Summer is coming. In Spain, this purports to intense heat, elevated prices and swarms of sun cream-smothered and camera-wielding tourists. At least it does in the south, anyway.
The great, green and breezy north, on the other hand, provides something of an escape route for those looking to enjoy a completely different side of Spain and not wanting to die a slow and searing death.
The Asturias region, for instance, beholds acres of lush green and mountainous countryside, whereas La Rioja probably yields enough red wine to inebriate the country’s population three times over. Then there is the epic Camino de Santiago –one of Europe’s oldest, longest and most trafficked pilgrimages, starting at the French-Spanish border and concluding in Galicia’s enchanting capital, Santiago de Compostela.
All of these regions demand to be explored rigourously– particularly throughout the summer months –yet I’m ashamed to admit that since moving to Granada in 2011, I have only managed one proper visit to an area north of the capital: the Basque Country.
Compared with the familiar draws of the south– Seville, Granada, Costa del Sol etc – País Vasco almost seems like an entirely different country, from its people and language to its sights and even its smells…
Rather like the north/south divide in merry old England, people in each camp tend to scoff at the other, either seriously or just for a bit of banter, depending on the circumstances. Southerners (particularly Andaluzes) invariably claim that they are a much friendlier bunch, and that their northern counterparts are cold and unwelcoming. Northerners, on the contrary, rubbish these claims and see themselves as more open-minded, genuine and reliable, whilst branding southerners as blinkered and uncaring beneath their misleading exteriors.
I’m not sure where this feud comes from, nor whether it is a commonly held viewpoint, but I wouldn’t agree either way; I often find that it’s more of a reluctance on our part (the expat’s) to really make an effort at making and keeping Spanish friends here in the south.
In both Bilbao and San Sebastian, I was hosted by a Vasco and subsequently introduced to many others, who were all anything but cold and unwelcoming. In fact, they were so eager to practice their English and teach me various Basque words and phrases that they wouldn’t let me go home, plying me with traditional Basque cider instead. Needless to say, I felt quite welcomed.
They’re a proud lot too. Athletic Club Bilbao, who play in La Liga (Spain’s top football division), for instance, is a team solely made up of Basque born or trained players– the club’s official policy.
Tip: The now disbanded ETA group is a touchy subject in the Basque Country, as opinions are still divided on the matter of independence from the rest of Spain. Locals will be willing to chat with you about it but be careful how you broach the subject.
While Bilbao and other parts of País Vasco are great for food, San Sebastian take the award for gastronomic capital on account of its long list of Michelin star awarded restaurants. However, the Pintxo, an often elaborate, cocktail stick speared bar snack, is its real cornerstone.
The major difference between the Pintxo and the famed tapa, other than the fact that they aren’t served free (sad face), is the way they are piled up on plates along the bar for people to pick at as they please. Customers are expected to keep track of what they’ve had and pay their dues before they leave– another testament to the integrity of the Basque people. Occasionally you’ll find that your cocktail sticks are counted as plates are collected so as to avoid any misgivings but the system generally works very well.
What’s on the menu? Impossible to say really, since they are all constantly changing. My favourite was a sheep’s cheese and wild mushroom risotto and a tuna stuffed bell pepper, but there were others that I didn’t quite have the stomach for: the pig trotters sprinkled with dried apple crumbs, for instance.
If tracking down good food is your number one priority when traveling, you will never want to leave once you’ve discovered San Sebastian.
Tip: For the fanciest concoctions, head to Zeruko (Calle Pescadería 10) (for pig’s trotters) and Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton 12), or La Mejillonera (Calle del Puerto 15) to satisfy your seafood cravings and soak up a local and friendly atmosphere.
We all do our best to learn a few obligatory words and phrases no matter where we travel to; it’s respectful, fun and rewarding all at the same time. But Basque, or Euskera, as it is referred to in País Vasco, requires some serious tongue twisting. Forget any French or Spanish you might know– Euskera is like neither of them. It’s like nothing at all actually, and it’s a wonder that it has survived for this long.
If, like me, you’ve an unswerving curiosity where all peculiar languages are concerned, then the thought of hearing this mysterious language actually being spoken among natives will excite you quite a lot. In reality though, it’s not spoken much at all within Basque cities; you generally have to head out into the campo to hear it at long, uninterrupted lengths. Nevertheless, it is written all around you and locals will only be too glad to teach you a few phrases if you ask them for some.
Here are a few –all utterly different to their Spanish translations –which I picked up in my time in El País Vasco:
Kaixo – Hello
Zer moduz – How are you?
Garargado bat – One beer
Bi garagardo – Two beers
Mezedez – Please
Eskerrik asko – Thank you
Ez dago zergaitik – You’re welcome
Agur – Goodbye
See what I mean?
Tip: Try ordering a drink or bocadillo from an Euskera written menu in Euskera. Your pronunciation will probably be woeful, but you might get one on the house for trying…
What struck me as most unusual and decidedly attractive about El País Vasco was its smell. We don’t get much grass in Andalucía but there is an abundance of it in the Basque Country, so it is in constant need of being cut. The whiff of freshly cut grass is something I am used to in the Peak District where I grew up but certainly not in Spain. Bizarre yet utterly gratifying.
People don’t go to País Vasco for the smell though. They go for this:
There’s no denying that The Guggenheim museum has put Bilbao firmly on the map. Before the ultra-contemporary structure was built in 1997, Bilbao was more of a cultural backwater and blighted by its association with the ETA. Nowadays, tourists flock in droves to Bilbao, where The Guggenheim represents the nucleus of a city bursting with creativity and urban development.
The curved museum features a combination of permanent and visiting exhibits by both Spanish and international artists and various works dotted around it, like the enormous spider or the colourful hedge trimmed to look like a puppy. The scale of work on display is quite imposing, even for those of us who don’t consider ourselves art enthusiasts. When I visited there was a brilliant pop art exhibition featuring the famous One Hundred and Fifty Multicoloured Marilyns by Andy Warhol, though I was prevented from taking any photos due to the museum’s strict no cameras policy.
In contrast, San Sebastian features more of the familiar, old-school Spanish architecture; a mix of 19th century towers, domes and steeples, French-revival mansard rooftops, Neoclassical columns and intricately sculpted doorways, much of which, rather confusingly, can be found in the city’s New Town.
On a summer’s day, San Seb’s Playa de La Concha, complete with its own island, fills with beach bums and surfers looking for mighty Atlantic swells that frequent the coastline.
Tip: For a chance to burn off a few of the calories no doubt garnered from a staple intake of Pintxos, hike up Monte Urgull, one of the three hilltops that dominate the bay’s landscape, for sweeping views of the city and the bay beneath. (It’s the one with the giant Jesus statue on top of it).
The average maximum temperature in northern Spain during the summer is 25˚C, meaning you don’t sweat yourself dry and you are actually able to sleep at night, unlike in the extremely sticky south.
If going at any other time of year, prepare to get very wet. Rainfall during the autumn, winter and spring can be pretty relentless in El País Vasco due to anticyclones here and polar maritime air currents there and so on. There is even a special word used to describe, as Peter Kaye would put it, ‘that fine rain that soaks you through’– ‘txirimiri’. I first heard it used here in Granada, and –since I’d never seen it written down before –hadn’t realised it originated from the Basque Country (all those ‘tx’ spellings indicate Basque origin, you see). So don’t scrimp on umbrellas or wellies.
Tip: If it is raining when you’re in País Vasco, don’t stay indoors and wait for it to blow over, as it probably won’t for a few days. Go out and brave the downpour or risk missing the sights.
Bilbao and San Sebastian are by far the most popular tourist destinations of the Basque Country, but bear in mind that there is a lot more to see. Vitoria-Gasteiz, the region’s capital, has its own draws and is a welcome relief from the expense of the other two cities. Further along the coast is Bermeo, home to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a tiny 10th century hermitage perched on an islet that is connected to the mainland by a weaving bridge built on rocks.
All these aspects make El País Vasco well worth visiting and, given the indisputable loveliness of its food and grassy scenery, a literal breath of fresh air.