After a foodie pilgrimage along the northern Spanish coast, Ros Walford shares some of her edible highlights of the Camino del Norte.
There’s something magical about entering a city on foot. First, you see a rash of buildings in the distance; some hours later, you finally reach the centre, where, stomach rumbling, you follow your nose to a smoky grill and the promise of slowly barbecuing fish. For hikers, the reward of good food at the end of a long day’s walk is surely one of life’s greatest pleasures. Spain’s Basque Country has both, with a national pilgrimage route running along its coast and some of the best food in the world. Now that’s just greedy…
Since the ninth century, penitents have made the pilgrimage along the Camino del Norte – the oldest of several caminos that cross Spain – to pay homage to Saint James, but today, fortunately, this is one of the quieter routes. It runs the length of Spain’s northern coast, east to west from Irún, close to the French border, to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
The stage between San Sebastián and Bilbao is a moderate eight-day trek and one of the most interesting sections – not only for the food but also the beautiful landscape, geology, history and Basque traditions.
Like the best tapas recipes, this great Basque port is made of simple ingredients: one part English-influenced seaside town, one part cultural hotspot and a large part foodie destination. With so many interesting things to see, do and taste here, it’s tempting to linger longer than planned.
You can ride the 1912 funicular to the top of Monte Igeldo and boat along the quirky “rio misterioso” at its old-fashioned amusement park; stroll along one of three soft-sand beaches, admire modern art and Belle Époque architecture; get carried away in upmarket boutiques; or take in one of the numerous music, film and arts festivals (this is European Capital of Culture for 2016, no less).
And when you’re done with all that, pop into one of the hundreds of tapas bars and restaurants that populate the Old Town and Gros districts. Not only is this the birthplace of pintxos (an elaborate form of tapas), San Sebastián has the second-highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per square metre than anywhere in the world.
In San Sebastián, go it alone or take a guided tour of the pintxos bars – worth doing for the fact your guide will pick out the best from a bewildering number of bars and order the best dishes. Either way, be sure to try a Gilda, the bar snack – named after the Rita Hayworth film – that started the pintxo tradition in the 1940s.
Hidden downstairs in the fish market, Bar Azkena (Mercado de la Bretxa, 36 – only open during market hours) is a welcome surprise serving gluten-free marvels. Ingredients are sourced from the market to create fantastic trampantojo (culinary trompe l’oeil) – food that is not what it seems. For example, breaking open what looks like a delicate “oyster” reveals meaty morcilla (blood pudding) inside.
One of the most experimental bars is award-winning Zureto (Pescadería 10), a busy, white-walled food lab with remarkable pintxos piled high on the counter. Try the hoguera de bacalao: a tiny cod kebab smoked over a ceramic dish at your table; eat the fish, then down a test tube full of green dressing.
Both Borda-Berri (Fermín Calabeton, 12) and Cuchara de San Telmo (31 Agosto, 28) serve exquisite carrilleras de ternera (veal cheeks in red wine) – rich slow-cooked meat that falls apart at the lightest touch of a fork. Meanwhile, the famous cheesecake at La Viña (31 Agosto, 31) is nicely washed down with a large glass of treacly Pedro Ximenez sherry.
After all that, you’ll need to get walking to burn a few calories.
From San Sebastián, it’s a tough climb up to Monte Igeldo where there are glorious views over the Baia de la Concha. Follow the conch shells (or yellow and blue markers) past the busy surf beach at Zarautz to the pretty fishing village of Getaria, where you can feast on anchovies and local txakoli wine at the superb seafood restaurants overlooking the harbour. On the way, you pass fields filled with wildflowers, sleepy ermitas (monk’s hermitages), and vineyards that rest beside the Mar Cantábrico.
Just beyond Zumaia, spectacular striated cliff formations form a dramatic backdrop for 13 kilometres, while further on in Deba is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the preserved cave paintings at Ekain. If you’re lucky, your trek will coincide a festival at any one of the villages and towns en route, celebrating local culture, from a fisherman’s fiesta to wood-chopping competitions, but at any time of year you can watch the popular Basque sport pelota in medieval Markina-Xemein.
After Gernika – made famous by Picasso’s iconic painting of the destruction of the town during the Spanish Civil War – the camino climbs up over forested Monte Avril where you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of Bilbao, before descending into the clean suburbs and straight to a restaurant in the Old Town for a hearty meal to end the trek.
In Bilbao, 60 miles west of San Sebastian, traditional and modern collide, most visibly in the architecture but also in the local food. Flashy masterpieces – like Frank Gehry’s shiny Guggenheim Museum, which kick-started the city’s rejuvenation in 1997 from the industrial doldrums to a world-class cultural destination – rub shoulders with grand nineteenth-century boulevards and the medieval-style streets of the Old Town.
It’s the same with the food. There are historic institutions like La Viña de Ensanche, where they’ve been specializing in jamón for more than sixty years but there are now also modern options. Bilbao has its fair share of Michelin restaurants – eight and counting – and trendy pintxos bars abound, particularly around the Old Town’s lively grid of streets.
Try slick Berton (Calle Jardines, 11), famed for its octopus and prawn kebabs, or Zorginzulo (Plaza Nueva). Finish off at the “witches house”, a hole-in-the-wall place that looks like a mini nightclub yet serves award-winning traditional pintxos: the foie-stuffed squid is exceptional.
Macs Adventure organise hotels and bag transfers for your self-guided walking holiday along the camino. Apite is an excellent association of professional tour guides who operate in both San Sebastian and Bilbao, and San Sebastian Food runs cookery classes and tours.