Pais Vasco (Basque Country)

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.

This was one of the cooler parts - from the right angle, you see two motorcyclists leaning out.

This was one of the cooler parts – from the right angle, you see two motorcyclists leaning out. Note of course that it is not done on just two trees but among many.

There was quite a bit of graphic stuff...lines that I imagine were better connected when it was originally done. But alas, trees grow. So there's that.

There was quite a bit of graphic stuff…lines that I imagine were better connected when it was originally done. But alas, trees grow. So there’s that.

The drive back along the coast is pretty. although we were in a bit of a rush to make it back for one of my afternoon students. So although we didn't quite make it out to this religious structure thing, I am SURE, knowing C, that we will do it some other time. :-)

The drive back along the coast is pretty. although we were in a bit of a rush to make it back for one of my afternoon students. So although we didn’t quite make it out to this religious structure thing, I am SURE, knowing C, that we will do it some other time. 🙂

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.

The Balenciaga museum. Interesting to see the progression of his fashions over time and the influence he had in the fashion world, even today.

The Balenciaga museum. Interesting to see the progression of his fashions over time and the influence he had in the fashion world, even today.

Some typical Basque architecture overlooking the port.

Some typical Basque architecture overlooking the port.

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.

Txakoli. I was trying to be artistic.

Txakoli. I was trying to be artistic.

We stayed here for the weekend, and enjoyed it very much. Especially our tour of their own bodega and the very cute, nice guy who was our guide.

We stayed here for the weekend, and enjoyed it very much. Especially our tour of their own bodega and the very cute, nice guy who was our guide. Well, at least I enjoyed that part. C said he played for the other team, but that doesn’t matter.

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.

San Sebastian from an overlook. An overlook that was like Wally World gone terribly wrong...some sort of awfully cheesy boardwalk like set up. Someone was/is obviously trying to cash in on the view.

San Sebastian from an overlook. An overlook that was like Wally World gone terribly wrong…some sort of awfully cheesy boardwalk like set up. Someone was/is obviously trying to cash in on the view.

San Sebastian, from the city. As you can see, we were not blessed with the best weather. It was cold and so windy I thought I was  going to Mary Poppins it right up off the street.

San Sebastian, from the city. As you can see, we were not blessed with the best weather. It was cold and so windy I thought I was going to Mary Poppins it right up off the street. That’s of course why I had to eat so much, so the food would weigh me down.

Typical tapas bar...seriously, how many rounds would you have to make to try one of everything you wanted to try? Me and my butt and thighs can't even think about it.

Typical tapas bar…seriously, how many rounds would you have to make to try one of everything you wanted to try? Me and my butt and thighs can’t even think about it.

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.

A street in Hondarribia.

A street in Hondarribia.

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.

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