Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Welcome to Basque Country: Day 1 Spent in Bilbao

Weekend of Friday, March 25 to Sunday, March 27

My friend Lara Welch and I woke up early Friday morning to catch a cheap RyanAir flight to Zaragoza.  From there we would take a bus to the northern most part of Spain: Basque Country (País Vasco).  I had met Lara in one of my business classes; I was drawn to her preference for speaking Spanish.  As I found out, she had studied in Madrid last semester and developed her Spanish accent and voice there.  She continues her year of overseas study in Sevilla this semester.  Although she loves Sevilla, she longs for Madrid.  She developed many great friendships there and finds Sevilla harder to break into socially.  Upon hearing of her similar fascination with Basque country, I set out to plan a trip with her.  This weekend we realized our initial wish.  Overall the experience was seamless; unlike any adventure we had ever done.  We left feeling that we had discovered a best-kept-secret that many students will never even consider. 

My fascination with Basque country started with its position in the food world.  The region is known as Spain's culinary capital; gourmets from across Europe and the world come here just to eat.  Two characteristics are prevalent:  (1) Rather than "tapas" (small dishes), the Basque people serve "Pintxos," bite-sized-pieces-of-art on a slice of baguette and held together by a toothpick.  You are free to graze the bar's selection; the bill is tabulated by the number of toothpicks you have in your hand at the end.  And (2) Basque males form private eating clubs whereby they come together, cook a meal, and feast.  Lara and I were looking forward to sample the region's fair, for here tourism occurs in restaurants. 

What I discovered about the Basque culinary world led me to the history of the region as a whole.  Its isolation among the mountains helped preserve a culture and language unlike any other in Europe.  The language, "Euskera," has no connection to French or Spanish, but Basque country spans both countries.  Tensions have existed for centuries about the region's independence.  Today the French Basques are more loyal to France than the Spanish Basques are loyal to Spain.  Many think of ETA when Basque Country is mentioned; this is a terrorist group that originated here for sake of independence.  Although Basques still long for independence, they condemn the terrorist network.  The symbol most pertinent to its modern history is Guernica, the region's capital.  During the Spanish Civil in 1937, Franco asked Hitler to test his airforce saturation bombing over the rebellious city.  To make things worse, Franco chose the day in which everyone crowded the streets for market day.  The Germans arrived and bombed the city at the hour most innocent civilians would be killed.  The incident inspired Picasso's masterpiece Guernica, now hanging in Madrid. 

Set with a dramatic and heavy backdrop, Lara and I hopped on a luxurious bus to Bilbao.  It was unique for many reasons.  We had a hostess on board that provided drinks, snacks, and a sandwich.  Seats were conformable, and there was room to spread out.  Outside our window we enjoyed a panoramic view of Northern Spain's countryside.  It seemed we were in another world altogether.   The landscape is nothing like Southern Spain.  We saw lush green fields, steep mountains, and forests.  Southern Spain seemed like a desert in comparison. 

We arrived in Bilbao stunned by its unique architectural style and its sleepy aura.  It seemed a bit depressed; the sun had not peaked through the clouds yet, and the buildings seemed like ruins from an industrial past.  Although we had heard that Basque country contained some of the most wealth and employment opportunity in Spain, we got no indication from the environment.  Here we learned that people do not pass time in the street as they do in Southern Spain.  Rather, the warmth is felt inside the bars, inside the homes.  The weather is not as ideal here, and that explains the lush green we were seeing.

We made our way via Tram to the Old Town of Bilbao.  Our first encounter with the Basque people was a pleasant one.  When we asked of the location of the Tram, the two Basques were in competition with each other to be the most helpful.  We ended up getting an orientation on all transportation methods in the city, not just the Tram.  Add to that, they spoke perfect Castellano Spanish; they pronounced every letter--something rare in Southern Spain.

We arrived in the Old Town and enjoyed a walk through the Basque market and around the Catedral.  We were really here to observe the "Pintxos" scene before lunch.  At one bar we tried four varieties.  Our favorite was a little toast of cod, kiwi, and jelly.  Although they were wonderful, we decided that "pintxos" are better admired as pieces of art.  They left us ready to eat more at lunch.  Next door, Lara and I enjoyed two Basque specialties: "Chipirones en su tinta" (Squid cooked in its own ink) and "Bacalao al Pil-Pil" (Cod in a special and complicated sauce).  Both delicious, but good thing I had my tooth brush with me to remove the black ink from my teeth. 

Our Pintxos (PIN-chos) Selection

We hopped on the Tram again to enjoy the Bilbao river front.  The sun was coming out and the river was beautiful as we approached our ultimate destination: Guggenheim Bilbao.  The museum is stunning and extremely out of place.  Finished in 1997 by architect Frank Gehry, the building uses titanium and limestone to resemble a fish and the movement of the river.  At one point Lara and I had to sit down on a bench from across the river to digest what we were seeing.  The museum and nearby skyscraper indicate a slow rebirth of the industrial Bilbao.  The interior is equally extraordinary with an atrium where all forms meet and a curved glass elevator shoots you up to various collections.  The art inside was nothing special, but we loved the installations outside.  The best was a giant dog statue made of 60,000 flowers.  We enjoyed learning more about Frank Gehry, a modern master, and from our perspective today's most innovative architect. 

As the sun set over Bilbao, we went back to the bus station to catch a bus to San Sebastián.  Within an hour we were in Basque country's greatest gem, ready to enjoy the nightlife.

To see pictures of this day in Bilbao, see "País Vasco Day 1 - Bilbo (3-25)" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39

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