Friday, June 6, 2014

Basque Country

I'm a few weeks late, but I finally have time to write about my trip to Basque Country! As an aspiring foodie (I call myself "aspiring" because I currently lack the funds to eat out at nice restaurants on a regular basis) visiting Basque Country has been a top priority since I first moved to Spain! However, last year it was not only expensive but extremely time-consuming to get to Basque Country from Almería. This year, I was determined to get there, but it took all the way until my second-to-last month to go, but I made it! And let me tell you, it was well worth the wait.

I've heard so much about Basque Country since I started learning Spanish.  Not only is it well-known for it's exceptional cuisine, but it's also rich in history and culture as well.  Now when I'm talking about "Basque Country" it can be a bit confusing. There is "Pais Vasco" (Basque Country) the Autonomous Community of Spain and Basque Country the cultural region that extends from Northeastern Spain across the Pyrenees into Southwestern France.  I visited the autonomous region of Spain, which also happens to lie within the cultural region. Now, back tracking to that rich history I was talking about. Some historians say that basque culture is the least assimilated culture surviving from the Paleolithic Age. THATS OLD! Also, basque language has absolutely no ties to any other language in the world! It's completely unique and historians believe that the language dates back to the Stone Age and might be one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) language in the world. If that didn't get your nerdy juices flowing, I don't know what will. Maybe it's just extra exciting for a language nerd like me.  Anyway, the basque people are very proud of their language and culture and try to maintain it as much as possible. In fact, the majority of families in the autonomous region País Vasco choose to have their children educated in the basque language with Spanish as a compulsory secondary language.  Furthermore, Basque Country has a long history of trying to succeed from Spain and France and become it's own country because they truly feel like a separate culture from their respective countries. For all of these reasons and more, I was over the moon when my roommate Heidi and I finally booked tickets to Bilbao and San Sebastian the second weekend of May!

Guggenheim Museum
Heidi and I hopped on a night bus at 2am on Friday night and made the 5 hour journey to Bilbao. We arrived early morning and we didn't have accommodation so we took our backpacks and spent the first couple of hours wandering around the city. Most people warned me that Bilbao was very industrialized and kinda ugly but I found it to be quite a charming city. Whilst wandering we happened upon a fish and meat market that was just opening up for the day. We got to see freshly caught deep-sea fish beautifully displayed in stand after stand. There was a group of locals waiting outside for the market doors to open at 8am, and the charged once they did. I guess the locals really care about getting the best and freshest fish! Then, we took refuge in a café for about an hour and waited for the Guggenheim museum to open up. Truly, the museum is the only reason we originally decided to make the stop in Bilbao. For those of you who don't know, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao is one of three (soon to be four) renowned contemporary art museums in the world, the other locations being New York City, Venice, and soon to be Abu Dhabi. I'm usually into modern art, but this museum is so prestigious that I had to check it out for myself.  We ended up spending close to three hours in the museum. The permanent collection was a little too weird for me, but everyone told me that it's the traveling exhibitions that you go for. One of the traveling exhibits was Yoko Ono's work, which I didn't really care for. However, the other one was a cool, interactive art exhibition made by a Brazilian named Ernesto Neto that involved us touching, climbing, smelling and playing with a lot of sculptures and structures. Plus, just seeing the building itself makes it worth the visit. After the museum we grabbed lunch and then caught a bus to San Sebastian (known as Donostia in the basque language).

The bus was just a hour-long journey but it was enough time for me to sneak in a cat nap, after all we had only slept five hours the night before.  I felt rejuvenated as we stepped off the bus in San Sebastian. We made the 20 minute walk from the bus station to the city center and found our hostel in the heart of the old part of town also known as "Casco Viejo". The first night we walked around a bit and then headed out to get some pinxtos! Pinxtos (pronounced "peen-chos") are Basque Country's alternative to tapas. Most pintxos are little pieces of bread topped with different toppings which are mostly variants of meat, cheese, fish and veggies.  Sometimes pinxtos come in ball (like croquetas), or skewer (like a meat kebab) or sandwich form. Most range in price from 1.50-3.00 euros. 2-3 is usually enough to fill you up, but it's easy to get carried away. My mouth watered as we walked by bar after bar that had anywhere from 20-60 varieties of pinxtos on display. We chose a bar and quickly learned the ordering system. First, ask the bartender for a drink and then they will had you a plate. On the plate you can put one or more pinxtos just by taking them off the display plate and putting it onto yours. Then, if any of the pinxtos are meant to be served warm, the bartender will take the plate back from you and heat those up. Then, INDULGE! The quality of the ingredients was off the charts.  The basque cuisine has mastered the art of simplicity by pairing ordinary yet exquisite flavors together. The two of us visited three tapas bars and had 3-4 pinxtos each. By then, it was nearly midnight and we were ready for bed.

First night at the pinxtos bars!
The next day, we headed out to take a walking tour. The tour we planned to take had been canceled, but Heidi and I met an Australian girl who was also looking to take a tour. So, we went to the tourist office and found one there! Our tour guide gave a 1.5 hour-long tour in both English and French. Being so close to the border here, a lot of the tourism comes from France, so many people can speak the language.  We learned even more about Basque history as we walked up and down the streets of old town. After the tour, the three of us (Aussie included) had a lunch of pintxos. After lunch, we climbed up Monte Urgell which is considered a mountain but is really more of a steep hill. It only took about 30 minutes to climb. From the top, both beaches of San Sebastian can be seen: La Concha, the larger and more famous beach that is protected from the sea by man-made barriers and a natural island and La Zurriola, the smaller surfer's beach. Also at the top, there is an old fortress which a free museum inside about San Sebastian's history, and a statue of Jesus Christ. Later on that night, we met up with our Aussie friend, Jo, and a friend she made at the hostel who also happened to be from Australia. The four of us went out for... you guessed it PINXTOS! With the such a wide variety of pinxtos, I'm not sure I could ever get tired of them.  We hopped between a few bars and enjoyed a night of delicious food and great conversation. I love meeting traveler's and hearing their stories!

The view from Monte Igueldo
On Sunday we met Jo again in the morning and walked down La Concha beach to Monte Igueldo which truly is a mountain. Because it was truly steep, we needed to take a funicular (inclined cable car) to get to the top.  At the top of Monte Igueldo there is a small amusement park, a lookout tower, and the best view of San Sebastian! It's truly breath-taking to look out over the picturesque city at this post-card-worthy view. By the time we got back down, we only had time for a lunch (of pinxtos!) and a quick gelato before Heidi and I had to catch our bus back to Madrid. We said goodbye to our new friend and headed on our way. 

All in all, San Sebastian was fantastic. It definitely lived up to my foodie-dream expectations. But beyond the food, I will take away a respect for the rich culture and history of Basque Country. If you're ever in Spain, Basque Country may seem like it's out of the way, but trust me, it's worth the trip :)

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