Category Archives: Basque

4 years later…an update on 2010 post, “Places in Bilbao I Like That You May Also Like”

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Time surely goes fast…I still remember when the Guggenheim was being built and when we took pictures of tourists, awed at the fact that there were actually people visiting Bilbao!! Well, things have changed a lot since then: Bilbao has turned into a wonderful, livable, lively town, great for foodies and a must-see from an architectural point of view. My favorite places have also changed, and so I also have new likes and dislikes. Let´s talk about 9 places that I love and that you may miss as a tourist, as they´re a bit off-the-beaten-path:

1) Mercado de la Ribera, the biggest covered market in Europe, completely re-built, and where my guests love to take pics of the fresh fish at the fishmongers´, of the Ibérico ham hanging from the ceilings, of the wide range of local cheeses and of the farmers that offer their locally produced vegetables (without any “organic” label on them…no need for this kind of marketing)…

2) Alhóndiga, the former wine warehouse located on the very center of Bilbao, now a public cultural and leisure center. Its interior has been singularly designed by acclaimed designer Philippe Starck, and it has a great rooftop bar where you can enjoy great music and views.Alhóndiga rooftop bar

3) Diputación Street, right behind the beautiful building of the provincial government or Diputación, in the Gran Vía (main street). Great pintxos in El Globo, good cocktails at El Embrujo, wonderful ibérico ham at La Viña, excellent steaks at Santa Rosalía…

4) Henao and Heros streets area, close to renovated Jado square (the one with the lions fountain in the center), where new bars have added life to this beautiful resident area. Mr Wonderful, Coppola pizzeria (in Barrainkua st), Singular, Residence, El Txoko de Gabi, Las Cepas…excellent pintxos and wine route, as well as good live music.

5) Bacaicoa bar, in Unamuno square, Old Town…the best pintxo of grilled mushrooms in town.

6) A ride on the Begoña or Iturribide public elevators, in the Old Town, for the very best views of the Old Town of Bilbao from above. Very cheap and a great experience as a local.View from Iturribide elevator, Old Town

7) A ride on the Funicular of Artxanda, from Castaños street…definitely the best views of the whole city from above…just turn left when you get up to get to the view point.

8) Santa María street in the Old Town on a Friday evening, for alternative pintxos bars and restaurants and great street atmosphere (we love having pintxos outside bars, rather than inside)

9) Doña Casilda Park, or “park of the ducks”, as we used to name it when kids…lovely public gardens in Bilbao, right behind the Meliá hotel. Perfect place to relax and enjoy the coolness of its shady trees and pond.Doña Casilda Park

Basque Traditions: the Txarriboda, or Pig Slaughter

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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.

I wanted to include some videos, but as they may be hard on your eyes :)  you may just type Txarriboda on Youtube…

Olentzero, the Basque Santa

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Basque children can´t complain when it comes to receiving presents…they get them from two sources: one is the Olentzero (on Dec 25), and the other one are the Three Wise Men or the Three Magic Kings (on Jan 6)…dates that are very conveniently separated in time.

The first character is the coalmaker that lives up in the woods in the Basque mountains, and descends to town to give presents to the children on Christmas Eve. He smokes in a pipe, is normally dressed in traditional costumes and wears a Basque beret. He even has a girlfriend, Maridomingi, that wears the weirdest hat…Originally he was not very smart, a big eater and drinker and his intentions towards children were not the best (I´m not talking about paedofilia here, it´s more crime and assassination….). And he smokes in pipe!!!!

Olentzero´s house can be visited and all kids are most welcome. It´s located in a very old farm house in the centre of Mungia and it´s like a Basque mythological theme park (in a very local and modest way) that shows Basque children an important part of our myths and legends, www.izenaduba.com.

Olentzero is part of the pre-Christian pagan traditions in the Basque Country, that lost its importance throughout the centuries and was rapidly substituted by the Three Magic Kings, the most popular present bearers in Spain. Nowadays both characters represent a peaceful conviviality in the innocent children´s minds, and both have their big parade in all towns prior to the magic night.

Basque Sports…Overly Popular Over the Centuries

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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.

 

Some Useless Facts & Figures about the Basque Country, I

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- Gipuzkoa is the smallest province in Spain, and the most densely populated. Capital city: San Sebastián, a.k.a. Donostia, in Basque.

- We are just 3 million Basques in Europe. Half live in Bizkaia. There´s five more times Basque descendants overseas.

- We have the highest number of blood and organ donors per capita in the world. Also, the highest income per capita in Spain.

- Basques know the Basque Country as “Euskadi“, its official name.

- Euskadi is also known as “The Little Switzerland“, because of its mountainous profile.

- 70% of our surface is forest, and a great part of it is protected.

- Basque language has seven dialects. Many Basque speakers use different words for the same concept. For instance, days of the week or months of the year.

- Basque is spoken too in the French Basque Country (Iparralde, in Basque). Euskadi is also known as Euskal Herria (an ethnic concept), 7 provinces, three forming Euskadi, another one is Navarre and the other three are in France. Around 30% of Basques speak Basque, an increasing figure.

- There are over 70 beaches in our 150 miles coast, all free from massive tourism and over construction.

- It used to rain a lot…it still does, but the feeling is that “it doesn´t rain as before”…

- The Rioja wine region is mostly in the Basque country, where top wines are produced. We also produce natural fermented cider and txakoli“, a young wine with Denomination of Origin.

- The Athletic Bilbao soccer team, founded in 1898, has never relegated to 2nd division and plays with Basque players only.

How a XIII Century Cathedral Is Being Restored

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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.

Castles in the Basque Country II. The Tower of Varona.

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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…

Holy Week…not so Holy anymore, but still beautiful

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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.

Castles in the Basque Country I. Castle of Butrón

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The castle of Butrón corresponds to the romantic idea of a castle. Located in Gatika, 20 miles from Bilbao, it was a mediaeval fortress built on the XIII century, that served as defensive tower in the fights that took place for centuries between Oñacinos and Gamboinos, the two big families that dominated the Basque Country in the Middle Ages. On the XVI century another castle was built on its place, and then it was abandoned for many years until the Marqués de Cubas recontructed and gave its present shape on the XIX century.butrón 1

At present, it belongs to a private company, it has served as restaurant for some years but it´s currently closed for visits. In any case, the views and the pictures you can take are spectacular. It is surrounded by a luxurious tree garden, with exotic species, and the visit is really worth it.

Enkarterriak/Encartaciones, the Western Valleys

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On the west of Bizkaia there exists the land known as Encartaciones, “The Chartered Towns”, a succession of green and mountainous valleys that hide beautiful places with a long mediaeval tradition, and that have always been a “different” part of Bizkaia. They had their own Casa de Juntas de Avellaneda, an ancient way of ruling themselves, parallel to the one in Gernika, and still there. But, once again, you will see no tourists at all on this area, probably the least visited in Bizkaia, despite its enormous offer of interesting attractions for those that seek the “untouched” areas. Basque is hardly spoken on this area.

Among its several attractions, the town of Balmaseda, with its mediaeval bridge  and the amazing church of Saint Severino. They hold a magnificent live recreation of the Passion of Christ on Easter (Holy Week). Not far, the best and biggest Rolls Royce museum in the world, already mentioned on this blog. Also, the Ferrería del Pobal, a faithful recreation of how ironworks were made in the past centuries, using just the force of watermills and fire. This land used to be full of iron mines and has a long tradition of ironworks, as most of the Basque Country. In Karrantza you have the Pozalagua Caves, the biggest cave in the world in its part known as Torca del Carlista (500 mt long, 240mt wide and 135mt high), with the highest concentration on earth of unique excentric stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes, even the weirdest ones.

For fun, Karpin Abentura, www.karpinabentura.com, a place where wild animals are treated from injuries and live  in its spacious areas and also where kids will enjoy the “live” dinosaurs. Also, a great place for families is Sopuerta Abentura, http://www.sopuerta-abentura.com/, fun in the trees…

Regarding food and accommodation, I can recommend Hotel Amalurra (www.amalurra.com), a different experience, it offers a complete Spa service and great food in its nice restaurant. Perfect for relax and to enjoy nature, it has huge gardens and children are most welcome. Also, the very new Hotel Ibaia, luxuriously located on an ancient convent in Gordexola, beautiful town full of palaces and manor houses (and where my grandpa was born, by the way), www.hotelibaia.es. Also, a very special place is www.casavicentepallotti.com, a balneary run by the Palotinos Fathers, Catholic priests, for those that look for relax and meditation in a romantic scenery. And almost any restaurant in the area of good, honest food at unbeatable prices.

Useful info on the area on www.enkartur.net and www.karrantza.com.