SPAIN, Part I: Basquing in Spring. If it’s a school break, it’s another country. This time, we drove to Spain (mainly because we CAN! How fun is that?!?), as planned almost two years ago on the back of a napkin when the sabbatical starting being “real.” See our route here (the half addressed in this blog entry anyway). Ok, so we had to cut back (and cut back again) from our original overly-ambitious entire Iberian Peninsula plan… until we were left with “just” northern Spain, with a little of France thrown in. This actually ended up being the right amount of ambition, though I do still yearn for a trip to southern Spain and – I reluctantly admit a different trip altogether – Portugal. This is still (obviously) a long road trip – too long for many people – but we like road trips… aside from the unfortunate rise of carsick-prone-ness among the Hatch youth (hey, adds a risk/thrill element to the drive!). Last year, we made the 48 hour round trip drive (twice!) to Florida… so this was no big deal. Except for the tolls! Dang, those French love their tolls.
We really enjoyed this trip for many reasons, but the very best was that we were able to catch up with old friends along the way. What a privilege it is to reconnect with people I normally just see on Facebook – including the only (non-family) friend I keep in touch with from my own year in France when I was 14. One of the most delightful parts was how much our sons (and we!) enjoyed the time with our friends and their own kids. Always a relief when your kids only have good things to say about other random kids they meet during our travels. In addition to catching up on a personal level, spending time with locals added a great dimension to getting a feel for the place and culture – what life is really like for people who live there.
Spain is even more complex than I realized, consisting of strong regional cultures with their own languages, identity and history. I knew of the Basque and the Catalan cultures, but it was so interesting to learn more about them (another strong regional culture is Galicia, but we didn’t get that far). Even more interesting to us was how recently the 40 year Franco dictatorship ended – 1975. We like to listen to Rick Steves’ travel podcasts (free & easy to download) before and en route to our destinations, and he subscribes to the theory that the rise of the European Union has increased regionalism (explaining why regional separatist movements have lost their luster – there’s not as much of a need to break away anymore, as the EU treats regions favorably). We loved seeing the language changes of highway signs as we drove: French to Basque to Spanish to Catalan to Occitan(!) and finally back to French again.
The Basque Country hugs the Atlantic coast for about 100 miles from Bayonne, France, to Bilbao, Spain. After our “big drive” across all of France and a lovely stopover in Saint-Émilion (outside Bordeaux), we headed into Bayonne to pop into the Basque Museum. Apparently this town is normally fairly sleepy, but it was the Foire au Jambon – the Ham Festival. What?!? All parking lots were full, but we got amazingly lucky and found street parking. Apparently a lot of people really like Bayonne ham. Lucky for us, people were far more interested in the ham (and well-paired libations) than the museum. It was indeed a good introduction to Basque culture. Did you know that Basque language is unrelated to any other modern language? (This fascinates me!) And that the sport jai alai came from the Basques? Did you know that not too long ago, Basque separatists from Spain would frequently seek shelter with their Basque counterparts over the border in France (all speaking the same language)? Little known fact: the Basques are excellent rowers, because the fishermen would race each other back to shore in order to sell their catch at the highest price.
Pintx me! We continued our pretty drive into Spanish Basque Country for our two-night stay in the charming city of San Sebastián (called Donostia in Basque). It being Easter weekend and beautiful weather, it was packed! As PapaHatch pointed out, though, it was mostly Spanish tourists, and I will say the atmosphere was fun, lively and friendly. We tried our hand at a pintxo bar crawl (pronounced “peench-ohs,” pintxo is the Basque word for tapas); our itinerary: Bar Zeruko, Taberna Gandarías, and La Viña (La Cuchara de San Telmo was regrettably eliminated due to the long line). The idea is that exotic pintxos are displayed, and you “just point!” at what you want. Traditionally, you are charged at the end based on the number of toothpicks on your plate – how charming! I was assured on TripAdvisor repeatedly that as long as we went “early” (before 9pm!), the bars would be “empty.” Well, it turns out that a pintxo crawl is more challenging than fun with kids at least on a crowded holiday weekend. In our reality, the bars were crowded starting at 4 or 5pm without let-up, so by 8pm, our asking the harried bartender for explanations was not ideal. With no explanatory signs or menus (or if there were, they were in indecipherable Basque), most of the mouth-wateringly beautiful pintxos remained a mystery – we ended up playing it safe (=boring) with most of them, especially after I realized that the yummy looking noodle one was actually elvers (a.k.a. glass eels – hmmm, why is there a black speck on each noodle… um, those are EYES!). At this point, I should admit that I am a big baby about fishy seafood. Fortunately, my sons are FAR more adventurous eaters (except when it comes to vegetables, sigh). In the end, I’m glad we tried the pintxo crawl, but I now understand why people shell out the big bucks for a guided pintxo tour (which I totally scoffed at before).
The next day, after the Easter Bunny managed to find my sons all the way in Spain, where he apparently does not visit Spanish children, we had a lovely day strolling along the long oceanside path, hitting the really cool aquarium and eating two awesome meals: a must-do tortilla (Spanish omelette) that you have to call ahead to order, traditional Basque steak (one of the best we’ve ever had), tomatoes, and roasted green peppers meal that was AWESOME at Bar Nestor (highly recommend) and another try at pintxos, but this time it was a set menu for Easter (at A Fuego Negro), featuring creative, fun pintxos. By the way, Bar Nestor has virtually one table that can be reserved; I highly recommend doing that. Otherwise, people do seem to enjoy just standing up at the tables outside, but with kids, this is more challenging.
BowChicaBilbao. Great vibe in this city! We were all excited to go to the Guggenheim Bilbao – it did not disappoint. So cool. Would love to spend more time in Bilbao generally; we love cities with rivers running through them. We also tried the pintxo thing once again, this time with more success (the restaurant was not crowded, which helped). Delicious, and the price was right. I see the appeal! Even better, though, was the exquisitely decorated Café Iruña, where we had breakfast before saying goodbye to lovable Bilbao.
Leaving Basque country behind, we made our way to Segovia for a scenic snack (Easter candy) and then found our way to Madrid. By the way, this picnic spot was an excellent find! Awesome view of the castle, lovely little park, free parking. I highly recommend it. I got the idea from here (contains explicit directions for getting there).
Mad(rid) about art. So very good to reconnect with our friends (from wayyyyy back in our Washington, DC, days in the 90s) Carla & Ernesto & their three fun, beautiful daughters. They generously entertained us two of our three nights in Madrid, which we loved and appreciated so much. Reconnecting with old friends, especially in a foreign context, is special and very cool.
Besides really great reconnecting with our friends, our focus in Madrid was ART. We all really enjoyed both the Prado (old masters) and the Reina Sofia (modern art, including Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica).
[Digression on maximizing the travel experience: I want to talk just for a minute on how our kids have evolved to actually enjoy art museums. Even when they were little, we have taken them to local museums – we now (aside from this year) live only twenty minutes from one of America’s finest art museums, the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA does a particularly fantastic job appealing to kids, so my boys always enjoy going there. A chronically over-checker-outer of library books, I’ve always gotten books for them on various artists (there are some great ones these days!). They were also fortunate to have a really fantastic elementary school art teacher, Mr. Fink, who inspires all his students, so they also enjoy creating their own art (like most kids). One more thing… and this is a little embarrassing… when I was a kid, my family played a board game that (as an adult) I inherited called Masterpiece. It’s a fun game about art auctions; our version featured paintings from the Chicago Art Institute. When it dawned on me how much amazing art we’d be seeing in Europe, I created a homemade travel version with several “new” decks featuring works of art I knew we’d be seeing. I spent WAY too much time doing this, but it was fun. They have a couple other art-related games as well (thanks, Grammy!). The point being that our kids are familiar with a lot of art and even have their favorites. HOWEVER, it is never too late to encourage art appreciation. Easy to do: sit with your kids in front of the computer, go to the website of the destination art museum, and have them check out some of the featured works of art (many even have kid-focused web pages). Hint: Pointing and saying “ha ha!” at the nude figures goes over very well with the tween set.]
Upon arrival at the Prado, I was delighted to find their brochure listing – with pictures! – their most popular/important masterpieces. The boys then pored over it, taking turns (a.k.a. fighting over) picking 3-5 that they were responsible for finding. We’ve done this at several museums, and it really works to engage them (and their competitive natures). They feel pride when they find one of “their” works of art and take more genuine interest in it. In the end, we all agreed that Goya’s incredible Third of May, 1808 – and its precedent, the Second of May, 1808 – were our favorites. This is in part due to PapaHatch’s moving analysis, gleaned from his college minor in art history (thanks to another great teacher – thanks, Dr. Denton!).
The Reina Sofia is actually a beautiful space in and of itself. We enjoyed the collection as well, some moodiness notwithstanding (I will leave it at that). Illustrating the horrific 1937 bombing of a Basque town, Guernica is amazing and tragic and provided a good segue to revisiting the repugnant Franco regime and its legacy. Did you know that out of protest, Picasso loaned the painting to New York’s MOMA for 42 years, to return to Spain only upon the “reestablishment of public liberties”? Guernica was delivered to its current home at the Prado in 1981.
On a lighter note, I highly recommend include taking a chocolate and churro break. We went to the highly regarded Chocolateria San Gines. Spanish churros, unlike Mexican ones, are only slightly sweet and never filled. The chocolate that you dip your churro in is rich and exquisite. Now, for the shoppers… or people like me, who actually really hate shopping unless it’s something unique, local and catches my fancy, such as – in this case – espadrilles. Though they are historically a shoe that originates in the Pyrenees Mountains, Madrid has one of the best places on earth to buy them, Casa Hernanz. Beware their opening hours; like many European businesses, they close at lunch/siesta. Fritz accompanied me on this successful shopping expedition, which yielded four pairs of adorable and comfortable yet reasonably priced shoes for Mama!
Stay tuned for SPAIN, Part II: Catalunar landing….