In Search of Andraka in Spain’s Beautiful Basque Country

One of the reasons for my recent trip to Spain, as I shared in an earlier post, was to see the ancestral lands of my Mom’s family in the Basque region of Spain (Euskal Herria in Basque).  My Mom’s last name (Andraca, in Spanish) is the name of a home that existed a long time ago where the family originated near Bilbao, Spain in the province called Bizkaia (or Vizcaya or Biscay).  We wanted to see the place but it was only one of many places we had in our roughly-sketched family tree (which also included the neighboring province of Guipuzkoa).  So, since we were not going to just one place, we decided to take a full day and just drive around these two provinces and take in the landscape of Spain’s Basque country…

All the towns in our Basque country…

Our family tree shows a lot of ancestors coming from the provinces of Bizkaia and Guipuzkoa, two of the Basque region’s provinces.  Many of their last names are the names of villages or towns spread about these provinces.  And, when not, we know which towns they came from.  Places like Bergara, Gorliz, Lekeitio, Ondarroa, Azpeitia, Azkoitia, and others feature prominently in our family history.  We definitely would not be able to hit each and everyone one of these due to time limitations and would only stop at a few even if we passed by them.  But it is not like we would have discovered unknown cousins (first, second or even fourth) – our ancestor who came from Spain to Cuba got to Cuba in 1800 so too far in the past for any real connection with living descendants of his own ancestors…

Zarautz – Beach town

We left San Sebastian, our base for a couple of days, and headed west following more or less the coast.  We had no set plans of where we would stop along the way.  One of the first places we passed caught our eye and we decided to see if we could find parking and get out and walk around some.  This place was Zarautz, a beach town of about 20,000 15km (9 mi) west of San Sebastian, that felt like a very livable place, not just a beach town for visitors.  (The town connects to San Sebastian and Bilbao by train so even if one is not driving there, one can get there on public transport.)

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

The beach

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West end of the beach

The beach was long (I read it is about 2.8 km long; the longest in that coastline) and we could certainly see how it would be an appealing tourist destination.  The beach was not packed and it may be that it was likely already the end of the season (but finding street parking was impossible still!).  We sat in the plaza above the underground parking deck and looked out at the beach and ocean.  My Mom, uncle and I decided to walk down to get our feet wet by the waters of the Bay of Biscay as maybe our ancestors did somewhere up or down that coast many centuries ago…

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Mom and uncle walking to the water!

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16th century Palacio de Narros from the beach

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Conveniently located to wash one’s feet after stepping on the beach

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My sis and uncle enjoying the view

More Basque coastline

We both reluctantly and eagerly got back in the car.  Zarautz was worth staying but we had a key objective for the day ahead…  We drove from Zarautz past Getaria (another great-looking coastal town) and, somewhere around Zumaia, turned inland on the road.  It was disappointing to leave the beautiful coast because, as you can see, it was beautiful.

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Yet another great beach west of Zarautz by Getaria

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Nice curvy road bordering hills that face the water

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Basque coastline beauty!

A phenomenal Basque lunch

We kept driving and after a failed attempt to reach Lekeitio (there was some festival that weekend with all roads leading to it blocked of – very disappointing as it was high on our list), we went inland.  And hunger was hitting… During a routine bathroom stop at a local bar in the town of Ereño (between Lekeitio and Bermeo but inland), my Mom came and told us the place had a restaurant and it had customers (my cardinal rule is to never go into an empty restaurant in an unknown town…).  The place was cozy, on the ground level of a 2- or 3-story building (can’t recall).  It was Restaurante Jatetxea Atxoste.

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The place we had lunch at in Ereño

It was SUPERB.  The thing I liked the most is the one I did not take a picture of:  the fresh cod sauteed with spinach.  It would be the single most delicious dish I had in the entire trip!  But captured for posterity were the red beans and the rice pudding which were excellent.

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

Rice pudding dessert

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The red beans – I could just have ate them all!

I always prefer the small mom-and-pop places where, though service may not be stellar, the food typically is.  Great find, Mom!!

Driving through history:  Guernica

After lunch, on our way to Andraka, we made it a point to drive through the town of Guernica which suffered a massive air attack during Spain’s Civil War in 1937 by Nazi Germany, a bombing that lasted about 2 hours.  Picasso captured the pain and horror of that moment in history in a famous painting named after the town.  There is a mural in the town center matching the painting.  We did not plan to get out of the car but I did snap a quick side photo of the mural…

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The mural

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso

The main event:  Andraka

Andraka is not a town by my definition; not even a village, just some homes laying around (a few under construction) and a restaurant right by the road.  But it has the typical European signs announcing the ‘town’ and letting you know when are leaving the ‘town.’  If there was an original home from over 200 years ago that could have been our ancestros’, we did not see it; and that really didn’t matter that much to us.  After a quick walk around an old, abandoned house and snapping a couple of pix by signs that said “Andraka,” we got back in the car and continued on our drive, satisfied we had gotten to that area of Bizkaia where the last name Andraca originated for our family…

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How the area of Andraka looks

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The old home taken over by vegetation

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My uncle

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Mom, sister and yours truly

A truly unique and fun experience to have shared with loved ones!


Drive the amazing Basque coast!  Pin this to your travel board!

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Biarritz: The Pearl of France’s Basque Country

There are places that are semi-legendary in your mind.  And when you visit them, they live up to that vision.  And sometimes they don’t.  Biarritz, France is not a place I knew a lot about but I did have an impression that it was for the rich and famous.  Its location, in the southwestern corner of France abutting Spain (just 22 miles from the border!) facing the Bay of Biscay, seems ideal with warmer climate and perhaps not the throngs of partying tourists that the Mediterranean coasts can attract.  It sits in the Basque region of France and is home to 20-30-odd thousand residents.

So, as we went from San Sebastian, Spain to Lourdes, France this past September, we decided to stop along the way.  It was not a long drive but we wanted an easygoing day.  As I looked at the map, I realized there were several neat towns along the coast and inland (like Bayonne).  As I talked to my Mom, she shared how she, when she was a girl, would read a novel with her best friend that took place partly in Biarritz and how they always daydreamed about Biarritz.  That settled it for me:  Biarritz would be our stop!

Our visit was short.  A walk around the shopping district after a meandering drive into town. Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

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Saint-Eugenie Church

 

Biarritz’ place on the coast certainly offers beautiful vistas and spots to take in the views – or get on a boat and see the city from the water (which I wish we could have done!).Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

And then, we just picked a place on the beach (the ‘Grande Plage’ – or great beach) to have lunch -not because it had the look of a great establishment, but simply because of the view out and the fact that we would sit in open air enjoying the great weather that day.

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We ate at a cafe off to the right

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The Grande Plage (big beach) of Biarritz

Biarritz most distinctive or massively impressive structure is the Hotel du Palais (of which, unfortunately, I took the picture split by a lighting pole…) built in the mid-1800s by the wife of Napoleon III.

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Hotel du Palais – and the pole in the middle of the photo

So, I can’t share much about Biarritz, its history or all the ins-and-outs of what to do and see.  But, if like my Mom, you have wondered what Biarritz looks like, I hope this post checks that off your list!

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With my beautiful mom and sister!!

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My sister!!!

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The teenager in the Biarritz of her dreams! It was about my mom that day!!

San Sebastian, Spain: Of Charm and Food

As I mentioned in my earlier post, one of the goals of our trip to Spain was to visit the lands from which some of my Mom’s ancestors came to Cuba.  San Sebastian (or “Donostia” in the local language), in Spain’s Basque country, was perfectly situated to serve as our base to explore before heading out to Lourdes, France.  But San Sebastian itself was a destination!

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San Sebastian!

San Sebastian:  charm by the sea

I had always heard about the great cuisine coming out of San Sebastian so it became a key stop at the onset of our trip.  We would stay there two nights, with the day in between being our day to explore the towns and hamlets from which the ancestors came.  That gave us one full afternoon to explore the heart of San Sebastian – and two nights!

It seems it was peak vacation time in early September, which was a bit unexpected, so there were no good hotels close to the famous La Concha Beach or near the Old Town.  However, I was not disappointed with the hotel I found, not even a mile from the old town:  Hotel Astoria.  The hotel’s theme revolved around famous movie actors and directors and had a very modern design.  It was located on a quiet street and had both a full restaurant and a cafe in the lobby.  We did not try the restaurant but did enjoy the cafe for our breakfasts.

Luckily not only were we close to Old Town but it was not hard to find (underground) parking right by the Hotel Maria Cristina or across the river by the Kursaal Center.   Old Town (or Casco Viejo) is the second oldest neighborhood in the city and it is full of bars and eateries – clearly the teeming social center of this great city!

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The Kursaal Center (has underground public parking)

When we first visited Old Town, we headed first to the waterfront to check out the beautiful waters of the Mar Cantábrico, or Bay of Biscay after a quick snack and trying a “carajillo,” coffee with liquor (rum, brandy or anything of the sort!).

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Beautiful waters surround San Sebastian

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Must be some good fish in those waters!

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Carajillo

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La Concha Beach in the background

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Bikes a great way to move around

We saw some neat churches (San Vicente, which was closed, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, which charged for entrance so we skipped it).  Lots of neat structures and charming narrow streets all around.

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Narrow street in Old Town

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Entering Old Town from the river

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Buildings in Old Town

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Lots of character in this balcony

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Streets of Old Town

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At Plaza Constitucion

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Neat sights – walking “aimlessly” is the best way to explore!

On to the food in San Sebastian: pintxos

Back in Old Town, we meandered through narrow streets.  Kalea (Calle) 31 de Agosto had many eateries offering the famous “pintxos” (like tapas).  We tried pintxos here and there as we kept exploring this part of town which is full of character.  We made it to the other side from which we had a glimpse of La Concha Beach and the rest of the same-named bay.

A distinguished gent (my uncle!) waiting to order while a distinguished lady (my sister) awaits

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Pintxos

A phenomenal meal in San Sebastian can be heavenly

And, as we meandered through the old town, we ran into the restaurant we had made reservations for for the following evening.  As I researched San Sebastian, one of my areas of focus was food.  I wanted to find one of the restaurants that make San Sebastian’s cuisine so well regarded.  After looking at a few places, I settled on Bodegón Alejandro.  Coincidentally, my uncle had done research and had read an article on the newspaper that also mentioned Bodegón Alejandro.  So, that was the place and, luckily, making reservations was super easy:  their website allowed for making them online!

Part of Bodegón Alejandro’s menu

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Delicious croquetas were one of our starters

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Dessert – phenomenal chocolate soufflé

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Another dessert – torrija with ice cream

The charm of San Sebastian did not only reside in its waters or in the old town – it was a beautiful and livable town all around.  I would love to spend a few months residing there and enjoying this northern Basque city – and maybe with my wonderful travel companions!

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Sister, Mom, and Uncle!


If you are planning a trip to Spain, pin this to your travel board!

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Exploring France and Spain around the Pyrenees

My recent trip to Europe was centered on exploring a bit of Spain and France around the Pyrenees which serve as a natural border between these two countries.  I wanted to write this introductory post to the trip’s writings as the trip combined a few different objectives that neatly came together into a one-week trip.

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There is only one way to travel, especially with loved ones!

My mother and sister are both named after the Virgin of Lourdes who appeared to a peasant girl named Bernadette in a grotto near the town of Lourdes in the 1850s.  It has always been a dream to go visit this place that was so prominent in their lives given the tie to their name.  But, we also wanted to go to Lourdes as a religious pilgrimage to such a special place for us Catholics.  We wanted to go in thanksgiving for good health after illnesses suffered, and as prayer for continued health.

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Two Lourdes!

Another personal goal for me and everyone in the larger family is to visit ancestral lands in the Basque country of Spain.  These are not terribly far from Lourdes (about 3 hrs drive) so I saw the opportunity to connect these two destinations in one trip.  The specific towns were our ancestors came from (they left Spain for Cuba at the turn of the century near the year 1800) lay along the coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao, and inland from there with some ancestors coming from just west of modern Bilbao.  Ii had also always wanted to visit San Sebastian as I heard it had some of the most phenomenal cuisine in Europe.  Bilbao is an hour from San Sebastian, give or take, so flying into the larger airport at Bilbao made the most sense.  There we would rent a car that would take us around the Basque country and later to Lourdes.

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At the Bilbao airport headed to get our car

While getting to Lourdes from San Sebastian would take so little time, we decided to be sure to stop along the way or drive through small French towns that are easily accessible on the route.  We drove through charming Saint-Jean-de-Luz, stopped for a walk and lunch at Biarritz, and drove through impressive Bayonne (wish we had had more time to stay there and explore!).  Biarritz was a place my mom and her best friend growing up had always dreamed of so that was a bonus!

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At the edge of the pedestrian streets of Bayonne’s city center

After Lourdes, the most logical end points if we were not going to backtrack, were Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain.  Well, that was an easy decision.  I had been to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics for three days but, really, was too focused on the Games to get to know the city (plus, I was sure it had changed!).  My mom has been to Barcelona decades ago but my sister had never been.  So Barcelona became the end point for the trip which, very conveniently, allowed me to drive through Andorra, the last of the tiny European countries for me to visit…  We split the drive from Lourdes to Barcelona by staying overnight in Andorra (which may have been a mistake, but who knew – stay tuned for that post!).  This allowed us, on the way to Barcelona, to stop at Montserrat to visit the monastery nested atop a mountain and accessible by cable car or train.

crossword puzzle

I always look forward to crossword puzzles on long flights

This plan sounded so good that my mom’s only brother opted to join us in this adventure.  Next came resolving the plane tickets to get there.  My uncle was headed there from Philly so he worked his itinerary separately.  My mom and sister, coming from Tampa, would naturally fly through Atlanta.  I had saved many miles with the local monster airline hoping to someday to do a fun trip with family and decided to go all in.  I lucked out in finding three seats in first class from Atlanta to Bilbao via Paris, and from Barcelona back to Atlanta on dates that would work for everyone.  My mom and sister got to do first class all the way from Tampa and back so no one was unhappy with the travel comforts!

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The four travelers awaiting the train in Montserrat

Once in Bilbao, we picked up a car.  I had under-estimated the trunk capacity and, though the four of us did very well in bringing a small roller bag each, I needed to upgrade the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the next level up was not available which meant I had to upgrade two levels with no goodwill from the rental company (I will name it for its lack of spirit:  Sixt).  This cost me dearly but, considering the plane tickets were free, and that this was a special trip, well, no regrets and all the way onward-and-forward!  The plan was to return the vehicle when we arrived in Barcelona as we figured we did not need there and I figured I would be tired of driving a large vehicle in Europe (it was a BMW X1).  I was glad to get rid of it, much as it was a great vehicle to drive!

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Our wheels in Europe

 

In terms of accommodations, we hoteled it everywhere except in Barcelona where we rented an apartment a block from Las Ramblas – prime location!  The owner, Carlos, was phenomenal and the apartment was spacious, comfortable and as-advertised (if anyone needs to find this apartment, just reach out and I can share).

So in the end this was the itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrival in Bilbao and head to San Sebastian
  • Day 2:  Drive the Basque countryside and visit ancestral lands anchored on the town of Andraka
  • Day 3:  Depart San Sebastian and head to Lourdes with a stop in Biarritz
  • Day 4:  Spend the day in Lourdes
  • Day 5:  Drive through the beautiful Pyrenees and explore Andorra la Vella in the afternoon/evening
  • Day 6:  Head to Barcelona with a stop in Montserrat, Spain
  • Day 7:  Explore Barcelona
  • Day 8:  Explore Barcelona some more
  • Day 9:  Head home!

I have to say that we packed a lot into 8 days but it was well worth it.  We had a mixture of lots of walking, lots of enjoying the food and resting, and just happy to be together going to all these special places.  Hope we get to do it again – salud!

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Salud!


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