Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Recent Sightings...

Another primarily photo entry of what we have recently seen/experienced in the area.

Next to Maia is Lara and next to Morgan is her sister Nicole. Nicole and Maia are in the same class. In the middle are Lara and Nicole's cousins. We had spent a rainy evening wondering around Zubiarte, a mall in Bilbao and then discovered an outdoor fair of some sort. 

At the fair there was a BBQ, as well as a variety of tents selling handmade goods and items typical of the region.

 We spent a sunny cool Sunday afternoon in Sopelana at a cervecera. These are locations where you typically go with a group of people, order roasted chicken, french fries, salad and whatever else sounds good at the time. These cerveceras typically have both indoor and outdoor seating and lots of land with a park, soccer field, and in this case a swimming pool that opens in the summer.

We ran into some friends there unexpectedly. Great opportunity for Maia and Morgan to play for a while.

More playing in some local parks with Morgan's classmates Denise and Eugenia.

Morgan with her friend Eugenia can never have enough fun at the beach. In this case we had our bikes. After playing and picnic at the beach we rode to the Puente Colgante and then back home. It's a nice ride on a bike path along río Ibaizabal.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Trip to school

Many people have asked the girls about school here. Now that they are well integrated into their classrooms, I'll try to get them to sit for another interview. Meanwhile I thought it would be of interest to share how we get there. In Madison we live about a 5 minute walk as the school is at the bottom of our street. Here it is a 20 minute walk, but not quite as typical as a walk through Madison. Here is our journey in pictures.

On the left is the street our flat is on. We walk up the hill and through a short pedestrian walk (on the right). From there we cross a crazy roundabout intersection and head downhill.

The blue building in the picture to the right is the library and cultural information center. The library is quite small but functional. It is not as integrated as the Madison system with all the other libraries in the area.

From there we follow a rather long street until it ends in what is left of countryside in Algorta.

We see lots of wildlife along the way. There are goats, occasionally roosters, cats, lizards and ducks. The goats and roosters are typically hanging out in the same field. As we continue our walk down the road we see our first set of cats. A couple of them come running to be greeted by the girls both in the morning and on our way home. We need to add a few extra minutes to our journey so the girls can get their kitty fix.

As we continue our journey we reach the end of this quiet road and are greeted by a rather busy roundabout intersection. Crossing there we pass under a highway and cross the street. This area is a very quiet neighborhood with mostly flats and a few stores but not nearly as active as the area in which we are living. There is a metro stop here so on really rainy days, the girls prefer the metro over the exercise. Ok, actually, everyday they would prefer the metro over the exercise, they just don't get that option ;-).
Our journey ends as we hit the little river and cross the bridge to their school. We typically see a couple more cats who are very skittish and several ducks.

On the left is the back of the school and the playground area for the elementary school kids. The picture on the right is the front of the school which has a couple of playsets for the younger kids. The school day begins and ends in this part of the school yard. Just as with Thoreau School in Madison, the kids line up by class to enter the building.
I hope you have enjoyed the picturesque journey between the mountains that we take daily to get to and from school. It's amazing to pass such a diversity of urban and rural settings in just a 20 minute walk.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Excursions in Euskadi

We decided to rent a car for the weekend and head out on our first official excursion. Of course at the time we reserved the car we didn't plan on three out of four of us being quite ill during the week. Arming ourselves with cold meds and a sense of adventure, we crossed our fingers and headed out the door.

Our plan was a combination of sightseeing and seeing friends along the way. We began our journey around 10am, a car full of snacks, cameras in hand, and a GPS. We drove along the coast to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. The drive was quite nice although the highways were curving around through the mountains so not the best for those with a tendency towards motion sickness.

We were most of the way there when the views caught our eye and we had to stop for a photo shoot. We were in the small town of Bakio. It was a really nice area and seemed to be the perfect place for a vacation home by the ocean. While it isn't far from Bilbao, it didn't appear to be as easily connected to the big city as where we are living; a car or bus ride away. These first pictures are what we saw.

We continued our journey along the coast guided by our GPS. Most of the time that works well. However, this time it took us, as it turns out, past our destination and to where the highway ends, literally. Apparently it has been closed for a couple of years due to fallen rock. We pulled over, got out, and could see the island we were trying to reach. This time guided by our gut we backtracked and found a parking area where we could catch a not very well marked trail.

As you can see the views were spectacular. The staircase consists of approximately 230 stairs. That part really wasn't bad at all though. At the top is a small church that dates back to the 10th Century. We were lucky enough to enter. In most cases the building is closed.  In addition to the church, there is a nice covered area with stone picnic tables and a fireplace. You may have noticed in the pictures that Morgan is ringing a bell. It is supposed to be good luck to ring the bell three times and make a wish. (My wish was for no more trips to the clinic...)

I have to admit, it took me all weekend to learn to pronounce Gaztelugatxe, a word in Euskera. Since I worked so hard at it, I thought you would be interested to know its meaning. Gaztelu is castle and aitz is rock or bad. So it is either Castle on the Rock or Bad Castle. You can choose.

After spending some time taking in the views at the top we headed back down. The underneath part of the stone bridge that connects the island to the land has two arches. You can catch those in the pictures as well. We spent about an hour climbing around on the rocks, looking at snails and finding the tiniest shells ever. The last part was the hardest. Climbing back up to the parking area. I don't really know why it was so hard. Perhaps because that part of the walk is much less inspiring.

Once back at the car we needed to head to Guernika where we met up with Marina, an exchange student who lived in Madison last year. She is from Mundaka, just outside of Guernika. She and her parents took us to a restaurant where we sat overlooking the countryside and filled our bellies with roasted chicken, salad and french fries. The setting was beautiful and the company outstanding. It was really nice to meet her parents and to see Marina again, only this time in her home setting.

Following our meal we went to Bosque de Oma.  It was a long walk in but once we found the painted forest it was well worth it. The tree trunks were painted by Agustín Ibarrola, a Basque artist who lives in the village below the forest. We aren't sure in which one of the houses but you can see the village in the pictures below.

In any case, this is by far the most unique forest I have ever ventured through. In addition to the painted trees, there are triangle numbered markers on the ground. The idea is that you stand on the marker looking in the direction it is pointing and from there you see the works of art created by Ibarrola. He managed to paint tree trunks such that looking at groups of them together you see a variety of shapes and designs. Very curious. My suspicion is that he occasionally must return to the forest to repaint as the weather must wear away at his art work.

After locating the 40+ markers we made our way down the hill and walked through the small town below. The total trip was a couple of hours at least. Lots of walking but well worth. We ended our visit with a really nice bar on the beach near the ocean just across from Mundaka. We look forward to our next visit with Marina and her parents when we hope to visit her home town and other beautiful cities along the way.

We returned home Saturday night quite late, exhausted, but energized by our excursion. We knew we needed sleep as Sunday we had plans to visit our friends in Victoria. We definitely were getting the most out of our rental car.

Sunday came fast. Our first stop was Murgia, a small town on the way to Vitoria. It was there that we met up with our friends Rosa, José, Sara and Marta. They took us up to the top of a rocky mountain, Las Penas de Oro where we found Nuestra Señora de Oro, a small church, accompanied by more outstanding views. (For those of you who don't speak Spanish, you can translate those sites pasting the URL in at It's not perfect but will give you the gist.)

Following our mountain top pictures, we headed to Vitoria where we visited Salburua nature preserve. The museum describing how they restored the area was quite interesting and we could have definitely used more time to explore it. Unfortunately they close at 2 for lunch and reopen later in the evening. This is typical of most businesses. I find it amazing that Spain has continued to preserve so much of this tradition. It is also not possible to shop on Sundays as nearly everything is closed. Fresh bread and pastry is available, video rentals, movie theaters, museums, etc. However grocery/food stores, clothing stores and the like are all closed.

Following the nature preserve we headed for lunch and spent the rest of the day just enjoying our time together. The girls really welcomed the opportunity to spend time with Sara and Marta, who are 12 and 10.

The drive home was uneventful but most importantly, we knew this was the beginning. We hope to make the most of our time here and enjoy similar excursions as we get to know more about the area in which we are living.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


In Schools
Last weekend was Carnaval here in the Basque region of Spain. It resembles Halloween in that people are in costume and out in the street but they don't go door to door. There is lots of dancing and singing and celebrating though. In school, all the kids had to dress up. Each class was assigned a particular theme that met with an overall school theme and they performed dances in the school yard. This year's theme for Maia and Morgan's school was Music: Past and Present. Morgan's class dressed in some sort of a Russian themed costume, danced to a song from days of old and then to Thriller. Maia's class was something out of yesteryer with white wigs and long gowns.  As you can imagine, she was not too thrilled about the wig part. Her class also danced to the sounds of Bach followed by Lady Gaga.

In the Streets
In addition to the celebrations in schools, the rest of the city celebrates in the streets all weekend. There were a number of parades and a variety of bands from today's music to traditional sounds and instruments, including both Spanish and French Basque regions. In the slide show you will see the gigantes y cabezudos (giants and big heads) which march through the streets. Notice the bags the big heads are holding. They use those to randomly wack people in the streets chasing both children and adults. Pictures were taken in Algorta, the town where we live, and Bilbao, the large city several metro stops away.

At night young people head out in costumes that are quite well done and enjoy carnaval celebrations into the wee hours of the morning. The costumes are often quite elaborate and done in groups to particular themes chosen by the groups. This continues for two weekends in a row and from what I can tell they look forward to it all year long in the same way as our kids look forward to Halloween.