By mid November climate changes and winter settles in the Basque Country. Then, in many “baserris“, Basque farm houses, people get ready for the celebration of the txarriboda, a centuries old event that was intended to assure the daily intake of food for the next few months. The baserritarras, of owners of the farm, call their friends and neighbours and settle a date for the txarriboda or pig slaughter. They choose the biggest one of their swines and feed him well in the weeks prior to the big day. It´s a big party for everyone, and kids are -usually- also (passive) spectators. The pig is laid down and the butcherer cuts his throat deep and long, blood spurting down into a bucket, where it´s collected to make the diverse pork products afterwards. Hairs are burnt with wooden sticks, pig is cleaned and ”sanitized”. Men kill and cut the pig, women make the food.
Once the pig is dissected, cut in half, his blood collected…the feast of the preparation of food begins. Meanwhile, there may be music on the frontyard of the farm, and people dancing, and friends socializing having some drinks and food. There´s normally a big table and food and drinks are laid on it, so everybody enjoys the party. Morcillas (blood sausage with rice or vegetables), chorizo (red sausage, spicy or not), bacon, ribs, ham,…, everything is stuffed and made and then hung on to the ceiling on a fresh space to cure for a few weeks. Deliciously fresh, natural, preservative free…a real pleasure to your senses once they are cured enough to eat.
Of course, a veterinarian has certified the good health of the pig and of the products that are obtained from it…this is a modern society too, despite its centuries old traditions.
Basques are famous all over Spain because we are considered to be very strong (a myth? maybe…) and big lovers of traditions. That mixture is represented on Basque sports, that are mainly based on strength. There are dozens of sports that are regularly played in local leagues. The most known is Basque Pelota (handball), you´ll surely notice that there´s a frontón (wall for handball) in every Basque town, no matter its size. Pelota has many varieties, it´s played not only with the hands, but also with “palas” (a very narrow wooden racket), “cesta punta”, “xare”,…in long and short frontones. Some examples here and here
Also, rural sports such as stone lifting (in its many varieties, too, with different weights, sizes, shapes,…), Stone lifting or stone pulling (men, oxen or donkeys…), grass cutting, wood axe cutting, etc…, are played (and we love to bet on them) throughout the year and mostly in summertime at the town festivals. Something very interesting and a centuries old tradition. Video here (what sounds in the back is a traditional Basque instrument, the Txalaparta)
Another one very popular is the “estropadak” or “traineras”, that is, a rowing boat competition in open sea. There´s a league that starts in spring and ends in summer, and the most important competition takes place in September in the Concha estuary in San Sebastián. The winner gets a Flag (and money, too). Some videos here. We just love to keep traditions alive.
In the very centre of what´s knows as The Almond (due to its peculiar shape), that is, the historic district of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country, there´s the Old Cathedral of St Mary´s. A few years ago, a very interesting project was born: the restoration of this Cathedral to stop its decaying process, seemingly unstoppable at the time. They have a great motto, Open For Reworks, (Abierto Por Obras, in Spanish), and they offer guided tours with experts that show you why the Cathedral was about to collapse, what are they doing to prevent it from falling down and how are they “reconstructing” some walls and columns so the building stays as it is for several more centuries. Extremely interesting for art and architecture lovers, for families and kids and for everyone interested in History, with capital letters. The Old Town of Vitoria-Gasteiz offers a great array of historical monuments and it´s also well worth a visit (the Jewish quarter is very well kept and its buildings are beautiful). This project has received a good number of prizes, based on its universal interest, and you can have all relevant info on www.catedralvitoria.com, also available in English.
This beautifully restored castle, or maybe fortress, built originally in the IX century and rebuilt on the XIII-XIV, is located in the beautiful Valdegobia valley, in the much unknown province of Araba. Scarcely populated, it´s nevertheless full of historical places (very close to it is Valpuesta, one of the first places where the Spanish Castilian language was born) and near the pretty church of Tuesta. Also very close to the Natural Park of Valderejo and the town of Espejo (”mirror”, in Spanish). Nature at its full length…
The legends goes that there were three brothers and a sister, María Pérez, and the first three went to battle for Doña Urraca against king Alfonso of Aragón. The lady also participated in the battle, hidden under an armor, and at one moment she found herself battling against the king, face to face. She defeated him, and admired by her braveness and after finding out he had been fighting with a woman, he told her “You´ve fought bravely, not as a feeble woman, but as a strong warrior. Therefore, you will not be considered a man hereafter (”Varón”, in Spanish), but “Varona” in feminine, and thus that will be the name for your descendents”. And so her name changed from Pérez to Varona.
For more info on the area, http://www.valdegovia.com/en/ver_index.asp, also on the romanic and pre-gothic church of Tuesta, Valderejo Natural Park, Salinas de Añana, etc…A very relaxing area, very authentic, full of unexplored jewels…And eating at the restaurant in the public swimming pool of Valdegobia may also be a great idea…
The sanctuary of Arantzazu is an oddity in the world of monasteries. A franciscan monastery for the past 500 years, it´s located on the steep road that leads to the highest mountain in the Basque Country, Aitzgorri (Red Rock, in Basque). The legend says that the shepherd Rodrigo de Balzategui saw an image of the Virgin Mary hidden in a thorn tree…and he exclaimed “Arantzan zu!!”, that means “You in the thorn”, in Basque. Thousands of Basque women are called Arantzazu or Arantxa following the name of the Virgin of Arantzazu. The franciscans built the monastery on the mountain, and in 1954 they decided to build a new one, after several fires had severely damaged the building. The “new” monastery is spectacular, perched on the rocky slope leading to the Urbia meadows on the way to Aitzgorri, there´s a visitor´s centre and a hotel, and the inside offers the remotest idea you´d have about a monastery. The walls are painted, there are poems and sayings, and it looks quite “70´s modern”. Outside, on the front wall, 13 apostles (yes, thirteen), or some figures that look like them.
Down, the town of Oñate (Oñati, in Basque). You can´t miss the University, founded in the XVI century, and the first one in the Basque Country, that closed in 1901. Also, its magnificent church, crossed by the river, that can be seen from inside the church. The rest of the town is also full of magnificent buildings and it´s well worth a visit. Nearby, the famous cider houses, Idiazabal cheese farms,…
As you probably know, Holy Week is celebrated all over Spain with processions and a wide variety of rites related to suffering and pain. While the most extended idea is that Holy Week is just celebrated in Seville, the truth is that it´s a period of religious passion in many other places. Not so many years ago all tv channels (well, we had just two when I was a kid) broadcasted religious movies, radio stations played just religious music, cinemas and bars were closed on Holy Thursday, Friday and Saturday, people ate very lightly as a penance and mainly fish, and there was not much to do except attending the local processions.
It´s not like that any more. Now the religious sense of the Holy Week has been practically lost and it´s a time for holidays. But processions are still there, and in Bilbao they are on the streets for a whole week. They are breathtaking: the sound of trumpets, the penants wearing those high coned hats and covered faces, the rhythm of dozens of drums, the overwhelming silence, the images that are rythmically carried by at least 12 men at an endless pace…It´s really something unique and I love going to see them…of course bars and cinemas and everything is open now, so…yes, we do enjoy a glass of wine and a pintxo afterwards.
In Balmaseda, west of the Basque Country, in the province of Bizkaia, they celebrate the most famous Live Passion, where the inhabitants of this beautiful town hold a religious show in the open air recreating the Passion of Christ. Breathtaking, real…it takes place at night and hundreds of families and visitors gather for a religious show that has been represented for the past three centuries and always with town locals, that play their roles as real professionals. www.viacrucisbalmaseda.com, part of it in English.
Following with those places that you normally won´t visit when coming to the Basque Country, there´s a very special valley located in the province of Araba. It´s an inner “salt valley”, where locals have been obtaining pure salt from the ground for the past 1200 years. Abandoned for decades, it´s being recovered by a new Foundation that pretends to preserve and to recover its former activity. It can be visited in small guided tours, the surrounding landscape is just amazing and the whole area is full of towns with a historical past and beautiful buildings. The salt obtained is excellent for cooking and considered one of the best in the world. Much unknown, though…
To visit their web page, click here, Salt Valley. And if you type “salinas de añana” in YouTube (no “ñ” in your English keyboards, I´m afraid), there are some very decent videos showing this spectacular result of the action of nature and human activity.
I´ve been to the III Basque Tourism Week, held in Donostia-San Sebastián, Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz. Lots of interesting people discussing about how to improve the quantity and quality of visits to our beautiful but alas! so unknown country. There was one sentence, though, that got all my attention, Basque is sexy, and yes, I think we are, and for a lot of reasons…
…because of our love for good food, good drinking and festivals…because there are plenty of places yet to be discovered…because we make one of the best cheeses in the world (Idiazabal) but many others too…because in such a small territory we have sea, beaches, mountains, forests, lakes, caves and rivers…because our fiestas last long and suit all tastes and are really fun…because of our love for rural sports…because of our love for traditions…because of our unique language, euskera, so enigmatic…because we make one of the best wines in the world, the Rioja…because we don´t speak English and signs are in Basque and Spanish and tourists appreciate it…because of our laid back and easy going way of life…because we have the higher number of Michelin starred restaurants per head…because we keep a nice balance between rural and city life…because we have one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (in the world?), San Sebastián…because kids are welcome everywhere and we love to have them around…because of our love for families…and because a sunset from the top of the Hanging Bridge is a lifetime experience…among many other things…
It´s about time you come and visit a place full of positive experiences and emotions…where you will find at home. And this is not just a gimmick!!
Araba is the biggest of the three provinces that make Euskadi-the Basque Country, as it´s called. Its capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz, where the Basque Government and a good part of the Administration is based. Araba is usually ignored by tourism, except for its southern part, the wine region of Rioja Alavesa, where the best wines of Europe are made.
If coming to the Basque Country, try not to ignore Araba. It offers wonderful natural spaces (Valderejo, Gorbeia and Izki Natural Parks, for example), a wide diversity in landscapes and climates, excellent food, a great capital worth a visit and unexplored valleys surrounded by beautiful mountains.
Vitoria-Gasteiz is considered the most livable city in Spain, due to its ample spaces, the high rate of trees per habitant, number of parks, low crime rate and high number of pedestrian areas. Its Old Quarter was declared a Protected Monument in 1997, and keeps the spirit of the old times. The restoration of the old cathedral, www.catedralvitoria.com, can be followed in a guided tour that explains the whole process and has won several awards as Best Restoration Project. Not far, you can have lunch at www.restauranteelportalon.com, a XV century building with a spectacular façade and a beautiful interior, and great food, of course!!. You can´t miss the excellent pintxos served at its many bars, many located in the pedestrian street Eduardo Dato (a popular one is www.sagartoki.es). And, on the way out of town, the sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin of Estibalitz, many girls are named after the matron saint of the province.
Not far from Vitoria-Gasteiz, you can enjoy the reservoirs of Urrunaga and Ullibarri-Ganboa, both offer excellent hikes and places to have great food. The town of Peñacerrada-Urizaharra, still keeps a good part of its mediaeval walls untouched. In Salinas de Añana, further south, near the Valdegovía valley, pure rock salt is obtained as it was done hundreds of years ago, in terraces where water evaporates (guided tours available). And then, the Rioja region…that will be object of a separate post.
Two great museums in Vitoria-Gasteiz not to be missed: Artium, www.artium.org, contemporary art in a spectacular building, and the Museum Fournier of Cards, over 20.000 models of playing cards of all countries.
One of the main characteristics of the Basque soil is (well, it was) its rich content in high quality iron. Up to the XVI century, there were around 300 foundries! producing iron for all of Europe. Nowadays, iron still plays an important role in our present industrial activity (unfortunately, not as before…). At the very beginning, the foundries were located on top of the mountains and they used the wind as the main force to produce iron, using coal as their source of heat (in a very anti-economical way). Soon they found out that it made more sense to have the ironworks close to a water stream, and so “modern” foundries were established in many Basque towns.
I´ve been to two of these foundries, both recently restored and open to the public . You can visit them (visits are also available in English) in order to watch “live” how iron was formerly obtained. The historical reconstruction is very well performed and what you see is probably very close to what it really was, they take great pride in transforming iron “the old way”. One of them is near Bilbao, in Muskiz (Bizkaia), Ferrería El Pobal, www.elpobal.com (this link will redirect you to another page available in English)- press here for a 4´youtube video of a visitor-. You can also see how they got flour from wheat with a water mill. Entrance tickets are cheap and very interesting, kids find it really amusing.
The other one is located in Legazpi, Gipuzkoa, where there formerly were 7 foundries. This one is Ferrería Mirandaola, on this link (not the best of webs, but at least it´s in English), located in the middle of a beautiful park where you can enjoy the incredible and beautiful landscape surrounding it. There are restaurants nearby where you can have a good meal after the visit, and even get all the way to Azpeitia, to the Museo del Ferrocarril (http://www.nekatur.net/museo-vasco-del-ferrocarril-de-azpeitia), where you can take a ride for half an hour on a real XIX century train powered by coal, apart from an interesting collection of old engines, trams, buses, fire trucks, the workshop, etc…