Wow, have the last few weeks been busy! I spent three weeks before arriving in Spain traveling Europe rather than making weekend trips all over the continent like many of my study abroad peers are choosing to do because I wanted to become intimately familiar with the city and region in which I am situated, to be more focused on Basque culture specifically, rather than jet setting to every famous European site. While friends’ tales of Oktoberfest and Romania might be interesting, I am glad I made my choice. And let me tell you, I have not lacked for travel destinations nearby!
This is my first weekend just chilling in Bilbao after spending the past three moving around and exploring other parts of Spain (and France) by bus! The first was my trip to Madrid, described in my previous post. In this post, I am mostly going to fill you in on my trips to San Sebastian, Vittoria-Gastiez, southern France, and Guernica.
My first trip was with a large group of friends to Bilbao’s sister city, San Sebastian, recognized as the other cultural capital of Bizkaia, the province of Basque Spain in which they are both located. San Sebastian is a much more high-end touristy town than Bilbao, with designer shops and gourmet restaurants, and every opportunity to feel fancy. Any weekend would have been a fabulous time to visit this ocean-side town, with its lovely beaches, superb shopping, and pintxos (Basque tapas) bars, renowned nation-wide for their creativity and quality. We got lucky, though, and went on the weekend of the San Sebastian International Film Festival. The town was bustling with international film critics and stars, with dozens of independent movies playing in venues across town. American movie stars Josh Hutcherson and Denzel Washington were there that day to receive awards! We like to think that even if we didn’t see them, perhaps they saw us! Of course, we had to go see a movie. We basically picked at random the first film we could find in Spanish with English subtitles, not really concerned with what type of movie we saw but simply want to have the experience of seeing an artsy independent film at a festival. Well, artsy and random is in fact what we got with “Gente Buena,” a Columbian film about a kid from the slums of Bogota sent to live with his deadbeat dad, who tries hard to take care of his son, but just can’t. The story was non-linear and depressing, the scenes seemed incomplete, and the dog died at the end. So while none of us really enjoyed the movie, at least we had plenty to complain about after, which is half the point of film festivals, right? We spent the rest of the day swimming in the ocean (the last weekend warm enough to do so), and exploring the historic old town center, before hopping on an evening bus home.
After a brief sleep, I headed off the next morning for another hour long bus ride with three friends to the historically political capital of the region, Vittoria-Gastiez. Vittoria might not be worth more than a couple of hours on a normal day, with few tourist sites or museums to enjoy, and a pretty, but rather small, historic center. But we got lucky again and were visiting during the once a year Medieval Market (similar to a renaissance fair), situated in the architecturally medieval heart of the town! Super cool. Wandering among the stalls bearing artisan crafts, traditional instruments, and foods galore, we sampled cheeses, pastries, and olives to our hearts’ delight, sipping cider as wandering minstrels serenaded us along the way. It really was like stepping back in time, if you could look beyond the pushing modern crowds, and it was a thoroughly delightful afternoon.
After a busy week of classes, including our first trip to the kitchen in my gastronomy class, I was back on a bus for another busy weekend of traveling. We made Spanish Potato Tortillas, Fried Pencas (swiss chard stems stuffed with cheese), rice pudding, and served it as always with bread and Coke.
Basque culture is not exclusive to Spain and stretches into a unique region of Southern France. My study abroad program took us on a day trip to the French Basque towns of Saint Jean de Luz and Biarritz. The architectural styles of Spanish and French Basque towns could not be more different. On the French side, all houses look very much the same, but to great effect, white with stripes and shutters in the same shades of either red, green, or blue, lined up in orderly fashion along the cobblestone streets. We had brief walking tours around each town, with plenty of free time afterwards to explore, a lovely change from how overbearing the group leaders were on our Madrid trip. I made sure to buy French snacks at each stop, including croissants and cheese from a local market, a whole baguette, and some artisan chocolates! Both towns were coastal, and I put my feet in the ocean in each place. Waves there were big enough for surfing, and standing alone barefoot in the sand, jeans weighted down by salt water despite my attempts to roll them up, felt renewing. It was quite the whirlwind tour, and I hope to be able to head back to France in the coming weeks!
The second big adventure of last weekend was a guided tour to Guernica (spelled Gernika locally) and the neighboring town of Bermeo. Guernica is most famous internationally for the bombing during the Spanish Civil War that nearly destroyed it, and Picasso’s famous painting depicting that grim scene. For Basques, it holds additional political and cultural significance. Guernica was the historical epicenter of Basque self-rule, and its famous oak tree was a symbol of democracy. We toured the old parliament building, a nearby sculpture garden, and the historic center, where we witnessed a weekend market and got to glimpse some traditional Basque sports like rock lifting and wood cutting competitions which were part of a monthly cultural festival, before we were whisked off. We were only in Bermeo briefly, but it was a lovely port town, famous for its highly stacked and distinctive houses.
So it’s easy to see why after those three jam-packed weekends, I have been ready for sleeping in and down time this weekend. Yesterday I enjoyed an easy going day with friends similar to one I might have at home: taking a long walk together, finding Vietnamese food for lunch, and coming back home to watch some How I Met Your Mother together. It’s nice to have a little taste of home every now and then when I am surrounded by constant newness. I big thanks to everyone reading this from back in the US. Your support means so much to me. Thanks for keeping me in your thoughts. You are also in mine. <3