Our last weeks of travel were through the beautiful Cantabrian and Pyrenees Mountain ranges in northern Spain – Basque Country. After busy, busy Portugal it was nice to settle into a quieter, more slowly paced part of the world. It felt like Mother Nature was conspiring on our behalf, and the rainy days we had were just perfect for allowing us time to catch our breath and reflect on our travels while the sunny days welcomed us to explore this intriguing area.

Our first lodging point was in the very small village of Ramales de la Victoria, less than 30 minutes from Bilbao and the stunning Guggenheim Museum…

…with its titanium exteriors and random curves that were designed to catch the light. The riverside patio features the sculpture Tall Tree & the Eye by Anish Kapoor.

The building’s architect, Frank Gehry, says that he included this ship’s prow portion of the exterior as an homage to Bilbao’s nautical traditions.

The undulating curves with reflected sky felt soothing and hypnotic.

More sculpture to admire: Maman (giant spider, background left) by Louise Bourgeois; Tulips by Jeff Koons.

The interiors are just as inspiring. The curved and layered atrium which is the heart of the museum…

..with its exposed structural supports and glass walls.

We also took a day trip to Santander, the capital city on the north coast that is famous for its golden sand beaches and the emerald green parkland of the Magdalena Peninsula.

Centro Botin, which opened in 2017, is a study in contrasts with Guggenheim Bilbao. The building consists of two volumes, one for art and the other as an exhibition space. The ceramic facade cantilevers over Santander Bay, allowing breathtaking views through its glass walls.

On the day we were there we were treated to a performance piece in this colorful gallery space.

After Ramales it was on to Pomplona. Our flat was near the historic center, and one of our first walkabouts brought us to City Hall in the heart of the Old Quarter. Statues of the virtues Prudence and Justice frame the entrance and gilded lions decorate the balconies. A pediment crowns the upper level and on either side are sculptures of the Greek god Hercules.

We stopped for a late afternoon lunch at this somewhat gaudy belle époque building on the Plaza de Castillo.

On the ground level is Café Iruña, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. We had eguneko plaka (plate of the day): a choice of soup or salad, entree of codfish or pork loin, bread, a bottle of decent white wine, and desserts – all for 15€/person.

After lunch we wandered about admiring the charming streetscapes.

I even sited a local yarn shop. The owner of this shop holds group classes and the students go “yarn bombing” – covering tree trunks and pillars and posts with knitted sleeves.

On the way home we spent some time enjoying Parque Antoniutti…

the sculptures…

…and the old burled trees.

On another day a road trip through the Pyrenees brought gorgeous panoramic views…

…featuring rolling pastures and flock after flock of sheep.

Our final destination that day was the medieval city of Bayonne, France. The lengthy waterfront is currently undergoing renovation, but we did find much too admire.

Look closely and you will see that the statues atop the building are wearing special neckwear. The town’s futball team (in this case, rugby) had just won a championship and the entire area was in the midst of celebrating.

One afternoon we decided to try our luck at wine tasting and drove through kilometers and kilometers of blooming Scotch broom on our quest for some La Rioja.

Along our way we found the answer to a question we have never asked ourselves: Just where are soup noodles made?

As for wine tasting, unfortunately we did not find even one open winery. In Spain, as in much of Europe, tastings are done by reservation and reservations are for groups of more than two people. We were just hoping…

On a more positive note, we did appreciate the wine fountain at Bodegas Irache, a winery on the site of a former Benedictine monastery. The taps are filled each morning and anyone can come get a glass of wine or water (providing you bring your own drinking vessel). The offer is good until the beverages run out, which can happen fairly early during peak tourist season or when a group of walkers come in from the Camino de Santiago. The fountain is a continuation of the tradition of generous hospitality that the Benedictine monks offered to pilgrims.

The walled city of Pamplona; in a true serendipity it seems we saved the best for last.