BOISE – When I didn’t see it in the display case or on the counter top, I worried. Gâteau Basque was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip.
I hadn’t had it since the summer I was 17 when I lived with a host family in southwestern France, part of a region known as Pays Basque or Basque Country. Decades later, I wondered if I rightly remembered the traditional dessert. I needn’t have worried.
The woman behind the counter reassured me the small café and market carried the cake – and promptly produced a piece for my husband and me to share. It was even better than I remembered: rich, creamy and sweet, but not too sweet.
Boise, just an hour flight away from Spokane via Alaska Airlines, is quite possibly the best place in America to enjoy Basque food and culture. It’s also a great place to drink beer and go to – and escape from – prison.
We recently spent a quick 24 hours exploring Idaho’s capital, including – on a recommendation from friends who used to live there – a trip to the Old Idaho Penitentiary.
Here are the highlights.
Friday night – As soon as we dropped our bags, we headed out for Basque fare at Bar Gernika (bargernika.com), conveniently located across the street from the friendly and modern Grove Hotel (grovehotelboise.com).
We were staying there thanks to a last-minute deal on Priceline. Added bonus: Vouchers for free drinks in the hotel bar were presented to us upon check-in. Yes, please.
Bar Gernika anchors the west end of Basque Block (thebasqueblock.com), the cultural hub of all things Basque in the Old Boise Historic District. We started with an order of piping-hot croquetas, crispy on the outside and melty on the inside. They’re deep-fried, covered in bread crumbs and make for the perfect complement to an ice-cold Basque cider.
Bar Gernika specializes in traditional Basque dishes and pub grub. It’s a cozy spot with a laid-back vibe. We didn’t try the Kalimotxo, the Basque specialty combining wine and Coke, even though the menu proclaimed there’s “nothing more Basque or better!”
Instead, we shared chorizo and a lamb kebab, which came with a choice of side. We opted for more croquetas. We eyed the other dishes, too, and ended up coming back for a late lunch the next day to try the tortillas de patatas – with egg, potatoes and onion – and lamb grinder with grilled onions, mushrooms and peppers. And more croquetas, of course.
After dinner, we sought to mingle with locals and enjoy a few brews at the award-winning Bittercreek Alehouse, especially popular during its late-night happy hour that starts at 10 p.m.
Established in 1995, the alehouse specializes in modern American fare featuring locally sourced ingredients, as well as a wide selection of local, regional and imported beer and cider. We were there during its annual Funk Fest celebrating sour beers. They’re among my husband’s favorites, so he was thrilled.
Saturday midmorning – We started our day a little late but happily – with coffee and doughnuts. Boise is an hour ahead of Spokane, and the time difference can make it a bit challenging for non-morning people on the one morning of a quick 24-hour trip. (But, coming back, you basically land in Spokane at the same time you left Boise. So that’s a perk.)
We grabbed doughnuts at Guru Donuts (gurudonuts.com) – “We make donuts holey” – which offers vegan, raised, potato, old-fashioned, vanilla, chocolate and limited-edition doughnuts in creative flavors.
Look for the Girl Scout (raised ring doughnut with caramel, toasted coconut and chocolate), the Drumstick (vanilla cake doughnut with peanuts, fudge and a vanilla glaze), French Toast (potato doughnut with maple glaze and powdered sugar) and more.
Coffee came from the sleek and modern Neckar (neckarcoffee.com), which opened last year and specializes in premium beans. It wasn’t enough; the one-hour time difference required another cup.
Latte No. 2 came from the comfy and eclectic Flying M (flyingmcoffee.com), part coffee shop, part gift store – kind of like a Boise version of downtown Spokane’s Atticus. You could buy buy espresso and pastries along with books, mugs and local, handmade beard balm – among other novelties.
Saturday late morning – The bustling rain-or-shine Boise Farmers Market (theboisefarmersmarket.com) runs Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April through October in downtown Boise.
Look for lots of handmade arts and crafts; fresh bread, herbs and produce; and street foods such as crepes, tacos and sambusas. And give yourself plenty of time to browse. There are about 90 vendors at peak season, or right about now.
Saturday early afternoon – We made our way back to the Basque Block to learn more about Boise’s Basque heritage at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center (basquemuseum.eus), which includes a Basque sheepwagon, arborglyphs made by Basque sheepherders and portraits of Basque women along with excerpts from their oral histories.
Tickets to the museum include a tour of the next-door Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House, which served as a Basque boarding house from 1910 to 1969.
Across the street at the Basque Market (thebasquemarket.com), we browsed shelves lined with Basque wines, cheese, charcuterie and pottery, along with other imports – from spices to paella pans. Tapas also is available for dine-in or take-out. This is where we shared a slice of gateau Basque – and plotted our next move.
Saturday late afternoon – For a quick visit that revolves around the downtown core, there’s no need to rent a car. Streets are flat and easy to navigate, and there’s plenty to see and do within walking distance.
The Old Idaho State Penitentiary (history.idaho.gov/location/old-penitentiary/) is just 2.4 miles from the Grove Hotel, so – if we had more time, and it wasn’t upward of 80 degrees – we might’ve walked through the Warm Springs Avenue Historic District and past its stately mansions. Instead, we took the only Lyft ride of our trip to the site, which housed prisoners from 1872 to 1973.
We walked through cell blocks with peeling paint and bunks for two to four prisoners, the laundry room with old, industrial (and very dusty) equipment, and the shockingly narrow and dark pens of solitary confinement.
Cells in one of the blocks feature plaques with mug shots and short stories about the inmates who were housed there. Another exhibit highlights inmates from all 50 states, as well as 45 countries. Still another documents the history of prison tattoos.
Throughout its 101 years as a working prison, Old Pen saw about 500 escape attempts. At least 90 were successful. On display is a ball and chain that’s missing a cuff and was found outside the prison walls.
Next time – We’re already planning a return trip, perhaps for Boise’s San Inazio Basque Festival (basquecenter.com/san-inazio/) at the end of July, or its celebration of San Fermin in mid-July. When Pamplona, deep in the heart of Basque Country, hosts its famed Running of the Bulls, Boise offers its own event, a Running of the Bars.
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