...THE most beautiful part of Spain!
26.10.2005 15 °C
Autumn just smells different. The leaves, fresh rain, a fireplace burning somewhere or someone cooking, and more leaves all mesh together and its one of the few scents Illuminations hasn’t figured out how to put in a candle yet. Then there are the sounds. Leaves falling, being kicked around or raked, dogs on walks, kids all bundled up in parks, chitter-chatter when familiar faces pass each other on the streets, grandparents cooing at their grandkids in those old fashioned baby carriages, the clanking of bread pans as they take them out of the oven and one by one place the bread on the racks in the windows and behind the counter so you can pick yours out and take it home for that days meals. And best of all there are those innocent bystanders (aka tourists) who get to take it all in!
If that picture wasn’t the most clichéd description of fall, then I don’t know what is, but in all honesty, that is what País Vasco (Basque Country) of Spain looks like. This weekend I hopped a bus to Málaga, stayed for one night in the cute little coastal town in southern Andalucía before catching my plane bright and early the next morning (yeah, that’s right, I was up at 4am on the first day of my weekend). But, the nice thing about early morning flights is they give you the rest of the day at your final destination. So, I arrived in Bilbao, where I met Kiki (the same friend from home that I have gotten to see for the last 3 weekends...my life rocks!!), and her roommate Clancey, and we hopped on a bus to destination #1 in País Vasco: San Sebastian. The Basque call it Donostía, but during Franco´s Fascist regime, he refused to let the Basque differentiate themselves from the rest of Spain, and was called San Sebastian instead.
When you arrive in Donstía, you first drive through the beautiful green mountains and rolling hillsides, very Celtic. Then past some small herds of sheep and goats, very ‘Heidi’, before popping out into the small (170,000 people) town just south of the French border on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The population here quadruples in the summer months, but we thoroughly enjoyed missing the crowds and took the town at a leisurely pace. Our pension (different from a hostal in that hostals are usually entire buidings and are run by a company, pensions are people renting out rooms on a floor that they own…but not as sketchy as they sound) was great. It was located right in the heart of the old town, Parte Vieja, in the middle of all the shopping, tapas bars, old stone Baroque cathedral, Bahía de la Concha, and River Urumea. Prime locale!
We set our stuff down and headed out to explore, heading towards the famous beaches of the Bahía de la Concha (Bay of the Shell). ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS are the two words best describing San Sebastian. If you like the beach this is the place for you. If you like the mountains, likewise. If you have a hankering for the small town feel, get lost in old town, or cross the river and you can be in the ‘big city’ with the Kursaal Conference Center, or fit right into Basque life while picking up your groceries and flowers at the small market in the barrio Gros (Gros neighbourhood). Anyway, our walk took us around the horseshoe shaped bay to the Palacio Miramar, whose green lawns you can see from across the bay. As we are accustomed to the tradition of siesta here in Spain, we headed back for a little R&R when the shops closed up for siesta.
When dinner time rolls around in Basque Country, the chefs roll up their sleeves and go to town. In País Vasco, tapas is done differently, and I like it. It has all the appeal of a buffet, getting to see what your food looks like before eating it and only taking exactly what you want in the exact amount you want it. The camarero (bartender/waiter) hands you a large plate and you stroll down the bar where all the tapas are laid out. Montaditos and bocadillos (small sandwiches) with all sorts of seafood and veggies, Spanish tortilla, crab cakes on toast, pastry tarts filled with seafood salad, ham, of course, and more! We each grabbed a plate and took a few to try. I am a huge fan of artichoke hearts Spanish style…just finely chop up lots of onion and red and green pepper and with a little olive oil dump it all on top of skewered artichoke hearts..enjoy! We felt the need to walk off our dinner passing by plenty of other tapas bars laid out the same way. The people just spill into the streets, mostly standing and just talking, sipping, and munching on yummy foods.
We headed back towards the bay to see it all lit up and, oh wow, it was still gorgeous! I love this part of Spain, my motivation to leave just kept declining as the weekend went on too! After our small walk we had cleared out enough room in our tummies for some ice cream. We found the best ice cream place in all of Spain on the main road, and after many many many minutes of indecisiveness, I picked Avellana (hazelnut) and Leche Merengada (the ice cream version of leche canela limon) to finish off the night!
Saturday morning we woke up to the hussle and bustle of small town mornings. From out our window we could see all the little old ladies pulling behind them their little carts, soon to be full of yummy things from the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker (well, not really, but people do buy their meat at one store, their veggies at another, and their bread at yet another…gotta love the Spanish inefficiency, especially in small towns). We headed out for the day to Monte Igueldo, peak on the far side of the bay from us. We walked along the ‘boardwalk’ again, and decided, after seeing a ridiculous amount of runners, that if you are under 45 and living in San Sebastian, you have to run!!! And I don’t mean brisk walk or light jog, you better run!
We got to Monte Igueldo and took the funicular (a train on tracks at 45ª) to the top to see the most gorgeous views of the city. From the bay to the mountains far beyond the city, and 300ª around, San Sebastian was, again, absolutely beautiful. We decided to walk back down and back towards the Parte Vieja for lunch. On the way we passed the 3 types of people that come/live in San Sebastian. Type 1: 65 and older adorable couples with matching outfits (including swimsuits and caps) that happily and leisurely enjoy life and everything in it (Although, Grandma and Grandpa, these guys dont have anything on you…you guys are way cuter, and much younger of course!) Type 2: Shout out to all the young families, this is where you should be in the first years of your child/children´s lives. As long as you dress them all in matching outfits and take them to the park for hours on end, you can pass for Basque. Type 3: the hopelessly romantic couples who are of course all over each other, but not in the gross, over-obsessive way they are in the rest of Spain, its much cuter because everyone looks like they stepped out of the pages of a J.CREW catalogue.
So, now that we have established that we couldn’t stand out anymore, we took shelter under an umbrella at a table in the plaza for some bocadillos. The day got more exciting from there. The table next to us had finished eating and paid the tab, leaving it on the table, as is customary here. As soon as they had walked away, this shady guy walks by and grabs the money and runs off, out of the plaza and around the corner. The waiter runs after him but came back empty handed. We witnessed a Spanish robbery! Not that Im proud of it, but definitely a new experience. When we finished we took our tab up to the bar to pay and headed out to walk around. After exhausting the streets in the Gros, and watching every last shop close up for siesta we went back to the pension, climbed up the 2 stories (in Spain that means anywhere from 2 to 5 flights of stairs) just in time to escape the rain. The rest of the night was a relaxing combination of more eating, relaxing, ice cream (more eating), and people watching.
The next day we headed back to Bilbao. We hopped the bus and arrived in Bilbao and headed to the Guggenheim museum (also in Italy and New York). The Architecture of the building is the real attraction. The exhibits are rotating but the building, made of limestone covered in titanium tiles is the real attraction. Designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997 the building looks like a silver version of the Sydney Opera House that sort of reorganized itself so that all the arches are pointing in different directions. Gehry said he was inspired by carp, a fish from his childhood memories, and the river and fountains that surround the museum support this theme. We walked around, taking it in from all aspects before doing the classic tourist move, skipped the museum exhibits and shot straight to the gift shop for postcards of this modern, 21st century, piece of art!
The rest of the day consisted of walking around the city including its old town, called Casca Vieja, but by 2pm the crowds had died out and the ‘Sunday’ thing set in. There was nothing to do. We spent the day wandering aimlessly and sitting in the park. People watching was the extent of our activity for the rest of the day until I walked Kiki and Clancey back to the bus station! After a great weekend it was time for them to head back to Salamanca. My flight didn’t leave until the next morning, so after sending them off I headed back towards my hostal. As it got dark, the crowds came out again. I passed by a gorgeous church and decided to stop inside to find mass just about to begin. The church itself was gorgeous, elaborately decorated in pinks, blues, and golds with a lively congregation and an amazing trio of singers. Even more surprising was how much I understood what was being said. Following the mass is simple, same mass I have been to for the last 20 years of my life, but knowing what the readings said, and what the homily was about was really rewarding, (a) because mass just makes you feel good, and (b) because my Spanish has come that far!!
Afterward, feeling pretty good about myself, I strolled the lively streets of Bilbao before calling it a night. Monday morning was a different story. The place was all hustle and bustle with people off to work and wherever else Spaniards go during the day! I made my way through the crowds and caught my bus to the airport to head back to Córdoba. Not, that this whole experience isnt one big vacation, because for the most part it feels like that, but this weekend was especially relaxing, and i feel like i got a real vacation.