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Basque Country's Wine and Golf

Jose Fernandes Basque in the Glory

Photo: Jose Fernandes

On my last night in Biarritz I met an old friend: a playwright, former surfer and now a boulevardier, his pastel jackets and shirts beautifully cut and his long, dramatic gray hair flowing in the sea breeze. We started in the Hôtel du Palais, then went to a brasserie called Les Colonnes. On the way a couple in a jeep stopped to talk with him, a look of surprise on their faces. "What was that about?" I asked him. "They were a little confused," he said. "That's the first time they ever saw me without a woman."

We ate in a small restaurant in the market area and then walked through town. Every establishment we passed looked so alive, so interesting. We had a beer in one, then in another, and then arrived at Bar Jean on Rue des Halles, a special place in Biarritz for devotees of the night. That might have been it, but the barman told us about a disco overlooking the Grande Plage, and we walked along the floodlit shoreline, passed the grand casino, and went up into a large room with a frenetic beat and throbbing lights. We' d started at 7 p.m. and parted twelve hours later. Still, it somehow wasn' t enough.

Beginning the final leg of my journey, I crossed back into Spain and picked up the coastal road from Zarautz, just west of San Sebastián, where I had one of the most memorable drives of my life. The sea invigorates and the cliffs inspire awe, the pastureland and the forest offer serenity, and the villages under the towering rocks seduce. I passed Guernica, site of the second civilian massacre by aerial bombardment ordered by General Franco, on April 26, 1937, an event Picasso later made into one of the century' s most shocking and eloquent images.

I played a round at Real Sociedad de Golf de Neguri, a club for the burghers and potentates of Bilbao that has an excellent course, its front nine open to the estuary and the sea beyond and its back nine cut through woodland. Afterward, I headed to San Sebastián and checked into its grandest hotel, the María Cristina, created with a belle époque sumptuousness by Charles Mewes, who also designed the Ritz in Paris. San Sebastián, I have often heard said, is Spain' s most stylish city. It lies along the River Urumea and wraps around the Concha Bay, the mouth of which is guarded by the Isla de Santa Clara and the peaks of Montes Urgull and Igueldo, with a long beach hooking along the bay shore and another to the east of the river mouth. It is the only city I have been to other than Chicago that presents itself so openly to its body of water. It is smart, cosmopolitan and, politics aside, appears to be supremely at ease with itself.

I went out that night with nine architects, one of whom had grown up with my wife in Lesaka. We went around to a number of bars in the old part of town, drinking wine and having pintxos (pronounced " PEEN-chohs" ), which is the Basque term for tapas—a major social activity in San Sebastián. I saw how the city' s two grand churches, more than a century apart in age, were placed half a kilometer away from each other at opposite ends of the long Calle Mayor, and I had it explained to me that the Basque men' s gastronomical societies did not begin in chauvinism but rather when fishermen, forced to wait for tides or better weather, ate together so as not to inconvenience their families with their odd hours. We ate varied and wonderful food and went for ice cream around midnight and then had a farewell drink. I thought that was the end, but on the way back to my hotel I came across a bar called Museo del Whisky, where in the thronged and steamy downstairs room a woman with feathers in her hair stood amid gyrating dancers and sang Spanish pop songs from the 1960s.

In the morning I played my final round of the trip, at Real Golf Club de San Sebastián, just southwest of the beautiful town of Fuenterrabía, which is laid out on a hill around a castle and overlooks a harbor. One day in 1966, José María Olazábal, the son and grandson of greenskeepers at the club, was born in a house just off the ninth green. He and his parents still live on the grounds of this enjoyable toboggan run of a course.

On the way back to Valencia I stopped in Lesaka to eat at a restaurant called the Casino. I had a red-bean stew and watched the elderly Josefina Sagardía—whose potato omelets are so renowned that Le Monde sent someone to write about them—talk to her parrots in the shaded garden in the back. When we came here in 2000, my wife was stunned to find how unchanged the village was. Six years later, the shop where she used to buy sweets had closed after a fire, but that was the only noticeable difference; the old woman who owned it still lived next door.


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