Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Basque Coast

The Basque coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao offers some of the most stunning scenery I’ve seen so far. The road takes me along sheer cliff edges, through small fishing villages, beside rivers and estuaries and sometimes through rolling pasture or dense pine forest. Each bend rounded gives a new perspective on this region and tells tales of geology, history, religion and daily life of the local people.

One of the first fishing ports I pass is Geteria. It doesn’t look like much, but a tiny island joined to the mainland catches my eye. It is known locally as Raton de Geteria (The Mouse of Geteria), supposedly due to its unusual shape. However, from my cliff top viewpoint just past the town, I fail to see any resemblance. Geteria is also the birthplace of Juan Sebastian Elcano, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe. A three year voyage which ended in Seville on 6th September 1522.

mutriku football 2

There are several interesting towns along this stretch of coast but the one which made my jaw drop was Mutriku, whose terraced houses clung to the steep slopes of the Arno Mountain and where the football pitch is surrounded by blocks of flats which probably have the best seats in the house. It is also the birthplace of Cosme Damián Churruca, a brave naval officer who died at the Battle of Trafalgar.

DSCF5982I decide to stay overnight at the fishing village of Lekeitio and I couldn’t have picked a better spot. This charming port has an interesting old town of narrow cobbled streets with overhanging balconies where sheets and clothes hang drying, giving off an aroma of fresh laundry. Down by the port is the austere Basilica de la Asuncion de Santa Maria, with a gothic-Flemish 16th century alter piece that gives me a headache to look at DSCF5993and probably RSI for the poor cleaners who are attempting to clean it with multi-coloured feather dusters. To clear my head I follow the stone pathway, marked by’ the way of the cross’, to the top of Mount Lumentza. I’m rewarded for my efforts with a stunning view of the village, the port, the beach and the small wooded island of St Nicolas which can only be reached at low tide.

The next day I have to head inland following the River Gernika to the town of the same name. Between the town and the sea estuary is a UNESCO biosphere Reserve, a haven for wildlife, birdlife and twitcher. There is even a Bird Centre at Urdaibai, for research into the birds and their habitats, and to better understand how they can be protected. Strangely, it’s the only place that I haven’t seen much birdlife.

DSCF6149 - BermeoWhere the river meets the sea, I find the town of Bermeo, a former capital of the Basque region and still an important fishing port with many canning and freezing factories. I decide to get lost wandering around the old town and stumble upon a number of bronze statues, each with a tale to tell. On either side of the Arch of San Juan I find a woman with a basket of fish on her head, and overlooking the port, a small group looking out to sea accompanied by the phrase:

Bermeo Bronzes“Always watchful of the sky and the sea.

Often going through tense, anxious times.

And then they say fish is expensive.”

Below, at the port, is another bronze scene of a boy, a dog and a desperate looking man. It apparently tells the tale of a 1912 shipwreck survivor, found by the boy and his dog. Vicious storms are not uncommon in the region. In fact 255 seamen perished in a storm off Bermeo in 1870. The final bronze, outside the Cloister Chirch of San Francisco, is of a donkey, a woman and a girl carrying apples and churns of milk.

DSCF6183On the third day I continue to follow the coast, climbing through forests of pine and eucalyptus and descending to small port villages. Although the sky is grey I have a wonderful view of the Chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, perched on a rocky island and reached by a flight of 231 stone steps. Inside are offerings made by sailors who have survived a shipwreck and it is said that if you ring the bell of the chapel 13 times your wish will come true. Unfortunately, I can’t test that theory as the chapel is closed while repair work is carried out on the steps.

DSCF6197 - LemoizJust before I reach the tiny coastal village of Armintza I come across a sight that is not mentioned in any guidebook or local tourist information. I find out later that it is the unfinished and abandoned nuclear power station of Lemoiz. The site was opposed by ETA who attacked it several times in the late 1970s and finally kidnapped and executed the chief engineer in January 1981. Huge power lines still stretch across the hills on either side, not providing power to anyone.

Finally I reach the beach resorts of Gorliz, Plentzia and Sopelana, all offering a metro station serving the city of Bilbao. I can see smoke rising on the horizon and huge tankers moored in the sheltered bay. Signs of a large industrial centre, but I hope to find the historical and cultural heart of the city.

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Stuck in San Sebastian

I can think of worse places to be stuck while Trixie waits for a new front wheel bearing, but San Sebastian (or Donostia as it is known locally) is actually a relaxed city with plenty of options whatever the weather. Although the sky is thick with grey cloud and the temperature is a chilly 5° C, the rain has withdrawn.

DSCF5935I’ve walked along the promenade to La Perla, the beachfront spa, but sessions are unsurprisingly expensive. The restaurant too is eye-wateringly costly, though it does boast gourmet dining. I end up in the Café de la Concha for an equally expensive coffee but then it is warm and offers a 180° view of the bay. To the east are the old town and port, nestled under the wooded Mount Urgull and the grand figure of Jesus Christ who looks down from the peak. The soft sandy beach stretches in a 3 km crescent to Mount Igueldo with its skyline Rapunzel tower and amusement park reached by 100-year old funicular. Finally, in the centre of the bay is the tiny island of Santa Clara, but no boats are visiting today.

DSCF5932The other diners in the café are not Spanish. A German couple order coffee and cake while they peruse the tourist map and a Russian couple argue over something but I have no idea what they are saying. There is lift-style muzak playing in the background which is quite unsuitable for the setting. I would have preferred some Jazz myself.

I try to make my coffee last as long as possible but this is not Starbucks and the tiny cup only lasts me 30 mins before I have to think about leaving and venturing back into the cold like Scott in the Antarctic. A muzak version of Robbie Williams’ “Angels” soon spurs me into action.

A Local Taverna

I’m sitting in the corner of a busy taverna in the tiny village of Igueldo, a few kilometres from San Sebastian. It’s Sunday lunchtime and the locals are coming straight from the church to the bar with their young families in tow. The men and women form separate groups as they talk about their own subjects. I can only guess that the women are chatting about family and local gossip while the men are debating the finer points of yesterday’s football match. Some of the men are wearing the traditional black Basque beret, pulled forward in a peak. One, possibly the local butcher, is still wearing an apron.

They are all gathering for a social drink before the main event of the day – Sunday Lunch with all the family and friends. It makes me feel rather lonely, especially as I can’t even start a conversation with them. But it is fun to observe their animated conversations and they don’t make me feel like a stranger. In fact I feel very welcome. In general, the women are drinking white wine, while the men have tall glasses of cider poured from a height to aerate it and intensify the flavour.  Just as one group leaves, another arrives and it is a constant carousel of local life.

The taverna is solidly built with stone walls and thick timbers across the ceiling pockmarked with termite holes. There are only a few tables and chairs and most people seem to prefer standing at the bar or the counter along the rear wall. A large TV in the corner is showing a basketball match and the music varies from Celtic flute to heavy metal, though it can barely be heard above the lively discussions.

Spanish Dining – A Leap of Faith

DSCF5907I’m having a pleasant day strolling around the city of San Sebastian. It’s Saturday, the weather has improved and everyone is out strolling the promenade and browsing in the shops for some Christmas gift inspiration. The old town bars are full of local Real Sociedad football fans, dressed in the sky blue shirts and scarves of their team. They are enjoying a snack of pintxos and a beer before the match starts. I’m also feeling hungry so I look for a local restaurant offering a menu del dia (daily menu). San Sebastian is known for its Michelin starred fine dining, in fact I am staying only a few hundred yards from the renowned restaurant Akelarre, but I’m looking for something more authentically local and for a much smaller budget.

The first restaurant I find is up a flight of stairs in what looks like someone’s front room. Tables and chairs are squashed into every conceivable space and waitresses squeeze between them with carefully balanced trays of plates. There are tables free but I’m told they are full, or perhaps they don’t want to waste their precious table space on a single diner. I wander towards the new town and the cathedral district, where I find some more options.  Restaurant Ardandegui has a promising menu board, so I go through the door and down the stairs into the cellar. Beyond the bar, which is piled high with plates of pintxos, is a large dining area of dark wood benches. It is crowded but a large coach party of pensionistas are just leaving. The busy but calm waiter sits me at a table next to another large group of Spanish ladies who are talking so loudly and animatedly that they are drowning out the ABBA background music.

revuelto-de-setas-y-gambas-3The €13.50 menu del dia offers several choices for first and second courses. My Spanish is almost non-existent and I’ve forgotten my phrase book so I decide to take a leap of faith. I order Revuelto de Setas y Gambas (I know that gambas is prawns) and Bacalao Encebollado (I vaguely recognise the word bacalao and the waiter tells me that it is a fish). Then I patiently pick at my French baguette and sip my glass of red wine while I wait to discover what I have ordered. The Revuelto turns out to be scrambled eggs with prawns and wild mushrooms. It’s a warming and comforting way to start lunch. bacalao encebolladoMeanwhile the Spanish ladies are being served their second or main course. There is steak, chicken, fish and some kind of brown slop served in a crab shell. I pray that I haven’t ordered that! When my own main course arrives, it turns out to be cod fillet, served in a ceramic pot with caramelised onions and topped with a few frites. For dessert I order what I believe to be cheesecake. It is a very light slice of soft, white, creamy flan on a base of crushed walnuts and drizzled with caramel sauce. It seems that my leap of faith was rewarded with a delightful lunch of local food.

In the Footsteps of the Pilgrims

DSCF5849I’m leaving France and following the ancient Route of St James through the foothills of the Pyrenees. This is the path trodden by many pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela and the young woman I see with the huge backpack and walking stick must have a lot of faith to be taking this path today. The only other creatures mad enough to be outside are a few scrawny sheep. It is cold and as I climb up the valley, the road twisting and turning in hairpin bends, I begin to see the remains of snow. It’s not long before more snow appears and by the time I reach the Ibaneta pass (1057m) there is at least a foot on either side. However, the road is snow free and a few vehicles coming from the other direction give me hope that the way is clear. When I reach the village of Roncesvalles I stop to stretch my legs and give Trixie a chance to cool down. It’s a good job that my hiking boots are handy because I have to wade through the soft white layers to reach the Colegiata Real where Sancho VII the Strong is buried.

DSCF5851The route down is much easier as the snow disappears and the view opens up across the forested mountains and lush green plains. I have driven this way to visit the city of Pamplona, famous for its San Fermin festival and the running of the bulls. The only bulls I see are cast in bronze. I’ve arrived during the siesta and all the shops are closed. It’s cold here too, so I seek refuge in the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real. It is a huge place with gothic arches and intricately carved tympanums above the doorways. There is also a museum housing Roman and Islamic finds, religious art with modern visual and sound effects.

The following morning I drive to the coast along the main A15 motorway. I assume that because it’s a main route, the driving will be easier than before. How wrong could I be? Only 20 kms from Pamplona the road is lit up with warnings of snow and soon I am driving through a blizzard, the road surface white and slushy, with no sign of a snowplough or gritter. I think about pulling in at the services but perhaps it will get even worse or I will get stuck in the drifting snow, so I push on to the coast. Finally, I emerge from a long tunnel, about 20km from San Sebastian, and the snow has changed to rain. Now I can relax for a bit or at least until I reach the city limits.

A Spot of Speleology

DSCF5757I am entering the foothills of the Pyrenees, the tops of which are covered with a light dusting of snow after the overnight rain, like icing sugar on a coffee cake. It is cold but clear and the road snakes upwards to the Col-de-St-Ignace, where a tourist train takes visitors to the top of La Rhune, the highest peak in the area at 900m. But today I pass the deserted car park and empty tracks and continue on to Sare (or Sara in the Basque language), a pretty mountain village, nestled in the hills which are awash with autumnal hues, from the lush green of the meadows to the rust-coloured leaves of the trees.

DSCF5782A few kilometres on, up another winding, dead-end road, are some caves – Les Grottes de Sare. Inhabited in Neolithic times by Homo sapiens, they are now home to nine different species of bat. Much as I hate bats, I am intrigued by the caves and their two million year history.

I take the guided tour, along with a young Spanish couple, and as we enter the caves, the sound of  txalaparta echoes through the chambers. It is an ancient Basque musical instrument (similar to a xylophone) that was originally used for communication. There are not many stalactites or stalagmites, which I’m told is due to the clay layer above the limestone which keeps the caves dry. Except they are not truly dry, as the trickle of water down the walls and the flow of the steam along the floor attests to. At one point there is an interesting slide show about the myths and legends of the caves, cleverly reflected in a pool of water.

After an hour we emerge into daylight where an outdoor exhibition, using dodgy, expressionless mannequins wearing hippy wigs, provides further insight into the life and death of Neolithic man. Personally, I’m thankful to be living in the 21st Century and retire to the heated café to celebrate with a piece of Basque gateau and a warming cup of coffee.

Being Basque

Arriving in the Basque Country, I realise that I know nothing about their culture other than they speak a different language. Luckily, in Bayonne, there is a Basque Museum which seems the perfect opportunity to do a little research before I travel further into the region.

The Basque Museum is like Dr Who’s Tardis. Situated in Petit Bayonne, on the east bank of the River Nive, it is a cavernous 16th century house with well laid out displays of Basque life. There’s a lot of heavy, dark wood furniture, colourful costumes and naval exhibits, but I am more interested in the food.

ChilliChocolateIt doesn’t surprise me that the Basques are good farmers. Cattle are used to plough the fields, sheep are reared for their wool and the milk from both is used to produce cheese. Ham traditionally comes from the black pigs and migrating birds are trapped in nets or knocked out mid-flight with table-tennis shaped wooden bats. Cider is also produced from the apples and matured in barrels of oak felled in the local forests. I am surprised to find how popular chocolate is here. First mentioned in 1670 as being imported from Mexico, the area in now awash with chocolatiers. I find another Mexican import a few days later in the mountain village of Espelette, where chilli is grown and used in a variety of products such mustard, jam, biscuits, liqueurs and, of course, chocolate.

DSCF5559Basque culture reminds me a lot of Scotland and Ireland. Their music is based on drums and pipes, while their dancing is quite balletic with their feet moving as fast as a production of Riverdance. They also have dancing akin to traditional English Morris dancing with smacking sticks and waving ribbons. In sport, as well, they have feat of strength, not unlike the Scottish highland games, with tug-of-war, weightlifting and chopping through tree trunks.

pelote_instrumentsAnd then there is Pelota – the national game. It is a complicated and dangerous sport and I find out more after a visit to the Museum of Pelota in St Pee-sur-Nivelle. There are several types of court of varying length. The smallest indoor court is very similar to that of real tennis at Hampton Court Palace, while the outdoor court is a huge marked area in front of a large arch-shaped wall. Teams of two or three play each other using a variety of bats/gloves and a hard ball made of wool and leather. The way in which the leather is stitched is similar to a baseball ball. I was unable to watch a live game but videos in the museum certainly created the excitement of a local contest. Unfortunately, despite all my attempts to educate myself, I still don’t have a clue about the rules and have no idea who is winning.