Mike and Renée and friends
tour the Pais Vasco
before cruising the Duoro River
March 2014


A trip to Portugal has been on our wish list for a long time. We had missed out on Portugal due to a pilot's strike on a previous cruise, and this time we decided to try small ship river cruising from Porto to Salamanca on the Duoro River. Before the cruise we spent a few days touring the Pais Vasco (Basque Country) in Spain and France. We had a great time!

THIS PAGE covers the pre-cruise trip to Bilbao and the Pais Vasco.

PAGE 2 covers the pre-cruise in Lisbon and the transfer to Porto by way of Fatima.

PAGE 3 covers the Duoro River cruise on Amavida.

Six of were traveling loosely together. We like to travel with friends, but always understand that we can each go our own ways when we like. Mike and Renée met Connie at SFO and flew to Chicago. Scott and Dolores flew from LAX and met us there. Then we waited for Pam, whose plane from Tampa was seriously delayed . She arrived with minutes to spare and we all boarded our Iberia Airlies flight to Madrid, and from there on to Bilbao in the Pais Vasco, the Basque Country. We arrived totally exhausted after 20 hours straight traveling. It was a pleasure to see our pre-booked taxis waiting for us. We went to the Jardines De Albia Hotel to rest up!

This time we found a wonderful guide, Patxo from Tours by Patxo Sans. We found him at Tours By Locals but you can also book directly with him. He had been extremely helpful in planning our sightseeing. This first day, we headed West from Bilbao. Our first stop was at the Museum of Altamira. The cave of Altamira is world famous for the wide array of prehistoric paintings it displays. The actual cave is closed to visitors for its protection but there is a fabulous museum of prehistory next door, and in the museum is a life size replica of the entrance to the cave and of the main chambers of paintings exactly as they were 25,000 years ago.

The "new cave" is extremely well done and gives an excellent idea of the extent and nature of the original cave art. It is extremely impressive to look up at the ceiling and see the ancient works.

Photography inside the new cave is forbidden today. However by great good luck I happened to turn over a rock and find this artifact, apparently created by the oldest known beta version of Photoshop.

Then, as we had requested, Patxo took us to a marketplace in one of the small fishing villages. Things such as this mobile butcher shop fascinated Renée.

Many shops were selling the salt cod which is a staple of the regional menu.

We stopped and bought some excellent sheep cheese, and macaroons and chocolate rolls to snack on.

We stopped for refreshments at a local bar. For the price of our cokes, coffees and lemonade we were offered some nice fried squid and local olives for accompaniment.

Something special was next. Patxo had arranged reservations for a tour of El Castillo cave. Here we can actually enter the prehistoric cave and see the original artwork, including the Panel of Hands. Again no photos are allowed in the cave so we posed outside.

The cave is very steep and difficult so some of us only managed to get a little way inside but even that is exciting. This is just the entrance to the cave, where photos are allowed. Those of us who are of limited mobility could go no further, but the ones who made the whole guided trip reported it was amazing.

From there Patxo took us to the small farming village of San Felices de Buelna to a wonderful restaurant El Regajal de la Cruz. Down a narrow back road next to a field of grazing bulls we found a jewel tucked away, decorated with beautiful antiques and works of art, including paintings by Rodrigo the chef. Here we were served a delightfully prepared meal. The steaks were thick, marbled and juicy, the local fish was beautifully cooked, and Renée exclaimed with joy over her lamb shanks with thyme, garlic and white wine.

But Mike got the real treat of the meal, impeccably fresh local hake cooked in squid ink. Patxo warned me that it was a black dish and it certainly is, but a wonderful taste and a magnificent texture. Every course of the meal was a small masterpiece in itself. The maitre d' Javier served impeccably and the chef Rodrigo came out often to check our satisfaction.

After the meal we got to tour the house, kitchen and gardens with Javier and Rodrigo. They were charming hosts and the entire lunch experience was wonderful. the ladies got singled out for our hosts's special attention. Patxo had worked hard designing our tour and found so many wonderful special experiences for us and this meal was one of them.

Our second day of touring was East of Bilbao into France to visit Lourdes. It is a long three hour drive from Bilbao but well worth it. Patxo kept up a running commentary covering everything from local farming to Spanish politics to one of his specialties, Wellington at the Battle of Vittoria.

We drove through scenic rolling hills and then into flat farmland dotted with little villages. Great views of the Pyrenees were to the south as we traveled.

Even after a three hour drive, we arrived at the shrine of Lourdes soon enough that this early in the season the site was not too crowded. This shrine is world famous for its healing waters. The size and beauty of the sanctuary are awe inspiring. We were able to take our time enjoying it. The site is very large and access can be a bit difficult for the mobility limited. It requires considerable walking up and down hills or climbing quite a few steps. Patxo did wonders in getting us as close as possible.

The grotto of the vision of Bernadette and the waters which are believed to be healing is very beautiful. Visiting it is a awe inspiring experience.

Renée filled several bottles with the spring water to bring home to our friends who number among the faithful.

Patxo had found another wonderful restaurant for our lunch. We drove a few blocks to Le Chalet de Biscaye which specializes in seafood but also served very good beef and veal. Here Connie and I rhapsodized over our sole meuniere. Perfectly cooked, flaky, in a beautiful sauce, it may have spoiled us for ever ordering sole again anyplace else because it can never be matched.

We returned by way of the beautiful city of San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay. It made for a much needed rest stop on the long drive.

The next morning was one of Patxo's specialties, a tour of the Rioja wine region to the south of Bibao. But at our request he had added something extra. We went to a famous local restaurant, La Vieja Bodega, for a hands on lesson in regional cooking. We were welcomed by the manager, Angel, who turned us over to the chef Alvaro. He is surely destined to be a TV cooking show star as he has looks, personality, and charismatic teaching style.

As the rest of our party concentrated on the cooking lesson. Mike checked out the wine selection and did the important supervisorial work.

We learned to make two kinds of garlic soup and a Spanish omelette. Flipping the omelette is quite an art but Alvaro demonstrated it with ease, and Renée then got to try her hand.

The main dish was paella. First, he showed us the difference between supermarket packaged chicken and fresh free range chicken. The fresh one is uglier, but the texture and flavor make all the difference.

Then he went through the preparation of the chicken, vegetables and rice and seasoning properly with saffron. After preparing the paella we left the chef to cook our meal and went on to another special experience.

Patxo had arranged for a private tour of the classic Bodega (winery) of Castillo de Sajazarra. This winery is actually headquartered in the building and lands of a medieval castle and is a beautiful setting. Everything in the wine production is thoroughly modern. Patxo's friend Jabier, the chief winemaker, was very accomodating and saw to it that we got a complete tour, including the special facility for making kosher wine.

After the tour we had a tasting of a full five wine flight, accompanied by good local bread and slices of cured pork loin. Jabier gave us more insight into wine tasting than most of us had before.

Time to go back to the restaurant where our cooking awaited us. We feasted on the garlic soup, the spanish omelette, and our magnificent paella, after which Alvaro offered us a special dish of braised oxtail he had prepared for us himself. The cooking lessons were a resounding success!

While we had our cooking lesson, Connie devoted her time to the Guggenheim Museum. We had driven around the outside of this amazing building, and Connie reported it was just as innovative and exciting inside. She fully enjoyed spending the whole day visiting it.

The next day came time to leave the Basque Country. Patxo picked us up at our hotel, but he dropped the ladies off at the Mercado de la Ribiera for one last experience. They were delighted by this huge market with a wide ranging array of meat, produce, dairy products and everything else edible. Then we said goodbye to our great guide and flew to Lisbon for the next stage of our journey.

THIS PAGE covers the pre-cruise trip to Bilbao and the Pais Vasco.

PAGE 2 covers the pre-cruise in Lisbon and the transfer to Porto by way of Fatima.

PAGE 3 covers the Duoro River cruise on Amavida.

We like to discuss our travels.

EMAIL US at basque@bully4.us

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