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Basque Country

France and Spain
Saturday January 16th, 1999 to Tuesday January 26th, 1999

The trip through the Pyrénées from France into Spain was a fairly spectacular one. The road south from Etsaut is very narrow and very crooked, often with precipitous drops on either side. I was travelling with an Algerian truck driver who had moved to Spain a decade or so previously to escape the ongoing trouble in his homeland; the truck was as fairly big one, so he had to drive extremely slowly through the mountains and I had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.

As much as I enjoyed the mountains, I was not disappointed when we descended into the plains on the Spanish side; almost desert-like in January, the plain looked a little like what I had always expected Spain to look like. The most amazing views of the day, however, came after we had crossed this small plain and we started climbing another set of hills (somewhat smaller than the Pyrénées) on the other side. The view from this second set of hills down onto the plain and across to the hulking snow capped mountains beyond was one of the most incredible vistas I have ever seen.

After several hours of listening to Cher (of whom the Algerian truck driver was a huge fan), I was dropped off a few km north of Zaragoza. It didn't take me long to secure another ride, and soon I was in the very cold centre of Zaragoza. Apparently something to do with Zaragoza's location renders it prone to bad weather: when I had caught my last ride into Zaragoza, from about 30km to the north, I had been standing in the sun, and the temperature had been about 15°; in Zaragoza proper, it was at least 10° colder and raining.

The Lonely Planet notes that Zaragoza is often said to be the most Spanish city in Spain, so I figured it would be a good place to begin my introduction to the country. Although the city doesn't receive a lot of visitors, it has several very impressive, and very Spanish, attractions. I was dropped of at the edge of the Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, the huge central square flanked by the enormous Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, to which pilgrims come to kiss a piece of marble supposedly left by the Virgin Mary when she appeared to Santiago (Saint James) in the year 40, La Seo, an enigmatic and fascinating cathedral built between the 12th and 16th centuries and currently being restored, and the remains of an ancient Roman forum. I spent some time in the Basílica, resolving to come back the following day for a service, and had a quick look at La Seo, the facade of which is a stunning example of Mudéjar(?) ornamentation. Because of the restoration that was underway at La Seo, it was only open to the public for a few hours on Sunday; fortunately it was Saturday, so I made plans to return.

The buildings on Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar represent several important periods in Spanish history. One era that is not well represented, however, is the Moorish era, from the 8th century to the 15th, during which time most of Spain was under Muslim rule. Not far from the Plaza, however, is the Palacio de la Aljafería, said to be the most magnificent Moorish building in northern Spain. I took a free tour of the Palacio, and was repeatedly blown away by the elegance and the intricacy of its decoration. The outside of the building is impressive, surrounded by a deep moat, but the inside is truly wondrous, full of graceful fountains, elaborate tile-work, and understated curves which contrast strikingly with the sharp corners and edges of European medieval buildings of non-Moorish heritage.

When I had spent as much time as I could possible get away with in the Palacio, I realized that it was getting dark, and decided that I had better get to the hostel. It was a cold and rainy evening in January, and Zaragoza is supposedly not much of a tourist destination at the best of times, so I figured that I would have no trouble getting a bed in the hostel. My 45min walk out there, however, was rewarded only with the news that it was pleina. The cavernous building was absolutely silent, so I was a little sceptical, but there wasn't much that I could do. The guy behind the desk recommended a pensione(?) up the street, but the last available room there was being taken as I walked through the door. I tried a few other cheap places, but they were all full; reluctant to spend big bucks on a hotel room, I ended up in the train station where I spent the night reading War and Peace surrounded by old drunk Spanish men.

The following morning I went to mass at the Basílica; attending services in Europe's great cathedrals one soon comes to understand the church's desire during the middle ages to create increasingly grand places of worship: it doesn't matter how conscious you are of the artificiality of the sentiment, it's difficult not to feel a little closer to God and His church in these epic buildings. I decided not to kiss the marble left by the Virgin Mary; I figured that the pilgrims who come from all over to kiss it really believe in its authenticity and power, and that, since I don't believe in it, for me to do so would be a belittlement of their commitment. I took a walk around Zaragoza and saw some impressive old buildings (both Christian and Moorish) outside of the city centre. I was pretty tired from my night at the train station, but I wasn't going to miss out on the opportunity to see inside La Seo. The fabulously decorative interior is a eclectic conglomeration of styles ranging from Mudéhar to Romantic; even with hundreds of tourists tramping through, there is a certain aura of mystery to this very unusual building.

The following day I headed west out of Zaragoza toward San Sebastián. I was quickly finding, to my dismay, that although I was having reasonable luck deciphering written Spanish, my attempts to communicate verbally were essentially in vain. As a result, I made a few unplanned detours on the way to San Sebastián; I did, however, manage to spend an hour or so walking through Pamplona, home of the running of the bulls; not a whole lot goes on in Pamplona away from Sanfermines (the festival of which the running of the bulls is a part), but I was able to walk past the bullfighting ring, where there stands a statue of Ernest Hemingway.

I was fortunate to arrive in San Sebastián well after dark (I was picked up at dusk on a remote highway entrance ramp by a man who clearly did not want company, but kindly recognized that I'd be spending the night at the side of the road if he left me there). The festival of St. Sebastian, the patron of the town, was about to start; that, in conjunction with the bad luck I had had in Zaragoza, made me fairly sure that there wouldn't be any space in the hostel. I was wrong, however; I was soon checked into the hostel and looking for a place on the horseshoe-shaped beach to eat the bread, cheese, and sardines I had picked up at the supermarket (apparently the seafood is very good in San Sebastián — I couldn't afford real seafood, but I got canned sardines in order to preserve the spirit of the whole thing). It was nice to be back on the coast for the first time since Den Haag in the Netherlands, and aside from almost being soaked and possibly dragged out to sea by the last surge of a receding tide (I took refuge on a fortuitously placed rock), it was a very pleasant evening. I hadn't known that the festival of San Sebastián would be on while I was there, but, having stumbled upon it, I was looking forward to taking full advantage.

The following morning I headed out to have a look at the town. It could hardly be more beautifully situated, on a small bay (Bahía de la Concha) protected by 2 mountainous points. I climbed to the peaks of both points (one of which, Urgull, has a huge statue of Christ on top) to take in the panoramic views of the town below, the mountains around, and the sea; on my way from one peak to the other I walked through the streets of the enchanting old town that separates them. San Sebastián is a staggeringly beautiful place.

San Sebastián, or, more properly, its alter-ego Donostia, is also perhaps the very focus of Basque nationalist sentiment. I was a little confused by the fact that the people make such a big deal of the festival of St. Sebastián, seeing as most of them don't even recognize that as the name of the town, but I was quickly learning that Spaniards (be they Basque or not) need little excuse for a party. When the festival got underway around midnight that night, it became apparent that not only were the people of Donostia happy to coopt the festival of St. Sebastian to have a party, they had actually turned the whole event into an expression of Basque nationalism. I spent the evening wandering the town with another Canadian and an Israeli; at first we were a little disconcerted by the shouting of political slogans and the singing of nationalist songs, but the whole event quickly transformed into a bunch of people getting very, very drunk and celebrating. At the time that I was there, the ETA (the Basque separatist — and sometimes terrorist — organization) hadn't been active for about a year, though they started to blow things up again shortly thereafter. Aside from the truly staggering amount of alcohol that was being consumed around us (it is not illegal to drink in the street in much of Europe, especially not in Spain, where walk-up bars are common), the most memorable aspect of the festival was the many marching bands that walk around town playing the same songs over, and over, and over again. There are literally at least ten bands wandering the streets playing the same three songs until they are so deeply embedded in your skull that it takes weeks to get them out.

We managed to stay out until about 5am, at which point many of the people around us were just getting warmed up, but we were ready to collapse from exhaustion. We went back to the hostel, grabbed a few hours of sleep, and then headed out to enjoy the remained of the festival, which would end 24hrs after it had begun. It appeared as though most people in the town didn't sleep at all during the 24hr period.

After 2 very enjoyable days in San Sebastián, I decided that I had better move on, as I was still hoping to find a place to settle in for a little while and make some money. I didn't like my chances of finding work in a hostel in Spain (the fact that I could hardly communicate being the most conspicuous obstacle), so I headed north towards Biarritz, a coastal resort town just across the border in France, but still deep in Basque country (known as País Vasco in Spanish, Pays Basque in French, and Euskadi in Basque). I walked north from San Sebastián for a couple of hours before being picked up by a drunk Basque who very graciously drove me all the way to Biarritz, even though he wasn't actually going that far (I don't think he had anything else to do that day).

The hostel in Biarritz was preparing to host a large group for the weekend, and so, although they didn't need anyone long term, they agreed to let me stay through the weekend in exchange for some work in the kitchen. Food wasn't supposed to be included in the deal, but there was so much lying around after the hordes were fed that I invariably ended up with something. Biarritz is, among other things, a surf town, and the hostel was staffed largely by stereotypically relaxed surfers. One of the kitchen staff was doing his military service by working at the hostel: apparently conscientious objectors can work in some sort of low-income, state approved job for the duration of their service instead of joining the armed forces. When I commented on how fortunate he was to be spending a few months in sunny, warm Biarritz, a short walk from some of the best surfing in Europe, he waxed nostalgic about his previous placement, at a hostel deep in the Alps where he worked from 7-9am, snowboarded for free until 5pm, and then worked from 6-8pm. I called him a bastard.

When I wasn't preparing food and washing dishes I explored Biarritz and its surrounding beaches. The town is little too aristocratic for my taste (Napoleon III and Queen Victoria are among the many for whom it was a regular holiday spot), but there is an interesting and fairly authentic fishing village a short way down the beach; the nearby Rocher de la Vièrge, on which a statue of the Virgin perches precariously above crashing and boiling surf, is also quite impressive.

When the weekend was over, I decided to stay on an extra day in order to have a chance to visit the nearby Basque town of Bayonne (the folks at the hostel graciously refused to accept any money for the 2 nights I stayed after I finished working). Bayonne is the most important Basque town in France, and since it hasn't enjoyed the same popularity as a tourist destination that both San Sebastián and Biarritz have had, it has retained much more of its historic Basque culture. Walking through the old parks and the narrow winding streets through the crumbling old buildings, it is obvious that Bayonne is a town unlike any other in France; if I had had a lot more money, I would have bought one of the traditional Basque walking sticks that turn into swords as the need arises — they're still made by hand in a small shop in Bayonne.

The only famous Basque product that I could afford was a slice of cured ham; this single slice cost me the equivalent of about $5. I ate the ham with some bread and cheese, sitting in a park, watching the sun set, dreading the 10km walk back to the hostel in Biarritz.

The following day, I headed out to the toll booth at a highway entrance near Biarritz. I managed to catch a short ride to the Spanish border, from where I was hoping I might get lucky and get a ride all the way to Madrid. As it turned out, I did get lucky, but I didn't go to Madrid. A guy pulled over and asked me where I was going; I told him, and he said he could take me part of the way; I asked him where he was going, and he said "Portugal;" I thought about it, decided that I could always hit Madrid on my way back across the Iberian peninsula, and ended up spending the day driving clear across Spain and into Portugal.

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