Thursday, March 22, 2012

El País Vasco: Bilbao

I chose to visit el País Vasco for three reasons: The language fascinates me, everyone says the pintxos are amazing, and I wanted to see Frank Ghery's Guggenheim.  Mi amiga desde la niñez, Samara, came all the way from home to visit me, and the two of us we went on a trip through el País Vasco, the Basque Region, which is located in northern Spain near the French Border.  Fuimos a Bilbao y San Sebastián, dos de las ciudades en el País Vasco.

I love learning new words and exploring grammar between foreign languages, so let's start there.  In el País Vasco, the native language is Euskara, which is typically referred to as vasco in Castillian Spanish, and Basque in English.  The Basque language is completely separate from the rest of the Spanish languages.  No one is completely sure where the language came from.  Despite the geographic location, it is unrelated to the romance languages.  On most of my trips, I pick up several words from other languages.  In France, Italy, Portugal, and other regions of Spain it is fairly simple to notice related grammar and absorb some words.  Beyond the realm of romance languages, I picked up a few Hebrew words in Israel, some British English words in London, and two or three Arabic words in Morocco.  In Salzburg, I could figure out what some of the words meant based on English.  Last week I printed a mini language guide of Norwegian phrases for my trip to Oslo.  On my trip to Euskadi; however, the language was so distinct that I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.  I did try to notice endings on words to make things plural, and to form adjectives, and I learned a couple words, but as I had been told, it was very different from any language I had ever encountered.  I learned that the words for black tea in Euskara are "te beltza," and that hierbabuena in Euskara is "mendafina."  By the way, hierbabuena literally means "good herb" in English, and is kind of like mint.  The language in el País Vasco is distinct because the Basque culture has been in this area since before other people were in the surrounding area.  It almost seems like the Basques were just always there.  Kind of mysterious.
Nervión River
Before going on this trip, one of the only things I knew about el País Vasco was that the region only succumbed to Spanish rule on Basque terms, and that the region liked to promote its culture.  I was told that school is completely taught in Basque for the first few years, and only taught in Castillian Spanish after the students have learned to speak Basque.  The purpose of this is to ensure that the languages lives on.  The only other thing I knew about the Basque Region was that ETA, the terrorist group that targets the rest of Spain in effort to assert independence, was based and from there.  Fortunately, ETA has been inactive for a while now.

Our Day in Bilbao

In Madrid, we rose early and went to Atocha Station around 5:15 am to catch the airport shuttle, which we learned didn't actually stop at Atocha until 6:00 am.  Off to a good start...  I was quite impressed to observe that Samara is invincible to jetlag.  On her first day in Madrid, she had a mocha, a cappuccino, and an espresso, so that probably helped.  Anyways, upon landing at Bilbao's airport, we dropped our bags at the hotel in la Parte Vieja, the old part of the city, and headed for the Guggenheim, Bilbao's most popular attraction.  Like the old part of other cities, it was filled with narrow walkways and streets, stone walls, adorable shops, bars, and boutiques, and it had character.  Walking from the hotel to the Guggenheim, Samara and I wondered how Bilbao was chosen to house a Guggenheim.  The others are located in Berlin, Venice, Abu Dhabi, and New York.

Disappearing into the ceiling
Strolling around the building, we found that the Guggenheim is not just a museum on its own, but that the exhibits and the surrounding works of art enhance the viewing experience.  We appreciated that the art was not crowded into the exhibits.  Each exhibit was placed in its own space within the building so that the building supported and related to the art.  For example, one artist created an AIDS awareness piece which had several stark, vertical columns of scrolling messages in English and Castillian Spanish in red.  On the back, the same messages scrolled in blue in Euskara, which was once a forbidden language.  From the front, the Basque words, reflected in the curved wall of the building, seemed to disappear into their reflections the ceiling as they scrolled upward.  The audio guide told us that the artist chose rigidly vertical columns to contrast the curvy walls of the Guggenheim.  As is true with many sculptures, the visitors were permitted to walk around this work, and could view the messages from all sides.  To see the part written in Basque, visitors walk through the columns of scrolling messages, and find themselves encased in the Basque words.

Richard Serra's Work
Another of my favorite pieces in the museum was a work by Richard Serra, which consisted of several enormous sheets of metal.  Sorry, I don't have a more specific term for the material.  Some of the sheets were curled into circular spirals, and others were like huge sheets of paper standing straight up, folding gently in a breeze.  Beautiful as they were, the cool part was that you could walk through all of them.  Venturing into the spirals felt like walking to the center of a cinnamon roll.  

Outside the museum, on the terraces, the art continues.  In addition to the rolling, silver walls and glass windows of the Guggenheim, there is a giant, metallic bunch of tulips and a vertical pile of large silver spheres that are as reflective as the Bean in Chicago.  Guarding the front of the museum sits a gigantic sculpture of a dog, made of live flowers.  It even "drools" since the chin drips for hours after it rains.

Puente de Arenal
Near the Guggenheim, we saw the Puente de Arenal, which is a suspension bridge over the Nervión River.  The bridge reminded me of the suspension bridge near Government Center in Boston.  Like good tourists, we snapped a few photos and continued on in search of pintxos.

As we strolled around, we noticed that Bilbao is full of playgrounds.  Since our feet were a little tired, we sat on the swings for a few minutes to chat, relax, and ponder the climate.  One of the interesting things about the climate in Bilbao is that it is vastly different from Madrid.  While Madrid rarely has a cloud in the sky, Bilbao was overcast, and covered in a thick fog when we landed that morning.  We recalled seeing a damp covering of fog in the valleys from the window of the plane.  Also unlike Madrid, it rains and is humid in Bilbao.  Bilbao is green and boasts mountains of evergreen trees, while Madrid is mostly brown and parched.  After living in the dryness of Madrid for about seven months, going to Bilbao gave my skin the opportunity to drink in some humidity.  Unfortunately, my hair took that opportunity too.  Because of the humidity and the geographical location, Bilbao felt much colder that Madrid.  Shivering, I wondered if living in Madrid all this time was making me intolerant of legitimately cold temperatures.

Little Red Riding Hood
 Leaving the playground, we explored the new part of the city, where we found beautifully ornamented buildings of various colors.  Each building looked different, and one had turquoise domes that reminded me of a sight in Salzburg.  In an attempt to pick up a few words of Euskara, we stopped into a bookstore and found some children's books written in Basque.

Though we didn't eat any amazing, or even good, pintxos in Bilbao (unbelievable, I know), we did have a tasty dinner just down the street from our hotel.  Samara and I split one plate of tortellini with spinach and ricotta, and another of lamb chops with peppers and baked potatoes.  The next morning, we boarded the bus for an 80 minute ride to San Sebastián.  On the way to the bus station around 8:30 am, I noticed that as per usual in Spain, the shops and restaurants had not yet opened for the day.  No one was on the streets, and no cars drove by.  Life starts later in the day here.  At 9:00, Samara and I hopped on the bus, and were off to our next stop for the weekend.  Waving goodbye to Bilbao, we gazed out the windows as the bus sped around mountains and lush, green hills.

On the way to San Sebastián

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