Here we are in Bilbão, the heart of Basque Country, or El País Vasco in Spanish and Euskadi in the Basque language Euskara.
I don’t know about you, but I used to mentally connect the Basque Country to terrorism. There was so much of it in the news in the 1980s. At that time, I knew the Basque Country was sandwiched between Spain and France in the Pyrenees Mountains, but I thought it was an independent country. What I learned in reading up for this trip is that the Basque Country is comprised of four Spanish Basque provinces and three French Basque provinces that want to become one country of seven Basque provinces. Hence their political equation: 4+3=1. Makes sense; many cohesive ethnicities existed before today’s political boundaries divided them. Borders continue to shift and change accordingly.
The Basque provinces have wanted independence since the time they were incorporated into Spain and France centuries ago. After the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 and Generalísimo Franco declared himself dictator of Spain, he didn’t want to hear anything about separatist movements from either the Basque Country, Catalonia, or any other provinces. Politically, he came down on them pretty harshly.
After his death in 1975, Spain reverted to a monarchy. The Basques, not knowing what line the new king, Juan Carlos I, would take, made their bid for independence loudly and clearly. That was the tumultuous ‘80s. But Juan Carlos handled the situation well, in my estimation. Although he had been taken under Franco’s wing and educated here in Spain (while his family was in exile in Portugal), he surprised everyone by having his parliament outline a plan for autonomy for all the provinces of Spain.
Bilbão is the capital of the Basque province of Viscaya. It has always been an industrial city – not much to look at until the Guggenheim Foundation came to town. They were searching for a site to build a European art museum and had visited several candidate cities, including Madrid, but weren’t finding what they were looking for. As the story goes, they reluctantly accepted an invitation to visit Bilbão, not expecting much.
But once here, they discovered the site of a former steel mill on the river, and the notion of a metropolitan conversion from industry to art appealed. The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim opened in 1997, and other notable architects followed. A brilliant coup on the part of city planners: Soon afterwards, millions of tourists flocked to Bilbão to take it all in.
The local cuisine has flourished along with the growth of the city. In addition to the many Michelin-starred restaurants, pintxos (peent-chos) prevail. A slice of baguette topped with an infinite variety of deliciocities, the creativity of which is left to the many talented chefs. Each bar has its specialties.
The Basques also have an interesting language, Euskara. Quite different from Spanish, it’s a riot of crazy letter combinations. They are extremely fond of x’s and z’s and repetitive syllables. Take the national white wine, txakolitxakoli, for example, and the Zubizuri pedestrian bridge. Sounds like something Dr. Suess would come up with. One of their signature dishes, bacalao al pil pil, is named for the sound of the cod juices and olive oil bubbling in the pan. How fun is that? We ate in the Café Txirimiri. I don’t even begin to know how to say the name, but the food was delicious!