País Vasco/La Rioja: Brushstrokes and Spray Paint

18 12 2010

País Vasco/La Rioja Introduction here.

In this exquisite corner of the earth, the creative energy so playful within the realm of gastronomy unsurprisingly extends itself into official institutes of Capital-A Art as well.

Bilbao’s metal-petaled Guggenheim is a major architectural treat both inside and out. The many distinctive folds of the form make for fascinating chambers within, many of which house pieces specifically designed to fit the particular angles and curves of the building. Some of the rooms are intensely powerful – we walk away stunned from one photography exhibit in particular – but the overall quality of the place is a bit impish, a successfully sprightly counterpart to comparatively musty Serious Art Spaces elsewhere. It’s perhaps best modeled in Koons’ gigantic Puppy made entirely of flowering plants and standing fragrant guard at the entrance.

On Couchsurfer Muriel’s suggestion, we poke our heads into the Artium during our day in Vitoria, País Vasco’s somehow often-overlooked capital.

Inside, I am particularly called by this piece, which spans an entire wall. Sam, classical art aficionado, notes my fascination and inquires – what is it that I find successful about modernity?

I respond that it’s not modernity in itself that captures my attention, but rather presenting forms in innovative ways such that they cause me to consider what I already know in a new light. Sam’s uncomfortable with the lack of context in many contemporary works, because it often leaves the meaning unclear. For me, this is exactly what makes them so successful – when they work best, they invite the audience to develop its own relationship with the art in the moment of experience. To me, this piece summons thoughts on prayer, femininity and the female body, what it is to ask for something, dreams, the ways in which ideas are and are not connected to each other, and where thoughts go when we project them into the world, among other things. It isn’t that I come to any specific conclusions, but I cherish the creative time spent considering the prompt.

Detail from another successful piece for me; the entire work is at least four times this size. Leah comments that this is a faithful rendition of her brain.

I see open-ended commentary on architecture, and I’m reminded of the climactic scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I consider a house made of sea and light.

As is likely evident by now, my personal favorite encounters with creativity are in public spaces, where it can be interwoven with the mundane and the daily (as opposed to officialized, institutionalized). Vitoria is replete with multi-story murals, rainbow paints and glittering tiles spanning the hilly streets. Many feature the multiple languages spoken in the region, English and Castellano phrases at play with Basque, all pockmarked with X’s and K’s and top-hatted A’s.

This, on the other hand. The other other hand. No, I don’t want to get my hands anywhere near that. Vitoria, why??

Both Muriel and I are seduced by Vitoria’s extremely well-designed publicity. I’m pretty sure this one’s calling for some variety of protest; isn’t it a thousand times more attractive than the red and white that papered Madrid pre-huelga?

And then there’s the straight-up graffiti, which I absolutely adore when it’s clever. This one (“Put spicy in your life“) is just off Calle Laurel in Logroño. I’m considering printing it out for display in my kitchen.

On a playground in Vitoria (“Stop complaining and act, asshole!“).

Yes, he does. In Donostia-San Sebastián.

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País Vasco/La Rioja: Nibbling the North

15 12 2010

País Vasco/La Rioja Introduction here.

Both el País Vasco and La Rioja are internationally famed for their gastronomy, the former for its cutting-edge kitchen techniques and the latter for its age-old vineyard traditions. Here’s a peek into what we munch.


The Bilbao weather that greets us can be gently described as “blustery with a hint of hail,” and we take early evening refuge from the ice onslaught in a covered barbeque stall at the end of a river fair. Huddled up in a mass of mujeres around the space heater, we request a little bit of everything, accompanied by a miraculously warmth-bestowing bottle of wine.


The waiters bat their lashes at us just enough to keep things playful, but we only have eyes for the mountain of meat. Chorizo, torreznos, and ribs roasted over the fire, accompanied by the crustiest of hearty Spanish bread and salty year-old sheep’s milk cheese (not pictured) makes for supreme satisfaction, medieval carnivore style. At some point during the fleshfest, a troop of trolls comes bounding past, skipping and jiving to vaguely Celtic tunes despite the hostile weather. The wine invites me to high-five them, and I do so with enormous joy and a bulging belly.

Upon arrival in Donostia-San Sebastián, we head towards La Zurri, recommended as an inexpensive menú del día of “delicately cooked Basque food” on WikiTravel. Emily zeroes in right away on the volovanes con foie, puff pastries overflowing with incredible cream sauce, marvelous mushrooms, and decadent duck liver. Yes. Welcome to town.

As Spanish cuisine ekes its way into the international mainstream consciousness, it becomes more and more chic to “go out for tapas” – which probably doesn’t mean what most Americans think it means. Rather than mere “small plates,” tapear is a social bar-hopping activity, where each bar gifts you some kind of edible along with your caña or vino. In Madrid, this is not all that common a practice, although post-Rastro Sundays in La Latina are certainly worth a jaunt or two; Granada to the south and León to the north hold much more claim to tapas fame.

In País Vasco, tapas are not called pintxos. Pintxos are called pintxos. Vital differences:

Tapas are:

  1. free with your drink,
  2. bar food – usually greasy, starchy, and/or recently unfrozen, and
  3. often found congealing in questionable metallic cafeteria trays on the bar,

while pintxos are:

  1. paid for separately, ranging in price from 1-5€,
  2. miniature obras de arte – usually beautiful, elaborate, and/or recently reheated, and
  3. found tastefully arranged on plates lining the establishment, intended as the center of attention.

In pintxo bars, just like in the huge majority of other eating establishments ’round these parts, you tell the bartender what you’ve consumed at the end and pay accordingly – none of this cash-up-front crap. If you encounter a pintxo bar where you are handed a giant plate and told to go to town on your own and pay according to toothpick, you may also want to look for the door – custom is to eat one pintxo (and down one small beer – known as a zurrito – or glass of wine) per bar, then scoot, or stumble, to another locale.

Leah informs us that it is mushroom season, and the champis on a stick – accompanied, inevitably, by a salty slice of jamón – is a crowd favorite. The shrooms’ already meaty flavor blossoms into fully-fledged fleshiness on the grill, accented by a healthy drizzle of sharp garlic sauce. We devour them with our first sip of txakoli, a very dry and slightly bubbly Basque wine.

I can relate to a people this serious about their garlic.

Occasionally the girls would even convince me to go for sweets. But when they’re this elegant, who can stand to eat them?

… what? You say that’s mango sauce? Where’s my fork?





País Vasco/La Rioja: Misjudgements and Re-conceptions

13 12 2010

Recently I’ve been remembering the Histories of Spain days with Chris, those endless Friday afternoon classes in Carpenter achingly watching spring come to the Heart through windowpanes. You wouldn’t believe just how many rich and detailed tales weave together the intricate Spanish fable that I managed not to retain whatsoever. I feel it can only be partially attributed to the oh-so-distracting allure of frisbee in the sunshine; the central issue was that the stories lacked tangible context. Even the following semester in Valencia didn’t provide more than a seriously myopic understanding of the country; anyone who has had the pleasure of Jesús’ Historia y Cultura de Valencia lectures will cringe at the very mention of the Riuà.

Despite the inundación innundation, I’ve been exploring bits and bobbles of the Iberian Peninsula for three years now – holy jamón, Batman! Valencia served as intimate introduction, with weekend sneak peeks at Andalucía, Barcelona, and Cuenca. El Camino de Santiago took me through a snippet of Castilla-León followed by a healthy slice of Galicia, which was further augmented by the following year’s summer stint just outside of Lugo. Through Fulbright, I’ve established my own nooks within the sprawling cosmopolitan center of Spain; I now feel I can rightfully call Madrid home.


Yet the more destinations I explore, the more I realize there is to this amalgamation of autonomous communities than meets the average traveler’s eye. The word choice truly suits: the various puzzle pieces of Spain were brought together under one flag chiefly due to historical agreements made by those in power, most recently serious baddie General Francisco Franco. Under the Franciscan dictatorship, all languages apart from Castellano – incidentally, what English speakers often think of as “Spanish” – were forbidden. The fact is, there are plenty of Spanish languages, among them Catalán, Gallego, and Basque, this final one especially intriguing to linguists as it has no known roots in common with any other language on earth.

The first thing Americans tend to learn about El País Vasco – in Basque, Euskadi – is something about terrorism having to do with the Basque separatist movement. (“Didn’t they blow up that Madrid metro train? And they have something to do with Al-Qaeda, I think.“) Even the Jornada de Auxiliares gave ETA a nod; in addition to not getting too tipsy on the cheap delicious wine, we foreigners have got to be ever! cognizant! of the threat of lurking evil where we may least expect to find it (under the bed, maybe? god forbid, 100 Montaditos??).

Like a good liberal arts grad, I keep questioning everything, particularly my own suppositions. When considering where to visit over the long break from work in December, I know I want to stay in Spain for convenience, and I find myself wondering why el País Vasco seems to be shrouded in eerily foreboding mystery. It’s funny what you’ll pick up when you’re not paying attention – most of my mental Spanish map is coated with thick rays of sunshine, but this unassuming little section to the north is marked off as somehow darkly threatening, or, at the least, somewhere you’d probably not choose to go voluntarily (however, the devious Basque separatists, decked out in black bandito masks, might sequester the less vigilant American tourist up there in the night).

After a few hours’ investigation into the area, it is obvious I can await my would-be kidnappers no longer – sequestering must be done through SpanAir, and in cahoots with the loveliest of girlfriends, Sam, Emily, and Leah. What better way to eradicate absurd preconceptions than to walk through a place in your own rainboots? We split into two pairs and seek Couchsurfers with whom to lodge in Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastián, and Logroño – the last of which is actually in La Rioja, famed for its wine production and unmissable given that we are going to be just a few hours away by bus.

In Bilbao, Emily and I are welcomed by local Oihane; in Logroño we will stay with Polish Erasmus student Justyna. None of us manages to find any leads in Donostia, so we book a shared hotel room slightly out of town but well-connected by train. I still want to kick it with CSers – my experience tells me that you ought to take full advantage of any time you can involve yourself with knowledgeable locals – so I make a post on the boards inviting any and all in town to a Saturday night pintxos crawl. The responses come pouring in, we confirm a time and place to meet, and that’s the extent of the planning we do for the entire trip. Yup, I fall heavily in the “spontaneous” camp, and I arrive at the airport Thursday evening hot on the scent of the promise of possibility.

Continued in:
Nibbling the North
Brushstrokes and Spraypaint