A hike through Basque country. From Madrid to Barcelona, Spain's great diversity unfolds

IMAGINE exploring the mountains, villages, and coasts of northern Spain with a local mountaineer, the first Basque to fly the national flag over the summit of Mt. Everest - and a hand-sewn one at that. Martin Zabaleta has climbed nearly all of the world's highest peaks. His passion for mountains is exceeded only by enthusiasm for his heritage and his capacity to share it. He's steeped in Spanish history, likes to find unique lodgings, and knows the best restaurants.

Each year, with a van full of travelers they welcome as friends, Mr. Zabaleta and his wife, Chipper Roth (they met at the Everest Base camp), head for the Basque country on a grand loop from Madrid to Barcelona. Their itinerary is a lively integration of cultural, culinary, and hiking adventures. I couldn't resist signing on.

Zabaleta's taste for unusual hostelries revealed itself in our first rendezvous: Madrid's Gran Hotel Victoria, a favorite hangout for bullfighters, where Manolete made his home in the '40s. We dined in the old neighborhood bistros lining the streets where Cervantes presented his plays in the 1600s. In the Prado Museum, within walking distance from the hotel, Zabaleta introduced the great masters to us with the grace of a countryman presenting his most intimate friends.

In wilderness less than 100 miles from the capital, our trek began in the Sierra de Gredos. Along with the mountain goats, we followed rough trails through rocks covered with bright chartreuse and rust lichens. We slept in a lakeside refuge beneath a towering granite cirque and a strange formation called ``the smoking dog'' - wide jaws of stone filled with billowing mist. During an exhausting all-day descent down a boulder-strewn trail, I complained to Zabaleta that these were the rockiest mountains I'd ever seen. His smiling reply: ``A thousand cathedrals.''

Within each province, we experienced Spain's enormous regional diversity. In Salamanca, an ancient city of magnificent architecture and honey-colored sandstone, we walked through the university where Columbus studied astronomy. That night, Le'on's 11th-century romanesque masterpiece - the Monastery of San Marcos - was our resting place.

When it came time for lunch, we prowled local markets for wheels of cheese, rounds of fresh baked bread, red peppers big as melons, and succulent fruit from neighboring farms. In Le'on's market, we even bought a live rabbit - but not for the pot. He became an amiable fellow traveler and rode in the van in a luxurious ``corral'' with a fence made of cabbage, lettuce hearts, carrots, and cucumbers.

Our most spectacular hiking was in the Picos de Europa, which weren't fully explored until the 1960s. Although popular with Spaniards, these ``Alps of Spain'' are still seldom visited by outsiders.

Our trail took us to the ``Senda de Cares,'' a precarious cliffside footpath of tunnels and clefts chiseled high above the Cares Gorge. Kestrels and vultures swooped overhead against a backdrop of limestone pinnacles shrouded in mist.

In the heather-filled, wind-swept pastures between Poncebos and Sotres, our hiking group encountered a singing shepherd. ``Songs of Christmas,'' quipped Zabaleta, ``and the goats are playing jingle bells!''

On the Cantabrian coast, a trek took us a half-mile underground to the awesome cave paintings near Puente Viesgo - even older than the 12000 BC paintings at Altamira cave. And for a night we lived like royalty in Santillana del Mar's medieval palace, the Hotel Alta Mira.

While all Spain is home to Zabaleta, crossing the Basque border moved his smile closer to his ears. At our first stop, 11th-century Laguardia, chili peppers and corn festooned the doorways, and the streets were deserted. The women were at mass. The men were all at the local ball court, where a game of pelota, the national Basque sport of jai alai, was in full swing. As spectators cheered, lightning-fast competitors, without the traditional baskets, whipped the leather-wrapped metal ball with their bare hands.

Throughout Zabaleta's homeland, chef-friends prepared memorable meals. At San Sebasti'an's Restaurant Azrak, noted chef Jean-Marie Azrak presented a feast of six seafood appetizers, two entrees, and eight desserts - small portions so we could experience all the finest of his culinary repertoire.

In the Rioja region, the Napa Valley of Spain, we dined in a 12th-century bodega - dripping limestone caves filled with enormous wine barrels. In a small stone dining hall, our host grilled lamb on applewood branches and served steaming bowls of potato-chorizo soup with clay pots full of red peppers and fresh garlic.

Near San Sebasti'an, Zabaleta took us as guests to the family farm where he grew up. Along with being major cider producers, his relatives grow every fruit and vegetable that thrives in the area. We arrived midafternoon as Tia Concha and Tio Pepe were pulling in the harvest for San Sebasti'an's municipal market, where they haven't missed a day in 50 years. That night, at the family dinner, Tia Concha admitted that she owed her health and longevity in part to a lot of hard work. She has a soft spot for animals, and our rabbit from Le'on found a permanent home on the farm.

The trip ended in Aragon with a hike through thick fir and hemlock forests of the Ordesca River Valley. Thousands of feet above, the mountains hung like curtains of corregated stone suspended in the mist.

Practical information

``The Other Spain,'' a trip scheduled Sept. 25 to Oct. 12, costs $1,675 plus air fare. Trans World Airlines offers the best direct air service from New York. For trip details, contact Mountain Travel, 1398 Solano Ave., Albany, CA 94706, or call (415) 527-8100; outside California, call 800-227-2384; from Canada, call collect.

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