We originally planned to visit Madrid or Barcelona this summer, but I knew the extreme heat would reduce parental patience and deactivate my Mixed Chicks leave-in conditioner invigorated curls. So we booked a trip to Basque Country, a region in northern Spain/southern France where the native language is Europe’s oldest, Euskara, and the seaside climate is mild.
Our first stop in Basque Country was Bilbao. We stayed in an Airbnb in Old Town (Casco Viejo) that was right next to a courtyard where the boys could disturb the peace and behave like they ain’t got no home training. We ate pinxtos—lil’ meat and bread finger foods—like locals and drank cheap Rioja wine. The tiny restaurants were kid-friendly. You go in, grab food and drink, and hop to the next bar to set a bad example for your offspring.
During our time in Bilbao, we walked more than 10 miles each day. It’s not that their public transportation isn’t efficient (it is), or that I want the kids to have strong, muscular calves like their mom; it’s that the best way to explore a city is by foot.
We walked across Zubizuri bridge, took a 30-minute metro ride/20 minute walk to Playa de Plentzia, took a cable car to Mount Artxanda, and so on. We also checked out the world-famous Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.
The kids weren’t initially too excited about going to a museum. (“Is it just one of those places where they have pictures in frames?”) But they had a good ol’ time. It’s spacious with large sculptures that you can climb. Well, at least no one told us not to. And there’s a large playground outside. Speaking of…Bilbao has playgrounds galore. They’re everywhere and strategically located near cantinas where you can have a drink while watching your kids.
After five days in Bilbao, we rented a diesel wagon and drove to San Sebastian. It’s a fancy seaside community that reminds me of La Jolla, California, but with more people wearing thongs and Speedos.
By “fancy” I don’t mean expensive. San Sebastian’s more costly than Bilbao, but a glass of beer and wine at a pintxos bar is still only $2 to $3. (Bar recommendation: The “secret bar” hidden near the top of Monte Urgull.)
The city is also known for its Michelin-starred restaurants. Apparently, it has the most per capita of any city in Europe. My kids are too ill-behaved for restaurants, let alone fancy restaurants, so we ate the aforementioned pintxos and cooked in our Airbnb. We also went into typical American mode and ate at McDonald’s. But guess what? A salad and beer is included with a value meal.
Three of our four days in San Sebastian were spent on the beach. Amber and the kids jumped waves. I have a sun allergy, so I sat with a towel draped over my head and monitored the scene to make sure no one harassed topless sunbathers.
It rained off and on during our final day in San Sebastian. We took the funicular up Monte Igeldo to visit what’s referred to as a “vintage” amusement park. The lone roller coaster does not have seat belts. It’s deceptively scary. And fun. We thought it was a baby ride, but it has a couple hills and you’re close enough to the cliff to feel like you might fall off. If visiting, be sure to check if your health insurance offers international coverage.
After San Sebastian, we were on our way to Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux’s not part of Basque Country, but you have to drive through French Basque Country to get there. The drive took about three hours…and $7.65 for a gallon of gas! We made a short-turned-long stop at Dune du Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe. It’s about 350 feet high and almost two miles long. I run three times a week. I go on long walks nearly every day to make sure the giant crackhead down the street isn’t tearing up the neighborhood. The hike up Dune du Pilat still tore my calves up. But once you’re up, there’s ocean on the other side.
Bordeaux was an interesting intro to France. As we walked along the quai and through Chartrons, I was surprised to learn that it’s #TeamSwirl certified. We saw a bunch of mixed race couples. Black folks, too. Much different from Northern Spain, where I saw few black folks in Bilbao or San Sebastian just out enjoying themselves. Most were street vendors selling soccer jerseys. And I got a number of odd stares from older Spanish men. Even Amber noticed. The stares didn’t feel threatening. I’d say curiosity with an edge, like, “What’s this Negro doing up in here with this white woman?”
Anyhow, in addition to Bordeaux’s wine, a highlight of our two-night visit was our Airbnb. At first I thought we got scammed. The outside of the building looked like an old bomb shelter. Stairs leading to the unit were filled with cracked tiles. It reminded me of Cuba. But the inside of the unit was modern, minimalist, and Ikea-ized. It even had an enclosed dining room with an open rooftop.
After Bordeaux, we drove back to Bilbao and caught a flight to Dublin, Ireland. The following morning we were on our way back to Ohio. The kids held up surprisingly well throughout the trip. At home, a typical day out of school goes like this: watch YouTube, eat cereal, fight, play with friends, fight, eat more cereal, play Xbox, and fight one more time before bed. And they did much of the same during our trip to Basque Country. But they also developed a love for travel and a curiosity of how others live.
I’ve asked the kids to choose the location for our next big trip. They’re deciding between Japan and Rwanda. Now I just gotta finish paying off this trip.