Travels & Traditions: The Basque Region, Spain - #1006

BURT WOLF: The Basque country straddles the border between southwest France and northeast Spain, but except for their passports the Basques are neither French nor Spanish -- they are Basque. They speak the oldest European language still spoken, so old that no one can tell where it came from. We don’t even know where the Basques came from. Scientific tests indicate that the Basques have a different bloodline than their neighbors in Spain and France. They also have a distinct and interesting culture and they do all they can to keep their traditions alive.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Basques have lived on the Iberian Peninsula for thousands of years, but the two most important historic influences on Spain -- a three-hundred year colonization by the ancient Romans, and a seven-hundred year occupation by the Moors -- were hardly noticed by the Basques.

BURT WOLF: The Basques lived in small isolated villages and governed with a democracy in which the residents of a house voted as a unit rather than as individuals. That sense of family group has been central to their history. There are four Basque provinces in Spain and three just across the border in France. These days the two most interesting cities for a tourist are San Sebastian and Bilbao.  Since medieval times Bilbao has been an important trading port.

At first the city shipped wool from the sheep farms of northern Spain. During the 1800s iron mining became important, and the city evolved into an industrial center for steel mills, shipbuilding and chemical production.  It was a commercial city and clearly not a destination for tourists.

But that has completely changed. Today Bilbao is Spain’s fourth largest city and a major tourist attraction. For many travelers, the standard European tour, usually limited to London, Paris and Rome, now includes Bilbao.  The change was the result of imaginative urban planning and the belief that a single building could be the catalyst for the rebirth of an entire community.

Because of its size, the Guggenheim Museum in New York can only present five percent of its collection at any one time. Yet the traditional model for a museum calls for it to constantly make new acquisitions, which just leads to more art in the storerooms.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the late 1980s, the board of directors of the Guggenheim Museum decided to continue its acquisition activities, but at the same time look for new sites to present their collection. They already had one in Venice, and they opened two new ones in New York City, and one in Berlin. In 1991 they were negotiating with Salzburg Austria when the Basque government began making their pitch. And the Basques had a couple of good points. Salzburg already had a major international music festival and hundreds of thousands of tourists came there every year. A Guggenheim Museum in Salzburg would just add more whipped cream to their cake. A Guggenheim Museum here could rejuvenate an entire city.

The logic and the opportunity were too powerful for the Guggenheim to resist. The old shipyards became the site for the new museum, with its titanium shell undulating in the wind and changing color from blue, to red, to gold throughout the day and night. Jeff Koons’ flower-covered “Puppy” welcomes visitors to the building, inviting them to loosen up for what’s coming.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: About two hours before we got here they decided to change the flowers on the puppy so I had to show it to you in a post card, but you get the idea.

Fortunately everything on the inside is ready for viewing.  Our guide is Susana Garcia.

SUSANA GARCIA:  In my tours I usually like starting here -- Andy Warhol, because I think this is quite different.  This is not the Andy Warhol we are used to.  I mean, this is what he was doing in the Fifties.  He was a graphic designer, and he was designing those shoes you see.  But here, I personally -- I can see the evolution he is going to have.  Because I can see the glamour already, and he is going to be obsessed with glamour. I can see the bright colors.  I can imagine his assistants helping him to paint, to color, because he had what he called his coloring parties.  And, as he said, he wanted to be a sort of machine; he wanted to work in every medium -- cinema, photographs, painting, fashion, music, everything.  He thought that everything could be art, and art could become common.

BURT WOLF:   Tell me about this piece.

SUSANA GARCIA:  Okay, this piece is by Jenny Holzer, an American artist, and she’s working with language.  So what we’re going to see is text written in Spanish and in English, depending on the moment you arrive.  And -- well, she’s playing with language because the message we get is a personal message; it’s something intimate, but the media she’s using is public.  It’s LEDs.

BURT WOLF:   It’s what we use for signage in advertising.

SUSANA GARCIA:  That’s it. 

BURT WOLF:   The contrast of a personal message in a public media.

SUSANA GARCIA:  That’s it.  And something I like of this piece is that we can go through it and discover something else.  Well, here we get a different color and a different language.

BURT WOLF:   It’s in Basque.

SUSANA GARCIA:  That’s it -- that’s Basque language.  Jenny Holzer had to come to Bilbao to prepare this piece, and when she came she discovered Basque language.  She didn’t know anything about this.  So she thought, “Well, that’s perfect -- as I had to come to Bilbao to discover this language, I want people to enter into my piece to discover my message in Basque.”

BURT WOLF:   It’s also a nice symbol because here Basque is behind everything that we see up front.

The Guggenheim jump-started the new Bilbao.


BURT WOLF: The other great coastal city in Spain’s Basque country is San Sebastian, which is about fifty miles to the east of Bilbao. The coast road between the two cities is beautiful.  And the area has its own unique history.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1100s the Catholic Church had three Holy Cities: Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela on the northwest coast of Spain. If you visited any of these cities the church would reduce the impact of your sins during your afterlife. It was called an indulgence. Getting to Jerusalem was dangerous and difficult.  Getting to Rome was a lot easier but when you got there you weren’t sure the church would give you an indulgence.  Santiago de Compostela was your best bet, and thousands of people made the trip every year, aided by the first travel guide for the mass market. It was written by a monk, and published in 1130. It told you where the food was good or bad, where the neighborhoods were dangerous, and if there had been bathrooms it would have told you which ones were clean. It was the Mobil Guide of the moment.

BURT WOLF: The route passed through here -- the town of Getaria. And pilgrim or not, if you are traveling in the Basque country, Getaria is worth a stop. It’s the hometown of Juan Sebastian Elcano, who was the navigator on Magellan’s voyage around the world. Most popular literature describes Magellan as the first person to sail around the world, but he died in the Philippines and never finished the trip. It was Elcano who completed the voyage home and should be given credit for the trip. He got a nice statue but he needed a better agent.

Getaria is also the center for the production of a local wine called txakoli, which is made from grapes grown on the nearby hills. Young, sparkling and fruity, it is poured from a bottle held a few feet above the glass under the theory that the trip aerates the wine and increases its sparkle. 

Getaria has a number of good restaurants that specialize in the outdoor grilling of fish that come up from the town’s port. The grills are set up outside, near the entrance to the restaurants. My favorite is Iribar. The chef’s name is Pile and she is the third generation of her family to own the restaurant.  It’s a perfect place to take a break during your pilgrimage.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Following the Protestant Reformation the market for indulgences pretty much disappeared, along with the traffic of pilgrims through Getaria.  But recently there has been a resurgence.  During the Holy Year 1993 over a hundred thousand pilgrims walked the route along northern Spain, and new hotels and inns are being built to accommodate the new traffic.

BURT WOLF: To qualify as an authentic pilgrim you must walk a minimum of 62 miles, but you can also meet the requirements by biking for 124. Inline skaters have made petitions, but as yet there is no official ruling. And if you’re considering a skateboard, forget about it.  You must start with a letter from your parish priest and a record book that gets stamped along the way.

When you arrive in San Sebastian, you are entering a city that has been around since the 11th Century, and was one of the major resting points on the pilgrim route. But not much went on here until the middle of 1800s, when Queen Maria Cristina chose the beachfront waters of San Sebastian as the spot for her daughter’s saltwater cure. Bathing in the ocean was recommended for the princess’s skin ailment.

GABRIELLA RANELLI:  But she didn’t just walk into the water like you and I would today; because in 1845 decent people didn’t swim in the ocean.  You only went in the water if you fell in.  You were usually a fisherman.

BURT WOLF: Gabriella Ranelli is an American friend of mine who has lived here since 1989 and has a good sense of the town.

GABRIELLA RANELLI:  ... so what they had to do was build a special round building set on rails -- it was called “The Pearl of the Cantabria” -- and the queen was in it, and a pair of oxen would pull it down into the water.  She could very decorously lower herself into the water, swim around, nobody could see the Royal Body.

BURT WOLF:   She was swimming inside this little building?

GABRIELLA RANELLI:  No, she would come out.  There was a hole in it, she could swim out, she would swim around.  You could see her head -- the Royal Head would be there, nobody would see the Royal Body -- so she was okay, and then she would go back up into her little bathing house, the oxen would pull it up on the beach, she could bathe with fresh water, come out dressed with all her dignity intact.  And that’s what people did in those days, even though they wore bathing costumes made of wool from their necks down to their ankles, as you can see in photographs of the time.  But because the queen was here, everybody else -- all the court, and all the aristocracy from Spain -- wanted to come up here and spend their summers in the same place where the queen came.

BURT WOLF:  That’s an interesting point over there.

GABRIELLA RANELLI:  That’s the fortified wall.  This was a walled city, of course, and that’s where the French defended, generally the French, defended themselves against the English.  Wellington and Napoleon were always fighting it out here because this was a very, very strategic city.  If you captured San Sebastian, you would generally have a gateway into the entire Iberian peninsula, and eventually Africa.  So everybody wanted this place.  So they were always fighting people off, and eventually in 1813 the English came in, the allied troops came in -- the French had the city under siege -- and burned the entire thing to the ground.  So they had to start over and rebuild.  So a lot of what you’re seeing is the new 19th Century city that they rebuilt after the fire and after the walls came down in 1865.  The building right behind us, which is the town hall now, used to be the casino.  It was built at the end of the 1800s, but then gambling was outlawed in 1923, so they turned it into the town hall eventually.


BURT WOLF: The gastronomy of San Sebastian is based on the sea and the mountains. The local chefs are considered to be some of the best in Europe and seafood is one of their great strengths. Excellent fish soups. Sea Bream with Garlic Vinaigrette. Or whatever today’s catch is, fresh from the ocean and simply grilled.    

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For hundreds of years, Basque fishermen followed whales across the Atlantic, eventually ending up off the coast of Newfoundland and discovering the huge schools of cod that live on the grand banks.  Many historians believe that the Basques knew a great deal about the new world long before Columbus showed up, but didn't tell anybody about it because they considered it a commercial advantage.  And it makes perfectly good sense.  If you found gold, why would you want to tell the competition where your mine is?

BURT WOLF: And cod turned out to be a gold mine for the Basques.  Dried cod was a way of preserving valuable nutrients and became a popular food throughout Europe.  The demand for cod increased when the Catholic church required meatless meals and the Basques were the major suppliers.  Today, codfish is an essential ingredient in the local flavors of the Basques.  But cod is not the only important fish in the Basque kitchen. 

Walk through the market in the city of San Sebastian and you will see the other local favorites…langoustine, which is a European species of lobster, monkfish, tuna, hake, sardines and anchovies.  Because Basque country is as much about mountains as it is about the sea, lamb has always been an important part of the local cuisine. 

The mountains behind San Sebastian are home to the sheepherders, whose traditional dishes include roast lamb with garlic and lemon served with roasted potatoes and hearts of lettuce.  But there are also some small ranches that supply great steaks. 

The sheep also supply milk, which is used to make a number of traditional Basque cheeses.  The cheeses take on the flavor of the mountain plants on which the sheep fed.  In the United States, you can find a number of Basque cheeses.  The Basques are also famous for their hams.  The mountain forests, filled with acorns and chestnuts, became a natural habitat for the pigs, and ham is an essential part of the Basque diet.  The little upside down umbrellas are there to catch any drippings.  The local flavors of the Basque kitchen reflect the history of the region.  Ancient Romans did a little trading with the Basque and introduced wheat, olive oil and wine making, which was rather important, since all three elements are essential to one of the great gastronomic traditions of the Basque, a tradition known as the pintxos bar.

GABRIELLA RANELLI: I've gone to this bar, which is the place that I've had breakfast in almost every day for the last ten years. 

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Okay, this is a pintxos bar where they have pintxos are little snacks.  They're called tapas in the rest of Spain.  But here this is the breakfast one.  This is a little bit different from the one people go to in the evening, which are heartier.  And normally you know, if you come here all the time, usually you come stumbling in, they'll hand you the newspaper first thing in the morning.  They know whatever you like to eat.  Everybody has their favorite pintxos usually. And they know their clients.

He’s pouring some txakoli which is a sparking, well it's a local wine.  It's a white wine but they pour from a great height so it gets a little effervescent, but it's not a sparkling wine.  It's made with grapes which are grown on the steep hills next to the sea, so they don't get a lot of sun.  They get a lot of rain.  It's quite tart but it's an aperitif.  It's an aperitif, yeah.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: These are great.  It's just an egg omelet on a little piece of bread.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: ... little piece of bread. 

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Yeah, very simple but it's absolutely ideal. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I want one of those.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hilda?  Why is it called a Hilda?

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Well it’s actually in English we would probably say Gilda.  It’s after the Rita Hayworth film.


GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Had a lot of impact here.

BURT WOLF ONCAMERA: It’s anchovies, little peppers and olives on a toothpick.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA:  Every bar has its own version of that. 


GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: Yes, like Rita Hayworth.  Right.

BURT WOLF ON CAAMERA: Rita Hayworth was considered spicy.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CCAMERA: That scene where she takes off her gloves, you know, that revolutionized the entire country.

BURT WOLF: I don't see the bagels, but I definitely see the smoked salmon and the cream cheese.

GABRIELLA RANELLI:  You take whatever you want and at the end, we just tell them what we've had and they'll tell us how much it is.  They're very good at math.  So it's the honor system, and people are very honest.  Nobody cheats on pintxos. 

BURT WOLF: At night, the pintxos bars take on a different menu and a different character.  Groups of friends come together, forming a loose assembly of like-minded pintxos-lovers.  They know what they like to eat and they know where they like to eat it.  They have a pre-planned route and they move along it.  One team that I traveled with always starts at eight o'clock on Thursday nights at a specific bar.  They go there because they like the mushrooms.  After about thirty minutes, they move on to the next place.  If you miss the eight o'clock opening, you know where to catch up at eight thirty and that would be true for the third or fourth spots as the night continues.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: You've got to pace yourself.  That's why the wines are so small also.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah, that's right. Big glasses with a little bit of wine.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: But you might have to go to twenty bars, and so if you were drinking an enormous tankard full of wine, you wouldn't make it passed four.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Also, one of the nice things about this is it gives a lot of room on the top for air, which means you get a better flavor from the wine.  Shall we?


BURT WOLF: The streets of San Sebastian's old city are packed with pintxos groups moving from bar to bar.

GABRIELLA RENELLI: This is where we're going, okay?  Now you can always tell the best pintxos bars because they've got the most people in them.

BURT WOLF: This place is jumping.



GABRIELLA RANELLI: You've got to elbow your way in here.  It's a time-honored tradition.  But this restaurant is very well known for its seafood.

BURT WOLF: What's this?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: It's baby eel.  It's come down from the mountains.  You have to eat them with a wooden fork.  And stir them around, give them a good stir.  The reason you use a wooden fork is also because if you used a metal fork, the eels would slip right through it.  They come from the Sargasso Sea.  Nobody knows where.   They travel here, they get here when they're about three years old.

BURT WOLF: It looks like pasta.


BURT WOLF: If you didn't tell me they were baby eel…

GABRIELLA RANELLI: It doesn't taste like pasta, let me tell you.

BURT WOLF: How much is that?

GABRIELLA RENELLI: They cost about $500 a kilo.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: $500 for two and a quarter pounds?

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: That's the traditional food that they eat on the day of San Sebastian, the 20th of January.

BURT WOLF: I want to finish every eel in this bowl.


BURT WOLF: At $250 a pound, this is serious stuff.

GABRIELLA RANELLI: It's delicious.  One of the things they have here, one of the selections they have are goose barnacles.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Goose barnacles? Geese get barnacles?  I mean, they move around a lot but I didn’t know they got barnacles.  Goose barnacles.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: It’s a specialty here that most people enjoy.  They’re big barnacles.  And we must have some wine because…

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Wine is good.  Wine goes with goose barnacles.  Is there a particular wine that you drink with goose barnacles?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: Here are some goose barnacles.  They’re hot.  You’d better wait a minute.

BURT WOLF: I’m actually quite full.  I ... I just ... I don’t know if I have any room left for a goose barnacle.

GABRIELLA RENELLI ON CAMERA:  Have to wait on the goose barnacles. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Are you sure I have room for goose barnacles.  Yeah, I do.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: I think that the best way to eat the goose barnacles instead of well warm.  I wouldn’t eat them this hot because they have a special sort of flavor.


GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: But I think ... why don't you finish your eels?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, eels are fine.  The eels are okay. 

GABRIELLA RANELLI: We're gonna need these ... we're gonna need these actually because eating goose barnacles can be a little messy.

BURT WOLF: Oh yeah.

GABRIELLA RANELLI: So just keep one handy.  Okay.  I think that looks like a good one.

BURT WOLF: Oh, it looks like a wonderful goose barnacles.  Now what do I do?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: Okay, find a good spot like there, between the nail and the body and kind of pull it open.  No, you have to use your nail, get your nail in there and twist it open. 

BURT WOLF: I'm not gonna be able to do this.  I don't have to eat it.  No.  All right.          

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Obviously this is not one of my talents.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: That was a defective barnacle.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A defective barnacle.  Okay, so you've opened one for me.


BURT WOLF ON CMAERA: And I just kind of like, eat it?

GABRIELLA RANELLI: Just eat.  Don't eat the nail.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Is that sauce?

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: No no no.  They're cooked in sea water for one minute.  I guess I’ve got to get the barnacle juice off myself.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Like a snail.

GABRIELLA RANELLI ON CAMERA: They're a great delicacy here. 

Not a first date kind of food.

BURT WOLF: You know, they're really very good. 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: All right, I can hang up and ship out.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Sorry I left ... I didn't finish all the goose barnacles.

Another traditional aspect of Basque gastronomy is the cider house.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Basques have been growing apples for thousands of years and making cider since medieval times.  At some point, a farmer decided to sell his excess capacity and thought it would be a good idea to let everybody have a taste just after the fermentation.  They brought alone something to eat and before you knew it, the tradition of cider tasting was part of gastronomy in the Basque region.  And cider houses developed all over the area. 

BURT WOLF: The cider houses became centers of social life.  During the cider tasting season, which runs from late January through March, the traditional cider houses open up and people stand around tasting cider. During the rest of the year, they're closed.  But here in San Sebastian there's a restaurant called Sideria Donostiarra, which is open all year round and has an atmosphere that is very much in keeping with the old farmhouse tasting rooms.  One big space, long wooden tables without tablecloths, an open kitchen, grilled food, vats of cider along the walls and patrons filling their glasses with the traditional cider catching technique. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The process for making apple cider is basically the same process used for making wine, with apples sitting in for the grapes.  There's a natural yeast on the crushed apples that turns the sugar in the apples into carbon dioxide gas and alcohol.  The carbon dioxide gas makes the cider bubbly and the alcohol makes the cider. 

BURT WOLF: There was a standing menu in the cider house.  First, slices of cod omelet and a green salad.  The main course is grilled steak.  The dessert, slices of local cheese, strips of quince jelly, and walnuts.  And of course as much cider as you want.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.