This week we moved from Madrid, to the Basque region of Spain. And, though the weather may not be perfect for my basking, it is pleasantly mild for trekking these cobbled hillsides.
The Basque culture is a bit mysterious. They have ancient fishing traditions (by the year 1000 they were chasing whales as far as Norway – possibly even, in the New World), a fierce desire to be independent (yet, have learnt to compromise – after all, they are in the middle of two much bigger & stronger nations.), and the stubbornness to cling to their native tongue, Euskara (once a forbidden language due to Franco, and possibly the oldest European language still spoken, roots since Neolithic times.) it seems an exotic language, it makes my little knowledge of Spanish seem easy.
There was a small learning curve when it came to dining. We thought we had mastered the tapas process when we were in Madrid, but in Basque Country it’s different. Here they are pintxos, (informally, “tints”) and you pick what to eat – whereas in Madrid you get what they give you. The options seem overwhelming, and most include some sort of seafood. Initially we would stick with the cold ones: easy to grab and doesn’t require much conversation.
Soon we discovered the hot ones are tastier, and pushed through our comfort zone to get those. Come to think of it, you pretty much have to “push through” to get anything – the good places are standing room only.
San Sebastián is divided by a river, one side being the Old Town, with narrow streets, large churches and the well known Mount Urgull.
The side we stayed on, the Gros district, has a bit more street traffic and daily surf school.
It’s also the side we found a place serving craft brew. Funny the proprietor wasn’t allowed to serve us in the shop, but fills it with a high-tech machine into a plastic bottle, gives us a glass – and the classic brown bag – where we can take it outside and drink on a park bench in public.
We stumbled upon the last day of Euskal Jaiak, Basque Party or Festival. I understand they celebrate traditional activities from dance to rural sport demonstrations, but the highlight is always the boat races. And, that’s the party we got in on. San Sebastián moved up a division and everyone – grandmas and children- was filled with pride, song and jubilation. Fireworks were popping well into the morning.
We had spent some time in the San Telmo Museoa, where they had depictions of these traditional activities, so we got the gist of the fanfare we didn’t participate in. The museum also had a special exhibit featuring Alfred Hitchcock. Not sure of the Hitchcock/San Sebastian connection, but we appreciated it.
We spent a couple nights in Bilbao, and this is where we’ll kick off the “pilgrimage” part of our journey. It’s also our first hostel stay on the trip.
No, we didn’t stay at the sardine hostel! We are at the way cool, bCool Hostel in downtown. Only two years old, the place is high tech, clean, and has wonderful open spaces.
Bilbao is a good example of old meeting new. Once a significant industrial port (iron ore & ship building) supporting tireless blue collar families. Now (the last 30 years), it appears to be living some sort of Renaissance where art & tourism are the draw.
The big house of art is The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The architecture alone is worthy of the price of admission. It took my breath away: a swirling blend of tissue-thin titanium scales, overlapping glass panels, and digitally perfected limestone brick. My little iPhone cannot possibly capture it’s magnificence.
There is not a single straight line on this building! Being a “Guggenheim” affords it the opportunity to showcase other Guggenheim exhibits, as well as their own permanent installations. Saw my first live Andy Warhol – 150 Marilyns. I’m thinking he had to have hung out with Salvador Dali.
Then I grew to appreciate another artist, Anselm Kiefer. A German artist, he reflected on the “how & why” of WWII at a time when it was quite unpopular to do so.
No photography allowed inside, so the above image comes to you via the Guggenheim website. I was allowed to photograph the outdoor statuary, so I will close with these fellows: