Cindy Stephan's Basque Region
Travel broadens the mind and feeds the soul. In Cindy Stephan’s case, it also feeds the body. For more than 25 years, Stephan, a Laguna Niguel resident, has enjoyed sharing unique food, wine and cooking travel experiences with the globetrotters who sign up for her culinary tours. “Traveling opens my mind to new ideas,” she says. “And when a place has natural beauty and a fantastic culinary scene like the Basque region does, I want everyone to learn about it and enjoy it too.” Her company, International Culinary Tours, specializes in food tours to Europe and Southeast Asia, but the Basque region is her favorite.
Why the Basque Region?
It’s an undiscovered region of Spain that has everything a traveler could wish for, including beautiful beaches and coastline, and is known as one of the premier gastronomic regions of Spain. Most people don’t realize it has 16 Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s in the north of Spain, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and France.
Time is Right
My favorite times to visit, without the crowds, are September to October, plus the last two weeks of May and early June. In late September, you may experience the grape harvest, and in October, the vineyards of the La Rioja region are multicolored with red, orange and yellow. In May, you may have some rain, but you also have spring flowers.
If you have an extra night and want to experience the wine country of La Rioja, travel by car and stay in the quaint village of Ezcaray at the Hotel Echaurren. This family-owned Relais & Chateaux property has three restaurants, including one with a Michelin star. Include a tour and lunch at the spectacular, modern Baigorri winery and a visit and tastings at Roda and Tondonia wineries in the town of Haro.
To experience what locals do in the evening, I would recommend a pintxos – the local word for small bar bites – walkabout in the old section of San Sebastian. The easiest way to travel from bar to bar tasting these small plates is to hire a private local guide. Two of my favorites are Bar Martinez and Bar Borda Berri.
Locals say that if you take something with you from San Sebastian, it’s as if you never really left – especially if it’s something made in the city. Two boutique Spanish designers that make it easy for travelers to find something special are Purificacion Garcia and Loreak Mendian. But there are also well-known Spanish stores, such as Zara and Massimo Dutti, if you’re looking for contemporary men’s and women’s fashions. For an authentic Basque beret, shop at Casa Ponsol on Narrika Kalea. Also buy local anchovies, Idiazabal sheep cheese and Iberico ham products at Zapore Jai.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a must-see as it has hastened the evolution of Bilbao from an industrial city to a city known for art and architecture. The museum is an incredible example of contemporary architecture by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry.
In San Sebastian, try either Akelare or Arzak, which never fail to impress with their creativity. Both have had two to three Michelin stars for more than 25 years, an incredible feat. Their chefs were the leaders of the new Basque cuisine movement. For a great meal at a fraction of the cost, I recommend Casa Urola in San Sebastian to experience Basque cuisine created by a young chef on the rise