Embark on a vibrant and creative journey through the Spanish Basque Country with Mercedes. High-end gastronomy, art and the allure of Balenciaga await you. For the ultimate travel experience, trust the expertise of a specialist. Follow our journalist Michael Trajan as he explores the Basque Country in the latest Mercedes E-Class!
There’s no greater adventure than hitting the road to explore the world, as demonstrated by Thelma and Louise in 1991. The northern Spain and a car are all you need for road trips and journeys on the open road.
The Basque Country, an autonomous region of Spain, offers a mosaic of cultures and influences as sophisticated as it is exciting. As soon as you hit the road, you’ll be captivated by the subtle charm of the Basque spirit. In this land of contrasts, where pristine landscapes and ultramodern architectures harmoniously unfold, the locals cultivate both a broad-mindedness and a fierce pride in their identity. For those hungry for new experiences, it’s the perfect destination.
To grasp the region’s philosophy of “a little often,” indulge in an atxikiteo – a tour of Basque cafes and restaurants. Sip on small glasses of txakoli, the slightly effervescent white wine of the region, and nibble on pintxos – the Basque tapa that, according to locals, should be enjoyed in two bites while standing. If you start early, you’ll have time to visit rustic taverns or siderías (hard cider houses) offering traditional tortillas and heartier dishes like bacalao and grilled steak. Or take the modernist route and explore the city’s gastronomic scene, now rivaling those of San Sebastián and neighboring Rioja.
The journey begins in Bilbao, the largest city in the region. Long before Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao put the relatively unknown northern Basque city on the map with terms like “starchitecture” and “the Bilbao effect,” there was Bilbao itself – a 19th-century industrialized maritime pillar that fell on harder economic times in the latter half of the 20th century. What hasn’t changed since the founding of this port city in 1300, despite the bombings of the Spanish Civil War and the decline of shipbuilding, are its underrated hilly landscapes, superior sheep’s milk cheese, and sparkling wine. I recommend making your pilgrimage to the deconstructivist titanium monument of post-industrial optimism, then navigating the rest of your stay.
Indeed, the emblem of its innovative urbanism is none other than the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, designed by Frank Gehry in 1997. Its curved lines and titanium cladding make it one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. To fully appreciate it, I suggest observing it from the adjacent bridges over the Nervión River.
To remind you of the incredibly high-end architecture that followed Gehry, stroll along the winding Nervión River. From the Guggenheim, head south past Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri cantilevered bridge. Turn inland to the affluent Indautxu district and Philippe Starck’s Azkuna Zentroa 2010, a 1909 wine warehouse turned cultural center. Walk northwest toward Cesar Pelli’s Iberdrola glass tower, Álvaro Siza Vieira’s Bizkaia Aretoa, cross the river, and head west towards Zaha Hadid’s Zorrozaurre, a massive urban renewal project transforming a 148-acre peninsula into a live-work island complex.
The rebellious heartbeat of Bilbao’s underground culture echoes through the decades, mirroring the city’s resilience and ability to reinvent itself. It’s a cultural tapestry woven with threads of defiance, creativity, and a relentless pursuit of individuality. The underground scene acts as a counterpoint to the polished exterior, adding depth and character to Bilbao’s identity.
These gastronomic brotherhoods, which are not easily infiltrated, play a major role in preserving Basque heritage and culinary traditions. While waiting to be invited to a meeting, I take part in a shipbuilding workshop on the outskirts of the town. I also take the opportunity to visit Getaria, a port town with an unsuspected link to fashion. Cristóbal Balenciaga’s birthplace is home to a museum dedicated to the life and work of the legendary couturier. The museum’s collection includes a large number of Balenciaga’s archives and sketches, offering an intimate insight into his work. While I’m raving about a Balenciaga balloon jacket, I get a text reminding me why I’m here…
Guggenheim’s temporary exhibitions like “Picasso Sculptor. Material and Body,” offering a glimpse into Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) sculptural creativity.
Gego’s exhibition, “Measuring the Infinite,” bringing together sculptures, drawings, prints, artist books, and fabrics from Gertrude Goldschmidt (1912-1994), known as Gego, an iconic figure in Latin American art of the second half of the 20th century.
“The Matter of Time,” where you can experience and interact with time and space by traversing Richard Serra’s installation, titled “The Matter of Time” (1994-2005).
The permanent collection features works by Basque sculptors like Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida, along with large formats from American painters such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jeff Koons.
At Azurmendi, chef Eneko Atxa’s three-Michelin-starred temple of modern Basque cuisine, start with cider in the greenhouse before diving into main courses like quail egg tempura nestled in “noodles” with mushrooms.
Keep it OG
Lamb skewers are the must-order at the centenary Café Iruña, a neo-Mudejar design paradigm with rust and mustard tiles, stained glass transoms, and long marble counters.
Your Home Base
Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao offers stunning views of the Guggenheim. After a complete renovation last year, interiors and furnishings designed by Javier Mariscal and Starck bathtubs shine. This exceptional hotel with a glass exterior and a undulating central atrium draws inspiration from the Guggenheim, the city’s iconic architectural site just across the street. Spacious rooms boast a smart contemporary design and magnificent views of the museum. The staff is very helpful; black, white, and stainless steel dominate The Café.
The Basque countryside road unfolds before me. For an epicurean break, it’s time to explore in the Mercedes E-Class the Rioja Alavesa region, specifically the Marqués de Riscal estate, home to a vast vineyard, a restaurant, and nestled between them – a surprise – a hotel designed by Frank Gehry. The architect’s foray into hotel design has resulted in a true destination in the Rioja wine region. This architectural masterpiece stands boldly against the backdrop of vineyards. Expect a wine-focused complex, tours of an 1858 bodega, Michelin-starred restaurants, and wine-infused spa experiences. The estate also features a 1860 cellar housing over 130,000 bottles, some as old as its walls. The hotel is modern and gleaming amid the medieval walls of the town of Elciego.
The hotel’s exterior, modern in steel and titanium, is breathtaking. The entirely contemporary aesthetic is the product of the artistic genius of American architect Frank Gehry and his remarkable attention to detail. This impressive look continues inside, where you’ll find curved maple wood walls and leather decor. Each piece of furniture is tied to a designer, and you won’t be able to stop taking photos.
Easily accessible by car, with a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Bilbao Airport. Some of the world’s largest Rioja wine bodegas are a 30-minute (or less) drive away, but the truth is you’ll want to stay around the hotel and its impressive Ciudad de Vino (Wine City).
The hotel boasts two restaurants, one of which is Michelin-starred. Chef Francis Paniego, from the renowned Rioja Echaurren restaurant, consults on the menu at Restaurante Marqués de Riscal, serving a delightful blend of traditional cuisine (like his mother’s famous croqueta recipe) and modern dishes. On Sundays and Mondays, when the starred place is closed, you can dine at 1860 Tradición, offering an intimate yet refined menu (think truffle-topped meatball), accompanied by a spectacular wine list, of course. Breakfast is hearty and, weather permitting, can be enjoyed outside on the terrace or on your room’s balcony.
So, if like me, you relish in eating and drinking, the qualified designation of Rioja, the wine region encompassing La Rioja, Alava, and Navarre, is the ideal route to start. Here, the landscape and gastronomic richness go hand in hand, making living by traveling or traveling by living a pleasure. Or the graphic definition of hedonism.
If the first stop on the road to decide it was La Rioja, there are sights you can’t miss, starting with mountain villages and ending with their wineries. Without a doubt, Ezcaray is one of the most charming towns, even though many know it as a pass-through to Valdezcaray Station. But it’s worth stopping to stroll through its historic center of arcaded houses, Romanesque buildings, and small squares (such as Verdura or Kiosko).
The tour, of course, continues. Zaldierna, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and Sajazarra are other villages that resist the passage of time. The latter stands out for two things: the castle with its four towers and the hidden dragon – only the head and tail are visible – in one of the buildings on Sajazarra Square. Although finding this mythological creature is easier than finding the frog on the facade of the University of Salamanca, it’s still entertaining to try.
But if there’s one place you can’t bypass on this road trip, right in the heart of the Rioja Alta region, it’s Haro. They call it the capital of Rioja, and many wineries unfold in this area for the delight of winemakers, sommeliers, and tasters. Investing several days to hop from one winery to another is THE PLAN. You can learn more about an essential product for the Spain brand.
If you want to fill your stomach with homemade dishes and Rioja, you must book at several establishments with an artisanal oven for meat, fish, and bread; some even have a wood-burning fireplace. Most of them stand out for their family treatment.
With background music in the Mercedes E-Class featuring Dolby Atmos® technology, which I feel down to my toes thanks to the Burmester® 4D surround sound, it’s time to explore the wonders that the Designation holds passing through Navarre. For now, the “Sendroits des légumes” through the municipality of Calahorra and the charm of the Rioja Oriental region will turn the stop into a gastronomic marvel. And the wineries, this time in Mendavia and Azagra, once again become a source of entertainment and pleasure.
After reading this guide, you’ll probably want to put it into practice and toast to life. Here, the important thing is to exploit the potential of a region that was the first designation of origin in Spain and, therefore, a pioneer that counts more than 15,000 winemakers and 600 wineries as true protagonists.
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