave Getaria, stop at any of the specialty shops in the town center to pick up the locally jarred tuna, sardines, dirt-cheap foie gras, a few bottles of cider, and a block of Spanish cheese. This will be the most decadent picnic of your life. If you got the hang of surfing yesterday, Spain's No. 1 destination town for the sport and home to the longest beach in Basque Country, Zarautz, is about 15 minutes east. For a more relaxing day, head west of Getaria to the sleepy, moderately upscale town called Zumaia. The main attraction is an enormous pier extending into the Bay of Biscay. It's one of the most serene locations you'll ever see and perfect spot to lay out for a meal and a quick nap. When the buzz wears off it's back on the mopeds to San Sebastian, just in time to catch the bus back to Bilbao and the end of an epic trip.
Total cost: $60 (includes gas)
Lost Generation in Basque Country
With the abundance of travel guides and information about Western Europe, it's getting harder to find adventure in the Old World. Hemingway's character Jake Barnes traveled Basque Country on the roof of a bus, sharing wine with peasants. Today the ALSA bus company seems to have all but a monopoly on coach travel in Spain — and all the goddamned seats are inside. But for under $400 and the price of a road map, you can take a shot at the stomping grounds of the Lost Generation. Next time we're fly-fishing in the Pyrenees.