Travels & Traditions: The Basque Country of Northern Spain - #201

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.

So please join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS in the Basque Country of Northern Spain.

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.

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 we see up front.

The Guggenheim jump-started the new Bilbao.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In 1985 Bilbao was a rusting industrial hulk with a huge abandoned shipyard. The government knew that if they were ever going to turn the city around, they would have to build a new transportation system, improve communications, find an educated workforce, and bring in big business.  The Guggenheim Museum got things started by attracting tourists who were also international industrialists.

Once they saw what Bilbao had to offer, they became involved in the commercial aspects of the area. Frank Gehry’s design is a unique blend of art and technology that has inspired an industrial renaissance. The rusting city has disappeared. Today Basque metallurgy is some of the most sophisticated in the world. The titanium skin on Bilbao’s Guggenheim was fabricated in a local high-tech facility.

JOSU JON IMAZ [under]:  We have a particular style of life...

Josu Jon Imaz, the Minister of Industry, Trade And Tourism, pointed out that in the first two years after the Guggenheim opened, Spain’s Basque Country saw a thirty percent increase in tourism, an infusion of 160 million dollars into the economy, and more than four thousand new jobs.

One of the companies that represents the new industry here is ACB, which has one of the world’s most modern facilities for the manufacture of steel. And CAF has become one of the world’s most sophisticated manufacturer of rail cars.  The city itself has become a case study on how an area can revive both its cultural traditions and its economic base.

Josu feels that the Basques, the oldest culture alive in Europe, are developing a model for the future -- a model that takes advantage of a global economy and, at the same time, preserves its ancient skills.  An example of just that -- the preservation of ancient skills while addressing the needs of a global market -- is the BOJ fabricating plant where knives are made. The first ironworks in the Basque country date back to the ancient Romans, who burned charcoal with local iron ore and cast tools and weapons.

Basque appreciation for the new alongside respect for the old is also part of their appreciation for fine art. Down the street from the Guggenheim is the Bilbao Museum of Fine Art. The building may not be as dramatic as the Guggenheim, but the old masters and modern works that are part of the collection are well worth a visit. The museum presents a broad overview of the leading schools of European Art, from the Middle Ages to the present, with special emphasis on works created in Spain... from Gothic to Goya.

Basic to the success of Bilbao’s renaissance is the decision by the city’s leaders to continually commission leading international architects. You might expect a world-class architect for the Guggenheim, but their desire to have innovative and functional designs for all their projects led to the selection of England’s Lord Foster for the subway system. The entrances are called Fosteritos, after Norman Foster, the architect.

Escalators take you up and down. The tickets are priced according to the distance you intend to travel.  From the ticket area you can walk to the platform or use the glass enclosed elevators. The stations are bright, clean and safe. The trains are comfortable and run on time. 

A couple of days in Bilbao and it’s time to hit the road.

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.

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 old route along northern Spain, and new hotels and inns are being built to accommodate the new traffic.

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.

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.

One of the most beautiful buildings in San Sebastian is the Hotel Maria Cristina.  It was built on the Urumea River and looks out on the sea.  When it opened in 1912 the first person to enter the building was her Majesty The Queen Maria Cristina herself... accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting... who could have been waiting in The Gritti Bar, which maintains an elegant atmosphere... and a portrait of Andrea Gritti, who was the Duke of Venice and never came to San Sebastian but certainly would have had he been invited.  The ladies-in-waiting could also have waited in the elegant entrance area, in front of the impressive grand staircase where brides and grooms wait for their pictures to be taken before their wedding. Or they could have waited in the hotel’s restaurant, which specializes in classic Basque cuisine, but they wouldn’tve had to wait long because the service is excellent. And of course if they played their cards right they could have waited in my suite, which is named after Maria Cristina, and has an excellent view of the promenade.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): But they needn’t have waited long to see the rest of the city.  It’s one block to the elegant shopping areas, two to the Convention Center, three to the beach, and four to my favorite pincho bar -- which brings us to the subject of what to eat in San Sebastian.

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. 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.  And the Basque hams are world famous.

When it comes to dessert, you owe yourself a visit to the Otaegui Pastry Shop. Try the Saints’ Bones, almond pastry on the outside, an egg yolk cream on the inside. Panchaneta, puff pastry with cream in the middle, usually served warm. Gateau Basque, lemon cream in a cooked cream crust.  Many pastry shops have scales to weigh what they sell.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): But this is the only pastry shop I’ve ever seen that has a scale for the customers.  And the staff tells me that people come in and use it everyday, but only after they have purchased their pastries.

But whatever you eat you must stop into the Pincho Bars. Every morning and evening hundreds of these establishments cover their bars with the ultimate selection of open sandwiches and snacks. You walk in off the street, eat whatever you want, have a drink, pay up and move on. You go from one pincho bar to the next, eating what looks good until you’re full. As much as you want, as fast as you want it and inexpensive. A very enjoyable way to eat.

And if you enjoy spectator sports, you’ve come to the right place. The Basques are great sportsmen and the sports they love the most are ancient tests of strength and skill that relate to the ways men once earned their living or defended their land. Stone lifting always draws a crowd... as does wood chopping.

The Basques also play what is thought to be the fastest ball game in the world. It’s called Remonte. The Basque love of sports is partially based on their love of competition but also on their passion for betting. The guys in the short-sleeved shirts standing between the spectators and the players are the bookies. They call out the odds as the game progresses and match up two bettors from the stands. They don’t cover the bets themselves; they act only as middlemen taking a percentage for their services. And they only take bets from people they know. Bets are in multiples of thirty dollars. After the latest odds are announced, you signal the amount of your bet, the bookie finds someone to take it, writes a receipt for each bettor and throws the receipt to each of them inside a tennis ball.  If you think the ball on the court moves around, you should see what happens with the bettor’s ball at a big match.

I was fascinated with the sport and convinced Txikuri, one of the great stars of the game, to give me a lesson.

AITOR AGUIRRE (“TXIKURI”):  The first thing you must learn is just to feel the ball in the basket.  So it’s doing this movement... you see?   It’s like doing this, but... well, it’s easy to say but difficult to do it.

BURT WOLF:   Sorry...

TXIKURI:   Are you ready?

BURT WOLF:   I’m ready. ...

TXIKURI:   Well -- try it again...?

BURT WOLF:   It’s a pop fly to center field and DiMaggio’s got it!

TXIKURI:   Oops...

BURT WOLF:   Wait, wait, I’m not giving up... this may be a longer show than any of us planned on...

TXIKURI:   It’s easier for you if you just leave the ball here and then --

BURT WOLF:   Closer to the basket.

TXIKURI:   Yeah, like this.  You see?

BURT WOLF:   Oh... it’s so easy when you do it...

TXIKURI:   That’s better!  You see?  Wow!  ... Oh, good...

BURT WOLF:   We’re getting very close to a volley, sports fans...

TXIKURI:   That’s good, and -- it’s a difficult shot... wow!  (Laughing)  You made a point!

BURT WOLF:   Okay, this is where I quit!

TXIKURI: I can’t believe that!

BURT WOLF:   That was a volley!  You saw it here first!  A complete volley!  The ball went up and back a number of times, touching the ball and my extraordinary... what is this?

Clearly I should concentrate on sports where the skill is not in the wrist... maybe checkers.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The oldest culture in Europe, still reinventing itself and in ways that might affect the entire world.  Which reminds me:  during the 1800s large numbers of Basque sheepherders settled in the American west. And there are still people in Nevada and Idaho who speak the Basque language. And next time you see John Wayne riding into Durango, bear in mind that Durango is the name of an ancient Basque village.  So there you go, Pilgrim. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief visit to the Basque country, and I hope you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.