Biking, Hiking and Eating Through the Basque Region

The legendary food of San Sebastián—the center of Spain’s tapas tradition—is paired with exhilarating journeys in a new active culinary tour
Biking, Hiking and Eating Through the Basque Region

Photography Markel Redondo

Dozens of world-class chefs operate in the Basque region of northern Spain, but only one hangs bicycle wheels from the ceiling of his flagship restaurant. Iñigo Lavado trained with legend Alain Ducasse in Paris, and with Spain’s most famous chef, Ferran Adrià of elBulli, before returning home to open Singular in Irun, on the French-Spanish border, in 2005.

When they’re not cooking or eating, the Basques can generally be found outdoors—and Lavado is no exception. Along with developing new recipes for his seasonal menus and operating two fine dining spots, the 42-year-old finds time to ride nearly 200 miles a week in a region with easy access to two countries, a rugged coastline, scenic landscapes and classic climbs in the Pyrenees. The wheels are gifts from professional Spanish racers, while his late father’s old steel road bike hangs as a shrine by the entrance.

“It’s a memory of him and our riding together,” says Lavado, explaining that they had completed a multiday traverse of the mountains shortly before his father’s death. Singular is one of the nicest eateries anywhere with bike racks on its patio, and is very popular with local cycling groups for beers after riding. So, after a 30-mile journey pedaling over steep hills and working up an appetite, Lavado’s seven-course degustation menu was a fitting choice for my own post-ride meal.

Food and fitness are more popular than ever before, and as a result, “active culinary” trips are booming, as companies specializing in guided cycling, hiking, rafting and other adventures combine these pursuits with world-class food offerings. Among them is award-winning luxury tour operator Butterfield & Robinson, which curated delicious adventures in gourmet hotspots around the globe. One of these itineraries is set in and around San Sebastián, which is how my wife and I found ourselves biking to lunch—out of the city on one of its many dedicated paths, over high ground on lightly trafficked back roads, and on a scenic detour across the French border and up the coastline near Biarritz before doubling back into Spain to Singular.

“Five years ago, when Americans wanted to rent bikes and ride around, we thought that was so cool,” says Oskar Aguiriano Beitia, whose high-end shop in San Sebastián provides bikes for B&R. “Today that’s common—with all the gastronomy here, it’s exploded. The riding is great, but it’s only 40 percent about cycling. It’s also 40 percent food and 20 percent sights and insights into local culture.”

 

Mussels with tomato sauce at La Mejillonera in San Sebastián.

The Basque region claims to have the most Michelin stars per capita on Earth, and The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list includes four area kitchens—Arzak, Martín Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri and Mugaritz—the latter two in the top 10. But it also has mind-blowing casual food and a centuries-old artisanal heritage, with specialties including sheep’s milk cheeses, hard cider and seafood of every description, most notably the extraordinary anchovies. San Sebastián’s Old Town is a global epicenter of tapas; in Basque they are called pintxos, and dozens of pintxos bars line the narrow alleys, making for one of the world’s greatest food and wine crawls. Locals are so preoccupied with eating that the calendar is structured around it, and in addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, there’s “vermouth hour,” “gin tonic time” and “pintxos o’clock,” all playful-sounding but taken very seriously.

“Food is very important in Basque culture,” explains another Oskar, the driver who took us from the Bilbao airport to San Sebastián. Like just about every other person I spoke to, his family has a box into which they insert weekly contributions and loose change so that once a year (or more) they can splurge on a Michelin-starred meal. “Families gather around meals; everything happens at the table,” he says. “It’s very important to preserve local traditions.”

The hilly Basque Country—with its athletic culture, outdoorsy people, bustling coastal pedestrian promenade and easy access to trails—is like Boulder with better food and an ocean.

“You have the mountains with the sheep and the farms, and then you have the ocean, cold water, the best for fish,” says Oskar. “It’s always fresh fish at restaurants here, caught that day or the night before. But the mountains are also for hiking, trekking and cycling, the ocean is for rowing and surfing, and skiing is only two hours away. People in these parts are very active: In San Sebastián, everyone is cycling or running.”

Home to the first Tour de France stage ever held in Spain, San Sebastián’s Old Town also served as the start of the 1992 race. The event became the second of a record five consecutive victories for local hero Miguel Indurain, one of the Tour’s greatest champions (underscoring the region’s double obsession: his yellow jerseys hang in a tiny bar/restaurant in Villava, his small hometown in the Basque countryside).

Spanish drivers give a wide, polite berth to cyclists, making these roads a joy for bikers. The views are not bad, either—the nearly car-free route atop the spine of the coastal Pyrenees mountain range is one of the most beautiful in the world, with stunning views of the Bay of Biscay. It’s also the home of three-Michelin-star Akelaŕe, whose chef, Pedro Subijana, is one of several locals with their own televised cooking shows.

Culinary lessons, winery and farm tours and special tastings add a novel element to a biking or hiking tour, and since guests have worked up their appetites, they might as well eat the best. As a delicious example, a three-hour, 12-course dinner with wine pairings at the Michelin-starred Etxanobe in Bilbao was made even more enjoyable by having spent the morning cycling the coastline west of San Sebastián.

The northern route of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval religious pilgrimage trail and now Spain’s most famous hiking path, runs right through San Sebastián, making it possible to start beautiful coastal hikes from a downtown hotel. B&R chose the city’s finest, the historic Maria Cristina, with a perfect location straddling the city center and Old Town. The hotel has a celebrity clientele, and we ran into rock star Dave Matthews in the elevator. Matthews was on a food and hiking vacation with his family, and when we met him, they were leaving to take the Camino over a mountain ridge to Pasaia, a fishing village renowned for the seafood eateries lining its waterfront, the same itinerary we would tackle the next day.

“It’s about a three-hour hike, so we time it to arrive hungry for lunch,” says Philip Cooper, B&R’s local hiking expert and guidebook author. “The seafood is so famous people come all the way from Madrid to eat there.” The rollercoaster morning hike, with omnipresent views of the Bay of Biscay, built up the perfect appetite for four courses of different local shrimps, followed by octopus and grilled sea bream, all served overlooking the harbor.

“The Basques are obsessed with food, from the raw materials to traditions to the social act of eating,” says Cooper. “People have been coming here to eat forever. But recently I’ve seen a surge of visitors from English-speaking countries, and everyone seems to be so much more interested in being active. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Spain’s Holy Grail of Steak

Spain is not as famed for red meat as Argentina or the U.S., but it has a passionate steak culture, revolving around chuleton de buey, a very thick bone-in steak, served for two to three, cooked slowly over a live wood fire and featuring meat from older, more flavorful cattle.

Among the many Spanish temples of red meat, Casa Julián, in Tolosa, outside San Sebastián, has been the holy grail since it opened in 1954. The huge and gorgeous steaks are heavily salted and cooked in a fireplace set into one wall of the small and well-blackened dining room, and eating here is effortless. The fantastic chuleton for two is the only entrée on the menu, along with a handful of appetizers: thin-sliced Iberian ham, the best in the world; sliced Iberian lomo (cured pork loin); white asparagus with vinaigrette; green salad; and roasted red piquillo peppers. By far the hardest choice is a bottle from the lengthy wine list of reds from Rioja and Priorat.

Food & Fitness Operators Around the World
After a half-century as a leading operator of luxury biking and hiking tours worldwide, Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson shifted gears. Last year, the company rolled out a series of trips for food lovers who also love exercise. These are now offered in California’s Wine Country, Sicily, South Africa, Thailand, Peru and San Sebastián, where guests pedal and hike their way from meal to meal.
Web: butterfield.com

Backroads, America’s oldest and largest specialty active tour operator, has added a new category of biking and hiking trips dubbed Active Culinary Tours, including dinners at 27 Michelin-starred restaurants.
Web: backroads.com

Hiking specialist Country Walkers just added a Slovenia trip featuring a dinner personally hosted by Ana Roš, named The World’s Best Female Chef of 2017.
Web: countrywalkers.com

Boston-based DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co. is built entirely around wine- and food-focused trips, including one led by award-winning New York chef Seamus Mullen.
Web: duvine.com