Traveling Through The Basque Country

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 Traveling Through The Basque Country

“The goal of my life is to tie adventure to my feet, stock memories in my pocket, hold imagination in my palms like fairy dust and sprinkle it on my tales.” Mitali Meelan

The best way to explore the beautiful Basque coastline is by car,  ferry, train and bus. We ride the bus to Hondarribia which is on the Spanish border with France.

It is the first settlement pilgrims will come upon as they follow the Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago from France  on their way to the final destination of Santiago de Compostela.

We walk through the cobblestone streets of the Parte Vieja past medieval stone palaces and traditional Basque wood-beamed houses.

 Later, we take the seven minute ferry ride to Hendaye which is on the French border with Spain.

It is a seaside town.

You know you are on the Basque Coastline when you see huge rocks gushing from the Ocean, a rugged terrain with steep and sharp cliffs and very cold water.

We return for a late lunch in Hondarriba. Throughout Basque Country, pintxo bar chefs strive to outdo one another, and formal pintxo competitions up the ante.

In recent years, Hondarribia bars have competed against San Sebastián’s with favorable results, earning regional and national recognition for their tiny masterpieces.

In fact, demand for quality cuisine at reasonable prices means that some of the best places for are surprisingly low-key. 

 The next day, in a seventeenth century farmhouse,  we see the famous Basque breed floppy eared pigs (Euskal Txerria).  The Basque pigs unlike many of their pink cousins have a good life.

Afterward we had a not light lunch at the farmhouse and got to try some of their delicious cured ham.

I am usually disconnected from the process of where my food comes from.  Being brought up in a supermarket, It is hard to understand that death is part of a process of food production.

  I try now, as best I can to make ethical food choices. It helps to know where the animal comes from and how it was raised.  

 The Wednesday market in the town of Ordizia has been happening for over five hundred years.

The market takes over the town plaza centre which is a Roman or Greek looking Parthenon type structure.

We are lucky to be here on a Wednesday for this  authentic market with a great selection of local produce and products.

The most popular food item that you will find in Ordizia is the Idiazabal cheese, a hard white cheese, strong in flavor and high in acidity, made according to centuries-old family recipes (available in both smoked and un-smoked varieties.)

You can still buy the cheese directly from the shepherds who make it from the milk.

We have a lunch on our last day in Basque country at Komentu Maitea a converted monastery in Gordexola. It is Spanish Independence Day and  the restaurant is filled with local families having a large midday meal.

The food is fresh and delicious.

Nearby is the city of Guernica (Gernika in Basque). We stop at the  Assembly House and the Tree of Gernika. For centuries the Lords of Biscay met under an oak tree in this very spot to discuss the issues of the day, eventually building a more solid shelter (for those wetter days) in the form of The Assembly House.

The tree is one of the best known symbols of freedom for the Basque people.  Gernika was devastated by the Nazi Germany bombings in1937 with unprecedented consequences (made famous by the Picasso painting). Both the Assembly House and the traditional oak survived. This strengthened the tree’s already symbolic value to the Basque people.

The scenery in the Basque country is breathtaking.

The cities are picturesque and the food is  amazing and there will always be some rain – even in the summer. 

I appreciate the efforts of  the  Basque people to protect their culture, identity and language.

It is a wonderful place to visit  especially if you like food. I have to thank to Jim Kane  and Cultural Xplorers for another excellent 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

Ten Things That I Want To Do In Spain This Time

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Ten Things That I Want To Do In Spain this Time

“There is no nightlife in Spain. They stay up late but they get up late. That is not nightlife. That is delaying the day.” Ernest Hemingway

1.Most of us have at least a short list of places we want to see before we die.. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is one of my places. I used to walk my dog near Frank Gehry’s house – on purpose. I’ve still never seen him. Modern art, pinxtos  Frank Gehry and the Basque region in one place sounds perfect.

2. Visit Guernica at the Reina Sofia and  the Velazquez and Goya paintings at the Prado I grew up with the Guernica by Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art. It was the painting that helped me to make some kind of sense of war – or at least understand that grown-ups didn’t understand it either. I often went to visit it. When I left NY in 1980, the Guernica went back to Spain and now resides in the Reina Sofia.  Seeing favorite paintings are like visiting old friends.  There is no art that touches me more than Goya’s Black Paintings. The dark, twisted, painful scenes have stayed with me, long after I left the museum,. 

3, Have some gazpacho and hot chocolate and churros (at San Gines) in Madrid.

4. The Camino de Santiago  is a medieval pilgrimage route ending in Santiago de Compostela in the northwest region of Spain. It is a bucket list thing for me to do the walk. Taking one, two, or five weeks (depending on where you start walking) to walk across the beautiful and diverse landscapes of northern Spain is a transformative experience and a great immersion into Spain as well. Since we will be nearby, we will try to walk a few of days of it. 

5. Eat at some Michelin restaurants in San Sebastián. San Sebastián purportedly is the city with the most Michelin starred restaurants per capita globally. The highly recommended Michelin starred restaurants in and around San Sebastián include Arzak,  Mugaritz, Martin Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri, and Akelarre.

6. Sample pinxtos in San Sebastián and Bilbao. Pintxos are Basque-style tapas known for being extra creative and delicious.

7. Walk through the Albaicin and Sacromonte areas of Granada. There are many neighborhoods in Andalusia where time seems to have stood still. Sacromonte is the original Gypsy quarter of Granada. High up on the hillside above Albaicín, many locals still live in dappled white caves carved out of the rock. The Albaicin is a  squashed-together network of winding cobbled streets, whitewashed old houses and jasmine-scented squares perches on the hillside on the other side of the Darro River from the Alhambra.

8.  Watch flamenco and listen to Spanish guitar in Granada. Flamenco in Spain is a fascinating tradition. It’s everywhere you look in Madrid. Flamenco is a constant presence and the souvenir shops are all selling polka-dot dresses and castanets. The dance started in Granada and the best shows are here. 

9. I have been to the old hammam in Istanbul  (baths) so I know how great they can be. Hammam Al Andalus is built over the old Arab Baths in Granada and I am booking my appointment before I go.

10. Eat tapas in Granada and Madrid. Small in size but full in flavor, there is a huge variety of tapas to try in Spain. The small bites give you chance to try many different kinds without feeling stuffed.

Fly safe,

JAZ