Travel: Basque in the glory of Donostia and Bilbao

Raise a black beret to the stylish cities of Donostia and Bilbao, where perfect pintxos are never far away

IT’S autumn and two grandmothers are singing together in Basque as they swim past. The water is 19 degrees and on the beach kayakers are readying themselves for a paddle round the Isla Santa Clara.

Five minutes earlier we left our room in the majestic 19th century Hotel de Londres, stopping off at reception to borrow towels, and were now beholding the beauty of San Sebastián from the sea. It is easy to see why in 1845 the visiting Queen Isabelle II decided to make it her chosen summer resort, a tradition followed by generations of Spanish royals.

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Located on two bays where three hills meet the Atlantic, San Sebastian – or Donostia as it is called in Euskera – is the perfect combination of nature and old-school class.

We follow our swim with a tour beginning with a funicular ride to the top of Monte Igueldo, home to a quaint amusement park and the viewpoint from where to get the defining vista of the city.

With a population of 186,000, Donostia is best explored on foot and it is easy to see the main sites in a day. Although its origins are in the 11th century San Sebastian monastery, all but a handful of buildings post-date the 31st August 1813, when retreating French soldiers razed the city.

Most areas were built from the late 19th century onwards, including Gros - home to the Zurriola beach, favoured by local surfers as well as the Kursaal convention centre and auditorium, which is set to be a focal point for Donostia’s City Of Culture activities in 2016.

We interrupt our sightseeing to take part in the national pastime – eating – with our guide Guillaume deftly chaperoning us around the old-town bars, each specialising in different types of pintxos. Although often translated as tapas, these delicate bites bear little relation to the overpriced saucers of garlic potatoes served in Spanish restaurants throughout the UK.

Our first stop is the Bar Txepetxa, which appears to have a carpet made of used napkins.

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“What is dirty, goes on the floor,” explains Guillaume, before disappearing to fetch some anchovies covered in blueberry jam, one of those surreal combinations that seem disgusting and taste amazing.

Other highlights on our pintxo tour include the cheesecake at La Viña and everything we try at Cuchara Telmo, which initially sparks our interest because it has appropriated the logo of American punk band Black Flag.

One of the great things about Donostia is that eating and history can all be enjoyed in the same area. A stroll along the harbour can incorporate a stop at the naval museum, a walk up Monte Urgul to stand at the feet of a giant Jesus statue, and a visit to the graves of the British soldiers who died intervening on behalf of young Isabelle II during the 1836 Carlist War. Round the other side is the excellent St Telmo History and Art Museum, a great place to get a crash course in Basque culture.

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For those preferring to combine their research with a sit-down meal, the Bodegón Alejandro is highly recommended. Its chef, Inaxio Valverde, is reviving old Basque recipes and actively promotes special varieties of local produce.

Moreover, as part of its quest to link past and present, the restaurant recently invited history buffs and sociologists to identify buildings in an enlarged picture of the city, painted by an occupying British soldier in 1836.

Bodegón Alejandro is one of those rare restaurants where each dish and drink prompts the type of excited anticipation experienced before a great gig. And after a curious opening act - a shot of “ham juice” – the hits keep coming all night. They include Basque cider, warm spider crab salad, Basque Rioja wine, pigeon with chicory risotto and an apple pie accompanied by a rosemary trifle and lemon thyme ice-cream.

Less than 40 years ago we might have walked out of the restaurant into a full scale street battle between pro-independence youths and the remnants of Franco’s Guardia Civil. But while the political situation had changed noticeably even before ETA laid down its arms in 2011, Donostia’s appearance has altered little in recent decades.

By contrast, Euskadi’s largest city, Bilbao, has undergone a huge transformation. In the early eighties, it still had enough industry to generate a giant smog cloud, visible long before arriving on the bus from San Sebastian. In those days, travellers were deposited on the edge of a shipyard on the banks of the Nervión river, which was so polluted it had a disconcerting yellow tint.

This area is now best known for the Guggenheim Museum, whose design, along with the awe-inspiring Richard Serra sculptures the building houses, alludes to Bilbao’s steel and shipbuilding past.

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Among the architectural highlights is the curious Artklass apartment block, which incorporates copies of facades of older Bilbao constructions, as well as dozens of sculptures, which add to the numerous fantastic statues throughout the city’s streets.

Across the Gran Via, financed by the influx of mining and banking money in the late 19th century, the Azkuna Zentroa embodies another approach to combining the old and new. The former wine store was initially considered as a prospective home for the Guggenheim. Instead, it got a complete makeover from French designer Philippe Starck and now houses a cinema, music venue, art gallery, terrace bar and a glass-bottomed public swimming pool on the roof.

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While Donostia’s Bodegon Alejandro provided excitement on the culinary front, Bilbao stirs a similar sensation both with its architecture and the amazing bars in its old town, known as Casco Viejo.

The elegantly modern Hotel Gran Bilbao is a good launch pad for discovering the delights of this neighbourhood, and the nighttime businesses appear to have withstood the increasingly gentrified daytime retail landscape of designer clothes and designer vegetables.

An incredible atmosphere prevails thanks to the casual friendliness of the Basques and the mixture of revellers of all ages. Moreover, as everywhere sells pintxos, a bar crawl is like sampling an extended taster menu.

The range of hostelries is impressive. One bar simultaneously appears to be a shrine to giant legs of ham and local football team Athletic Bilbao, which was co-founded by British shipyard workers. Meanwhile, across the road, two middle-aged men sing tenderly along to the tune of a Basque punk band being played over the stereo.

On the final day our quest for a Basque souvenir – a black beret – leads us to Sombreros Gorstiaga and its proprietor Emilio Perla, whose millinery business was established in 1857 and has survived the encroaching gentrification.

“This is how they wear it in Donosti,” explains Perla as he pulls the hat down to one side, before yanking the front forward over the forehead to demonstrate an alternative. “And this is how they wear it in Bilbao.”

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It could easily be a metaphor for these two amazing cities – both quintessentially Basque, stylish and unique.

• Donostia – San Sebastian: Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, rooms from €90 (; Bodegon Alejandro (; Guide Guillaume Gillet ( Ryanair flies from Edinburgh to Santander twice a week. Bilbao: Hotel Miro, rooms from €95 (; Hotel Gran Bilbao, rooms from €62 (; Architecture guide