Al final, as they say in Spain. At last. Here we were back in Navarra, one of our favourite places on the planet. It was in September 2022, and our first time here in three years, thanks to Covid and other medical matters; and our first trip abroad in that time, bar one four-day dash to Dieppe earlier in the year.
We had a new base this time, the village of Zubieta (photo above), some 45 minutes inland from San Sebastian. It had recently featured in a series by Michael Portillo about the Pyrenees, depicted as a typical and lively Basque community, a place of good food and dancing. It wasn’t really like that, but it had the great merit of being just five kms from Ituren, home of the best restaurant in the world, for us at least.
More of that shortly, but it was at Ituren that we did see Basque dancers, as depicted in the photo. They are renowned as the Iturengo Joaldunak, the bell-wearers of Ituren. (Photo above). They wear a sheepskin, a pair of cow bells, and a conical hat, and they lollop (rather than dance) along the street making a loud rhythmic noise which was supposedly to ward off evil spirits.
We saw them on a feria day in Ituren, and that evening had the second of two meals at the fabulous Altxunea Erretegia The standout dish was a delicious turbot, cooked to perfection on the charcoal grill in the dining room. The proprietors, Edorta and Amaia, greeted us with embraces and kisses, and we promised to return, even as we had been wondering whether this would be our last trip to Spain.
We were making this a short trip, with just six days to savour, and did our best to revisit our past pleasures. It being likely too cold for sea swimming on the coast, I went to Lesaka municipal baths twice, swimming 20 lengths or so and then relaxing in the spray machines beside the pool.
We also returned to the pass above Etxalar, where I climbed Ebantelli (702ms) once more, finding a Basque flag flying on the summit, (photo above) and doing so in a two-hour round trip that left me immodestly impressed. We ate in the delightful French restaurant a few steps inside the border, which proved to be another worthwhile discovery.
We also made our familiar shopping trip to the giant Auchan supermarket outside San Sebastian, stocking up with the 48 bottles of wine, plus 24 fortified or sparkling, that we are now permitted by the generosity of Brexit Britain’s off-duty rules (as opposed to the limitless amounts allowed when we were in the EU.) It all requires meticulous arithmetic to ensure we do not stray over the limit – although when it came to it, no-one at the Customs post in Portsmouth asked or looked at how much we were carrying.
We had one day of random exploration, crossing into the valley south of Zubieta where we joined the Spanish Sunday lunch ritual at the village of Zaurritz – another knock-out five-course meal at the knockout price of 35 Euros each. We had taken to drinking the local cider at these meals, with its bitter edge, which proved the ideal pairing.
Then, all too soon, it was time to head for home. We crossed on the Brittany Ferries as usual, but felt disappointed at the new ships on the route, the Salamanca and Galicia. Although very right-on with their hydrogen-powered engines, they lacked the diverse delights of the Pont-Aven we had enjoyed in the past, and felt spartan by comparison (not that you would guess it from the photo of Leni, above).
No matter. It had been a delightful and restorative dip back into Basque and Spanish culture, leaving us wondering whether this really would be our final Spanish trip.