Basque Country

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Basque Country

“Everyone who has visited the Basque County longs to return; it is a blessed land.” Victor Hugo

Timeless is perhaps the best way to describe the experience of visiting the Basque Country. It’s the chance to come face to face with the Basques themselves, a people who have lived in Europe longer than any other, and whose language Euskara, predates any of the Indo-European languages that you hear spoken around the rest of the continent. 

 The region’s history with the ETA, the Basque Independence group, is complicated and has been at times, bloody. We saw a protest in Ordizia to send the prisoners in Spain for terrorism back to the Basque country. The ETA has disbanded and most Basque people are willing to share their views.

Our base was in Donostia (Basque for San Sebastian) and we did day trips to both the Spanish and French side.

We arrived on a dark windy and rainy day. Our goal was to see El Peine del Viento, three sculptures in steel  by the artist Eduard Chillida, that are anchored into the rocks at the foot of Monte Igueldo. it is a half hour walk from the  center of San Sebastian along the coast.

Actually it was really cool to see it in the wind and rain. 

We  took the funicular up to the top to see the views (?) and the old amusement park.

There is something very creepy about being in an empty amusement park in the rain. It felt like the beginning of  Law and Order and we were about to find the body.

Many of the places we visited were on the Northern route of the Camino Del Santiago. Religious devotion was once the prime motivator for taking this 800 km long hike to see the relics of St. James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela. 

These days the route is taken by travelers who want to experience Spain in a different way, challenge themselves or are on their own spiritual journey. 

I would recommend joining the trail at some point and enjoying the rolling green hills of the Basque Country. dotted with  monasteries.

We  take the train to Zarautz. Zarautz is a coastal town with a beautiful beach famous for surfing.

We pick up the Camino  in the hills.

The yellow arrow or shell in the ground (in towns)  means you are on the Camino route.

We hike for a few hours passed txakoli  and tomato vineyards, animals and green fields with crazy beautiful views over the Bay of Biscay.

When Imanol our guide almost fell in the creek because of the mud, we went with the fence.  Nobody said there would be climbing.

Getaria is a small seaside town with a picturesque harbor and beautiful beach.

We have lunch at Asador Astillero. It is another best meal on a trip of best meals.

I have never tasted fish this moist and delicious and I cannot believe there is no butter.

They showed us the kitchen. Basque people love to show you how they cook.

We stop at a txakoli vineyard on our way home. Txakoli is the wine of the Basque country. (TX is pronounced CH). The wines are light, bubbly and low in alcohol content.

  The most widely planted grape variety, by far is Zuri meaning white, with a very small amount of the red variety called Beltza.

The word txakoli means farm wine or homemade. It is hard to grow because the climate is cold and wet.

It goes well with the exquisitely fresh fish of Basque cuisine, except that the locals also drink Txakoli with red meat. Why? Because historically it was all that they had.

We had a great time with Imanol who’s knowledge of the the Basque culture, kindness, easy going nature, intelligence and great taste in food made San Sebastian and the Basque Country an unforgettable trip.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Pinxtos In San Sebastian, Spain

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“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Irish Proverb

San Sebastian is one of the best eating cities in the world, it has more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else.  If you are a foodie, San Sebastián is utter food paradise. The quaint, narrow streets of its Old Town (Parte Vieja)  are home to a countless number of bars serving pinxtos. 

Luckily we have Imanol from Cultural Xplorers to organize our first night of pinxtos and recommend other bars.  Imanol grew up in San Sebastian. There are over fifty pinxto bars in the Old City and trying to narrow them down and find them can be daunting. 

The fare at traditional pintxos bars is pretty straightforward, and heavy on meat, cheese and seafood.

Items like: gildas (a spanish chili pepper wrapped around an anchovy and olive, speared with a toothpick), tortilla (Spanish-style frittata), jamon (Spanish cured ham), fried croquettes stuffed with salt cod, anchovies (in many forms), and grilled shrimp with ham, can be found in almost every pintxos bar.

It is tempting to just grab a seat or a place standing at the bar and feast away, but you should fight the temptation. Pintxos culture encourages people to bounce around to different establishments all night, sampling just a few bites from each. Since most of the best pintxos are found within the compact Old Town section of San Sebastian, you never have to walk more than a few minutes to your next destination.

Our first pinxto  lesson  came at Astelehena. It quickly seemed to me that the best pinxtos were made to order in the kitchen.  We ate Duck Magret with corn and pineapple sauce, octopus with a cream of avocados & potatoes and ‘Gilda’ composed of tuna, olives, anchovies and guindillas (local green peppers).

We drink Ribera de Duero which  is a red wine from the neighboring region. I don’t really like anchovies but after having this dish a few times, my life is not the same. 

Our next stop was Haizea for codfish (Brick de Bacalao) with leak and carrot and scallop and shrimp brochette.  Bacalao is a word you should learn when traveling to Northern Spain and Portugal. There is always bacalao. Haizea is the bar that Chef Arzak  (of the three star Michelin restaurant) takes Anthony Bourdain to on No Reservations in 2008. We had our first glass of Txakoli (pronounced chock a lee) -the light local white wine. Yes it is another Anthony Bourdain day.

Mendaur was our third stop. We had boiled egg with truffles and parmesan cheese, mushrooms and crispy Iberian Ham.

But my most favorite pinxto was the European squids with caramelized onions and three sauces (mustard and honey, chimichurri of Txakoli and black garlic). I have no words for how good this was.

We were full and I thought I couldn’t eat any more but I was wrong. We went to Urola where I was about to have what turned out to be one of the best desserts of my life.  It is called ‘Torrija’, and is similar but not to bread pudding, served with coffee ice cream and caramel.

We did a few nights on our own of pinxtos as well but since I told the chef in my bad Spanish to give us his favorites and they were crazy busy, I don’t know what they were called. It involved shrimp, meat, fois gras  and risotto -all were delicious.

We also found our way back to Astelehena for duck breast and anchovies. (which involved a lot of walking in circles).

If you are looking for a romantic, relaxing night out, pintxos bars are not for you. They are all about socializing, eating, and drinking in small, confined spaces. The more cramped, the more frenzied, the more you have to fight your way to the bar, the better.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Bilbao, Spain

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Bilbao, Spain

“On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.” Unknown 

Bilbao  is our first stop in the Basque Country. The city has its own personality. It is quite small which makes it easy to walk around and enjoy the Basque culture. The Basques have their own language which is different and unrelated to any other language in the world.  If you are linguistically obsessed, this is a good place to be. There are also several different dialects of Basque, so the Basque that people speak in Bilbao is different from the Basque that is spoken in San Sebastián. You will notice a lot of k’s and tx’s.

We meet our guide Kyle from Cultural Xplorers. He is carrying three umbrellas -just in case.  As we were to learn, some days, it seems like all it does is rain in the Basque Country. They even have a word for that light, misty rain that seems to never stop – txirimiri.

  We start with breakfast at a pinxto bar and have a  potato and egg torta and a cortado coffee.

Walking through the beautiful city, we head to the train station. There is a large stained glass window depicting Basque life.

There are lots of architectural gems  scattered all over the city,.

We enter Casco Viejo (Old Town). At its heart are Bilbao’s original seven streets, dating back to the fourteen hundreds when the city was founded.

There are many historic buildings like the Gothic Cathedral and tiny streets lined with quirky shops and bars.

I find an authentic hat store and  buy a Basque beret -ish.

I could have wandered around here all day – except we were getting hungry again.  That could only mean one thing in Basque country. It was time for pinxtos.

Pinxtos are foodie heaven.  Imagine sitting in a bar having a nice quiet drink and being able to steadily munch your way through a range of amazing food from wonderfully cured meats, steak, cheese, olives, rich foie gras, duck and fish in various guises. It’s overwhelming and Kyle helped us find the best ones.

They are in every bar so even if you just plan on going for a drink-you will end up eating. Kyle points out some of the better bars so we can come back on our own.

The truth is I don’t think you can find a bad meal in Basque country. It is known for amazing food. 

We continue eating in the nineteenth century Plaza Nueva.- full of pinxto bars which come alive between three and eight pm. 

It is a custom to go from bar to bar and try different pintos along the way. 

Refueled, we take a walk down the waterfront toward the Guggenheim Museum and our hotel.

The riverfront promenade has an eclectic mix of traditional and modern architecture and is buzzing with both tourists and locals. We see the La Salve Bridge and the big art installations outside the Guggenheim Museum.

There is Louise Bourgeois (Maman -spider),  Jeff Koons (“Tulips” and “The Puppy” which is a giant flowering topiary in the shape of a terrier).

There is Anish Kapoor (“Tall tree And The Eye” aka a stack of metallic balls)  and Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture, which is a unique sensory experience of a jet of fog emanating from the water in the moat surrounding the museum at every hour -odd to experience in the pouring rain.

We meet for a late lunch early dinner at La Vina Del Estanche. On a trip of best food ever, this meal rates very highly and was only the beginning of the food to come.

The next morning I go over to the new exhibit at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. It was their 110th anniversary and newly renovated and reopened the day I arrived. The exhibit was ABC including Spanish, English and Basque letters and words.

Through a selection of more than 300 pieces and 200 artists, they created an alphabetic story.in 31 rooms. Each room was a word. Arte (art), Bilbao, Citoyen (Citizen), Desira (Desire), Espejo (mirror), Friendship………( P was for Portraits- from many different artists)

It was really cool and the museum has some interesting pieces. (love this one – John Davies-Every War Memorial)

And then it was back to eating.  After a private tour of the Guggenheim we went to the Michelin starred Nerua. Nerua is an ancient Latin name for the Nervion River  where the restaurant in the Guggenheim museum is located.

Nerua,

The small restaurant is designed by Frank Gehry with white walls and tablecloths and his signature curvy chairs.

When we arrived it was pretty much empty.

Chef Alija’s tasting menu was a beautifull and artfully prepared take on Spanish flavors.

I did not know what to expect from my visit to Bilbao. A bucket list place doesn’t always live up to the hype. Bilbao’s enchanting mix of old and new with a focus on food and people makes it a wonderful place to visit.  Special thanks to Kyle for making us feel so welcome, comfortable and extremely well-fed in his wonderful city.

Fly safe

JAZ

Street Art In Madrid, Spain

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Street Art In Madrid, Spain

“Don’t have much to say that wouldn’t look better on a wall.”BiP

 The urban art scene in Madrid  has a very cool street vibe. What better way to see it then with “the point of view” of Javiar Garcia of Cool Tours Spain.  

A lot of the street art in Madrid seems to be created around annual street art festivals.

Local and international artists are invited to paint in some of the neighborhood around the city. 

We walked  around the neighborhoods of Lavapiés and Malasaña,

Gentrification is everywhere in these once rundown neighborhoods. Most of the city’s street art can be found here.

Street art is diverse and includes paste-ups, murals, stencils, sculpture, tags, bubble letters and more. The artists are influenced and inspired by a multitude of cultures and styles, resulting in a wide and expansive body of urban art. 

Graffiti and street art has always had a history of being influenced by the present political and social issues.

A lot of people have painted and pasted on the walls and buildings in their cities as a form of anonymous political protest.

As Europe struggles to respond to the refugee crisis, street artists in Madrid have their own protest. 

La Tabacalera  is an old tobacco factory where a lot of street artists have their workshops.

This former factory is a 30,000-square-foot museum filled with graffiti and street art.

It is a much cooler gallery space than the sometimes snobby art world.

I could have easily spent the whole day here examining every wall. 

 The street art world is all inclusive and made up of artists, art lovers and people passing by.

Javier’s comprehensive tour and commentary made me feel that Madrid  can be just as wildly creative as NY or London. You can contact him at https://www.cooltourspain.com. Don’t miss it when you are in Madrid.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

“Much will be written and said about the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in the future; we will simply be able to say that we built it.’   Juan Ramón Pérez, Works Manager for the Guggenheim Museum and Head of Building for the Basque country.

 Humans tend to be fascinated by several sights and places.  We see pictures and videos of those places we want to visit. And then we go.

The Guggenheim is bigger and bolder than I thought it would be. I had a window view and it is as peaceful to me as looking at the sea.

It is one of those rare works of contemporary architecture that dazzle the world with its modern styling and intricate structure. It is located in Northern Spain in the city of Bilbao, an industrial port encircled by the green mountains in Basque Country.  The museum stands right next to the banks of the Nervión River that flows through Bilbao down to the Cantabrian Sea. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao features exhibits and works of artists from all over the world.

The glittering titanium museum is designed by Frank Gehry, an award-winning Canadian-American architect. When he was chosen by Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as the architect, Thomas Krens, its director, asked him to design the museum extraordinarily. Gehry surely exceeded their expectations. The construction took place from 1993 to September, 1997. On October 18, 1997, the former of King of Spain, King Juan Carlos I, inaugurated the museum. When it was first introduced, the design awed the critics as well as the public. After its immediate and immense success, many similar buildings popped up all around the world.

 Gehry is known for a number of renowned architectural designs including Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

One might say that the artistic contents and exhibits of the museum are not as impressive as the structure of the building itself. To be honest, it would not be wrong. People from all over the globe  pay a visit to the museum to witness the avant-garde structure that they have heard so much about. It is on the Northern route of the Camino de Santiago and the pilgrims usually make a stop at the museum.

There are no photos allowed  inside the museum.  This is good because it give me a chance to enjoy the works in a more relax and peaceful way instead of busily taking pictures.  Sometimes I do wonder why I need to take so many photos and whether  I miss anything by doing this.

The urban building is covered in glass, titanium, and limestone. The exterior structure feature random curves and hurls that catch and throw the lights while the interior is built around a huge, lighted atrium offering picturesque views of Bilbao’s river banks and the mountainous greenery of the Basque country.

The building spans an area of 32,500-square-meters (350,000 sq. ft.) The exhibition area has nineteen galleries. 

You will be surprised to know that the museum was built on a strict time limit and budget.  Gehry said he ensured that he had an accurate estimate of the budget, and that no political and business interests interfered with the project. Furthermore, he used his own software, Digital Project, to create detailed computer visualizations and teamed up with the individual building trades to cut down the costs.

Immediately after opening, the museum became a popular tourist attraction.  The taxes collected from the hotels, restaurants, shops and transport itself has more than paid for the building cost.

The  “Bilbao effect” refers to how the museum transformed the city.   This is amazing because before the museum, Bilbao was just a faded industrial town.

My trip to Spain and Portugal started in Bilbao – a bucket list place for me.  It was a more expensive trip than usual and I struggled with the decision to do it. But I believe that you should invest in your life for the things you love. I have no regret for this decision. Life should be spontaneous and without too much thought. Just go. The memories will be worth it.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Thirty-Six Hours In Madrid

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Thirty-Six Hours In Madrid

“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died.” Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Check into Hotel Urso – a boutique hotel in the center of Madrid in the trendy Chueca district.

Have dinner at Media Racion – the delicious restaurant at the hotel.

Breakfast  -Urso’s continental breakfast in the  lobby bar did not disappoint. I had toast with tomato and oil, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee – not a bad way to start my first day in Spain.

Street Art Tour of Madrid . It is always my favorite thing to do in a city (more later.)

Lunch at the Reina Sofia

Visit Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia. The visually stunning Guernica is the favorite painting of my childhood from the  Museum Of Modern Art in New York.  It was returned to Spain in 1980 when I moved to California. At first glance, the painting looks like chaos – all hard lines, blunt angles, and cartoonish scenes of animals and people. But when you look at the details, you begin to see more. Here’s a woman, grieving for the child in her arms. There’s a fallen man, his broken sword lying beside him. The painting depicts the bombing of Guernica (in Basque Spain) during the Spanish Civil War. The Guernica takes up nearly an entire wall of the museum, and at eleven feet tall and nearly twenty-seven feet wide, it is simply massive – especially to a child. The painting always has the same emotional effect on me. I visited the city of Gernika (Basque spelling) in the Basque region on this trip. It was a peaceful quiet city and of course was nothing like the painting. But it was strangely poetic to be standing there. 

Visit the Spanish Paintings at the Prado. No museum in the world comes close to matching the Prado’s collection of Velazquez, Goya and El Greco. Velazquez spent most of his life in Madrid as a court painter and is considered the greatest Spanish painter of all time. Las Meninas is one of the great Spanish paintings. There are eighty works by Velazquez in the Prado. There are over nine hundred paintings by Goya there as well.

Follow his trajectory from his early portraits, light and full of life, through to the dark intensity of his final works.There’s nothing quite like the Black Paintings. Painted directly on the walls of his house in the outskirts of Madrid towards the end of Goya’s life, they reveal the inner life of an artist disillusioned by politics and society, losing his health (and possibly his mind), and confronting his own death. These are dark, twisted scenes which stay with you long after you leave the museum.

Churros and Chocolate at San Gines  One of the great customs in Madrid for either breakfast or afternoon is a sweet pick me up. It’s the smell of the  intoxicating blend of hot oil, fried dough, and melted chocolate that lures everyone in. Hot chocolate in Spain bears little resemblance to its counterpart in America. Spanish chocolate is designed for dipping, so it has the consistency of something  like a warm, soft pudding. Those long, sugary sticks of dough sold at Disneyland or  Costco bear little resemblance to the authentic Spanish article. Churros must be eaten fresh from the fryer, are almost more savory than sweet, and are considerably shorter than their American imitations.

The spa at Hotel Urso uses the Natura Bisse Spanish products that I use at home. I am eager to try some treatments and spend the evening having a decadent facial, massage and body treatment. I take advantage of the steam and whirlpool facilities. It is an excellent experience to unwind and get rid of the jet lag.

In the morning, I leave for Bilbao – after I eat my new favorite tomato and olive oil on toast .

Fly safe,

JAZ

Ten Things That I Want To Do In Portugal This Time

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Ten Things That I Want To Do In Portugal This Time

“Life is what we make of it. Travel is the traveler. What we see isn’t what we see but what we are.” Fernando Pessoa, Book Of Disquiet

Porto is the colorful, Unesco city that I  have wanted to visit. The photos are beautiful and I can’t wait to walk down those streets.

 Livraria Lello and Irmao is one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Ask JK Rowling.

Drink Port which is named after….

I love seafood and both Porto and Lisbon are on the sea – codfish, sardines, snails, grilled whole fresh fish of the day with coarse salt and crispy, skin, octopus, eels, and snails along with kale soup and pastel de nata  is a great reason to go to Portugal  (This is a major eating trip)

When I was in Lisbon I didn’t make it to the National Tile Museum ((Museo Nacional De Azulejo). It is located in the Alfama area (where we are staying this time)  in a fifteenth century convent. I saw those beautiful tiles on many of the old buildings and palaces when I was there and I want to know more about them.

The Fado Museum (Portuguese guitar music) is also in Alfama and sounds like something I would like. The Fado Museum is a  testimony of passion and dedication this country has for Fado and has helped musicians, instrument manufacturers and researchers gain the exceptional esteem which the practice of fado enjoys today.

Buying a few more pair of handmade gloves at Ulisses in Lisbon.  They are guaranteed for life so i will check mine before I leave for Portugal . 

The Douro Valley is known for its vineyards, landscapes and the Douro River. It’s another amazing place in Portugal that I will see this time.

Drive from Porto to Lisbon stopping in towns and fishing villages along the way.

Buy canned fish to take home from Lisbon. There are many different cans to choose from. Shelves in every corner of the city sit stacked with cans of sardines, horse mackerel, tuna, anchovies, octopus, eel, and more. Some shops sell nothing but tinned fish. It is surprisingly good. It is not like Chicken of the Sea.

Fly safe,

JAZ