Before we left on this trip, a friend asked me if I’d been planning it for the past year. I probably laughed. I tend to plan our travels in a haphazard way. Something will attract my attention and I’ll book that first, even if flights, firm dates and other such mundane, yet important, logistics aren’t in place yet. Booking our visit to Iriarte Jaugeria Hotel was very much done this way – long before I had flights to Spain or a means of traveling around the Basque country.
It caught my eye for a few reasons. One, I knew we’d have some time at the beach in San Sebastian, so figured it would be interesting to explore the mountainous, rural regions too. Two, the hotel claimed to have a top-notch restaurant, and three, the scenery – bucolic green hills, dotted with white building and terracotta roofs looked desperately relaxing.
The journey from San Sebastian by car is pretty straightforward, taking just over 40 minutes. We arrived in a sleepy little hamlet (one tiny grocery store, a church and a taberna) and were directed by signs up a short hill to the grand old building that overlooks a stunning valley surrounded by green and rocky mountains.
Cowbells and goat-bells jangle in the distance; dogs bark, awoken by the odd passerby; you hear the occasional shot fired as a hunter goes about his business. Birds sing their merry heads off. You get the scene. Immediately it is the most soothing, serene vista you could immerse yourself in.
And the hotel itself is lovely. Grand stone, shuttered windows, big wooden staircase and yet stylish and modern all at the same time – in the way only Europeans can pull off. Starving, it was 3.25pm—and we never did get the hang of the time change, late lunch hour, siesta, and even later dinners—we were told to order asap as the kitchen was about to close.
Monkey ordered up some carnitas tacos (13 Euros) – which were very tasty – and I had some local smoked salmon (12 Euros) with gluten-free bread. Side-note, I found Spanish restaurants incredibly willing and able to accommodate gluten-free requests. Much more so than back at home.
Our room at Iriarte Jauregia was spacious, cool (both temperature-wise and style-wise) and overlooked a gorgeously verdant mountain, home to goats and birds.
We booked dinner for 8pm at Bailara – the hotel’s restaurant which is led by a chef with impressive credentials. Back in San Francisco, 8pm would be considered late for dinner, but in Spain this was super early and we had the whole place to ourselves for at least 20 minutes before families and the elderly showed up.
Having dined out on eight courses the night before at Arzak, we opted to just order a main course each, but this being a gastronomical experience, we were treated to not one, but two amuse bouche as we waited for our main dishes.
The first, a lobster style custard, delicate and beautifully presented. The second, the popular white asparagus with a bite of tuna belly in olive oil. Stunningly laid out on a beach rock—so much of our special meals in Spain were about theater and drama, a feast for the eyes—as much as for the stomach.
Entirely unexpected was Monkey’s beef tenderloin. It arrived looking like two pieces of charred wood. A trick of the eye, it had been painted with black squid ink and silver paint to look like well, charred wood. And it tasted fabulous. “Blue” inside and immensely tender, its outer coating giving it a salty taste.
My hake was good too. Not as mind-blowing as the tenderloin, but cooked to perfection, tender and flakey and accompanied by a red pepper-based sauce.
Declining dessert from the menu, we were treated nonetheless to petit fours which were treated just as royally as the rest of the courses, displayed across a beautiful piece of coral with jet black macarons, fruit jelly and light puffy sesame marshmallows. Given that we only technically ordered a main dish each, the bill was a very reasonable 50-ish Euros.
The only drawback of Iriarte Juaregia is the absence of a swimming pool – an absence that we came across at other hotels in Northern Spain. I am not sure how to explain this, except to say that with the 80+ degree heat of an August afternoon, a place to cool off would have been very welcome.
Sitting on the terrace is a treat at any time of day. Watching the light change on the mountains from early morning to gloaming and nighttime, was mesmerizing and added to the sense of peace this special place has. The guests appeared to be mostly English and Spanish, if that matters to you, and there’s even a lovely old Golden Retriever in residence.
Our room cost 150 Euros per night in high season, with grander and smaller ones available to suit your budget.