Fiestas del Norte: Vitoria

30 08 2011

Friend Iñaki invites us to his hometown of Vitoria for what’s known as el chupinazo, the first day of its week-long citywide fiesta. We are to cart a bottle each of bottom-of-the-barrel cava, along with standard kalimotxo provisions. Upon arrival to the Basque capital, we stash our backpacks and are ready to bolt out the door, bottles of bubbly in tow, when Iñaki stops us, incredulous. “¿De veras vais vestidos así?” What, in jeans and a t-shirt? Iñaki laughs, rummages through his drawers, and presents us with tacky sports shorts coupled with electric lime green t-shirts.

We show up to a local buddy’s house in high style; the rest of the group is sporting similar duds and furiously smoking cigarettes. Through the tobacco haze hanging in the loft apartment, I’m proffered tequila. “Tenemos prisa,” they tell me, “Ya casi son las seis.” Portable kalimotxo is splashed together in oversize plastic cups, and we take to the street, where absolutely everyone is heading in the same direction. A dull roar grows fur and fangs as we approach one of Vitoria’s central plazas.

Immediately we lose track of our new batch of Vitorian friends, but manage to hold on tight to Iñaki – quite literally, by his shirt sleeve. The crowd throbs in intoxicated anticipation, mouths already stained the royal purple of Don Simon. We claw our way through to where Iñaki thinks we’ll have a good view of the action, and we  form a three person shell around the nucleus of precious cava bottles. The shot of tequila is making its merry way through our systems, but even more infectious is the frenzied determination of the crowd to party, and party hard. Shortly we’re wildly whooping with the rest, and at the stroke of six the climactic sequence begins: a figure dressed in traditional Basque garb is hoisted to the top of the plaza’s clock tower, and the mass of humanity breaks out in song:

¡Ceeeeeledón ha hecho una casa nueva!
¡Ceeeeeledón con ventana y balcón!

Iñaki’s yelled explanation reveals that the lofted figure is the Celedón in question, that he’s been opening the fiestas of Vitoria for as long as anyone can remember, and that apparently he once built for himself a new house (with both window and balcony, even).

Cava explodes gleefully across the sea of ecstatic revelers, and it takes all of five seconds for everyone to be utterly drenched in effervescent booze. We violently agitate the bottles before popping the cork, proceeding to douse everyone within spraying radius. Undeterred by the alcoholic downpour, plenty of the crowd lights up fat cigars, and all continue warbling the ode to Celedón’s swank new pad.

Once the cava runs out, the festivities have truly begun, and the crowd disperses down the spiderweb of streets accordingly. As we tenaciously stumble towards our chosen meeting spot for the rest of our group, we beg water from observers residing in the top floors of the apartments lining the streets. “¡No seas rata! ¡Agua es barata!” They’re too happy to oblige, and cleansing redemption comes careening down in buckets.

We reunite with the rest of the band of heroes and seek merriment, which is to be found absolutely everywhere. Bars erect stalls in the streets vending enormous cups of kalimotxo and assortments of bocatas. Revelry spreads itself to each and every possible cobbled corner, marching in screeching brass bands parading from calle to calle, flowing off tongues to form excited proclamations amongst excitable new friends. The positive energy is palpable and immersive; it sucks you in, and it doesn’t stop, not for days – we end up staying an unexpected two more nights.





Fiestas del Norte: Azpeitia

29 08 2011

’round these parts, each city designates at minimum one day a year as its local day of fiesta – more frequently four days to a full week, from what I can tell. Being up north this summer has had me privy to three distinct city-wide celebrations:

AZPEITIA

The trusty Renault traipses across windy winding Basque coastline from our walking tour of Bosque de Oma all the way to Azpeitia, home-pueblo of friend Maider. It’s the final day of fiesta here, and the streets are spotty with refuse and revelers alike. We’re famished from the jaunt and gorge overflowing bocatas de albondigas – similar to cheese-less meatball subs.

The goal here is a concert that begins at 1.30 AM – and no, I didn’t forget a digit – so we spend the interim lollygagging, enjoying bottles of bitter-tart sidra and grooving to imported mariachi beats. About a quarter past, we mosey towards the stage, squeezed in-between apartments and streetside shops, currently surrounded by alternative-style stalls of beer hucksters. I spy everything from anarchist Basque nationalists to Palestinian solidarity, but we end up acquiring cañas from a feminist bunch just to the side of the stage. The group is Canteca de Macao, and they emerge with a roar. The act is flamenco inspired, but with elements of rock and circus thrown in; a dude with remarkably lengthy dreads swirls checkered fabric and natty hair in the background of each set. Our feet move to the point of pain and then some. The Basque sky characteristically opens up, drenching the dancers – and there’s no sign of stopping. Canteca de Macao continue for a good two hours into the night, ensuring well-earned calluses for the morning after.





El Bosque Pintado de Oma

14 08 2011

All credit to my excellent friend Alexandra Waters: months earlier, upon being informed of my summertime Pais Vasco plans, she had gushed to me about a highly unusual forest somewhere near Guernika that she had chanced to visit. Fast-forward to July, and Aldo’s handing me a tourist catalogue of the area; when I come across the photo I immediately recognize what it is I’m seeing.

Traveler’s destiny? I thought the same back in December, when Hondarribia was a strange name stumbling over the tip of my tourist tongue, when the long-awaited wild horses showed their fuzzy manes atop the most unexpected mountain. We can call it coincidence, if you prefer your grandiose proclamations fate free. A series of damn fine coincidence.

We make the trek to El Bosque Pintado de Oma on a hazy Saturday afternoon. Drizzle threatens but never materializes. It’s a several kilometer hike into the forest in order to find the famed painted trees, including multiple serious ups and downs, and a first view of white swaths of paint across trunks is uncompensatingly unimpressive. However, the forest floor is dotted with stone markers, complete with arrows indicating the direction in which one is meant to look – and from these particular points, what appears to otherwise be colorful chaos coagulates into magic patterns. Stripes zig and zag their way across the forest, alternatively forming both curved and linear designs. We see eruptions of flames, motorcycles, and a sudden menacing crowd that appears to have it out for the viewer.

Curiously, the eerie sensation of being observed appears to be somewhat of an artist’s theme; an enormous section of trees is dedicated to ever-alert eyeballs of every size and color.

Later this night, we mention to a few local friends where we’ve been all day, and are informed that the artist is not too highly regarded ’round these parts – seems his outspoken politics err on the side of facha, which certainly doesn’t go over big in el Pais Vasco. I do vaguely remember Alexandra mentioning something about politically-motivated vandalism of the painted trees. It certainly raises questions that are intriguing, if not too original: can art be “good” if its creator is “bad”? To what extent are we obligated to consider artistic merit in the light of the artist’s own proclivities? Those of you familiar with my beleaguered thesis will know my response already, but by no means do I consider the matter closed – what do you think?





Bidegorri de Oiartzun

14 08 2011

Sunny afternoon stroll along the Bidegorri of Oiartzun.

Old tunnels left by old mines.

Resonant statue atop a mountain’s ledge.

Summoning the handflute gods.

CLOK-clok-clok-clok-clok





Sardinade à Hendaye, France

24 07 2011

” — hold on, let me check. Hey, do you want to go eat sardines in France tonight?”

Do I.

Summer means sardines in just-across-the-French-border Hendaye. It’s still Basque Country, but Frenchified; architecture sprouts Parisian flourishes, pastisseries seem infinitely more exotically attractive than their pasteleria counterparts, and syllables suddenly begin to slide languidly through nostrils.

Even I end up busting out French 101 remnants: “Bonjour, catre, merci!” Only one selection on the menu, and we want four of them.

Ten chargrilled sardines, freshly fished from the ocean just beyond the above-pictured Bay of Chingoudy. These are oversize puppies, designed to be nibbled by hand in the style of an ear of corn, delicately nursing each shred of fish flesh from out the spine. Everyone ends up eating a few dainty bones; follow them with a swig of Rioja and it doesn’t matter. The cheese is local, nutty and rich, and the Basque pastry at the end is pure butter.

And it’s sunset on the coast of France. Le sigh.





Semana Santa: BuenBlogging

29 04 2011

con tomates lives!! But was hanging out at Buen Camino for a spell during Semana Santa.

16/04/11: Barcelona: No Reservations (part one)

“No camera crew. No entourage. No screaming gobs of fans. Just Tony and Jose, checking out what’s new and old at La Boqueria. Jose’s talking jamon, then olives.”

((more))

16/04/11: Barcelona: No Reservations (part two)

We thank the guy sincerely – I’m sure he gets tired of dealing with fangirls, but was extraordinarily courteous about it nevertheless – and head back to our awaiting baby quail with smiles plastered across our faces.

((more))

18/04/11: Barcelona: #munching

Its appetizer twin is a cool cube of tuna accented with olive oil, a sliver of crunchy red onion, and an unmistakeably lettuce sorbet. We speculate as to why Eric doesn’t whip up lettuce sorbet at home for frequently.

((more))

21/04/11: Donostia: Seeking the Holy Grill

Etxebarri is absolutely legendary for its revolutionary grilling techniques; mastermind Victor Arguinzoniz designs innovative mechanisms specifically suited to ingredients never before subject to smoke and flame. We’re talking oddities like egg yolk, here, along with caviar – for the intrigued, our now intimate friend Tony Bourdain investigates in an excellent episode of No Reservations.

((more))

24/04/11: Madrid : Madrid :: Madrid : Madrid

Upon our arrival yesterday, I find myself filled with an enormous energy – I am in my city again. I know these streets, and they know me; we convene. MP has some big must-do Spanish Cultural Experiences sketched out as well, but I’m jazzed simply to be able to maplessly navigate again. Give me six more months and I’ll print up Experta Madrileña business cards.

((more))





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.