A Visit To Spain’s Basque Country

/A Visit To Spain’s Basque Country

A Visit To Spain’s Basque Country

While not exclusively searching for sunshine prior to arriving in Spain, it was certainly something which seemed to make all the difference in our general attitude and mood.  In Spain we began to find it consistently.

What sets Northern Spain apart most emphatically from the rest of the country is its unique Basque culture. While there are regions close to the Spanish border in France which are also Basque in their heritage, it is across the northern sweep of Spain that Basque culture is concentrated and overwhelming.   Its language is related to no other, and was being spoken three thousand years ago when more conventional Indo-European languages like Latin and Celtic finally began to arrive.  It has its own cuisine, its own literature–most of it until the mid-sixteenth century carried down through oral tradition–and such a strong sense of cultural identity that only recently has the Basque independence movement finally come to peace with the Spanish government after over a century of resistance, often armed and violent.

Today things are quiet and resolved, but the sense of the Basque region as a separate culture is very strongly felt.  Our first experience with it was in San Sebastian, a beautiful city wrapping around a crystalline bay and set against the trailing western edge of the Pyrenees Mountains.  It has become a major resort location in the summer, but in the quiet of December it was still but for the mobs of locals who filled its narrow streets on a Sunday while they stood drinking wine and beer and consuming those amazing Basque tapas, called pintxos.

San Sabastian, Spain_3

We couldn’t get enough of them.  We still can’t!  In San Sebastian they became our staples and we went to town nearly everyday for a late lunch of five or six of them each!

San Sabastian, Spain

San Sabastian, Spain_2

Like most of Spain, the hams inevitably hang from the ceiling with their little ‘drip catcher’ upturned hats attached.

San Sebastian itself is a real charmer.  Filled with narrow pedestrian streets like the one with all those enjoying food and drink above, it has wonderful plazas such as the Plaza de la Constitucion as well.

Square in San Sebastian

Not unlike lots of other ‘main plazas’ in Spain and indeed across the Latin world, it is unique in that it long served as a bullring and each of the numbered balconies one can see above the ground floor was a separate, corridor-wide ‘apartment’ for a family to be comfortable as they watched the bullfights.  They constitute a sort of early version of those prestige corporate suites which seem to occupy the upper reaches of American sports arenas.  Today many have been joined and are still occupied as apartments, but each considerably larger than the originals.  And minus bullfights.

Once we got down closer to the beach and its bordering parks and promenades, San Sebastian was irresistible.

San Seb Park

San Seb Beach

Finally tearing ourselves away from San Sebastian, we headed for that other famous city along the northern Spanish coast–Bilbao.  While the city possesses a wonderful old town with narrow, even mysterious streets,

Bilbao, Spain

it is those most modern of contributions to the city that rightfully draw the attention.  And all of that is focused and concentrated on the magnificent Guggenheim Museo, Frank Gehry’s creation and perhaps rightfully called the greatest building of our age.  Clad in titanium with hardly a flat surface on its entire exterior, it floats in space, shimmers in the afternoon sunlight, is overpowering in the impression it thrusts at the visitor.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain_11

Even when considering simple aspects of its total structure, there is composition, even abstract power, in smaller areas of its exterior.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain_4

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain_13

And the sculpture which surrounds the structure is interesting, suggestive, evocative.  Consider Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, clearly spider-like and almost thirty feet tall.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain_10

Or Jeff Koons’s Puppy.  Originally to be a giant but temporary topiary for the opening of the museum, it was so beloved by visitors that it became a permanent installation.  And though the puppy has evolved from being covered with patches of different colored flowers, it is now a stable green and still impressive.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain_9

While much of the structure and its surroundings are on a grand and majestic scale, even the small sculptures which are scattered about have a charm and often whimsical artistry that is appealing.

Striding Man at Gug

Most powerful of all, at least for Dave who returned a second day, is Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain_3

It consists of eight massive structures, all at least twelve feet high of corten rusted steel, convoluted into spirals and snakes and ellipses, which you walk into and around and through.  Their scale is clear if you note the human figure to their right near the far end of the gallery.  But because those walls are constantly changing their slant, you walk through pathways which change your conception of space.  You may begin with the walls slanting outward as they rise, but as you progress, soon they have slowly closed, so that you are constantly trying to adjust to space that widens and closes, seems to oppress from above and then constricts the path at foot level.  It is dizzying, confusing, perception altering, and somehow an apex of what sculpture itself can present to the human perspective.  It is the embodiment of the magic of art.

Close by, up the river a couple of hundred meters, is the Zubizuri, Basque for White Bridge, created by architect Santiago Calatrava.

Bilbao, Spain_2

We loved its curve across the river, its canted suspension from that high arch above, the parallel slant of its handrails, its supportive underside which is like a counterpoint to all one sees above, and its terminus in a wonderful cantilevered ramp of concrete that sweeps out and across the riverbank.

Closer to the middle of town is Philippe Starck’s recreation of a 1909 wine warehouse into the Alhóndiga Bilbao Cultural and Leisure Centre, which consists of three new structures within the original outer walls.  On the ground floor level is a huge plaza of about sixty thousand square feet, punctuated with forty-three pillars, each different and all designed by Starck, which support the three buildings above.

Bilbao, Spain_3

When we left Bilbao we went south about one hundred kilometers (60 miles) to the Rioja wine area where the finest Spanish wines are produced.  We were, of course, drawn to the wine and the vineyards in the area, but most of all we knew we had the chance to have a look at another Frank Gehry building, the Hotel Marquis de Riscal in the small wine village of Elciego.  In some visible sense, it is the ‘country cousin’ of the Guggenheim Museo as is evident from a view of its exterior.

Marques de Riscal Hotel, Elziego, Spain

Like the Guggenheim, it shares a spectacular titanium roof, but this time in the colors of the wines produced.  The next day we took a fascinating tour of the winery and loved it all–the complex process of preparing the wine in mammoth stainless steel tanks, the dark mid-nineteenth century wine cellars full of over seven million bottles of aging wine, the amazing machinery involved in the bottling, and of course the wine itself!

If you think you might be interested in the bottling process, hit this link for a short video: https://youtu.be/ofPwkw4Kqfg

And for a gallery of additional photos of northern Spain click here:  https://flic.kr/s/aHskV3QwSf

2019-01-02T21:10:11-07:00May 20th, 2017|Categories: Atlantic Ocean, Basque Country, Spain|


  1. Margeaux May 20, 2017 at 10:06 am - Reply

    What a fantastic, informative and inspiring post! I’m leaving for Bilbao immediately (I wish). Bon, your photos are incredibly beautiful. You captured the breathtaking power of the architecture. I believe that Ghery’s piece is maybe the finest example of 21st C. art. What magnificence. And, highlighting the two major sculptures by Koons and Bourgeois made me think about the fact that both are of enormous animals, and what does it say about the importance of nature in tandem with the “natural” sweep of the bldg.? And, the Serra… I’m awestruck by your photo and description of it. Also, I did not know about Hotel Marquis de Riscal, nor did I know about Plaza de la Constitucion and the bullfights. San Sebastian counsel on tourism would do well to have you develop their ad campaign! Bravo and thank you.

    • Dave Law May 21, 2017 at 1:19 am - Reply

      Thanks Margeaux but we are done working! Love and find extremely interesting your comments about nature and the Guggenheim and think that was something of the motivation for including those sculptures. Agree with you about it being the best of 21st century art. Certainly the greatest building of our age.

  2. Margeaux Klein May 20, 2017 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    One more thing… I became familiar with Calatrava when I was in Bilbao. His bridge you feature is spectacular. His recent work– the Oculus–in NYC is utterly staggering! Here’s a link: https://ny.curbed.com/2016/3/3/11157142/the-wtc-transportation-hub-is-open-tour-calatrava-s-creation-in

    • Dave Law May 21, 2017 at 1:20 am - Reply

      Looked at the link and love what Calatrava has done. Want to see the Oculus when in NYC and walk its marble floors!

  3. Travel with Kevin and Ruth May 20, 2017 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    Wow, great pictures! It is so beautiful there. After we left Spain, Kevin said he looked forward to going back so that we could explore the northern coast of Spain. I love that plaza that used to be a bullring. And, the architecture on the Guggenheim Museo is amazing. the spider that is beside it, is like the one we have outside of the art museum in Ottawa.


    • bonsternm May 21, 2017 at 12:32 am - Reply

      Ruth, We didn’t know about the side outside the art museum in Ottawa! I just could not get enough of taking photos of the Guggenheim. It was interesting from every single angle and I walked around it and across the river from it for two days, mesmerized. Yes, think you’ll love the northern coast of Spain. We didn’t get to see everything we wanted to so might have to go back again too! Thanks for following our blog!

  4. Rick May 22, 2017 at 12:46 am - Reply

    Another set of beautiful photos and a fascinating read that has added another area for our future travels, Thanks!!

    • Dave Law May 28, 2017 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much Rick. We think about you and your family all the time and so look forward to seeing you the next time we get to the UK. Better yet, why don’t you all meet us somewhere in Europe??

  5. Heath and Mary Boyer May 31, 2017 at 10:16 am - Reply

    We’re finally catching up on your amazing posts. We regretted not getting to the Basque country when we were in B’lona. You’ve inspired us to go back! Once again your photos are astonishing – truly world class, Bonnie. And the commentary does them full justice.

  6. Harold Hall July 2, 2017 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    We did not make it to this area of Spain. Looks like we missed out. I really like both Frank Gehry’s work and Calatrava. Bummer. On the bright side, yesterday I had a GREAT watermelon here in the states. I don’t remember seeing any watermelon in Europe in the summer. Those hams always seemed like a many years supply. Happy travels.

    • bonsternm September 4, 2017 at 3:39 am - Reply

      Harold, you saw the watermelon photo I sent you awhile back right? They have them here too but not the seedless kind and never as big as the ones in the US, of course. Loved your recent blog and your photos are always Nat Geo quality!

Leave A Comment

Our Countries

News Subscription