Easter week, in Spain, is known as ‘Semana Santa’. Much like at Christmas time, the emphasis veers away from the commercial side of things; there’re no eggs – chocolate or decorative, hard-boiled ones – and no kitschy shop-window displays of Easter bunnies who are supposed to have somehow laid them.
For most, it presents the opportunity to take part in or simply observe a historic and deep-rooted Spanish tradition that is as much a social ritual as an ancient religious practice. For others, it’s a week of going out, getting drunk and staying in bed. For me, it’s a time to travel. I’ve seen Semana Santa once before, and forty-five minute journeys on foot that ordinarily take just five become a little wearisome after the fifth or sixth time.
This year, I travelled north to País Vasco, an area of Spain I have long since wanted to explore, given its interminable tide of rave reviews and my unswerving curiosity for all things where peculiar languages are concerned.
My trip started in Bilbao, the largest and most densely populated city of the region, which, since the construction of the famous Guggenheim Museum in 1997, has seen itself go from a relatively uninteresting port city to a thriving, trendy and avant-garde tourist hub.
Thanks to a couple of very informative posts from the likes of Young Adventuress and Liz en España, I was easily able to draw up a rough plan of what I was going to do keep me busy. Two nights seemed about right.
I arrived at the airport Saturday afternoon and boarded the Bizkaibus to the city centre. My ears were pricked, ready to ingest all those baffling Basque words, but everybody on the bus seemed to be speaking Castellano. ‘They’re just regular Spanish-speaking people on holiday’ I thought, ‘I’ll be drowning in it soon enough’. I turned my attention to what was happening outside the bus. The difference between what I was seeing and the Spain I was used to was incredible, in almost every sense. It wasn’t just the lush, green meadows filled with cows and sheep that struck me as different; it was the smell as well. I breathed in the pungent scent of freshly cut grass, more evocative of the peak district where I grew up in England, when my nostrils were abruptly hijacked by the equally as powerful aroma of freshly laid horse manure. I gagged loudly. Rough with the smooth and all that I suppose.
Not long afterwards I was looking out onto Plaza de Miguel de Unamuno, instantly enamored with the place. Luckily, I had managed to secure accommodation in this old part of town, El Casco Viejo, via couchsurfing, so everything I wanted to see was right on my doorstep. Before finding my host’s apartment, I went out in search of some Euskara (the official term for the Basque language) as I still hadn’t heard any, and was at a loss as to why. I decided to home in on old people. Surely they would speak it, proud as they are of their roots and regional identity. Two old ladies approached on my left flank. I slowed my pace, and listened intently…
Nothing. NADA. Why on earth was nobody speaking this mysterious language? Weren’t they proud to be able to speak it? Was I actually in Bilbao?
I soon found my host’s apartment, where my questions were duly answered. Apparently, people tend not to speak Euskera in the cities of País Vasco, and a surprising amount of Basque-born natives speak relatively little of the language, knowing only useful words and phrases for the rare times they should ever need them. If you want to hear Euskera spoken fluently and liberally, you have to head out to the smaller towns in between the three main cities, Bilbao, San Sebastián and Vitoria-Gasteiz. This came as a surprise to me. Clearly, I hadn’t read Liz’s post on ‘5 Things You Need To Know When Visiting Basque Country’ closely enough. I inevitably began to draw comparisons with Catalan, a language that is spoken anywhere and everywhere in all of Catalonia, in cities big or small. Why wasn’t it the same here?
I spent the rest of the day wandering the elegant Casco Viejo, which exuded a perfectly balanced mingling of things both old and new. I was completely sold.
Later that evening, I met my host’s housemate, Tania, who, although not a native herself, offered me her thoughts on why Euskera is less common to hear in País Vasco than Catalan in Catalonia. I was shocked. According to Tania, many Basque natives choose not to speak Euskera as abundantly as they could do for fear of being associated with the now abdicated ETA terrorist organization. This explanation seemed a little radical to me, but I could see some sense in what she was saying.
Understandably, it’s still a very touchy subject, ETA. While few supporters of the organization remain, there is still a well-backed call for the transfer of all Basque prisoners, currently serving life sentences for acts of terrorism, to Basque prisons, where their families would be able to visit them without the cost of travelling elsewhere in Spain. Earlier this year thousands of people marched in downtown Bilbao to give voice to the cause, and each week, family members stand outside the city council in silent protest. The movement for complete separation from the state is still very much alive in Bilbao. Spain’s World Cup win in 2010, for instance, triggered a number of street fights, after those that openly celebrated the victory were set upon by separatists out looking to make a point.
The following day, I visited El Mercado de Ribera, explored more of the old town and went to the Guggenheim. Here is what I saw:
Mercado de Ribera
That evening, I had my first pinxto tour. I started with an aubergine and goat’s cheese topped tostada, then went on to a jamon and breadcrumbed chicken baguette and finished with a colossal helping of tortilla:
They were all delicious, but not a scratch on what I was about to discover in my next port of call – San Sebastián.
I didn’t hear one single conversation in Euskera whilst in Bilbao, but I did pick up and attempt to learn one or two phrases from the people I met. Here are some of them:
Kaixo – Hello
Zer moduz – How are you?
Garargado bat – One beer
Bi garagardo – Two beers
Mezedez – Please
Eskerrik asko – Thank you (incredible, I know)
Ez dago zergaitik – You’re welcome (even more incredible)
Agur – Goodbye (unsurprisingly easier)
Despite the disappointing realization that there wasn’t much Euskera to be heard in Bilbao, I still loved my time there, and certainly hadn’t predicted that I’d be so mesmerized by the city. I ended up staying three nights it was that good.
Have you been to Bilbao before? What did you think of it? Would you go back?