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.

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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.





Fotopost: La Alhambra

21 02 2011

My perspective of my second touring of Granada’s Alhambra. Took me far too long to get around to editing these, but I’m pleased with how they turned out.

Read mom’s take on the experience here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’d like any of these images in a larger size, ask and ye shall receive.





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





O Valencia

24 11 2010

Three months in, and it becomes nigh time to escape the clawing clutches of Madrid’s cluttered calles.

A bumpy bus ride would save me 20€, but I opt for the comfort offered by a sleek Renfe Alaris train, connecting Madrid’s Atocha hub station with Valencia’s Estación del Nord. Hector’s invited me to a talk on Lorca he’s giving in his poetry class tonight, so afterwards I chug eastward under a thick cloak of darkness, delightfully entertained by a dubbed Meryl Streep.

Memories prickle the edges of my vision at the squeal of the brakes. I’ve returned.

Alex has managed to convince me that this will not be a regression, this will not be a replay. A place, a combination of X-Y-Z coordinates in space, only holds whatever meaning you assign. Today’s Valencia is not yesterday’s Valencia is not tomorrow’s Valencia. The inhuman neon glare of the bright lights, the push and shove of departing passengers avoiding contact, my shoulders are blasted through with poor-posture’s knots, and what’s happening in Madrid without me tonight? – boding pessimism beckons.

I spy my suddenly long-time friend break out into a huge grin at my arrival, and the wicked spell breaks. It’s 1 AM, and we’re going for cañas.

Valencia is eerily tranquil on a Friday night, particularly against a backdrop of Madrileño Malasaña. But we three – Alex has brought along a friendly beanpole known as Feno – are undeterred, and march determinedly northward. Destination: “El Irlandés,” which turns out to be a wonky sort of Spanish bar that has nothing remotely Irish about it, save a few strings of green Christmas lights. Other than two girls roosting in a corner, we are the only patrons – but the barman appears to be well-acquainted with my entourage. We are served icy Carlsbergs, which go down marvelously after our trek across the entire city, along with all variety of bar snack.

The elongated marshmallows – “nubes” – are the best. You are meant to roast them little by little with your lighter. Although the photo appears to suggest otherwise, I do not recommend consuming them with tobacco paraphernalia.

The night is seriously Spanish. At some absurd hour, we join forces with the roosting girls and enthuse about Galicia, and shrimp. Also engaged in the rapid-fire conversational swings, the barman nevertheless notes the clock with slightly more practicality than his patrons. Perhaps around 4 AM, he switches the lights to a “time to scoot a boot” deep red. Ambientación, anyone?

In this park, we hold a discussion regarding the lesser-read works of Foucault, and the growing relevance of the modern sense-datum prison.

Wakefulness arrives, beautiful and sluggish. Coffee and mini-croissants coax it along.

The months I spent in Valencia several years back leave me with little residual desire to seek out tourist destinations. Instead, and refreshingly, we simply have a weekend together. We hit up Mercadona for pasas and caldo, which I combine along with various other items rummaged from Alex’s kitchen to concoct a highly satisfying lunch.

A few unearthed items are best avoided. One plastic bag holds a mottled green sausage, which upon closer inspection appears to have at one time been bread. This, also:

Oh, Spain, honey. No.

The afternoon slips into night during a viewing of (dubbed) Malibu’s Most Wanted, highly recommended if you get your kicks from mass slaughter of your own brain cells. We meet up with a pair of Alex’s friends at a Wok that’s just opened in the neighborhood – think Mongolian BBQ but minus any trace of Scoville points – and then are joined by two more for a cortado digestif. It’s a sleepy night all around, and just the two of us end up back at El Irlandés for a tranquil beer before bedtime.

This Sunday is Loi Krathong. One year ago, I found myself lighting a banana leaf raft in the company of Alisa, Carlos, and several whiskey-swilling Thai men down a construction-laden alleyway on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. After paying due respects to the water goddess, we clambered up to a particularly attractive hotel rooftop thirty-some-odd stories high. Gobs of fireworks bloomed over the water, and Northern-style floating paper lanterns melded with the stars.

Yesterday’s Bangkok is not today’s Valencia. However, the idea that occurs to me of being the only one in this Spanish city celebrating the Thai festival is too intriguing to let slide. Alex and I hunt the chinos until deciding on a balloon raft as our best bet; I nix poinsettia leaves in favor of burgling a few specimens from Valencia’s finest foliage. Flowers are in short supply, so “yin-yang” candles will have to make do for beautification. The water goddess knows our hearts are in the right place.

My original plan is to release my krathong into the Mediterranean – I’ve been really feeling the pull of the sea as of late – but it’s way too obvious that our fragile vessel won’t fare well given any sort of aquatic turbulence. We visit a park near Alex’s place instead, where we follow our instincts – and ears – to the calmest of fountains.

Alex, professional mechero man, lights the candles, then places our makeshift krathong on the water’s glassy surface. She only lasts a minute before being capsized by a stray gust, but it’s time enough to reflect, to give thanks, to consider what it means to be open to that which is gifted. I give voice to my gratitude:

Gracias, o diosa del agua.
Gracias por el flujo en que andamos todos.
Gracias por el cambio, por las diferencias, por insistir en movimiento.
Gracias por lo complicado que ha sido ayer,
y gracias por la infinidad de posibilidades que nos presentas para mañana.

It feels unabashedly good to give thanks for these regalos de la vida. More soon to come – after last year’s passivity, I’m ready to dive into some serious seasonal cheese.

Massive gracias must also go to my host and very good friend Alex, who entertains my whims even when clearly fueled by a lack of logic.

O Valencia. Hold tight. I’ll be back in December, and with family.