Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Basque Country: A Trip of Denial and Rebellion

With five million things to do and less than two weeks left in which to do them, Andrew and I decided to handle our departure by simply setting it aside, denying its existence, and rebelling against it. In other words, we decided to take a road trip. A trip of denial and rebellion. Our destination: the País Vasco, or Basque Country, along the northernmost border of Spain.

In keeping with our chaotic mezcla of options and scenarios, we planned the trip haphazardly. Andrew had rented a car last week, but we hadn’t really decided whether or not we’d go; and since we spent Saturday and much of Sunday on the Costa Brava, we were still debating Sunday night about whether we should just cancel the reservation. Monday morning, though, we decided to do it. We got the car, threw some things in the trunk, and set out for San Sebastian, with only the Avis map—a colorful map of all the roads and highways in Spain, with no indication whatsoever about what the names and numbers of those roads might be—to guide us.

We took the long way. As we meandered north, the scenery was some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in Spain—jagged, rocky mountains; lush fields full of sheep and cows; hills covered with trees in every imaginable shade of green. Just north of Huesca, we drove along the Río Aragón and the Embalse de Yesa (a big lake)—a milky turquoise, almost chemical, and stunning when set against the green trees and the vibrant red patches of poppies growing along the roadside.

We reached San Sebastian in the very late afternoon and parked next to a sea wall just outside the old town. Incredible: the ocean looked darker here than I’ve ever seen it before, nearly black as it crashed against the rocks. It was cold and misty, chilly enough for a wool sweater and coat; the seaside buildings were all peeling in that seaside sort of way. We hadn’t booked a hotel, so we found a café and started calling a few places, eventually finding a room in a pension in the old part of town.

There’s not much to do in San Sebastian except enjoy the seaside prettiness and the plentiful pintxos—baguette rounds topped with every manner of seafood, salad, jamon, and tortilla; it’s the Basque form of tapas. We walked along the beach; the view was beautiful, and the pretty buildings seemed much more French than Spanish. We spent the evening strolling from one bar to another, eating a few pintxos and having a glass of txacoli (the local white wine) at each. Unfortunately, we had a hard time sleeping off the wine: our pension, though a steal at 35 euros per night, was neither comfortable nor quiet, as the bed was very small and lumpy and our room was right above a bar.

In the morning, bleary-eyed, we set out for Bilbao to see the Guggenheim. The museum is the city’s focal point—not least because it’s flanked by Puppy, the enormous Jeff Koons sculpture of a puppy made out of live flowering plants. Puppy spent a summer in the plaza of Rockefeller Center—I saw it during one of my first years in NYC—and it was fun to see it here, against the curving titanium backdrop of the Gugg. The reason to go to the museum is the building itself, not necessarily the art. We saw the permanent Richard Serra installation of gigantic steel elipses and spirals, and a temporary exhibition of Amsel Kiefer, a German artist, neither of which was particularly thrilling; but the building is breathtaking. The gallery spaces are huge and bright, and the outdoor spaces are surreal, backed by that titanium “skin.”

The lengthy discussion about the building that we listened to on our audio guide informed us that Frank Gehry has always been inspired by fish, and that the Guggenheim is itself fishlike, with the titanium fish-scales. Gehry, according to the speaker, has been fascinated by fish since childhood, when his mother would bring a carp home for dinner and Gehry would play with the carp in the bathtub before it was cooked. This was all very strange, of course, especially since this explanation was given in the clear, deadpan, superbly enunciated English of the audio guide speaker. Stranger still was the bit we listened to outside, gazing at the building, when the speaker instructed us to touch the titanium skin and imagine Gehry stroking the scales of the carp in the bathtub. This was definitely Batllo-esque in its reverence and hyperbole.

Bilbao itself was a pleasant surprise, full of lovely tree-lined streets, fountains, and a pretty (though very quiet) old town; we’d heard there wasn’t much reason to visit besides the museum, but we left feeling like we’d be happy spending a night there.

From Bilbao, we headed back to the coast to do a little Basque exploration. A Basque friend of Andrew’s had recommended a few villages to visit, and so we set out with no real plan other than to stop in one or two of these and see what there was to see. This drive took us into truly remote areas of the Basque Country—the towns we saw were little more than a few streets set around a small stretch of sand, flanked by rocky mountainsides and deep green forests. The coastal road was dramatic, narrow and curving, the ocean stretching out dark and choppy beside us. We stopped a few times along the way to admire the view—it was so quiet, so peaceful. Another world. We stopped in Bakio; tried to stop in Bermeo and Mundaka but were thwarted by lack of parking; and drove through Guernica, a small, pretty town that seems somehow haunted by its history, regardless of the sun and the charming-looking shops and the bright geraniums spilling from window boxes.

We’d planned to return to San Sebastian for our second night, but instead we decided to head to Getaria, a tiny seaside town that, I realize now, isn’t on any of our maps. Getaria—and the Saiaz Getaria Hotel on the harbor—had been recommended by a couple of Andrew’s friends; Andrew called and booked a room, both of us reluctantly resigned to the fact that we weren’t up to roughing it in another pension. Getaria was a lovely way to end our day of Basque exploration. The hotel was perfectly charming, with wooden beams in the ceiling, pretty antique furniture, a view of the water, and even chenille blankets at the foot of the bed. We had dinner at the Mayflower, a restaurant overlooking the harbor, where we sat outside and had roasted turbot—a whole fish, roasted outside on a large parradilla (an outdoor grill that most of the restaurants in Getaria seemed to have). When diners at the Mayflower ordered their fish, a cook would head inside and reemerge with the fish hanging by their mouths from his fingers. Our fish soup, fried calamari, and roasted turbot were all delicious. There’s something restorative about eating fresh fish and drinking wine by the harbor of a small Basque town; real life seemed far away.

I paid for dinner with my credit card, and when the waiter brought the slip for me to sign he said, “You are Spanish, yes?” I said no. “But your name is Spanish,” he said. I agreed that Orlando is Spanish. “You are a New Yorker?” he asked; I’d handed him my driver’s license along with the credit card. I said yes, that I’d lived in Brooklyn. “Paul Auster lives in Brooklyn,” he said. “I love Paul Auster. I love New York. I’ve been there three times; I will go again with my wife.” I asked what his favorite Paul Auster book was; he said Moon Palace. I thought about the waterstained, jacketless copy I have in my boxes at home and felt kind of amazed at how the tiny threads of people’s lives can flutter together like this, just briefly—a few words exchanged about a much-loved distant city, a favorite book.

After waking up to church bells in Getaria, we hit the road again, in the direction of home—with a couple of stops planned for along the way. First, we stopped in Pamplona—home of the running of the bulls and famous Hemingway stomping ground. Sanfermin—the running of the bulls festival—is supposed to be absolute madness, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that Pamplona is actually a lovely little town, and very quiet on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. The bulls’ running route is clearly marked, and we walked along it, seeing where the run begins and ends. The run is shorter than I imagined it, and the streets are so narrow that it’s hard to believe that onlookers and runners and bulls can fit.

Here, unlike in the Basque Country, the sun was hot, and Pamplona felt quintessentially Spanish with its large bull ring, cobbled streets, and wide, dusty avenues. We had a bite to eat at a café, and from the window we spotted a few pilgrims with bandaged feet and scallop shells on their backpacks—Pamplona is on the Camino de Santiago.

The afternoon was waning; we left Pamplona and drove for another hour or two, then made a final stop in Tudela, a small, surprisingly chic little town in the Navarra region. It was siesta time, so there was no one on the streets and all the shops were closed up tight; but we had a drink on the main square, where we saw several storks' nests tucked into the roof of the nearby cathedral, and wandered around just a bit, enough to get the sense that this would be a lovely place to visit again, if we happen to find ourselves out on the road.

And so our Trip of Denial and Rebellion came to an end; the past three days were a little respite from the world we’re about to face. Indeed, the Basque Country seems like a different country from the Spain we’d left behind (it is of course home to ETA, which operates on just that principle), with its lush, hilly landscape and its strange, unpronounceable language full of z’s, x’s, and k’s. The language alone is intriguing; it has no identifiable linguistic origins. Andalucía, Catalonia, the País Vasco—I’m continually amazed by how vastly different the regions of Spain are from one another. It was one of our reasons for making the trip—to get to know a part of Spain neither of us had seen before. And now…and now. The end begins.

No comments: