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From the Basque Country, Spain/France (Bilbao, Getxo, San Sebastián, Hondarribia, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz, Pamplona)

By Sahand Rabbani

from the Basque Country, Spain/France (Bilbao, Getxo, San Sebastián, Hondarribia, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz, Pamplona)

Dear Friends,

Greetings from the Basque Country, or Euskal Herria in the Basque language. Comprised of regions of northeastern Spain and southwestern France, Euskal Herria is home to the Basque people, who, despite spanning two countries, are united by their common culture and language. The Basque language, Euskara, is notable in that it is one of few languages spoken in modern-day Europe that is not an Indo-European language. While its alphabet and many of its words come from Latin by way of Spanish, the language is structurally so different from its Indo-European neighbors that linguists still cannot place it in any language family. I regret that I have had little encounter with the spoken language, for many of the locals, it seems, are more comfortable in the national languages of Spanish and French. A resurgence of Basque nationalism has led to increased efforts to promote the language, and in many cases the street signs are primarily in Euskara with Spanish or French translations.

Saturday afternoon had us in Bilbao, the largest city and capital of the Spanish Basque region. Often neglected by tourists as just another big town, Bilbao has much to offer. The colorful, sometimes grotesque architecture of the newer buildings mixes with the old to form a complex panorama visible along the river's promenade. That evening, the old town demonstrated a bustling nightlife, which swelled to its peak at around 10PM as locals flocked from one bar to another, drinking, eating pintxos (Basque-style tapas), and singing folk songs in Euskara.

Bilbao on Sunday morning seemed almost completely deserted. The shop fronts along the main streets were concealed by rows of heavy metal shutters and chains. Only a few bakeries were open. We stumbled upon a modest diner, what the Spanish call a cafetería, which serves the local population its daily coffee and pastry. The hour was almost noon. The large, open dining area was well lit and sparsely populated: an old couple reading a newspaper, a few men at the bar. We picked from an ocean of empty tables and began work on our coffee and tortilla. The hall was so quiet that I took care even in returning my coffee cup to the saucer lest its sound disturb the incredible silence. It was not long though before a family entered the cafetería. The children--smartly dressed, arriving from church service perhaps, and maybe five in number--started giggling and playing and chasing each other around the assorted obstacles in the room. Within minutes, these children were joined by those of another family. Soon, the expansive floor was teeming with little kids bouncing every which way. It seemed that by some exception of physical laws, the concentration of highly energized little kids inside the cafetería was growing constantly, draining that of the outside world, as if a Maxwell's demon stood by the entrance and opened the door only for an inbound toddler, never letting one out. Before long, the air was saturated with the giggles and squeals of Bilbao's youngest generation, twirling around polls and rolling under tables. The village that, just moments ago, seemed likely to sleep well into the afternoon was now as alive as ever.

Later that day, we visited the celebrated Guggenheim Museum, whose unique shell of metallic waves is probably Bilbao's most recognizable site. The modern exhibitions that comprised the inside of the museum were perhaps less notable, though they do challenge the visitor's perception of what is art. I concluded that the true merit is most likely not in the construction of the piece itself (an iron rod leaning against a wall, columns of LEDs scrolling a message forwards and backwards) but rather in the composition of the audio-guide segments that creatively legitimize the piece. ("The artist invites the viewer to fill the blank canvas with his own experiences, allowing him to see as little or as much as he desires, creating a mysterious dance that is deeply personal yet somehow universal.")

We concluded our stay in Bilbao with a visit to the wealthy coastal suburb of Getxo, whose seaside promenade is flanked by sandy beaches and beautiful mansions. Getxo is linked to central Bilbao by regional rail and a very classy underground metro.

The following day we made our way to nearby San Sebastián, or Donostia in Euskara. Possibly the most famous destination in the Basque Country and renowned for its restaurants, San Sebastián and its shell-shaped Playa de la Concha are seemingly occupied solely by tourists even as early as late winter. The town has a beautiful facade and its view from one of two peaks at each end of the beach is normally beautiful, but its beauty was concealed from us by dense fog. The old part of town is packed with pintxos bars. It was here that I sampled the largest variety of Basque cuisine. Pintxos normally consist of a slice of baguette topped with a complex cocktail of cheese, fish, meat, sauce, vegetables, or any combination thereof. From afar, some pintxos look like large pieces of nigiri sushi. Upscale pintxos can be served as miniature dishes in tiny plates. Among the more notable pintxos and dishes that I sampled were estofado de rabo de buey (ox tail stew), carrilleras de ternera (veal cheek), morro de ternera (veal snout), oreja de cerdo (pig ear), molleja (sweetbread), and kallo de bacalao (cod tripe). While I found the ox tail, veal cheek, and veal snout to be tender and flavorful, the ear, sweetbread, and tripe were harder to swallow and required the company of a Rioja wine, which are categorically delicious. Other Basque specialties that I tried include the sour grape wine txakoli (a fermentation of an ingredient very common in Persian cooking), and a particularly dry and bitter sidra (cider) that is traditionally poured into a stout cup from great height. (I did not pursue the "Why?" of this tradition.)

From Spain, we made day trips into France to visit the coastal towns of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz. Both of these had similar concave beaches (Saint-Jean's being more scenic in my opinion than Biarritz's, with San Sebestián's trumping them both), but the towns themselves were ultimately underwhelming tourist amusement parks that discouraged any substantial investigation. The locals were often very kind and patient; despite being native French or Euskara speakers, many spoke Spanish proficiently and gladly.

We stayed our final two nights in the small fishing village of Hondarribia in Spain in a renovated castle, now a state-run hotel and attraction in its own right. It was in Hondarribia where we broke our streak of good food by lunching at an awful local pintxos bar whose fish entrees were insubstantial and fetid. The experience turned us off from any further attempts at eating in that town. We saved our appetite for an evening in Pamplona, located further inland in the Spanish province of Navarra. Famous for its running of the bulls during the festival of San Fermín and popularized in Hemingway's Sun Also Rises, Pamplona (Iruña in Euskara) is a sizable town with a magnificent central square and a stunning rainbow of rustic architecture juxtaposed with remnants of a medieval fortress. The plaza de toros (bullring) marks the border between the new town and the old. Pamplona engaged me in a way that San Sebastián did not. Its complex topography, diverse facades, and strange dark alleys contributed to its tremendous character. Local children played soccer on the cobblestone streets amid their intoxicated adult supervisors. The sticky smell of weed leaked from narrow cracks in the wall. Tourists were present but were by no means the dominant force. The town felt alive and, more interestingly, it felt inhabited unlike the idyllic Disneylands along the coast. We ate a comprehensive dinner at a trendy restaurant in the old town; the walls of the front bar room were a wrap-around chalkboard scrawled with complicated calculus equations. The extensive back room where the restaurant was located featured paintings that were striving for a place in Bilbao's Guggenheim. The long drive back from Pamplona had us in Hondarribia shortly after midnight.

The following morning, we enjoyed the views of the bay in Hondarribia and even made friends with a local shoemaker who repaired our torn suitcase. The entire interaction reminded me of the John Galsworthy's short story "Quality"; the friendly zapatero was an older gentleman, bubbly and round and proud of his trade. With our suitcase reinforced (and our shoes shined), we embarked on our return journey.

As I finish this letter, I am back in London, but I still see the image, burnt into my retinas, of the tranquil sailboats in the Bay of Biscay.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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