Here is an article published in the Repsol Guide about what to do in Urola Kosta, now that more and more people are keen to venture out of the city of San Sebastián and explore the wonders of the Basque Coast.


Rain, the bringer of fun


Zumaia: 65 million years for all to see

It is difficult to fathom the sheer magnitude of the karstic landscapes and flysch that shape Urola Kosta, spanning 14 kilometres of stunning coastline. Even the lookout point on Itzurun beach, right at the end of the promenade in Zumaia, does not quite give you the full picture. “Wait until we get down onto the sand!” says Violeta Bandrés, a local guide from ‘Begi-Bistan’. And she is quite right. The low tide has fallen back to reveal a wave-cut platform sprinkled with ocean spray as the waves break powerfully just a stone’s throw away. Gazing upward, an almighty legion of rocky cliffs can be seen towering over the sea.

The flysch excursion can last from 45 minutes to 3 hours. It can be done by land or boat, weather permitting.

“Here we are in Urola Kosta, the geopark gem on the Basque coast, which stretches from Zumaia and Deba to Mutriku. The land here is made up of a great many geological formations that have been declared a UNESCO heritage site,” begins Ms Bandrés’s explanation as she holds up a folder full of pictures and drawings to help us fully grasp what we are seeing. “What makes this place so unique is that we can clearly see and analyse how the geological and fossil composition of the Earth has evolved over 60 million years: from the most ancient elements dating back 110 million years in Mutriku to the ‘youngest’ from about 50 million years ago in Zumaia.”

The chapel of San Telmo, dedicated to the patron saint of sailors, has stood atop the cliff since the 16th century.

It is important to understand that this whole region was bathed in a tropical sea, some 1000 metres deep, and all of the rocks that sedimented over millions of years emerged to the surface after the Alpine orogeny, hence these picturesque vertical formations. “The sea has taken care of the rest, eroding and sculpting the flyschs, carving out caves in the rock face or tipping them over to create wave-cut platforms and coastal benches,” like those in Itzurun or the nearby Sa Coneta and Algorri. Some time ago, it was discovered that Algorri housed a minute strip of iridium, an element that is very rarely found on the Earth’s crust but is plentiful in space. “Dating back 66 million years, it is thought to be a splash from a meteorite that landed in the Yucatan Peninsula and caused the fifth –and, so far, last– mass extinction which wiped out 80% of the species on Earth, including dinosaurs,” explains our guide, assuring us that the sliver they found is no thicker than a Euro coin.

There are two inter-world stratotypes in Zumaia that mark a sudden drop in the sea level and a change in magnetic polarity.

What can be seen quite plainly from the Algorri lookout point is a sensational sunset. And speaking of sensations, the chapel of San Telmo overlooking the plunging coastline has become quite the tourist attraction since it was featured a few years ago in the film Spanish Affair, when the main characters try to get married. Crowds of visitors have recently flocked here to see where a scene from Game of Thrones was shot: This is the beach where Tyrion Lannister welcomes John Snow as he disembarks in Dragonstone.

Rowing in the legendary ‘Kanpa’ and ‘Txiki’ boats

When visitors first come to Orio, there are two things that stand out: its steep streets to tone the calf muscles and hindquarters, and the fact that everything here seems to be yellow, from the local road signs to the flags on the balconies and the sport uniforms. “It is the colour of the local rowing team. If the Cantabrian coast is known to have a passion for boat racing, here it is a devotion. Even the children learn at school that ‘Go Orio!’ means yellow,” smiles Oihane Ucin, one of Ms Bandrés’ co-workers.

The first task before rowing is to heave the boat onto the water by hand, and it ways around 200 kg!

This morning, at the majestic Arraunetxe school –a 6000 m2 facility teaching the art of the oar on the banks of the river Oria–, there are four youngsters working hard on the rowing machines. With them is Olympic champion Ibon Urbieta, who at the age of 52 managed to hold onto the ergometer world record until quite recently. The establishment houses the boats of the Begi-Bistan team, with bateles for 4 people, trainerillas for 6 and trainerasfor 13. The most popular of the traineras are known as Kanpa and Txiki, which are famous for making history. “The former has won the most tournaments at the renowned Bandera de La Concha, which takes place on the first two Sundays in September,” explains Ms Ucin.

Many locals enjoy rowing, including school children who get to do it as an after-school activity.

There are plenty of groups of friends and companies who choose this sport for fun and team building – after all, it takes coordination as well as strength. For small groups who cannot fill a 13-seater boat, there is always the option of descending the river Orio in a kayak, which means an 8 km ride through stunning scenery from Aguinaga to the neighbouring town of Usúrbil. “It seems a miracle that this activity is currently possible thanks to the recovery project undertaken several years ago on the river, which was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe back in the 1960s,” our guide tells us.

Having won 32 Flags at La Concha (the first one in 1901), Orio’s male trainera is the greatest prize winner in the Bay of Biscay.

Sea bream à la Orio

After an action packed morning, it is time to recharge our batteries in Urola Kosta. Here, like everywhere in Guipouzcoa, the grill is the star of the show. The fire starts blazing early in Iñaki Zendoia’s kitchen at ‘Katxiña’, a restaurant-come-winery surrounded by 20 acres of txacolí vineyards with stunning views over the river and town of Orio. Today, we are welcomed by an almighty downpour, so sitting out with a drink to take in the scenery might not seem appealing. However, the glowing warmth of a fire in the courtyard –with crackling logs chopped by his wood cutting champion brother-in-law– encourages a few guests to enjoy their first glass outdoors under the shelter of an umbrella.

Orio is known as the “cathedral” of sea bream. In July, the main square (or Plaza Mayor) houses the sea bream grill festival.

“We were born on the grill, so to speak,” admits Izaskun, the chef’s sister. Their parents, José Miguel and Pilar, spent 40 years running a grill in the upper part of Orio. In 2014, the next generation decided to make a business out of the winery on the family estate and “produce Dad’s txakoli” from an autochthonous variety of grape named Hondarrabi Zuri. The steel barrels where the wine is aged and acquires its special txinparta (fizz) are visible from the restaurant, which is packed full for a Wednesday in early December.

The speciality here is still the traditional Orio-style sea bream, finished with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and chili, “although each house has its personal touch as a well-kept secret,” says the grill master. As well as sea bream, you will see sole, monkfish, turbot and alfonsin (with its typical red crest) from the fish markets of Pasaje de San Juan and Getaria being dished out at the tables, not to mention the Pelaio-style grilled txipirones (baby cuttlefish) served whole with onion, the begi haundi (a typical San Sebastian squid) and their seasonal artichokes, wild mushrooms and baby beans.

Iñaki Zendoia has masterfully taken over the grill from his father José Miguel.

Balenciaga and Elcano compete for tourists

Grilling is also quite the speciality in Getaria. This traditional fishing village has succeeded over the bast few decades in combining gastronomy with tourist attractions, which has turned its port and its rotisseries into a place of pilgrimage. Add the fact that this is the birthplace of two illustrious prodigal sons and you have the perfect plan. Designer Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre was born here in 1985, “and as a child he gained the favour and patronage of the Marquises of Casa Torre after designing an outfit for the Marchioness to wear to church,” explains Xabier Fernández, the manager of the Balenciaga Museum. The museum opened in 2011 and showcases 1,200 items donated by customers and heirs, including the unconditional Queen Fabiola of Belgium, “which are displayed on a rotational basis along with other exhibitions relating to the world of fashion.”

There is also an Elkano escape room in Getaria that has proven very popular among escapist fans.

This is because the other local celebrity was Juan Sebastián Elcano, the first man to sail around the world on an expedition with five vessels that set off from Seville in August 1519. According to Mr Fernández, “the five hundred anniversary since his amazing feat has brought plenty of visitors to the area.” “The voice of the sea winds carries the unknown soul of Elkano. The cheating voices of the sea winds…”. This is the only clue sent to the group of adventurers who have knocked at the door to the escape room organised by ‘eXperientziak’ in the heart of the town. “That is all you can reveal,” warns Olaya Landa, the joint owner of the business. The experience highlights the values of team work, intuition and level-headedness. “It can even spark tension when the players know each other too well,” she admits.

A hotel with a gourmet corner

Among the many accommodation options visitors will find in Getaria,  ‘Hotel San Prudentzio’ has become one of the most popular lately. Sisters Nerea and Ainhoa Lazkano took the reins of the family business six years ago. “With our grandparents and parents, this was a very popular place to eat on the outskirts of Getaria. Now, we have turned it into a hotel with a warm family atmosphere,” says the youngest of the two.

Surrounded by txacolí vineyards, the ‘San Prudentzio’ Hotel has its very own gourmet corner for guests. Picture provided.

All ten bedrooms in the establishment afford views over the vineyards txakoli or the Cantabrian Sea, as well as the outline of the nearby Mouse (the mount of San Antón) and the more distant Mount Igueldo in San Sebastián. In winter months, the terrace with its views takes second place to the fire-lit dining hall. And there you will find the buffet-style gourmet corner, offering guests hot or cold meals made with the most local produce, such as bonito tuna, antxoas and pilchards from Getaria, ham from the pigs in Maskarada, home-grown tomatoes and txakoli made with their own grapes.