|Entire sectors of Bilbao's long-depressed port were cleared away for a new concert hall, convention center, and the stunning Guggenheim Museum.|
Linguistic Switch-Hitting and Fishy Munchies
By Rick Steves
The land where Spain and France meet the Atlantic is Basque country — filled with people who have their own culture and language — but not their own country. As any visitor finds, even without political independence, the Basque culture thrives in both the French and Spanish parts of the region.
On the French side of the border, in the Basque town of St. Jean de-Luz, I'm working my way through a steamy pottery bowl of Ttoro. My waiter, Guy, described it as "big fish Basque soup." With so many exotic fruits of the sea hiding in the red broth, I'm lost in a bibbed travel adventure. Suddenly, a troupe of college coeds, dressed like medieval boy scouts, invade the tight and packed bistro. They get the nod from Guy, and began their serenade — tambourines, mandolins, and mariachi-style harmonies all on happy mode. Exploring Basque country — a new region for me — reminds me of the freshness of my first European trip.
The Basques are linguistic switch-hitters, flipping effortlessly between Spanish or French and their native Euskadi. Flags, table cloths, and even storm shutters here are enthusiastically orange and green. People still gather at the venerable Oak Tree of Gernika, where for centuries Basque leaders have worked out the problems of the day.
The biggest tourist attraction of this ancient land is entirely modern: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. From the day it opened in 1997, Frank Gehry's architectural masterpiece has been the gleaming pride of this rough-edged industrial city.
From a distance, the museum looks like a cross between a sloppy crate of milk bottles and a sleek clipper ship. Close up you can see the hundreds of stone, glass and titanium panels which wrap the museum in skin that shimmers as if covered with fish scales. It's a playfully perfect fit for its urban riverside location. While the building alone merits a side-trip to Bilbao, it functions wonderfully as a glorious display case for some of our generation's best art. And what other museum welcomes you with a fragrant 42-foot tall puppy — a West Highland Terrier made of 60,000 flowers? Created by Jeff Koons, the various flowers are designed to bloom in various eye-pleasing sequences.
Bilbao's Guggenheim makes a great day trip. And San Sebastián (Donostia in Euskadi), an hour away, makes the best Basque homebase. Spain's dictator Francisco Franco summered here for 35 years. While locals don't talk up the Generalissimo's love of their town, they are quick to brag that Queen Isabel II came here to remedy her skin problems back in 1845. Her choice of San Sebastián put the city with Europe's dreamiest crescent beach on the resort map.
Once the toast of the belle époque and its rich and famous, today's San Sebastián fits the needs of the backpacking crowd: no mind-numbing great museums, just great beach action, cheap rooms, and an inviting bar scene with cheap-and-tasty pintxos (PEEN-chos, buffet-style bar snacks). Some pintxos are simple sandwiches, others are petite gourmet dishes. My favorite? Txangurro — baked and stuffed spider crabs — with a plate of sautéed wild mushrooms and smoked cod-stuffed mini-croissant. And all this washed down with a generous selection of full-bodied Spanish wines.
With its fun food, the great Bilbao museum, the pride of the local people who — against all odds keep their culture vibrant — the under appreciated Basque country is worth a look.