“When one encounters enough strangeness, then what is strange ultimately becomes familiar. The mind can accommodate itself to almost anything, given time: pain, grief, loss, even the possibility that the dead talk to the living.”
Have you ever visited a place you’d never been to, but it felt strangely familiar? That’s how I’d describe my visit to the Basque Country in Northern Spain. Familiar. It’s a feeling I’d almost forgotten.
Boise’s Basque Connection
Maybe it’s because Boise claims to be home to the largest Basque population outside of Spain, and is a sister city to Gernika. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Basque Block, attended Jaialdai festivals and had my share of kalimotxos before ever leaving home. Maybe it’s the familiarity of all the names I saw on storefronts and street signs…like Bilbao, Aberasturi, or Barrutia. Perhaps it was the Basque flag flying proudly, the same one I see at home on businesses and bumper stickers. All I know is that since arriving in Basque Country, I feel like I’m closer to home than I have been in a very long time.
Unfamiliar = Uncomfortable
Familiar is an interesting feeling, and you don’t realize how comfortable it is until it’s gone. It’s a feeling I’m grateful to welcome back into my world. Life After Dan was utterly unfamiliar. I was a stranger in my own life. I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or how I’d survive. Lemme tell you, unfamiliar can also be very uncomfortable and scary.
After months on the road, unfamiliarity is now a familiar feeling. I’ve become accustomed to waking up not knowing what country I’m in, what day it is, or which city or village I’m calling home that day. The same is true when it comes to my grief journey. I never know quite where it’s taking me, but have learned to sit back and see where it goes. The unfamiliar has become comfortably familiar.
You know what else is familiar? Excitement, happiness, confidence, and optimism about the future. Welcome back, my friends. I’ve missed you.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
Click here for my Basque Country photo album.
I chose to make Bilbao my home base. It’s less touristy than Donostia/San Sebastian, and everything is easily accessible by bus or train. My local expert recommended a lovely hotel right in the heart of downtown, which was perfect!
It’s also a short one hour flight from Barcelona. The train and bus are less expensive but took up too much of my valuable Schengen visa time. Flying let me hit the ground running as soon as I landed, although I didn’t need to. Bilbao’s mellow pace suited me just fine.
Bilbao has impressive modern architecture, a world-class art collection, and fabulous food. I’m told the Basque country has more Michelin star rated restaurants than the entire rest of Spain. I didn’t verify that but did give it my Airborne best to sample as much as possible.
And lest you think I spent all my time on a foodie tour, I had two places I knew I had to get to. The Guggenheim and Basque Museum couldn’t be more different, but together they represent everything I love about Bilbao. The architecture is both old and modern, and while you’d think it might be jarring to the eye, it works.
Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim is incredible. When I first arrived, it was cloaked in fog from one of the art installations. Instead of feeling heavy, this giant titanium-clad building felt light, almost diaphanous. It’s stunning. The contemporary art collection inside is equally impressive. And while I couldn’t narrow down a single favorite, the two pieces that made the most impact on me emotionally were Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time and Jenny Holzer’s Truisms installation.
The Museo Vasco, is housed in an old school in the middle of old town. Despite the strong Basque community in my home state, I learned a lot about the history that even my Basque friends back home didn’t know. It’s a must-see for any visit to Bilbao. Just be aware that all of the placards are in Basque, with a Spanish translation. Fortunately Google Translate can handle both.
Gernika is a 45-minute bus ride from Bilbao, which is the perfect opportunity to kick back and enjoy the green landscape, which reminded me a lot of Ireland. It rains a lot here, but Gernika granted me a beautiful, sunny, warm day. I met up with a new friend, who has a Boise Basque connection, who showed me all the highlights of Gernika and it’s surrounding towns. Leire’s English was flawless, which was lucky for me since my Spanish is a joke and my Basque non-existent. It’s a lovely town, and quiet on an off-season Wednesday.
Gernika was almost completely destroyed in WW2 when the German’s bombed the city, so most of the buildings there today are post-war. It was a gorgeous day, so while my friend took care of an appointment, I claimed a bench near the fountain as a perfect place to people watch and enjoy the sunshine. Just like Boise, everyone knows everyone! I’m amazed people get to their destinations with all the stops for hellos, hugs, and catch-ups on what’s new.
When you visit, be sure to climb the hill to tour the Basque Assembly House. Historically, the leaders of the Basque cities and towns would congregate here, a practice that continues today.
And if you’re from Boise, pop into City Hall and get a photo with the Boise flag outside the Mayor’s office.
I waited until the next sunny day before taking the bus into Donostia. Donostia is the Basque name for this beautiful seaside city, although everyone will know where you mean if you say San Sebastian.
My lovely friend met me again and gave me the locals tour. One of the biggest surprises for me was the surfing culture, but apparently the current creates a perfect place to catch waves. I also got a lesson in Estropadak, a type of rowing based on 19th-century fishing boats, and the big competition held in Kontxa Bay. The Kontxako Bandera was first held in 1879! Surfing? Canoeing? It’s almost like being back home in Hawaii, only Basque style.
I’d been promised that the food in Donostia was the best in the Basque Country, and that was an understatement. The tapas I’d loved in the rest of Spain got a serious upgrade here where they are called pintxos. These tiny gifts to your tastebuds are delicious. I did my best to try them all, one from each shop, but after our fourth stop, I just couldn’t eat anymore. Be sure to order txakoli, a Basque white wine, from at least one of the pintxo bars you visit.