2023 The Basque Country


October 2023:  Basque Country, France & Spain

An 12-day (11 night) tour taking in the vibrant southern French cities of Toulouse & Bordeaux, and the Basque Country on both the French and Spanish sides.  Staying in Pau, Biarritz, Pamplona and the Spanish Basque resort of San Sebastián, we will also be visiting Bilbao and Gernika.

Pre-tour Option: Barcelona

September 29 – October 2: Three nights B & B in the Hotel Rivoli Rambla, $531 per person in twin or double room, $846 for single. Besides the hotel, option includes train transportation from Barcelona to Toulouse.

Monday 2nd October TOUR BEGINS Meet in TOULOUSE (2 nights)

The thriving city of Toulouse, centre of France’s aerospace industry, is well served by flights.  The TGV train from Paris takes four-and-a-half hours: for example, the 11.10 a.m. train out of Paris (Gare Montparnasse) gets into Toulouse around 3.30 p.m.  

Check into the Mercure Toulouse Centre Wilson Capitol Hotel which is right next to the central Capitole square (2 nights here).  Toulouse is the capital of the Occitanie region, and one of the principal cities in south west France, with a metropolitan area population of around 700,000.  We will meet up for a drink at 5.30 p.m., and get an introduction to the tour from our Guide Dr Andrew Thomson.  Then we wander into the square for our evening meal together.

Tuesday 3rd Toulouse 

9.00 a.m. walking tour of the city by Dr T, with a coffee stop by the Garonne River, principal river of the south-west.  Toulouse is known as the Red City for the rich colour of its multiple brick buildings.  It is famous for its cuisine, its rich heritage of historic buildings, its university founded in 1229 (with 130,000 students – 15,000 of whom are foreign), and its aerospace industry: the first flight of Concorde was from here in 1969.  

After coffee we will visit the Jacobin monastery complex, an amazing collection of buildings from the 1200s which had fallen into complete disuse until restoration was started from the 1970s onwards.

In the afternoon we travel by coach out to the Airbus production plant for a tour of the new A350XWB production line and a visit to the attached aerospace museum, Aeroscopia, where we can step aboard a Concorde, Caravelle, A300 – Airbus’ first venture in the mid-70s – and the world’s largest passenger airliner the A380.

Evening meal together.

Wednesday 4th St Bertrand-de-Comminges, Pau, Bayonne (3 nights)

9.00 am departure.  Drive 1 hour 45 minutes to St Bertrand-de-Comminges, a pretty hilltop medieval village on the edge of the Pyrenees.  Our visit will include the Romanesque/Gothic cathedral – one of the prime stops on the southern pilgrimage route to St Jacques de Compostella.  Free time for lunch here, then drive 90 minutes west to the city of Pau, capital of the ancient region of Béarn, whose geographical situation as gateway to the Pyrenees made it famous as a grand 19th century resort.  Coffe stop, including a short stroll on the famous Boulevard des Pyrenees avenue with fine views (weather permitting) of the Pyrenean peaks to the south.  

Then another 90 minutes west to the city of Bayonne, famous for its ham (the French equivalent of Italian Parma or Spanish Serrano ham), and for giving its name to the bayonet.  Bayonne is an attractive ancient city on the River Adour, just six miles from the Atlantic coast.  Check-in to Mercure Bayonne Centre Le Grand Hotel for 3 nights.  Evening meal together.

Thursday 5th Biarritz & Bayonne

9.00 am departure.  Drive 20 minutes west to the Atlantic coastal resort of Biarritz, made famous by the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III (1851-70); it became a well-known casino resort – British King Edward VII and Winston Churchill were amongst its regulars.  City walking tour with Dr T, taking in its surfing beaches, fine seaside Belle Époque architecture, and a coffee pause.  Back to Bayonne for free time for lunch, before a visit to the Musée Basque, which is near the hotel.  Bayonne regards itself as the gateway to the French Basque Country, and the museum makes a good introduction. Finish mid-afternoon: welcome down-time, before our evening meal together.

Friday 6th French Basque Country 

9.00 a.m. departure.  Morning drive out into the French Basque Country, the beautiful foothills of the Atlantic end of the Pyrenees.  We will stop at the villages of Espelette, home of famous red peppers, and Ainhoa, where we have a tour of a classic Basque house – and a group lunch.  In the afternoon we drive down to the French Basque coast to visit the pretty seaside town of St Jean-de-Luz:  Dr T will take us to the mansion where the young Louis XIV stayed before his marriage in the church next day to Maria Teresa of Spain. Coffee by the port before heading back (40 minutes) to Biarritz.  

Free evening – enjoy your own evening meal in one of the many restaurants on offer in Bayonne.

Saturday 7th Across into Spain: Roncesvalles Pass & Pamplona (overnight)

9.00 am departure.  Drive one hour through the foothills of the Pyrenees to the town of St Jean-Pied-de-Port.  This is where four different pilgrimage routes across France converge before heading over the pass into Spain for the rest of the route to St Jacques de Compostella (in the far north-west corner of Spain).  It is the starting point for many present-day long-distance hikers, taking the old route (the Camino de Santiago).

Coffee here, before we drive one hour up to the Pass of Roncesvalles, the crossing point to Spain since ancient times, mentioned in the Song of Roland, a 9th-century epic about Charlemagne’s troops fighting off the ‘Moors’ (the Muslim rulers of Spain at the time).

We are now in the Spanish province of Navarre.  Group lunch in the small town of Auritz-Burguete – our introduction to the change in eating times when crossing over into Spain: in Spain, lunch starts at 2 p.m. – or 1.30 if you push it!  After lunch we drive one hour down onto the plains for our overnight stay in the Navarrese capital of Pamplona (population 200,000).  Famous for its crazy Running of the Bulls each July, its most famous visitor was Ernest Hemingway who wrote his first novel Fiesta: the Sun Also Rises following his visits here in his mid-twenties.  Dr T will take us on a walking tour to see the bull running sites, mementos of Hemingway, and the fine Museo de Navarra which illustrates the range and richness of Spanish history in this area.  

Group meal together this evening on the central Plaza de Castillo. Overnight in the Hotel Albret, Pamplona.

Sunday 8th Spanish Basque Country: Gernika to San Sebastián (3 nights)

9.00 am departure.  Drive 1 hour 45 minutes north into the Spanish Basque Country.  Our first stop is the town of Gernika (Guernica), famously bombed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War – we will visit the Gernika Peace Museum.  Then we head to the Spanish Basque coast, on the Bay of Biscay – the Costa Vacha.  Free time for lunch in the seafront town of Lekeitio.  Drive 1 hour 20 minutes along the coast to San Sebastián, largest city on the Basque coast (pop. 200,000), where we check in to Hotel San Sebastian Orly for 3 nights.  Evening meal together.

Monday 9th San Sebastián; afternoon free 

9.00 a.m. departure on a Dr T walking tour taking in the Parte Vieja (Old Town), and the newer town that grew up with 19th-century tourism – with fine Belle Epoque houses (late-Victorian/Edwardian era) – including the city’s finest beach, the Playa de La Cocha.  After coffee we will take in the Aquarium, built into the edge of the Citadel on the hill of Monte Urgell.  We finish with a group lunch at a fine seafood restaurant.  

Free afternoon and evening to explore this great city.

Tuesday 10th Bilbao

9.00 a.m. departure.  One hour drive to Bilbao, industrial hub of the Basque Country.  With a metropolitan area of around a million people, by the 1980s Bilbao had become a classic rust-belt city as its steel and port activities contracted.  The city was transformed by the opening in 1997 of the stunning Guggenheim Museum building designed by Frank Gehry – this brought a boom in tourism, helped by the spread of low-cost airlines such as Easy Jet putting weekends in Bilbao within reach of Brits, Germans, Scandinavians, etc.  Visit the Guggenheim Museum, then transfer by coach to the old town for free time for lunch and to explore its streets.  

One hour back to San Sebastián, arriving there around 4.30 p.m. – time back at the hotel, or option of a drop-off at the San Telmo Museum (closed yesterday because it was a Monday), San Sebastián’s top art and Basque history museum.  Group evening meal.

Wednesday 11th To BORDEAUX (1 night)

9.00 a.m. departure. Three hour drive north across the French border and up to Bordeaux, the regional capital for the Nouvelle Aquitaine region (metropolitan area population approx. 800,000). A long-established Atlantic port, Bordeaux grew wealthy through the slave trade; in the 19th-century it developed as the hub of a fine wine growing area. Dr T will give us a city walking tour, followed by check in to the Hotel de Normandie. Group evening meal. 

Thursday 12th Bordeaux Vineyard Tour & Lunch, TGV to Paris

9:30 checkout and departure  for visit and lunch at the Château Kirwan. 11:00 guided tour of the wine-making facilities with an English-speaking guide. 11.45am: Tasting of one vintage of Château Kirwan – Grand Cru Classé with 3 appetizers per person,  12.00: Lunch in the panoramic room  with the service of 3 wines. 14.00 return to Bordeaux train station and board 15:46 TGV train for Gare Montparnasse in Paris, arriving at 17:52. Short walk to Hotel Miramar Paris Montparnasse. Since lunch was included, dinner is on your own. Enjoy an evening iin a beautiful part of Paris.

Friday 13th Departure day

We will need to organize vans or taxis to get out to Paris CDG in time for flights to the USA.

Carrol Smith & Gail Jarratt T Barcelona, CDG 10/17
Greg & Judy Parks D Barcelona, CDG 10/13
Roxie Montesanto & Ron Jenkins T Barcelona, Bordeaux 10/13
Mike Chu & Ana Liu D Toulouse 10/2, Independent
Gretchen Quinn & Kelly Clark T GQ: Barcelona, KC: Basic Tour, CDG 10/13:
Frani Jenkins & Bart Lohnes D Barcelona, CDG 10/13
Rebecca Marti & Paddy Irwin T Barcelona, CDG 10/13
Jane & Tom Ritley D Barcelona, CDG 10/13
Melissa & Tom Mieras D Toulouse 10/1, CDG 10/13
Robert & Karen Moody D Toulouse 10/1, CDG 10/13
Xavier & Polly Pena D Barcelona, CDG 10/13
Cindy Abbott S Barcelona, CDG 10/13
Susan Cleveland  S ?Toulouse 10/2, CDG 10/13
Mel Cohen S Barcelona, CDG10/13
Bohn & Vivien Smith D Barcelona, CDG10/13