Category Archives: Culture

Medieval Towns in Basque Rioja…it´s more than just wine

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Rioja wine region is divided into Rioja Alavesa (Basque Country)Rioja Alta (La Rioja) and Rioja Baja (La Rioja and Navarre). It´s mostly small family wineries, but of course there are also some big ones among them too. A visit to a winery in Rioja is always a delightful experiences, as you spend at least a couple of hours learning how they´ve been making wine during centuries. No wine bars like in Napa valley…it´s a much more enriching experience.

Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly
Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly

But there´s more to Basque Rioja than wine. When you drive along the roads surrounded by vineyards, you will for sure find a beautiful medieval town on your way. Or several prehistoric monuments, like dolmens and funerary burial sites. Or incredible churches that keep inside amazing altarpieces. Or a walled town, just where lied the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Castile and Navarre. Or maybe  just a town with nothing special on it but full of flavor and a particular relaxing atmosphere, where one of its neighbors may invite you to his place for a homemade meal.

Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar
Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar

Next time you´re there, don´t forget to visit walled Laguardia and the façade of Santa María de los Reyes (a must), Labastida and its fortressed church, medieval Labraza surrounded by nothing but vineyards, Samaniego, Lapuebla de Labarca, Baños de Ebro, Kripán, Elvillar, Elciego and the Marqués de Riscal winery (designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim arquitect)…you´ll find a lovely atmosphere in places where the path of time seems to be slower than in the rest of the world…

Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja
Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja, and Marqués de Riscal Winery in Elciego,Rioja AlavesaElciego, Marqués de Riscal winery

Zenarruza, A Hidden Thousand-Year-Old Monastery

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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.

The Church (Hermitage) of Santa María de la Antigua, Zumarraga

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Absolutely off the beaten path, and hardly visited by any foreign tourist, in Zumarraga lies the “cathedral” of the Basque hermitages. It´s believed that this amazing church was built on the remains of a XII century fortress. While the outside walls and façade are austere and without much interest, the interior is surprisingly outstanding, completely covered in oak wood coffering. There´s a complex wooden framework all over the ceiling, that makes of the inside of this big hermitage a beautiful, relaxing sight. If there´s someone singing on the choir, as it happened during my visit, the effect is simply breathtaking.

Together with the sanctuaries of Loiola and Arantzazu, it is part of the Route of the Three Temples in the Ignatian Land (founder of the Jesuits). The legend says that the church is made of the stones thrown by the Giants that inhabited the Basque Country before the arrival of christianism, who wanted to destroy it, as churches were a menace for their survival.

If you really want to see a different church, in a non touristy part of the Basque Country, but close to eveywhere you may stay…this is the place.

 

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.

The Basilica of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits

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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).

 

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.

Ea, The Shortest Name for a Beautiful Unspoilt Town

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Ea is the name of the small river that crosses this picturesque little town located just 50kms from Bilbao, on the coastal road that leads to the Gernika estuary from Lekeitio. Ea was founded on the XVI century by fishermen from the neighbouring hamlets, that sought a permanent port for their fishing boats. They found this little natural harbour and established there. The town consists mainly of a single street and a river crossing it from beginning to end, sided by fishermen houses and ending in a natural harbour and a small beach that disappears on high tide. There´s a little chapel and also a small bar, where you can enjoy a drink and something to eat while enjoying the unspoilt landscape.

Not far, and on the same road, the villages of Natxitua and Bedarona, with breathtaking views over the ocean, and excellent restaurants serving real homemade food.

Arantzazu Sanctuary and Oñati

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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,…

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.