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.
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!
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.
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.
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,
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.
Even when considering simple aspects of its total structure, there is composition, even abstract power, in smaller areas of its exterior.
And the sculpture which surrounds the structure is interesting, suggestive, evocative. Consider Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, clearly spider-like and almost thirty feet tall.
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.
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.
Most powerful of all, at least for Dave who returned a second day, is Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time.
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.
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.
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.
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