Costa guipuzcoana + Côte Basque Française

After a day of art and soccer in Bilbao with Bryan and Denise, it was time to head up the Basque coast towards San Sebastián and the French frontier. Though I wouldn’t admit it in certain Castilian company, the Basque country has some of my favorite coastline in all of Spain. This time we covered a short bit of coast just west of San Sebastián. It’s pretty slow going on the curves and narrow lanes, but the scenery rewards the patient.

Arrival in San Sebastián marks a different world from the beaches and fishing towns elsewhere in the Basque country. Though still coastal, San Sebastián retains an air of the Belle Époque, while sporting a modern cosmopolitan and posh population as well. This time around we made it up to the top of Monte Igueldo at sunset to catch the last daytime view back on the Playa de la Concha. It’s a cliché vista, but it’s spectacular nonetheless. I would say it really topped off our day in the city.

Descending from Igueldo, we booked it to our rural accommodations about 11 km from San Sebastián, Hotel Gurutze Berri. Gurutze Berri was really a treat in and of itself. It was truly a multi-generational, family-run operation. From the rooms’ balconies, you could see down to San Sebastián in the distance. It’s also just a stone’s throw from the French border, which made it a great place to spend the night before heading to up to Biarritz and Bayonne.

After a good night’s sleep at the hotel, we hit the road towards France. It’s kind of exhilarating still to see that sign saying FRANCE as you cross the open border. But the exhilaration turns quickly, admittedly, to a bit of grumpiness on my part when the first Frenchman I meet is an impersonal toll collector for the state-run highway. At any rate, Biarritz was a new stop for Amanda and I. It’s similar in many respects to San Sebastián. Though only a few kilometers from Spain, and still part of the French Basque country, it’seems much less Basque and much more thoroughly French. I suppose that’s the effect of Paris’s long-time centralized grip over the entire country. Regardless, Biarritz is situated with a beautiful beach and some charming streets. We enjoyed a nice stroll through the town and then made our way to enjoy French cuisine.

Our last stop was Biarritz’s neighbor town of Bayonne. While not one of France’s must sees, I liked the understated atmosphere and somewhat unpolished old town. A quick stop was sufficient for us, but I think it has its merits with a French Gothic cathedral and colorful shutter-adorned row houses.

It was a great time in the Basque country all in all. Unfortunately, we had to get back to class, so back to Spain we went.

Bilbao

Of all the worthy places to visit in Spain, I think one of the most overlooked and under-rated must be the Basque Country. I know that I could potentially make a lot of enemies saying this, but I think it is par none in terms of natural beauty, outdoor activities, pleasant cities and cleanliness. We spent another weekend re-visiting Bilbao and San Sebastían and crossing Biarritz and Bayonne, on the French side of the Basque Country, off our must see list. In Bilbao, we decided to try a couple of things we hadn’t yet ventured to do: Actually setting foot inside the Guggenheim Museum in the morning and on the agenda for afternoon entertainment, an Athletic Bilbao soccer match for the soccer enthusiast in our family, my dad.

The truth is that I love enjoying the Guggenheim from the outside. It is an amazing feat of architecture and engineering that is said to represent either a ship in mid-journey (it looks as though it really is in movement) or an intricate flower. The city now celebrates the “Guggenheim Effect,” a term coined to describe the revitalization of the once dirty and industrial suburban landscape into an elegant urban space, replete with green spaces tucked away in far reaching corners and an uncanny knack for integrating the modern with the ancient. I recently learned that folks from Bilbao have the reputation of doing things big, so if you do something good, do it great and if you fail, fall flat on your face. This is evidenced by the city’s pet puppy, which sits in front of the Guggenheim. It must be at least three stories tall and its “fur” is an ever changing coat of fresh flowers. My friend told me that when the Guggenheim was first opened, people from Bilbao would ask visitors “Have you seen our dog?” And as a follow-up, “Have you seen his ‘house’?” (The Guggenheim building itself).

Inside, the Guggenheim houses an impressive permanent collection of modern art and a rotating exhibition as well. A couple highlights from inside the museum would have to be an exhibit made entirely of gigantic steel sheets, about two inches thick, that are arranged to represent the fluidity of time. It is interactive, allowing the participant to walk through the undulations of the steel walls and attempt to get a sense of what the artist is trying to convey. It is also a huge demonstration, taking up the entire floor space of a fairly large warehouse. For its innovation, its interesting to view. Also, our whole group found an exhibit of urban photography that dealt with the utter bleakness of the majority of urban landscape. It highlighted people who live in such communities interacting with their surroundings and left me with a certain ache for them, for them to see the beauty of God’s creation outside of concrete blocks and trashed courtyards. Another photo I found interesting was one of a high rise office building in Hong Kong. Though nighttime in the picture, each floor was lit with a sick flourescent hue and more than a few of the cubicles contained an inmate. Each floor was a repeat of the floor above and below it.

Besides these installations I mentioned, plus one or two more, I didn’t love the art the museum had to offer. Besides being quite expensive, the museum, for as spacious as the interior is, felt almost empty in some rooms.  There seemed to be far too many white walls and not enough artwork to adorn the spaces. Also, keep in mind I don’t profess to love modern art.

After declaring museum syndrome (the syndrome in which one’s eyes and legs are fatigued and in which one’s brain can no longer process the images set before it) we headed out for pizza and then to La Catedral, where Bilbao Athletic defeated their opponent, Málaga, 3-1.

Soccer is truly a fanatic’s sport in Europe. Tickets are hard to come by, the most mundane of matches are frequently sold out (imagine, and we’re in the middle of a financial crisis), fans come dressed to the nine’s in their team’s colors, each spectator seems to know the players’ names, to know the minutest rules of the game and they definitely have an opinion if the call the referee makes isn’t in favor of the home team. In contrast, I believe Americans go to a sporting event to enjoy time with family, watch the crowd, eat a hot dog and drink a beer. The game itself is almost a side show. Not so in Bilbao, where the fans sat still the entire playing time, didn’t get out their packed from home bocadillos until halftime and didn’t even need to be entertained by a Jumbotron that catches wayward fans on camera. Definitely a true cultural experience, I’m glad we went, but I’m also glad that the soccer is over in an hour and forty five minutes because our stadium seats were tiny.

More on the Basque Coast in the next post! Happy Tuesday.

Bárcena Mayor, Carmona y Comillas

To start off my parents’ visit to Northern Spain, we decided to check out the Cantabrian interior as Andrew and I hadn’t yet visited and we’d both heard exceptionally positive reports about what they both had to offer. Both Bárcena Mayor and Carmona are traditional Cantabrian farming towns that still maintain a way of life from over a hundred years ago. The most obvious indication of this fact are the homes. They are made of thick stone walls and timber framing. This is typical architecture for farm houses and many times, we noticed that what served as a barn was actually attached to the home itself. The streets are paved in cobblestones and each town feels like it is located at the end of the earth. (Bárcena Mayor is where the highway ends.)

We stopped in Carmona on a sunny, sleepy Saturday afternoon. I think we all felt a little strange, traipsing as tourists through the town, quietly observing the townsfolk going peacefully about their daily business. We could look from our vantage point on the street and see their life, like observing an exhibition at a museum, but the scene was taking place in real time. The man in his overalls brandishing his pitchfork, standing ankle deep in hay looked curiously out at us. A woman butchering a carcass laid prone on a wooden cart smiled while taking a pause in her work. Two elderly men wearing black berets sitting on a bench bathed in sun light took a cat nap. The black speck on the bright green hill, a shepherd with his dog herding sheep barely inched along. It was beautiful scenery and it was eerie all at the same time, to stare so blatantly at someone’s reality, as if it were a curiosity purposely left in a remote place for city people to come along and wonder at.

One of my favorite moments of the day was while walking through Carmona, we saw a farmer working in the hay wearing traditional albarca shoes. They are carved from wood and used primarily to keep farmers’ feet dry from the humid conditions and are supposed to be practical to traverse stables and fields. I’ll let you take a look at the shoes and decide if they look like they’d facilitate an easy stroll through a field bombed with cow patties, but I think I’d struggle to stay upright for long if wearing them.

To end our tour for the day, we motored over to the seaside town of Comillas. The town had the privilege of being patronized by a wealthy duke in the late 1800’s. Not only does a private teaching university financed by said duke tower over the town, but he also had a palace and a summer home constructed in Comillas. Not to mentioned he commissioned El Capricho by Gaudí. To round out our visit to Comillas, we passed by the massive cemetery guarded by a winged angel and checked out the main plazas in the city center.

Chocolate con churros

My parents are here for a visit and we’ve had a great time getting to tour around Cantabria and the Basque Country, meanwhile trying out all the local food. We’ve had traditional Cantabrian winter fare: white bean stew with sausage, roasted stuffed red peppers, and crema montañesa. We’ve eaten a French style lunch and indulged in Gâteau basque, but I think our treat tonight topped them all. Typically Spanish and great to warm up in winter, I promise you won’t go wrong if you order chocolate con churros in a local bar. There is nothing better to eat for dinner than fried dough straws, sprinkled with sugar and dunked in thick hot chocolate pudding.

Violà! (FYI, we decimated the whole plate of churros!)

Astorga y Zamora

After breakfasting in León, we hopped in the rented VW Polo and motored down to Astorga, which is known for being the first town to produce chocolate after the Spanish conquistadors brought cocoa beans back to Spain from the New World. Andrew and I were thrilled to be outdoors, to see the sun and to stretch our legs  to see the major sites. The weather had been dreary and rainy in Laredo for the past couple of weeks, so a healthy dose of Vitamin D was in order.

Astorga is home to an impressive cathedral and to an Episcopal Palace, which was designed by Antoní Gaudí. While in Astorga, we also taste tested the artisan chocolate for our readers, which we can report is well worth your euro.

Our next stop for the day was in Zamora, a gem city filled with Romanesque style churches. Literally every corner we turned in the old town, we were impressed by another beautifully restored building. Zamora is located on the Río Duero and is perfect for spending an hour or two strolling, enjoying the views of the sparkling river and the majestic architecture. Zamora also celebrates one of the most somber Semana Santas in Spain. This week’s festivities are so important in this particular town that they have an entire museum dedicated to the customs and traditions surrounding Holy Week.

These two statues are the Merlú and represent the way that Spanish revelers dress when they form parades during Semana Santa.

Overall, we really enjoyed both cities. As you head South on the Iberian peninsula, the air is drier, crisper and the temperature drops. Once finished in Zamora, we made our way to Ávila to visit a friend. It was definitely a refreshing and rejuvenating weekend.

León

Last weekend we made a visit to the historic city of León. It was a Valentine’s day getaway, where we dined, relaxed and enjoyed the architecture of its Gothic old town. León dates back to Roman times, but grew to prominence in the Middle Ages as a stop along the Camino de Santiago. It’s classic Gothic cathedral is undoubtedly one of the most impressive in Spain.

The Gothic masterpiece of León draws many comparisons with its predecessor cathedral in Burgos. Both are stunning, yet have their own unique merits. While the Burgos church is larger and in my opinion more ornate from the exterior, the León cathedral has a some of the best stained glass windows on the continent. If I had to rank the two, I would probably put the cathedral of Burgos slightly ahead of León’s, but not by much. Both deserve attentive visits.

Beyond the cathedral, León has several other noteworthy monuments that give the city almost a regal atmosphere. Most prominent are the Hostal San Marcos, which sheltered pilgrims centuries ago en route to Santiago, as well as the Casa Botines, one of only three works of Antonio Gaudí outside of Cataluña. Though not as experimental of some of Gaudí’s work, it’s location in León lets you get close and really enjoy the architecture, without the traffic, noise, and tourist hordes prevalent in Barcelona.

León is one of my new favorites in northern Spain. You can see the city comfortably on foot at a relaxed pace while enjoying some great architecture from various eras. If you are looking for a place to stay, the Posada Regia is highly recommended. It was a bit of a splurge for us, but is priced reasonably by European standards and offers great service in a preserved old-town building. While up on the meseta, a stop in León is well worth your time.

Gracias Dr. Velasco

One of the great progressive arguments that has survived until today is that without universal state-funded public schools, the majority of children would not receive an education and would instead suffer in ignorance and poverty. It’s an argument that has obviously been pretty successful in the West over the last century. Education in Western countries has across the board become a function of the state, to be paid for at tax-payer expense. The push towards state-run public education in the U.S. has likewise been relentless, so much so that even most “conservatives” wouldn’t dare question the status-quo public-school apparatus. Karl Marx, who made the demand for universal public education clear in his manifesto, would be pleased.

However, I was reminded the other day (by a state education functionary no less) that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Cántabros and Asturianos founded local private schools for the education of poor children. During that era many young men from northern Spain emigrated to the Americas (mainly Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) in search of opportunity and work. While not all prospered, many achieved great financial success in the New World and later returned to their native Spain in old age. On their return, they were dubbed the indianos for having made their life in America. The specific example that I was reminded of was that of a man named Doctor Velasco from Laredo. Velasco made his wealth in Uruguay as a prestigious surgeon and returned to his native town to found a school for the children of working-class fisherman who otherwise could not have afforded it. The building still stands honorably in town.

The example of Doctor Velasco is quite interesting to me when so much of the common wisdom says that it’s in society’s interest for the state to assume the role of educator. Clearly, here is an example of how even the poorest in a small fishing town received education without the state. Yet today in Spain, the faith put in the centralized state-run approach to education is incredible. And yet while the universal public education system has no doubt produced a more educated society, education itself has clearly not improved the society as a whole. An unemployment rate of over 20%, total decline of marriage and family, and youth delinquency are serious and obvious problems.

And in the United States, more money is spent by the government every year on education, yet the overall competence of students is clearly declining. The failure of public schools, especially those in urban areas, is alarming and well documented. I argue that civil society will do a much better job at providing education, from churches to even secular benefactors. The example of Doctor Velasco is a great inspiration.