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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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El Camino de Santiago, País Vasco

The Basque Country is where my journey began, and couldn’t have begun better. Although the north route of the Camino officially departs from Irún, the truth is that you can start anywhere you want to. Some people come down from the west coast of France, others from further abroad. I met one guy who’d walked all the way from his front door somewhere in The Netherlands.

friendly stamping stationI started in Hondaribbia, a small port town right next to Irún, and as luck would have it, where a friend of a colleague from Segovia happens to live. This was a blessing.

Despite being a girl, and having a terrible sense of direction, I was always adamant about walking the Camino alone, and wasn’t the least bit afraid to do so. I knew a few people who’d done it, or who knew people who knew people who’d done it, and they all said to me “tranquila, you’ll be fine”. Apparently alone is the best way to go. However, for some reason I was slightly apprehensive about starting by myself, and particularly about spending that first night alone in Irún. From the website, the albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) looked cold and unfriendly. I had visions of lying awake there on the eve of the Camino, locked in under curfew, staring at the underside of the bunk above me, tormented by more visions – of getting lost in the morning and all the terrible things that could happen to me on the road. “What on earth am I doing?”, I would ask myself, and then answer myself with disparaging criticism, self doubt, and the realisation that the whole idea (of carrying me and my baggage over 800km) was damn crazy.

Fortunately, those thoughts didn’t enter my head until much later on the Camino, when it was far too late to turn back. The beginning of my trip ended up being perfect.

Upon finding out that I was doing the Camino and intending to start from Irún, a colleague/friend of mine had been quick to offer me a Basque friend of hers’ hospitality. The two of them had met on the Camino, walked various routes and parts of routes (together and separately), volunteered in albergues, and could easily be classified as ‘Camino enthusiasts’. They turned out to be the best possible company for a slightly underprepared and suddenly-very-alone-feeling Australian girl. I was picked up from the bus station by the bubbly, smiling pair, driven to their house, and “checked in” to my very own room with soft carpet and a double bed with fresh sheets (it would be a while before I slept in one of them again). They even provided me with my own guidebook, some blank pilgrim’s passports, and a scallop shell painted with the red cross of St.John (none of which I’d thought to organise before leaving). We had lunch in their back yard, looking out to France across the port. My “Camino Eve” consisted of a walk around the historic parts of Hondarribia, swimming with the locals, a seafood dinner with the family, ice-cream, and not a bad nights’ sleep after all.

lighthouse at PasajesOn the first day of the Camino, I only did a half etapa (stage), from Hondarribia to Pasajes de San Juan, in order to ease into the walking. My friend accompanied me the whole way, which was, for her, just a light little 16km stroll. She set a good pace and gave me invaluable tips on the Camino, such as where to look for arrows (everywhere), what the crosses mean (“not this way”), how to strike up conversation with other pilgrims, how to graciously move on or back or away (when you’d prefer to walk alone or with someone else), which towns to stop at, where to try what food, and so on. We arrived in Pasajes (a picturesque mini toy port town) by lunchtime and were met by her friend, who was actually born and raised there (he moved to “Hondarribia City” as an adult). We had another swim and another delicious seafood meal, and then said our farewells. They left me at the albergue door to fend for myself, but not before somehow getting word out in the village that I was to be taken care of. When the hospitalero (albergue manager) arrived at 4pm to a queue of pilgrims longer than the number of beds he could provide, his first move was to ask if there was an Australian girl amongst us, and usher me in. Talk about special treatment!

So that’s how it started – almost all too easily. I kept waiting for things to unravel and all go wrong, but thankfully, they never quite did. The first few stages I was just flying, high on life, warm fuzzies, and the whole “I can’t believe I’m doing this” feeling.

Whilst the walking was hard (much harder than expected), the remarkable scenery kept me distracted, and bushy tailed enthusiasm kept me going.  I hadn’t done any specific pre-Camino preparation (in fact I was carrying a slight knee injury which made going downhill a bit of an ordeal), but thanks to all the running and walking I did in Segovia, I had no real problem adapting to my new Camino lifestyle of hiking all day, every day. My knee magically healed itself, I bonded with my backpack, got into the walking groove, and (when not wading through mud) just enjoyed the scenery. Which was the whole idea.

Pobeña, País Vasco The Basque country is, true to its reputation, a land of lush countryside, pristine beaches, and incredible food. But that could be said for the whole north coast – it’s all green, hilly, rainy, beachy and yummy. Yet each of the four regions I passed through (The Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia) had a distinct feel to it, a particular identity. And none more so than the Basque Country. Although technically part of Spain, it has a very strong feel of, I don’t know, separateness… something intangibly different which I’m probably not the best person to identify or describe.

Language is a huge part of Basque identity, probably the biggest. Although almost everyone speaks Spanish, there was very little of it in the air, and nothing else even remotely Latin sounding. Euskera (Basque) is, as far as I can make out, totally different from every other language – it doesn’t sound like anything I can put my finger on. It’s not unpleasant on the ear however, and despite its weirdness, it’s not too hard to imitate. Most pilgrims picked up a little and exchanged occasional pleasantries with locals, such as ‘kaixo’ (hello), ‘aupa’ (hello, encouragement, yes you can make it to the top of the hill), and ‘eskerrik asko’ (thank you, which was easy to remember as it was written on all the restaurant napkins). My favourite was ‘muxu bat’, pronounced, ‘mushu bat’, meaning ‘one kiss’. Or something like that. It’s important to be friendly.

Basque FlagAside from language, something visually distinctive about region was the number of flags and banners everywhere, especially in the smaller villages. The most common was the green, red and white Basque flag. There were also plain bright pink or red flags, to support local rowing teams (especially in Pasajes, which is famous for rowing). However the most striking banners were black and white, with Basque separatist, anti-Spain slogans. Many featured an outline of the Basque state, surrounded by inward pointing arrows; it called for imprisoned ETA terrorists to be brought home. Similar slogans and designs were often found on posters, cafe napkins, shop fronts and stencil graffiti, again mostly in the smaller towns. Since moving to Spain I’ve seen a fair bit on the news about Basque terrorists, anniversaries of attacks, memorials for victims, and the associated political minefield. It’s all pretty over my head, and as there hasn’t been an ETA attack in the time that I’ve lived there, hard to really fathom as a reality. A quick search on Wikipedia gives an approximated death toll of over 800 people since the late sixties. Most were small bombings, in car parks or on trains, blatantly targeting civilians. No wonder the hurt, anger and fear is still fresh amongst many Spaniards. For me it was a strange sensation, walking around tranquil, civilised, proud Basque communities, knowing that somewhere in the midst, there were ETA sympathisers. There would surely be friends, family, and acquaintances of the condemned terrorists, who may or may not support or feel ashamed of them, who may or may not believe in or desire independence, and who may or may not condone the use of violence (I’m assuming that the vast majority don’t), or harbour anti Spanish sentiment. Being an “anglo spanglophile”, I did feel just a little on edge a couple of times. Not from any clear threat or ill will (everyone was lovely), more as a knee-jerk reaction to the palpable political intensity. But mostly it was just sad to think about how messed up the world is, even in a place as picturesque and fertile as the Basque Country.

arriving in San Sebastián In the cities it was different. Going by what I saw, everything was more cosmopolitan, everyone spoke Spanish (or English), and was out to either make money or have a good time.

It’s hard to really enjoy a big city when you’re on the Camino, because you lose half a day in arriving, and generally need to leave at the crack of dawn the following day. Galleries, museums, shopping, and big nights out are off the cards. Of course you can stop for a few days, recharge in a hotel or whatever, but then you run the risk of losing your rhythm (plus time and money), and it gets harder to get going again.

Fortunately, I’d already been to Bilbao. I spent a weekend there a couple of years ago, just to see the Guggenheim. Which meant that for my one night there on the Camino, I was content to just amble, have a couple of drinks, buy some groceries, admire the funky bohemians playing music in the winding streets of the old town, and wonder how I’d go living there.

pinxtos in San SebastianIn San Sebastian, an afternoon on the beach and a low key bar crawl was more than enough to sate my appetite and curiosity about the place. San Seb (Donostia in Basque) is said to be the most expensive Spanish city to live in, and it’s also an internationally renowned gastronomic tourism hot spot, home to a number of Michelin starred restaurants. So I was pleasantly surprised that the pinxtos (elaborate bar snacks, often in the form of little towers) were only around €2-5. This is expensive compared to the rest of Spain (where they are often free), but still doable on a pilgrims budget, and definitely good value. They’re a lot fancier than the usual meatballs lumped on a plate, more akin to a fine dining entree, minus the cost of the silver service. A very nice alternative to backpack food. And not that I have anything against meatballs.

en route to the port, BilbaoOne thing that I noticed about cities on the Camino, is that whilst there’s not enough time to ‘experience’ them to their fullest, you do see them in a way that most other tourists don’t. That is, you need to traverse the entire city on foot. Instead of being “magicked” by train or plane into a central station, you pass through outer suburbs, industrial zones, poor and rich neighbourhoods, the CBD, all of it. So often we just see the old town, inside the walls, so to speak. But walking from end to end gives you a better idea of just how big a city is, how it wakes up in the morning, and lives and breathes. This made me think about my own city. Melbourne is rumoured to be pushing 100km in diameter, so if it was on the Camino, it would take a 3-4 day walk just to pass through.

On that tangential note, here are some more photos of the Basque region. Go there!

 

 

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Bilbao… a weekend of wonders and wandering.

Of the sixty-six recommended sights, activities and restaurant venues recommend by Lonely Planet’s online guide to Bilbao, my friend and I made it to three.

Knowingly, that is. It’s possible we accidentally struck some of the late night venues off the list, though by that point we weren’t exactly counting (anything). Besides, the only official plan for the weekend was to see the Guggenheim, and one activity can hardly be said to constitute a list. In fact my friend made a special request for it to be a list-free weekend. Which was fine by me… wandering is what I like best.

I’d been warned by quite a few people that Bilbao was bound to disappoint. That the city is dirty, industrial, grey, and it’s always raining. That the Guggenheim is an architectural gem (in a city of blergh), but the artwork inside it is barely worth the visit.

So with my expectations suitably lowered, it figures that Bilbao (and its diamond Guggenheim) blew me away.

Firstly, the city is not ugly. Yes, there are some slightly-less-than-polished industrial zones and depressing (okay, suicide conducive) high density housing complexes, but these can be found in so many cities. Going by some old photos, Bilbao was particularly grimy back in the day (it looked like a tar covered mess), but this makes the current incarnation all the more impressive. The streets are now spotless and tree lined. The really old architecture (churches and cathedrals and the tall apartments of the casco viejo, old quarter) is typical Spanish gothic: austere and gracefully enduring. Many of the new additions (skyscrapers, museums, and some inventively shaped bridges criss-crossing the river) are elegant, clever and sleek. The shops we walked by were filled with bright and shiny looking things I just wanted to have, and the bar tops were literally piled with tasty looking morsels just begging to be tried (so we did). The movida (movement, ambience) was upbeat, funky, and un-pretentious, and the service everywhere was cheerful and attentive. And our clumsy attempts to say please and thank you in the Basque language (which is completely unrelated to Spanish, and has a lot of ‘k’s and ‘x’s), were met with only a slightly disparaging roll of the eyes.

As for the Guggenheim. I’d wanted to go to there ever since a roaming show from the New York Gugg came to Melbourne a few years ago. It was cool, it was big, it was different, and it was enough to pique my curiosity and make me want to see the real thing. And I really liked the name, Guggenheim. So given that New York, Venice and Dubai aren’t on my short term travel agenda (it’s almost like a franchise), but Bilbao had been within my reach and calling to me since I set foot on Spanish soil, I’m surprised it took me so long to get there.

Having grown up in the art ‘world’ (it really is another world), I can confidently say I know enough about the stuff… to know better than to pretend to know anything at all.  The best way to enjoy art is to just look at it, and enjoy. If it’s visually appealing and/or thought-provoking, and doesn’t require an essay or audio guide to ‘get it’, then that’s good enough for me. So by these flexible standards, and my natural inclination to wonderment, my overall impression of the art in the Guggenheim was that it’s bloody great. There were a few exhibits that weren’t my cup of tea (or more literally, piece of cake, such as the works of 60s artist Claes Oldenburg), but those that grabbed me, really ‘impacted me’ (as it’s concisely put in Spanish).

In no particular order (because it keeps on changing), my three favourite exhibits were:

  • Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time: a giant, many-part steel sculpture which forms numerous circular and wave-like enclaves, which the viewer is able to walk around inside. It was enchanting to explore, as it plays with balance and orientation, and it echoes. We were mucking around inside the sculpture when my friend made the astute observation that ‘who you experience things with can completely alter the way you experience an experience’ (or something to that effect in Spanish). Point being (which I’ve often thought but never articulated) is that travel (and art, and just about everything) is more rewarding when you share it with someone open minded, curious, and positive. :-)
  • The not so creatively named, but nevertheless intriguing Installation for Bilbao by Jenny Holzer: A mesmerising flashing/glowing/scrolling/multi-lingual poetry installation. It could have come across as sappy and/or melodramatic, but the words were potentiated by the clever motion of the lights, and the overall effect was hypnotising. I could have hung out in that aquarium-lit cave of neon emotion for hours on end.
  • A temporary Egon Scheile exhibition: This retrospective of the early 20th century Austrian artist definitely compensated for what the Salamanca art deco gallery lacked. Good works on paper. I loved the confidence (and skill) of Scheile’s draughtsmanship, the (often unflattering) honesty of his portraits, and his warped, nervous palette. All the more remarkable was the scope and breadth of his work, given that he died awfully young at 28. Get cracking people.
  • The gift shop: Art gallery (or museum) gift shops are my favourite kind of shop. They are often an extension, an encore, to the gallery experience. Sometimes the merchandise is actually cooler than the original exhibition (such as the Edward Hopper exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Thyssen). Or sometimes you find jewellery by local artisans and the gift shop is practically another gallery in itself. The Guggenheim gift shop was a wonderland of wearable, postable, assemble-able, useable art, with a fantastic bookstore to boot. It scored extra points for stocking some picture books by my favourite Australian illustrator, Shaun Tan. (I attempted to read them all cover to cover, which made me only slightly nostalgic, and which was the cherry on top of an already inspiring/emotional afternoon).

After the Guggenheim and an attempted re-fuel (of not quite enough coffee), we wandered downstream to visit the Museo Bellas Artes. By this point we were flagging, due to a severe case of gallery fatigue, which unfortunately affected our ability to really soak up the next lot of paintings. Truth be told, I remember very little of the Bellas Artes, except for feeling slightly cheated. It’s advertised to exhibit some works by Gauguin (one of my favourite impressionists and the subject of a fascinating biography by W.S.Maughan), but I could find only one…and it wasn’t even a good one. (It could be that I was looking at the wrong painting… it all gets a little blurry after the Guggenheim). There was also a temporary exhibition of Botero (who does really really fat people and animals, in very bright acrylics), and so now I can say with conviction that I like his sculptures but his paintings leave me with a bad taste in my mouth (or mal cuerpo, ‘bad body’ in Spanish).

Not to worry. After a belated siesta, some bacalao al pil pil (garlic butter salted cod), my first white wine since I left Australia, followed by more wine and umpteen pintxos (Basque-style ‘help yourself’ bar top tapas), good convo, good music, and the good vibes of the casco viejothe Bellas Artes was forgotten and Bilbao was up there as one of the top weekends away…ever.

Sunday morning/afternoon, we got out of the city, and headed downstream to the river mouth (passing some ugly ‘burbs, lush hillsides, ancient stone farmhouses, and posh millionaires mansions on the way). The port is a heavy duty industrial port, whose main claim to fame is the oldest transporter bridge  in the world. Bridges aside, the detour was really about making it to the coast and getting a refreshing blast of cold sea air, before the 4-5 hour drive home.

We did make one more stop en route, to a centuries-old fortress village about an hour from Segovia… but it was dark, the shops were closing, and the restaurants were no longer serving… So I’ve left that for another trip, another day, another post.

The Bilbao weekend was quite enough already.