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Saturday, 27 December 2014

Woof guide to the Basque country

THE beautiful Basque region, with its dramatic coastline, surfing beaches and fishing villages has something for everyone – even dogs, reports JO DAVIES

PASSPORT: check! Vaccinations: check! With the dog prepped, we were ready for our first “family” holiday abroad.

Having acquired both a dog and campervan within a year, there was no question Meg would join us for our road trip to Spain.

So with the necessary paperwork completed we set sail from Portsmouth on the Cap Finistere bound for Bilbao.

Appropriately we were heading to a city which boasts a gigantic horticultural puppy as one of its most famous landmarks.

But the fun began at the ferry terminal with the announcement for all passengers with pets to collect their dogs.

Like a scene from a Disney movie every creed and colour was represented, with some of the four-legged passengers becoming acquaintances as we shared the dog-friendly areas during the 24-hour passage.

They weren’t the only mammals we encountered.

ORCA wildlife officers were on deck to point out common dolphins and even the rounded dorsal fin of a Pilot whale as we crossed the Bay of Biscay.

Back on terra firma, we arrived to our own welcoming party.

My brother Sam and his girlfriend Caragh, together with their Great Dane, Ice, had travelled up from Portugal to meet us before we set off in convoy.

What we discovered together during our 10 day break surpassed all expectations.

For decades Brits have enjoyed the delights of Spain, saturating the holiday hotspots of the southern sunshine resorts. The Basque Coast is completely different and not just because of its unique culture, customs and language.

Standing on the clifftops the first morning, the port of Bilboa barely visible in the distance and the Cantabrian Sea glistening below, the sheer scale of this mountainous region became awesomely apparent.

The cliffs of the Basque Country are home to the Tour of Spain and would test the capabilities of our VolksWagen campers as we negotiated the coastal route.

In Gorliz highlights included the rugged coastal walk, with views of Villano Island on the horizon, and our first encounter with the Basque ponies, called Pottok, which are left to roam wild.

The road trip, for us, began with an ear-popping journey over the coastal mountains to Mundaka.

The views became more jaw-dropping with every turn, but the real surprise was the destination itself, which received a cursory paragraph in our guide book – such is the diversity of this region. This UNESCO site is also ideal for surfing and watersports.

The main beach became a dog-free zone after 10am which gave Meg and Ice plenty of time for a post-breakfast stretch and dip.

From our campsite above the historic fishing village the beach was a 10-minute saunter downhill and virtually deserted before lunchtime.

However, respecting the signs we headed off at 10am to discover our own private cove, where the dogs and us could lounge all day undisturbed.

Back at our vantage point we could watch the surfers, paddleboarders and kayakers from the comfort of our campsite.

The journey to San Sebastian gave us a better understanding of the vastness of the Basque mountain range. Here vineyards occupied the terraces to the rocky coves below and domestic ponies and foals grazed by the roadside.

After 20-minutes of a winding, single track road, just as we’d convinced ourselves we’d taken a wrong turn, we arrived at Camping Igeldo, just 5km from San Sebastian, in a beautiful spot between the mountains and the sea, which was also well served by the public bus.

On this occasion the dogs stayed at camp as we headed into the city centre for a night of pintxos, the Basque variant of tapas.

It’s no secret that fish and seafood feature prominently in Basque cuisine. The Cantabrian Sea is home to monkfish, anchovies, spider crabs and sea bass, among others, offering a variety of textures and flavours.

And the best way to experience the Basque gastronomy is to move from bar to bar in the Old Town, sampling the specialities of each.

Elvers appear to be the star of Basque cuisine, closely followed by baby squid drizzled with olive oil and paprika.

Inspired by our gourmet evening we returned to La Bretxa fish market the following day, which was a veritable showcase of the Basque’s maritime seafood, and left with two live crabs.

But not before thoroughly exploring this stunning city.

San Sebastian was the most fashionable summer resort in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century and has managed to retain the elegance of this period.

A long walk along the promenade is recommended to see the traditional blue and white beach huts or games of pelota being played on courts marked out in the sand.

Escape the midday sun in the shaded, cobbled alleys of the Old Town or under the foliage of Monte Urgull.

A climb to the statue of Christ – the Sagrado Corazon, is worth it for spectacular views of the bay, the seafront promenade and tortoise-shaped island of Santa Clara.

It could have been the exercise or the freshness of crabs, but this simple meal back at camp was the best of the holiday.

Plus, when you’re sitting around a campfire it doesn’t matter where the fragments of shell land.

After our city experience the final stop in the surf mecca of Zarautz was a sublimely tranquil end to the trip.

The extraordinarily panoramic views of the beautiful Zarautz beach from our pitch should have cost the earth.

But almost everything in the Basque region, from the landscape to the hospitality, is shared with a smile.

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