This monastery is located near the town of Bolibar (yes, Simón Bolivar the liberator of the Spanish colonies in South America had his ancestors here), belonging to Markina-Xemein (a beautiful but unknown town, where the University of Jai-Alai-Basque pelota- is located). The building is not magnificent, I´d say it´s humble and appropriate for praying and silence…but it is surrounded by a most beautiful scenery, green meadows and valleys, one after the other, and by the magnificent mountains of the Basque Country. It´s open to visitors and it´s also a hospice, where you can rest and share the meditative life of the monks. For more info, http://monasteriozenarruza.net/, available in English and other languages.
A beautiful and original 3´ video on the highlights of the province of Bizkaia, where I live…hope you like it. Please click on the link below.
You have surely heard of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, as they are present all over the world. But I´m sure you didn´t know that the founder was born in 1491 in the heart of the Basque Country, in Azpeitia. Iñigo de Loyola (born Iñigo, a Basque name, that he changed later to Ignacio), of a noble family and educated in the best manner, soon became a soldier serving the King of Castile. In 1521 he was injured while battling in Pamplona, and retired to his fortress in the valley of Loiola, near Azpeitia and Azkoitia. During his long recovery he got used to reading religious books, that made him rethink his whole life. Once recovered, he started a life of sanctity that led him to the foundation of the Jesuit order, probably the most influential in the history of the Catholic church.
The 18th century basilica is located in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a park full of trees and by the Urola river that flows through the mountainous scenery. As you can see by the pictures, it´s a magnificent but at the same time a modest building, with a great dome covered in baroque paintings and designs. On its left hand side you can visit the birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola, a.k.a. Iñigo de Loyola, that has been beautifully restored to its original state. You can visit both buildings, and in the fortress tower you can see the rooms as they were in the 16th century.
Right by the Basilica (or Sanctuary) there´s a nice, cozy hotel and some rural housings, as well as fine restaurants, in an atmosphere surprisingly almost tourist free. The valley offers very interesting visits, like the Ferrería de Mirandaola (Ironmongery) in the Iron Valley or the town of Idiazabal, where the world famous Idiazabal sheep cheese is made (also, the Cheese Museum deserves a visit).
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.
Last Saturday I went to visit the Museo de la Boina La Encartada - Museum of the Beret (or “txapela”, in Basque), in Balmaseda, Bizkaia. It´s on the former factory that has been making berets for exactly 100 years (1892-1992). The museum - a classic , beautiful XIX century Industrial Revolution building- , surrounded by well kept gardens and a river, has been recently opened and offers a very comprehensive and thorough visit (available in English on demand).
They show the whole process, as some of the machinery is still in good working condition. All the machinery has been restored and, as the power they use to make them work comes from just WATER (thrusted from a turbine moved by the force of the water of the river), it´s constantly in motion. A very good guide shows you how wool is converted through a series of processes into a classic Basque beret, there´s a very instructive video (well, there are two, one is for kids and the other is for adults) and you also visit the home of the owners, kept as it was in early XX century. Entrance fee is very small and they offer berets for sale, at very reasonable prices. Nearby, the beautiful village of Balmaseda, full of beautiful churches, convents and a marvellous mediaeval bridge. A different kind of visit.
The web page is www.laencartadamuseoa.com, it´s just 30 kms from Bilbao and it´s off the beaten path, but worth the visit. Not far from Ferrería (ironmongery) El Pobal and the Rolls Royce Museum.
And this is me with the txapela I bought that day…
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.
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.
Located in Markina-Xemein, the town considered the University of Jai-Alai (Basque ball game), this is a very odd church. It´s part of my childhood memories, when it was a place just known to locals and you had to ask for the key to the lady living in the caserío (Basque farm) next door. The present church is relatively new, XVIII century, and has no particular artistic value. The interest comes from within the church, a natural megalitic construction formed by three huge stones that are the remains of a mountain of the tertiary period. People in the area thought that the Basajauns (Lords of the Forest, according to Basque mithology) had brought these huge stones to this place, and considered it a magical place, where they performed pagan ceremonies. Later, when the Basque country was christianized, they built a church (not the present one) and dedicated it to San Miguel, and placed a statue beneath the arch formed by the three stones. It´s now the main altar. In summer, and thanks to the great sonority of the place, they held music festivals inside the church.
Many potential visitors to the Basque Country tend to ask about The Best Tapas Bars in town. Well, I normally answer telling them that, first of all, there´s no such thing as Tapas Bars. Most bars offer tapas or pintxos. And also, that a Tapa is not a Pintxo. To make it more complicated, a Pintxo is not a Tapa and a Tapa is not a Ración and Pintxos can be divided into Banderillas and The Rest while The Rest may have another subdivision, Pintxos You Eat With Your Hand and Pintxos Served On A Plate…it seems a bit complicated, uh?
Let´s start by the very beginning: Pintxos (or pinchos) were (and still are) small portions of food that are placed on the counter and you pick them with your hand. The classic one is the Spanish Omelette, served on a piece of bread. You get into the bar, order your drink, and grab the pintxo with your hand. There´s normally a big selection of pintxos on the counter, you can have as many as you want, but the local custom is to have just one with a “zurito” (half a beer) or a glass of wine or cider. In some selected places, mainly located in the Donostia-San Sebastián area, they also offer Pintxos made on order, more elaborate, more expensive, and that are nomally eaten using a fork.
Tapas are not Pintxos. Tapas are complimentary served in many parts of Spain, for free, to go with your drink. They are more basic than a pintxo, and may also be smaller. In some places they call Tapas to Raciones. A Ración is something that is served hot, you have it seated, in an informal way, and normally share several with your friends. And is not free. You may order A Ración of Calamares, of Patatas Bravas (spicy potatoes), of Albóndigas (meatballs), Champis (mushrooms), etc…
One of the effects of the Pintxos becoming more and more popular is that in many bars in San Sebastián they give you a plate and tell you to place your pintxos on it, then they charge you for them. That is an outrage!! Pintxos and drinks are always paid when you finish and should NEVER be eaten on a plate. It´s not our way and it should never be, pintxos are eaten with your hand and the etiquette says that they are paid based on an honor system: the waiter asks how many you´ve had, and you tell him the truth. No need to count…
Every year we hold a Pintxos Championship. The winner bar will be famous forever and customer will flock in to taste his small culinary preparations…For more info, a useful web is www.todopintxos.com.
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.
For those of you visiting the Basque Country and that don´t care much about accommodation in the town center, the sensible alternative is rural lodging. By “rural” I mean “out of town”, but it may also imply closeness to nature, farm life and beautiful and idyllic surroundings. If you decide on a stay in the Basque Country on a rural home, you´ll get very good accommodation with all your primary, secondary and even tertiary necessities covered, a very good price, wonderful homemade breakfasts and all the peace and tranquility you long for, but also nice talks with the house owners, local and ecological products at hand, horse rides, beautiful trekkings,…
Some houses are better prepared than others, some have swimming pool, others offer their kitchen for private use, you may have a jacuzzi or not…but all of them pass a quality certification every year to make sure that the accommodation level is keep high.
I´m very fond of this kind of tourism, perfect to get a better understanding of our particularities. The evental language barrier will be quickly overcome by a warm welcome and a sense of immediate belonging to the place. I make my reservations through two webs, www.nekatur.net and www.agroturismosdebizkaia.com (this one, just for the province of Bizkaia), but you sure know how to google using the right words…