The ABCs of the Camino

I could sit here for hours trying to write something that would capture the essence and rhythm of the Camino, the duality found everyday: the mixture of routine with adventure, conversations on the road both philosophical and nonsensical, equal elation at stunning views and a simple centrifuge, the adrenaline and the exhaustion; even the days themselves seemed split into two: the walking day (7am-2 pm) and the resting day at the destination (2 pm-10 pm).

I could attempt to convey the spectrum of unadulterated feelings I experienced on the camino:  happiness, sadness, loneliness, boredom, excitement,  panic, contentment, fear,  frustration, anger, weariness…

And I could try to explain my gradual awakening and realization that the last thing I wanted to do after it was over was return to my teaching job in Madrid. How the reasons I thought I had for returning fell away until I was left without a single one, and decided not to go back.

But I don’t think I would be able to express these thoughts, nor do I particularly want to – the camino is a personal journey and I want to keep it that way.

Instead I’ll share a product of the camino here. I started writing a lot more on the way, and one day, lying bored in the sun by a tiny albergue, I started a list of words (in 4 languages + some invented words) that captured my experience – so here it is!

787 Santiago sign

 

AAlbergues (pilgrim hostels), Asturias, avocados

B – Blisters, ‘buen camino’, blackberries, bocadillos (aka lunch – baguette with avocado, tomato, roasted red pepper,cheese), boredom, Basque Country

Buen Camino - the goodbye said on the road to with other pilgrims a good journey

Buen Camino – the goodbye said on the road to wish other pilgrims a good journey

C – Café con leche, ‘the cohort (group of people we continually saw), communal meals, CAOTD (cute animal of the day), chuches (gummies in Spanish), caixo (Hello in basque), cows, chocolate, ‘cheating’ (Is biking cheating? Is taking a donkey cheating? Is walking on the highway cheating?), Cantabria

Cute animal of the day - this dog was so human it was amazing.

Cute animal of the day – this dog was so human it was amazing.

Ddonativo, dogs (everywhere, varying from terrifying to adorable)

E – Elevenses, earplugs

F – Forests, flies, figs, fountains

magical forest path

F is for beautiful Forests

G – Geographer (my solo walking music), ‘Gumicukorka’ (gummies in Hungarian), Galicia

HHospiteleros (the people who run the albergues), hysteria, hedgehog!, highway robbery (what happened at most cafés on the camino)

H is for HEDGEHOG!!!

H is for HEDGEHOG!!! Cannot express how excited I was to see one for the first time IN THE WILD

I – Irún (starting point!), inspiring

J – Journaling (every day)

K – Kitchen (Is there one?!)

L – Laughing, laundry, loneliness, language, leszarom (‘I don’t give a shit’ in Hungarian and a necessary mindset to adopt)

M – Mountains, monasteries, magical, medieval

 

Top of the highest Mountain we climbed

Top of the highest Mountain we climbed  – above the clouds

N – Nettles

O – Odorous (see: cows)

Ppueblos (villages), (don’t) pussyfoot around, playas (beaches in Spanish), peregrinos (pilgrims in Spanish), peanuts, primitivo

The magical beach

The most beautiful Playa there ever was

Q – Quechua (the brand of everyone’s hiking gear)

R – Rustling (my biggest camino pet peeve, the rustlers that started sometimes before 5 am), Rat race (for beds)

S – Snorers, sunburn, supermercado, sidra (cider), SOUSes (Slugs Of Unusual Size), scallop shells

Sidra in Oviedo - traditional to Asturias, a little bit is poured at a time and you have to immediately drink it before the bubbles dissapate

Sidra in Oviedo – traditional to Asturias, a little bit is poured at a time and you have to immediately drink it before the bubbles dissipate

T – ‘Twiggling’ (used in a sentence: “Lord of the Rings is boring…all the Ents are just twiggling around.” Clearly I did not utter this sentence.)

U – Ura (water in Basque)

Ura stand outside of Donostia

Ura stand outside of Donostia

V – Vaseline (for feet), Vegetarian (since Zarautz)

W – Wine, washer (is there one?!), whatever

W is for Wine

W is for Wine

X – ?!?!?!? I’m stumped on this one. I admit defeat. Help?

YYo (Ok in Hungarian), Yellow (arrows and shells)

Z – Zenarruza (monastery)

 

Getting led by a monk at the Zenarruza Monastery

Getting led by a monk at the Zenarruza Monastery

Would you do the Camino one day? And camino walkers -any other words to add? 

 

 

Aaand…I’m gonna walk 500 miles (on the Camino de Santiago)

And I’m leaving tomorrow.

Yeah, I keep getting thoughts that I’ve lost my mind.

But doing the Camino de Santiago (The Way to St. James) is something I vowed to do before I left Spain, and the time has finally come to do it!

What is it?

Originally, and still, the Camino de Santiago was/is a Christian pilgrimage. Legend has it that St. James’s remains were taken from Jerusalem to Santiago de Compostela in a boat, where they were then buried. The earliest pilgrimages to the shrine dates to the 9th century, and it had become very popular by the 12th century. In 1993, because of its historical and cultural importance, the Camino was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today, although many people still do it for religious reasons, many do it for other reasons, such as the personal reflection that comes with walking alone for hours, the landscape, the physical challenge, the disconnection from the world, the camaraderie formed along the way –  all the reasons for which I’m doing it.

Me and a statue of a camino walker in Burgos, a city on the camino francés

Me and a statue of a camino walker in Burgos, a city on the camino francés

I first learned about it in Spanish class in university, and it sounded intriguing, but daunting, not something I saw myself doing. But the more I read about it, the more documentaries I watched, but most importantly, once I came to Spain, the more people I talked to sharpened my interest and held it. My first trip in Spain after arriving here in September was to Logroño, one of the cities on the camino francés, and that trip solidified my desire to do it before leaving Spain.

Everyone has said it was without a doubt one of the best things they had ever done and that it was a life changing experience. The great thing that everyone always talks about is how personalized it is, how it’s a great time to reflect on the solitary road, but at the same time meet lifelong friends. You can start anywhere from the French border and walk 800 km (or further – some cross the Pyrenees!) to 100 kilometres away from Santiago de Compostela (the ending point) in order to get a Compostela, saying that you officially completed the route.

Now, although I say solitary, it’s not a teeny trail where you never see a single soul or pass through civilization. There are a main cities as well as smaller towns along the route and there are other pilgrims along the road to bond with over blisters.

How do you do it? 

The nice thing about the camino is that you don’t have to prepare much, since you don’t have to book accommodation in advance, and you’re not supposed to pack a lot!

Camino 101:
1) Pack as little as possible
2) Get a ‘pilgrim’s passport’ which allows you to stay in special pilgrims’ hostels (called albergues)
3) Get to your starting point the night before you want to start walking
4) START WALKING (there’s a marked trail/road)
5) Keep walking
6) Make friends!
7) Walk some more
8) Arrive at Santiago de Compostela!
9) Attend the mass where they read out your name and nationality

In Jaca, Aragón: A shell marking the camino.

In Jaca, Aragón: A shell marking the camino.

Where is it? 

So this is approximately the walk that I’m going to do, along the Northern coast of Spain, starting in Irun which is a town in Spain, but right on the French border. This route passes through four regions in Spain (Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia). It should take me about 5 weeks. The traditional route, called the Camino Francés (French Way), also starts in France, but a little more to the south (passing through the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, Leon).
I wanted to do the northern route for a few reasons:
1) More varied/prettier (in my opinion) landscape – ocean, forests, green!
2) Fewer people – during the summer months apparently the traditional one gets super crowded
3) LESS HOT – this is a big one
4) I have only been to the northern coast once (to Bilbao) and loved it so I want to see more! It’s so different from what people think of as ‘traditional Spain’ with olive trees, flamenco dancing and arid landscapes. Each northern region is so different…in Basque Country they speak a completely different language, in Asturias they drink cider poured from above the head, and in Galicia they play bagpipes, in line with the strong celtic tradition there. I don’t know much about Cantabria, but I guess I’ll learn!

camino del norte

 

What are you bringing? 

Here’s what I’m taking for 5 weeks:
Towel
Backpack rain cover
Sleeping Bag
Lightweight zip off hiking pants
rain jacket
long-sleeved shirt
2 t-shirts
2 pairs socks/underwear
Cotton skirt/tank top for nights
Shorts
Camera (pretty much everyone has advised me against taking it since it’s heavy but I’m stubborn)
Cell phone
Chargers
Kindle
Notebook + Pen
Toiletries
Ear plugs
Flip Flops
Scallop Shell – symbol of pilgrims on the camino

The scallop shell was originally taken back by the first pilgrims as a souvenir from Santiago, but since then it has acquired more meaning and purpose than a simple souvenir. The grooves can be seen to represent the different paths of the pilgrims who then all end up in once place. Wearing a shell shows that you’re a pilgrim, and larger ones used to (and still can) have practical purposes: as a bowl for water or food. The shell symbol is also used to mark the route.

Burgos. Camino sign 3 windmills

If you want to read more about the Northern Camino, check out the guide that I’ll be taking. Also you can watch the film The Way starring Martin Sheen and his son, about walking the Camino.

 Buen Camino! 

Reverse Culture Shock: Visiting the US after Nine Months Away

Besides seeing all my friends and family for the first time in two-thirds of a year, I was looking forward to seeing the differences that I noticed in my home country. Everyone talks about ‘reverse culture shock’, saying that sometimes it can be even more jarring because home no longer feels like home and things that you once found familiar may now seem strange. I don’t know if it was more jarring, but it was definitely strange to be back, and not just because Enrique Iglesias was now on the radio singing in English (also, um, no, it just sounds weird).

I’m not trying to say that things in Spain are better or worse than in the United States, these are just differences that I’ve noticed. Since I have a tendency to rant once I get started, I want to say that I don’t want anyone to take offense and welcome your responses and thoughts! There are tons of things that bug me about the way things are done in Spain (absence of air conditioning in schools, any sense of tact, and barbeque sauce, to name a few). Sometimes I’m painfully aware that I’m not Spanish so I’ll never truly fit in here. I can’t emphasis how nice it was to be back in the place I’ve lived my whole life, with people who have known me for years (my flight back to Madrid was my first flight to Europe that I wasn’t excited to get on). Still, there are a few differences I noticed (in no particular order):

1. Eating Out

This is a big one, and something that I did notice when I first came to Spain. Here, waiters come to take your order and bring you your food. That’s it. If you want something else, you have to flag them down, including for the bill. You can hang out in a restaurant or bar for hours and it’s quite normal – no one will rush you by giving you the bill before you’re ready. And for Spaniards, that can literally be for hours. Dining out, or just eating in general, is a ritual that cannot be rushed, even when the meal itself is finished. Then there is coffee, and more talking. They even have a phrase for this – hacer sobremesa – basically hanging out at the table chatting after the meal is finished. There’s generally no room for this in restaurants in the United States, because as soon as they take your plates away they bring you the bill, and you’re expected to pay it, pronto, and then scram so they can take the next table (and make more tips).

Since waiters in Spain are paid a normal salary, they don’t need tips, and usually people only leave small change. Isn’t this better for everyone? Then if there aren’t many people in for lunch one day, the waiter/waitress still gets their salary, and not just the sad four dollars an hour that they’re allowed to be paid. Tipping seemed especially ridiculous to me in bars – do I really have to tip the bartender a dollar on my already six-dollar beer just to open the bottle or pour it from the tap? Seriously?

One of my more memorable meals here...in the Alpujarras mountainrange.

One of my more memorable meals here, in the Alpujarras mountain range near the city of Granada.

Different people have different opinions on restaurant service, but personally I prefer the Spanish way, although I have had some experiences where I do get frustrated if I want to leave and there’s no waiter in sight (hint: they’re probably outside smoking). Others argue that they miss waiters asking how the food is, or being friendlier (it’s not that Spanish waiters are unfriendly, they just don’t care about anything else besides your order).

And while we’re on the topic of eating out, let me just add that I found menus kind of hilarious. In Spain, the menus will just say what it is, e.g.: ‘Ham with potatoes and spinach.’ This will apparently not fly in the US, because instead of that basic but informative phrase, an American menu will say “Tender leg of pork drizzled in a butter garlic sauce nestled on a bed of wilted lettuce and potato wedges.”

2. White Eggs

Okay, this may seem like a mundane thing, but I had a shock the first day when I opened the refrigerator and saw a pile of white eggs sitting innocently next to the yogurts. They looked so strange with their red stamped dates, so stark and bright! That’s when I realized that I had only seen brown eggs since October. I wondered if eggs were bleached in the United States, and did a little research. Turns out it’s just a different breed of hen that lays white eggs than brown eggs. White hens lay white eggs, brown hens lay brown eggs – how complex! And apparently they’re nutritionally the same, just a different preference.

Distribution of white vs. brown eggs across the world. Click for more egg info!

Distribution of white vs. brown eggs across the world. Click for more egg info!

But as long as we’re on the topic of eggs – something that surprised me when I first came to Spain and spent a good fifteen minutes roaming the local supermarket looking for eggs and finally found them…on an end shelf next to some tomato sauce! Unrefrigerated! Barbarians! Didn’t they know eggs had to be in the refrigerator?!

Later when I had recovered from the trauma of my first shopping trip, I learned that it’s because in Europe, eggs aren’t washed before being packaged and sold, meaning that their natural protective covering is still intact, and they don’t need to be refrigerated. On the other hand, in the United States, we wash the shit out of our eggs (literally – you can get eggs here with bits of chicken poo and straw on them), and therefore have to refrigerate them. Also salmonella isn’t a thing in Europe because their hens are vaccinated. So you can eat all the chocolate cookie dough if you want…that is if you can find brown sugar and chocolate chips…

So, since we’re continuing on the topic of food, let’s talk about probably my biggest culture shock moment.

3. Supermarkets

My eyes were round as saucers as I followed my mom into the Stop and Shop to buy provisions for my sister’s graduation party (the reason I was back in the US for such a short time).

I was so overwhelmed by all the choices that I was like a bobble head, swinging my head in every direction and staring at the entire aisle of chips or types of ice cream. What got me the most was the entire freezer section for Cool Whip in gigantic containers. Really?! Is that really necessary?

Who knew these innocent looking containers were just the beginning of a disorienting trip to the supermarket? Not my photo, click for a great and hilarious photo documentation and article on  American supermarkets.

Who knew these innocent looking containers were just the beginning of a disorienting trip to the supermarket? Not my photo, click for a great and hilarious photo documentation and article on American supermarkets.

In the words of my mother (one of few but poignant words) as I stood wide-eyed with an overflowing armful of bags of different flavors of Chex Mix, “You are acting quite strange.” To which I responded that I was experiencing sensory overload and needed to leave.

One thing I did not miss though was the hanging pork leg (jamón) section, or it’s offending odor that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

4.Big Box Stores

Driving around American suburbs for the first time in nine months the first thing I noticed was the amount of stores, and huge ones at that, coupled with gigantic asphalt yards in front of them (aka parking lots). Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, Best Buy, etc, etc, etc. I’m not saying that they don’t have shopping malls in Spain or in Europe in general. There is a mall called Xanadú in the south of Madrid where you can learn to ski.

Yep. This is inside.

Yep. This is inside.

One of the biggest and fanciest malls I’ve been in was in Kraków, Poland.

Galeria Krakowska all dressed up for Christmas.

Galeria Krakowska all dressed up for Christmas.

But these are concentrated places, shopping centers where everything is located in one giant building, instead of endless miles of huge, standalone stores and their massive parking lots taking up space. And then once you’ve driven five minutes from one Target, you pass by another one!

5. Lawns

I guess this is also related to sprawling and taking up space, something that people can’t afford to do in Europe because countries are so much more squished together. But thing that struck me was the size of people’s yards and lawns and how spread apart the houses are in the United States. The fact that people take care of their lawns and spend time and money watering, cutting, and grooming them seemed so weird! Why? It seemed to me like such a waste of resources for something that many people don’t even do anything with, just to have as a status symbol or something. Here in Spain things are more concentrated – even in towns people will have only small yards, with attached row houses. Then there are large open spaces in between towns with farms.

Weirdness.

Weirdness.

I know there are many advantages to lawns: it’s a place for kids and pets to play year round and to hang out and barbeque in during the summer. But somehow, the rest of the world seems to be doing just fine with public parks…

6. Shaking Hands vs. Dos Besos

While I was home I didn’t meet many new people since I didn’t even have time to see everyone that I already knew, but the few people I did meet, I had to hold myself back from doing the dos besos or two kisses, one on each cheek, and instead revert to the shaking of hands. I have to say that shaking hands felt super weird and cold now that I hadn’t done it in so long. I already had reflected on this when I first came to Spain, but now I’m sure that I prefer the Spanish method, since its always the same, dependable and expected. Whether you’re meeting a best friend, stranger, or casual acquaintance = dos besos. You don’t need to think about it! For a socially awkward penguin like myself, it’s nice to have one point of awkwardness removed from the equation. For example, you’re leaving a person you just met..what do you do, shake hands again? Give a little wave like you have t-rex arms? Simply walk away? Am I the only person that has these problems?

I didn't even make this meme so I must not be the only one.

I didn’t even make this meme so I must not be the only one.

Now as I look back at this list, I realize that the majority of it has to do with food…hm…is it because the biggest cultural differences are always seen in food or is this what I pay attention to? Any other expats want to weigh in? From Spain or otherwise? Americans offended by my rants? Give me all the opinions! Don’t worry, I’ll soon get around to a good ranty post about all the things that bug me about Spain, it’s not perfect either.

Pointy hats, robes, and oversized candles – it’s not Hogwarts, it’s Semana Santa in Spain

It was a Wednesday afternoon in Córdoba, Andalucía as I pushed my way through crowded streets, the hot sun beating down, and everyone in sight drinking already warm cans of Cruzcampo, spitting sunflower seeds into the growing scattered piles on the cobblestone streets. There is a lazy feeling of anticipation in the air, everyone waiting for the main event to start, though they don’t seem too preoccupied with when it will. In fact, people are milling about in the streets, and only when the first hooded figure passes the arched and intricately carved portal from the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba do the parade watchers scatter to the sides and dim their animated conversations.

 

This was a street.

This was a street.

Still, you might think you are in the midst of a carnival, with the merry that people are making in the late Andalucían sun. Surprisingly though the event is supposedly quite a serious religious ritual that culminates in intensity in this region. Before traveling to the south for Semana Santa (Holy Week), I was warned by many teachers in my school that it was going to be a serious affair with people crying in the streets, breaking out into song: a cultural tradition not to miss. Naturally the anthropologist in me had to see this in person to analyze the ritual significance of everything and soak up an old tradition unlike anything that we have in the United States.

I ended up being surprised, but not in the way I expected. While I did experience more solemn parts of the tradition (such as people crossing themselves and touching the floats as they went by), for the most part, everything I saw in Semana Santa in Andalucía just seemed like a typical example of an old tradition morphed into an excuse to take off from work and drink and spend time with family and friends. Not that there is anything wrong with that – but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, especially in the city of Sevilla, unofficially declared the heartland of Semana Santa in Spain. I did get my fill of the ritual of the processions though, and enjoyed deducing the meaning behind each person’s role.

Taking things super seriously.

Taking things super seriously.

A procession is the walk that a religious brotherhoods (hermanedades) makes from their churches or chapels to the main cathedral in the city. They come from the surrounding areas, and sometimes may take up to fourteen hours to reach the destination! The procession has various parts, which remains the same no matter which congregation is marching. First comes the Guiding Cross (Cruz de Guía):

 Cordoba. Carrying Cross.

Following the cross bearers are a large amount of people dressed in a long robe and pointy hood (capirote). Some of them are barefoot, but all of them carry tall candles that are lit at night to guide their way. These people are called nazarenos.

Cordoba

 

Before the procession began, we were waiting by the side of the street people watching and noticed a number of children carrying what looked to be giant balls of spit out gum on a stick. Ew! We soon learned however, that these balls were their way of participating in the procession: when the nazarenos stopped (which was frequent – another thing that puzzled us at first), the children ran up to them and held out the ball-on-a-stick. Turns out it was candle wax! So the kids got to entertain themselves while keeping the hot wax from spilling over onto the hands of the nazarenos (at least I’m imagining it to be a symbiotic relationship, maybe it was just for the kids to give them something to do) .

 

cordoba. kid with candle wax

Cordoba. kids with wax close up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this group comes altar boys and acolytes and finally, the main event, the float made of wood or paso, accompanied by a marching (maybe too active a word, more like shuffling) band playing somber tunes. Most processions I saw had the marching band in the back.

Cordoba. trumpets

The first paso is Jesus, either on the cross or carrying the cross, sometimes with other figures to create a scene – on one, there was even a mini tree!

Cordoba. Float with tree cordoba. jesus on cross 2

 

During the day the float was impressive, and definitely quieted the crowd (the band helped with this too), but during the night, it was imposing and dramatic, lit up with candles, gliding through the night accompanied by musical undertakers.

Sevilla. Christ on cross

 

After the float bearing Jesus and its band came more nazarenos and then another, perhaps even more remarkable float: that of the Virgin Mary. The first time I saw this float I had walked down to the hostel lobby to get some dinner recommendations and I gasped out loud as I saw the hundreds of lit candles stopped just outside the hostel door. Seeing it up front rather than coming down the road and passing by was perhaps the most jarring way to meet this firey paso.  All the candles are white, as are the hundreds of fresh flowers that surround her, as the somber figure rises out of this cloud of white, tragic face and long robe that trails down after her onto the ground. Her dignity and sadness can be felt by even someone who is not religious in the least.

 

Sevilla. Mary with candles Cordoba. Mary

 

Now these tremendous floats do not actually float on their own through the city streets, no matter how much trouble the parade organizers go through to make this appear to be the case. I have to admit that it took me embarrassingly long to figure out how they were actually moving, I guess I just assumed that they moved the same way floats in the United States do – with cars and wheels.

 

NOT IN SPAIN.

 

We had been seeing hoards of burly looking men with burlap sacks looking things on their heads and necks wandering the streets, and at times pushing through the parade crowds, seemingly having somewhere to go, unlike the rest of the watchers. Continued confusion at seeing them in bars and walking around at night until we actually had 2+2 put together literally in front of us as the float was set down, the velvet skirt lifted up, and 90 degree sauna heat rose up from under it as forty men were given drinks of water and some were switched out. That’s when it clicked: they were the float bearers, and not for some little dinky float, but as we discovered later, something that can weigh up to a metric ton.

Costaleros in Sevilla

Costaleros in Sevilla

Just…baffled. Now the sight of them with beers in hand made sense, and I really hope that these dudes drank for free for the entire week, because they deserve it. Maybe even the week before too to get prepared and the week after as a reward. Because there is no way I can imagine resting that heavy wooden float with candles, flowers, figures, and every other imaginable religious regalia on my SHOULDERS without needing quite a stiff drink. Now I understood why there was so many men in the marching band – still participate in the procession, don’t break your back. In fact, in class upon returning, my students told me that this year quite a few Virgins fell as the men either tripped and fell or the coordination was off. Still, one of my students still said he still wanted to do it, and he’s not even religious! Which I guess shows how important the feeling of community spirit is in the processions, rather than the religious factor at this point when the Catholicism of Spain is declining in the younger generations. We were wondering what kind of incentive was given to the procession participants, as a lot of the robed figures seemed to be teenagers, and the acolytes were young children, some of them seeming to be no more than five years old.

Both in and outside the procession, devout women dress all in black with a lace mantle (la mantilla) and a comb to keep it up. To me it seemed that most of the women wearing this were married, hanging on the arm of their well dressed husband, but whether this was a factor due to age or custom, I’m not sure (anyone have any answers?).  But even the women who weren’t wearing the traditional black were formally dressed, throughout the city, Thursday and Friday, and probably into the weekend as well (we left Friday night).

cordoba.mantillas

 

But they weren’t the only ones: men wore suits and young children were dressed like mini adults, with tights, bows, suits, and impeccably done hair (often in matching outfits even if they weren’t twins). After talking to a Spanish teacher who I work with, she explained that people in Sevilla are quite well dressed as a rule, dressing up to go to bullfights, wearing fur coats in the winter even though it doesn’t get cold enough to warrant it, and parading through town on Sunday afternoons so they can judge and be judged. Perhaps this was one of the reasons I didn’t feel like I could connect with Sevilla – formal dress is in no way my thing, and all the fuss seemed way too old fashioned to me. But she’s just one person – if anyone have any opinions on the dressing habits of sevillianos I’d be happy to hear!

Sevilla. Looking at candle

 

Ever experience a cultural or religious festival utterly different from anything you’d seen before?  Any people from/living in Sevilla want to weigh in on my impressions?

A City Called Bilbo

Yes, fellow Tolkienites, you read right. There exists a city in this world called Bilbo, and it’s as awesome as the name. Located in the north of Spain in El pais vasco (Basque Country), it’s known more widely as Bilbao, but Bilbo is the name in Basque, the local language.

BILBOBUS! It never wore off seeing them. There were also Bilboats but they were sadly out of commission when we tried to go

BILBOBUS! It never wore off seeing them. There were also Bilboats but they were sadly out of commission when we tried to go

I don’t even know where to start with the crazy interesting history of this place! Split between France and Spain, the Basque Country is a small region full of spirit and unique culture that has remained true to itself for thousands of years. Example: the Basque language, Euskara, is a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language, long words comprised of all k’s, z’s and x’s.  Here are some phrases we learned this weekend:

Thank you = Eskerrik asko

Goodbye = Agur

Cheers = Topa! 

The important words to know.

Bilbao itself is a small city of 360,000, nestled in the mountains and the shore, making for some truly beautiful views. The landscape is also very different; I was amazed by the unreal green of the grass and trees, and as we flew in we were able to see the dramatic land-forms and rifts, getting a feel for the entire area. 

bilbao from above

Many people jokingly say that in Basque Country, you aren’t in Spain, and it’s not just because of the landscape: it has retained its strong cultural identity despite becoming part of Spain.  It’s true that Bilbao felt very different from Madrid for many reasons. There is a tremendous amount of Basque pride and nationalism, stronger in the Spanish side than the French side, to create a separate country. They have some pretty good reasons too beyond their cultural heritage: the Basques are doing pretty well for themselves, with the highest per capita income and lowest unemployment rate in Spain (around 14%, while Spain’s overall is a disturbing 26%). Probably the most well known nationalist organization is ETA, an armed group that has been labeled as a terrorist organization by the EU and the USA (although in 2011 they announced that they were going to stop using arms).

THAT BEING SAID now I’ll reveal that I have Basque ancestry, and not even too far back: my great-grandfather was Basque and my grandmother still has a Basque last name. I definitely got some genes from that side of the family: every time I meet someone here they say I look Spanish, and seeing all the dark haired and eyed Basques, I could easily see how I inherited that, because it certainly didn’t come from my Austrian and Hungarian side. Not to mention that I’m a strong-willed, opinionated and proud person, so maybe I got some of that from these headstrong northerners. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, but in any case, the trip held an extra element for me. I normally don’t advertise the fact that I’m part Spanish since it seems like so many Americans love to cry the second they meet someone from a distant part of their heritage, “OMG I’m Irish/Italian/German/etc too!!!” about a million generations back, with no connection to the culture. I don’t feel connected to the Basque culture at all, nor do I fluently speak Spanish, which is why I don’t feel like I can say I’m part Basque because I don’t feel it, so I only mention it if the subject comes up. But being in the Basque Country definitely sparked a desire to discover more about that part of my family, and really what made me start Spanish in university in the first place was to connect with that side of my family (I tried German, and Hungarian, man I wasn’t even gonna go near that).

Mundaka and the Basque flag

Coastal town of Mundaka and the Basque flag

Turning back to Bilbao, these days it’s most known for the Guggenheim, an art museum housed in a crazy building designed by Frank Gehry.  One of the 12 Treasures of Spain, it was on our top list of things to do while in Bilbao, but actually we never ended up going inside. Half of it was closed and we chose to spend our time on the coast, a decision which I do not regret in the least. Art museums aren’t really my thing, and I can go when I return to Bilbao for the Camino de Santiago. But anyway, the outside of the building is pretty cool.

The Gug.

The Gug.

Food was another reason I was excited to go to Bilbao, all I kept hearing was how tasty it was; and it did not disappoint. The food is delicious and fresh, full of seafood dishes and delicious white wines to accompany them. A dish that we kept turning to was rabas, aka calamari, but so much more light and tasty than any I had ever had.  Tapas are called pinxtos , and the best way to experience a night in Bilbao is to bar hop for a pintxo in each one. If you head out of the bar with your glass of wine and mill in the street with the rest of Bilbao,  you might even get to experience some local culture like we did in the form of a traveling group of Basque people singing traditional songs and meandering through the Old Town. I sadly didn’t get any photos, as my camera phone is completely dysfunctional in the dark and I don’t carry around my nice camera at night. Ah well, next time!  

Pinxtos by the sea, with the Basque flag proudly flying in the background

Pinxtos by the sea

But the true magic of Bilbao lies the surroundings. I’m not used to mountains so close to cities; whenever I see the Madrid mountains from afar I’m amazed, and they’re not even blanketed in an unreal green like those in the Basque Country. Saturday we headed to the UNESCO listed Vizcaya “Hanging” Bridge, an interesting site to see as it’s a bridge that functions unexpectedly: by transporting cars and people in a hanging chamber! Of course we giddily traveled across and walked along the water until hunger overtook us and we stopped for some rabas. 

That little pod on the left is what moves across!

That little pod on the left is what moves across!

Sunday’s coast destination was Mundaka, internationally renowned for it’s surfing scene, where the waves are perfect 1/3 of the time and people are crazy enough to surf even in February.

surfer close up

mist cliffs edited

The coast was savage and wild, the February winds stirring up huge waves that tumble and crash with enough force to bring down a break wall (not while we were there, but we saw the aftermath). The mist rose above the water like wraiths, swirling and lingering in the air until plunging down into the hungry sea again. We all stood for a solid half an hour on the outermost point staring into the tempestuous water, lost in contemplation, overwhelmed by the immensity of nature until the bitter cold forced us to head onward to a nearby fishing town and cup of hot caldo, or broth. I had noticed that every bar and restaurant was advertising Hay caldo, saying that they offered it. What’s the big deal about broth? I wondered, until I wrapped my non-functioning fingers around a two-handled bowl and experienced the warming properties of a bowl of hot caldo, inside and out. Because it wasn’t a boring old chicken broth; each bar/restaurant has their own recipe and the one I had just the right amount of hint of seafood to be tasty without overwhelming.

Boats in the harbor at an old resort town

Boats in the harbor at an old resort town

"We'll always have Bilbao" on Calle Libertad

“We’ll always have Bilbao” on Calle Libertad

Where has natural beauty blown you away? Have you ever reconnected with a part of your family’s history?