After a Two-Year Wait, a Pilgrimage to Basque Country

General / People / Places / July 11, 2022

After a pandemic, a lockdown, a second pandemic, two vaccinations and two more boosters, we decided it was time for our long-delayed trip to Spain.

Via American Airlines – and a much-deserved pair of seats in business class.

Our itinerary in Basque Country had been meticulously arranged by Spain Unspoilt, the luxury travel agency specializing in custom tours of Portugal and Spain.

We wanted to bookend that trip with stops in Barcelona, though. Through friends, we located the Wittmore Hotel in the historic Gothic District of downtown. It’s staffed by eager-to-please natives of Barcelona who know their way around – even for a meal at 11 P.M.

After two days there (the high point: Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion) we boarded a train for San Sebastian, a city built around the sweetly curving beach known as La Concha. After the British and Portuguese stormed and burned the city in 1813, the natives immediately got to work rebuilding it. Their careful grid of streets rivals Paris in both architecture and urban planning.

It’s a remarkably squeaky-clean place – the city washes its streets down twice a day. It is, after all, the site of Jake Barnes’ two-day swim in the ocean, to cleanse and baptize himself after a week of the Fiesta de San Fermin in nearby Navarre, as described in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” 

And as Anthony Bourdain once noted, San Sebastian offers some of the finest food – he actually said “the best” – in all Europe. And we believe him to be right. Paired with local wines, the entire gastronomical experience was sublime.

From San Sebastian, we made a day trip to a sheep farm an hour away in the mountains, and watched an entire cheese-making process, from milk to final product. The afternoon was spent in a vineyard and winery located along the path of pilgrims on their way to Santiago as part of the St. James Pilgrimage Trail.

Hemingway – and his protagonist Barnes – made their own pilgrimage to the fiesta in Pamplona back in the early 1920s. One hundred years later, we pulled in just as it was getting started. Pamplona is a beautiful city, but was bracing for an onslaught of tourists when we arrived. Still, we were enlightened by a solemn experience in the Cathedral of Santa María de la Asunción, where Barnes prayed for his friends before the fiesta. It offers a classical façade out front, but inside lies one of the finest Gothic churches in all of Spain.

Biarritz in French Basque Country was our final day-trip destination out of San Sebastian. It’s a lovely town built for the aristocracy, and the site of 19th century palaces and hotels to die for. We eschewed a visit to the casino, but did stop into a mirror-lined dining room of an 1880 café for an iced coffee.

We followed all that up with a train ride back across the Spanish plains – watching wheat fields, olive trees, and vineyards glow in the dusk – and two more days in Barcelona.

Next up, our rooftop bartender suggested, should be an excursion to Morocco and Marrakesh. Our waiter, a Moroccan native, agreed.

And when we arrived home, waiting for us was a new book from Prestel Press. It’s called “Morocco: Destination of Style, Elegance and Design,” and it’s by Catherine Scotto, with photography by Nicolas Matheus.

So, barring any more pandemics, we know now what next year’s destination will be.

For more, go here.

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.




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