Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Más España! -- Pais Vasco -- September 22 - 30, 2016

We are now back in Sacramento, California to finish up some U.S.-based stuff before heading home to Abracadabra. We have been yammering on to anyone who will listen (and others who pretend to) about how much we enjoyed Spain. For those out of yammering range here’s a post about the third portion of our Spanish sojourn.

Euskadi / Pais Vasco (Eng.: Basque Country)

Pais Vasco (in Basque: Euskadi) is an Autonomous Community within the borders of Spain. Its three provinces, Alava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa, are bordered to the north and east by the Bay of Biscay and France. During our eight-day visit to Pais Vasco we gained only a vague understanding of the complex legal and political ramifications of Basque autonomy but a great appreciation of Basque culture and, in particular Basque cuisine.

This area was also our first experience with multi-lingual Spain (Spain has five co-official languages). Euskera, the Basque language, is a language isolate spoken by about 700,000 people. We could only equate it with hearing Gaelic: beautiful, lilting and totally beyond our comprehension. Fortunately for us almost everyone in Pais Vasco is also able to speak Castellano (which most English speakers call “Spanish”).

Bilbao, Biscay, September 22 – 25, 2016

Bilbao is the largest city in Pais Vasco but known primarily as the home of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum; and for good reason: the building dominates the city’s waterfront and tourist reputation. 

Guggenheim Bilbao

And Again

We walked around the building several times and toured the interior, concluding after much debate that, even though we thought the cold, echo-y corporate headquarters feeling interior was a big "eh" - we enjoyed the exterior as a sculpture.    

The museum’s audio guide begins with what was, for us, a tiresome adulation of Frank Gehry (the building’s architect). Molly began to giggle during the recording of him blathering on about the fish scales of his childhood. Now if, unlike us, you get the whole fish scale / Gehry as A God of Architecture thing – ignore the following. But for those who have a similar negative reaction to the audio guide we offer this suggestion: Fast forward to the Richard Serra sculpture discussion or turn it off. Visit the exhibits you are interested in and then go outside and across the river. Consider the exterior from a distance. Think of whether it works as a sculpture rather than whether you like it as a building. Walk around it during various times of the day and watch the light change it. We came to believe it was really lovely. Still unclear on the fish scales, though.


The building isn’t the only interesting sculpture at the museum. We enjoyed wandering through a display of monstrous sculptures by Richard Serra which occupies much of the museum’s permanent collection space. It has a fun-house aspect. Don’t forget to look up!

More Sculpture

From Inside The Sculpture

When We Say Monstrous, We Mean Monstrous!
[Photo Credit: Martin Roysher]

The Guggenheim is often credited with jump-starting Bilbao’s present incarnation as a tourist and cultural center. But it’s not the only reason to visit Bilbao.

          Not Just The Guggenheim

Bilbao has a very pleasant and efficient tram system which covers most of the tourist zone. There is a beautiful and busy theater (Teatro Arriaga), a very nice central square in the old city and more museums than we could take in during our short stay (heresy of heresies, we were so busy we even missed a maritime museum!).

We did enjoy:

The city’s waterfront, which is a wonderful place to stroll and home to some lovely buildings not designed by Gehry.

Along The Waterfront

Sweeping Bridge

The mostly-Baroque Iglesia-Catedral de Santiago (constructed primarily in the 15th Century) in the city’s old town is very nice.

Bryce (6'1" - 2") Providing Perspective
Below A Plaque Commemorating a
Devastating 1983 Flood
Photo Credit: Martin Roysher

What's a Cathedral Without A Gargoyle Or Two?

The Basque Museum (Museo Vasco / Euskal Suseoa Bilbao) doesn’t have state-of-the-art interactive exhibits found in well-funded modern museums, but through its dioramas and artifacts we got a good sense of why many Basques think of themselves as Basque first and Spanish only secondarily, if at all. Like many museums in Spain, it’s located in a beautiful former Jesuit convent. [The Jesuits were expelled from Spain at the same time they were expelled from Mexico (1767) and left a ton of good real estate available for re-purposing.]

Then there’s Basque food. Seafood fans will be particularly happy and those who are fond of octopus and squid - ecstatic.


In Pais Vasco tapas (small plates) are served along side pintxos (Spanish – pinchos; Eng. pron: peenchohs). Pintxos are bar snacks made of toppings (marinated cod, ham croquettes, cheese, fried peppers – or all of the above) pinned to a piece of bread by a wooden skewer or “pincho” (Spanish for “spike”). We have read that, traditionally, one pintxo is served as a free snack with each drink ordered and that a bar is often known for its particular pintxo. 

Our experience was a little different: We saw patrons picking and choosing from platters of various pintxos displayed on the bar or in little refrigerated cases on the bar. Patrons then paid based on the number of empty skewers on their plate when they settled their tab. Even better for those who lack the spirit of adventure necessary to enjoy standing at a bar and reaching past one’s fellow revelers to grab food –  many bars now have a pintxos menu that is served at a table. Not so authentic maybe, but more comfortable.


We had a particularly nice time in Bilbao because we were able to join our friends Christina and Martin who were touring in France, Spain and England for several weeks. It’s always fun to share a good time, some wine and some pinxtos with friends.

Christina, Bryce and Martin Plotting Our Day

Molly and Christina
Contemplating the Guggenheim
 From Afar

          Sunday In The Square

On Sunday morning our friends departed for a cross-Pyrenees driving adventure and we had a few hours to wait for our bus to San Sebastian. We debated whether to fit in another museum or to drink coffee and watch life unfold in the central square. We chose the latter and enjoyed Sunday in the Square very much:

Birds For Sale

Lucky Peruvian Guinea Pig -
Not Likely To Be For Dinner in Spain

Coin Collectors

Book Collectors

And Musicians From Afar

And that was our time in Bilbao. If you go, consider staying at the Petite Palace, an English chain of mid-priced hotels. The one in Bilbao is located on the edge of the old town. Our room was tidy, modern and adequate – though this chain seems to save money by using frosted glass sheets to build out their bathrooms. A bit odd, that. The breakfast space in the attic was crowded and hot by mid-morning but, for those who enjoy watching human behavior breakfast was entertaining.

Donostia / San Sebastian, Gipuzkoa, September 25-30, 2016

From Bilbao we took a bus (train connections were complicated) to the culinary capital of Pais Vasco (and some think, Europe), a lovely town on the Bay of Biscay – San Sebastian (in Euskera: Donostia).

Gros Beach

On our first evening in this culinary mecca we checked into Pension Koursaal and, we confess, took our pinxtos- and tapas-soaked palates out for a pizza and a salad. Sometimes culinary adventure is just too much.


The Pension Koursaal is located in the beachfront neighborhood of Gros across the Urumea river from the city’s main tourist area. We really enjoyed Gros. It is a short walk from the tourist zone and generally quieter and less expensive, and home to a nice laundromat (there aren’t that many in Spain, we learned), several coffee bars and dozens of more modestly priced restaurants. 

Our room at the pension even came with free entertainment. Several bus tour companies used a spot right below our window to unloaded their charges – without consideration of the local drivers. Each morning we watched the poor commuters of Donostia become more and more frustrated in their attempts to go about their daily lives as bus drivers stopped and unloaded crowds of slow-moving, completely oblivious tourists.

Traffic, What Traffic?

Ah, the love/hate relationship those living in a tourist town must have with visitors! Our take-away: Spanish road rage involves almost as many shrugs and hand gestures as Italian road rage, with slightly fewer blaring horns. 

          Touristic Activities

We enjoyed wandering across the tidal Urumea on the Maria Cristina bridge,

Rio Urumea

through the city’s medieval section to the waterfront. You can take the sailors off their boat but . . .

We scoped out the docking options


and the local sport/working fishing fleet of cute little fat dories.

Bathtub Toys Brought To Life

We ate a basic but delicious grilled fish meal at a dock-side restaurant (but we do have a vegetable - we have fried potatoes) and watched fellow tourists wander by.

Contrary to our General Tourist Practices we visited the Aquarium de Donostia-San Sebastian (we usually pass on aquariums because we have visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium often enough to consider ourselves thoroughly aquarium spoiled). We were pleasantly surprised by this aquarium. It has lots of species of local sea life . . .

Lucky Cuttlefish -
We Probably Ate His Cousin One Night

. . . but, best for us, one floor is a museum that provides information on the maritime heritage of the Basque province of Gipuzkoa.

Another afternoon we wandered along the beach at Gros, spending a lot of time watching two young guys roll a huge (4’ or 5’ diameter) ball onto the beach and bury it in the sand. Bryce won the “what do you suppose they are doing” contest when it turned out that the object of all their effort was to create an object onto which they could fling themselves. Hmmm. Maybe Basque girls are impressed by giant ball vaulting?

A Challenge Is A Challenge . . . 

          Culinary Activities

We did finally get around to having some culinary adventures. One afternoon, after wandering along the docks, we stopped for a delicious menu del dia (daily special) at a randomly chosen restaurant in the old town that caused us to once again violate our General Tourist Practices. We don’t usually take pictures of our food – but this time we succumbed to photo temptation:

Food As Art

Three courses and a bottle of good wine for 25 Euros. It’s a great country.
Our other food-picture event was at the local market. These people love seafood – you can tell that from their market displays:

Fish As Art

          An Active Activity

Our favorite day involved a walk to the nearby village of Pasaia. It was a beautiful walk, if somewhat more challenging than we had been led to believe by the guy at the tourist office. He told us that it was about 4 kilometers to Pasaia and gave us a map which showed one, very clearly marked path. Both he and the map-maker were misinformed.

Bryce - Walking

The walk – more of a scramble in places – was very much worth the effort. But If you do decide to take this walk don’t forget to bring a flashlight. There is a long, dark, damp, squishy-bottomed tunnel somewhere between Donostia and Pasaia which may not actually be on The Official Trail, but was on Our Trail. Just a hint.

At the end of our walk was a spectacular entry along the Pasaia shipping channel

Pasaia To The Right

and a cold beer and tapas on the waterfront.

Sharing Our View With Some Local Women

The purpose of our walk was not only to enjoy the scenery but  to visit the Factoria Maritima Vasca Albaola (Albaola Basque Maritime Factory) where workers are building a replica of the San Juan, a Basque whaling ship that sank in Red Bay, Newfoundland in 1565. Cod. It was all about Cod.

The Skeleton of the San Juan

It's Coming Together

The Abaola site includes a lovely thank you to members of the Parks Canada Underwater Archeology team which has apparently worked closely with the Albaola factory. We now have another reason to visit Newfoundland: to visit the Red Bay National Historic Site.

The museum at Albaola provides information about Basque cod fishing and whaling. In Newfoundland, cod fishing was done in dories. After the fish were dried and salted on shore they were packed into larger ships like the San Juan for transport back to Pais Vasco. When the San Juan was resurrected by Parks Canada a full skeleton of a fishing dory was found lying beneath the larger ship. At Albaola several of these dories are also under construction.

Building Dories

Traditional Tools
(Though We Did See Some Electrical Tools In Use)

Aerial View

Molly - Clueless

In sum: Visitors can spend time in Donostia dining in Michelin-starred restaurants (there are 11 Michelin stars in this one relatively small city – more stars per meter than in Paris!) or just enjoying the other restaurants as we did; walking the beach (or even swimming in the right season); touring museums; doing laundry; and hiking. It’s truly a lovely place – we high recommend that you put it on your To Visit list.

Next: More hiking and another language to confuse us – in Catalonia.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a beautiful part of Spain! You are so wise and lucky to spend a long time in each region you visit. I love your "art" photos. And I love that you love España!