Over the last month or so we have made two trips to Pais Vasco, or Basque Country. Basque Country borders Cantabria to the east and is probably most well known in the states for the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian. I’ve been to Bilbao several times, but otherwise have not spent much time in the region. C wanted to check out a few things for potential clients, so we spent one Friday and then the following weekend doing some exploring.
I’ll start off by saying in Basque Country, people speak Basque. It is not any derivative of Castilian (what most people just know as Spanish) or any of the romance languages, in fact no one is really exactly sure of where it comes from, only that it was in Spain before Spanish. It does not resemble Spanish in any way and hence, I can’t understand a word of it. Most people do speak Castilian as well – although there is sort of an “us” vs. “them” thing there. When you are speaking Castilian, the Basques treat you a little differently – so much so that C suggested we just play like the American tourists we can be and speak English. Yipee.
The first place we visited was Bosque de Oma, or the Oma forest, also known as the painted forest. Located not too far outside Bilbao, and just a 3km walk up from a cave that C wanted to see (more on that in a bit) it is a work done by a Basque painter and sculptor and is an example of “land art,” a trend popular in the late 1960’s. As you walk through the forest, depending on the angle, you can see certain forms – the bummer was that because of the growth of the forest, some of the figures were sort of askew. But it was interesting anyway.
The following weekend, we returned to Basque Country, for two reasons really. One was that there were two caves C wanted to see…on the last trip, we visited one, but did not make the guided visit which he wanted to experience, and the other was to check out Getaria (on a NYT list of 46 places to visit in 2013) and San Sebastian, where neither of us had ever been.
Getaria is a sleepy (especially so in January!) little fishing town, about 30 km east of San Sebastian. It is known as the birthplace of Juan Sebastián Elcano (nope, I didn’t know who he was either…apparently he completed Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the world after Magellan’s death), and also as the birthplace of Cristóbal Balenciaga (yes, yes, I knew who that was…). The town is quaint and lovely, with a few little bars and restaurants and some pretty vistas. There is a lovely new Balenciago museum as well, which I really enjoyed.
But what Getaria is probably best known for is its production of Txakoli (pronounced chakoLEE). Nope, didn’t know what that was either. Go figure, it’s one thing for me not to know a Spanish explorer, but a Spanish wine? Tsk, tsk. But it’s GOOD. It’s a slightly sparkling (just a hint) dry, white wine, that is poured sort of like Spanish cider into a regular round glass from a bottle high up in the air.
We spent Saturday afternoon bouncing around San Sebastian, another lovely town, much bigger and much more well known thanks to the likes of Anthony Bourdain and a slew of other gourmet and wine mags that have written articles about it over the last few years. I kid you not when I say you could spend three days there, all day, every day, eating non-stop and not hit everything. It’s amazing. I LOVE the culture of bouncing around and eating tapas and I’m already ready to go back. YUM.
On Sunday, instead of going back to San Sebastian (like I said, I’m TOTALLY going back another time for a weekend if anyone wants to come…), we passed through the town of Hondarribia, a pretty, walled Basque town. They also have the tapas and Txakoli culture, plus all the old men walk around in black berets which I just couldn’t get enough of. But also couldn’t get a picture of because I have not mastered the art of the nonchalant photo quite yet.
I neglected to take pictures of the caves we visited. Woops. Both had Paleolithic art dating back as far as 40,000 years. One was the Santimamiñe Cave, which although basically closed to the public, hosts a brief visit into the beginning part of the cave and a somewhat trippy 3-D movie tour. And the other was the Ekain Cave, which is also not open to the public but has a really nice replica (including dripping water and everything…). Yep. Okay. Caves, check.
Next adventure, to learn to be hospitaleros. In Rioja, of course.