Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Westward Expansion: Our View

At some point we do have to recognize that there is more to the north than just the Basque Region. We decided to take one more excursion but this time we went west through Cantabria. Once again we took Patricia, Eusebio, and their girls with us as it is always more fun to explore new places together.

Saturday, June 18
We started out in the morning towards Santillana del Mar. On the way we made a reservation to tour El Soplao, a cave in the mountains south of San Vicente de la Barquera. Due to time constraints we decided to skip Santillana del Mar and head straight to Comillas. Having done a little research ahead of time I knew that we would be able to get some pictures of El Capricho de Gaudi. It was like a candyland house. So cool. It was one of Gaudí's earlier works assigned to him by his master who was to design the palace found just up the hill from El Capricho. To get pictures from the outside we headed up that hill towards El Palacio de Sobrellano.

More interesting to us than the palace itself were some of the sculptures on the outside. As you can see, the girls enjoyed climbing in and around them.

Below the palace was a field where they were having a medieval festival. We would have liked to check it out but we were short on time to make it to our date with the cave. We headed down the hill and took a quick loop through the center of town. It's a really lovely place and next time we will have to plan to spend some more time there for sure.

Returning to our cars, we headed to El Soplao which was definitely worth it. It was the Florida mine up in the mountains that was being worked when in the beginning of the 20th Century the miners discovered the cave. It was only recently opened for tourism. Our tour began with a short ride on a miner's train car to enter the cave. Once inside we had an hour long tour. The cave consists of more than 30 kilometers of galleries. From the entrance there is a 35ft. drop into the gallery called "La Gorda", named for its immense size, with a maximum height over 60ft. There was another gallery called "Los Fantasmas" (The Ghosts) named for its huge white stalagmites. Unfortunately I can't remember the names of all the galleries but there was one with a low ceiling full of eccentric stalactites. They are considered eccentric because they are growing horizontally to the floor. There are a few theories for what causes them to form that way but no one is absolutely sure. I've visited a few caves but never have I seen one so big or with so many eccentric formations. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside but you can see a bit of it here.

The tour ended around 3pm and we were starving. We headed to San Vicente de la Barquera. There we found lunch, really huge ice cream and took a walk up the hill to the monument section of town. We visited the outside of the Santa María de los Ángeles church. The views were certainly nice from up there. On our way back down the hill we went into the Castillo del Rey. There were a few artifacts left inside but mostly it was for the views from the outside. When we finished there it was getting late and the kids were getting tired. We did make our way to the lighthouse, which wasn't as interesting as expected. Then we headed for the breakwater known as La Barra. The water was really rough in that area and fascinating to watch.

Next stop, home. It was a long day and everyone, not driving, fell asleep on the way home.

Sunday, June 19
We definitely had a slow morning after our long day but there was still a bit more of Cantabria we wanted to see. We headed out to Laredo where we spent a few hours on the beach with a picnic lunch. The sand was very soft and the water really welcoming. It is a beach of about 4 km in length, known as the longest in the area. Once we were sufficiently lobster-like where we weren't careful enough with lotion, we decided to head out.

We went to a town called Castro Urdiales which is still Cantabria but just the other side of the border of the Basque Country. It was a nice town. From the point, we could see La Galea and the windmills that mark the area of Getxo near where we live. We did a typical walk around the monuments and old area of town. While we didn't make it to the natural pool, we were told they have one. Our next trip I'd like to spend a little time in the water as it seemed very inviting.

There's never enough time for all that we want to do so we are doing our best to enjoy the time that we have.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

School Goes Out Fighting...

One thing the Basque people are never short on is finding ways to enjoy themselves and the company of others. The end of the school year is no exception, and yes teachers in all countries are always up for a good party.

Friday the 17th was the last Friday of the school year and was the all school party. According to the girls, the party started about 9:30 with all school games on the patio. I missed that part so I don't have much in the way of details.

However, at 12:30 the parents were invited. The afternoon started with graduation which consisted of the fifth graders handing the sixth graders their framed class picture. After the hugs and pictures, the incredibly awesome music teacher who is retiring, was presented with a violin. She had been talking about learning to play during her retirement. Then the festivities began.

First there were a series of musical performances, a very entertaining play by 4th & 5th graders using idioms, followed by dances done by all the grades. Here are some pictures as my video shoot didn't work out so well. (Oh, and Morgan's wrist wrap, just 8 year old drama...)

Following the dance, hunger had definitely set in. It was a beautiful sunny day and banquet tables and chairs had been set up on the grass in the shade. We joined a group that had ordered delivery of cheeseburgers, roasted chicken, tortilla patata, and croquetas. Do potatoes count as vegetables? We served the kids first. As we were serving, the teachers, who had a few tables reserved that extended off of our section, were bringing out food that made for a banquet. It wasn't large pots of things to share but rather a typical Spanish-style celebratory lunch. The "first plate" was a series of beautifully designed appetizers, or pintxos as they are known here. This was followed by "larger food" and then dessert. The kids had finished eating before all the teachers' food made it to the table.

At this point I began thinking, "this could never happen at the kid's school in the states." First off following the meal was the water gun fight. A water fight could definitely happen on school grounds in the states but I'm not so sure that the "gun" version would be acceptable. While the kids enjoyed that, under the supervision of the extracurricular activities monitors, the parents and teachers ate, and drank. Drank, yes, that's the other part that could never happen in the states. Some people brought wine and beer. The teachers even had bottles of champagne. No one by any means got out of hand. It is quite typical during the large meal eaten between 2:30-4pm in Spain that wine is served. The school patio was no exception, apparently.

Eventually the teachers headed home but several families stayed on. We were there until around 7:30pm. Once the kids had enough water, there were games as well as face painting, molding clay, and other art options.

The rest of the events to end the year were kid-only activities such as cleaning their things out of the class room, a class party and an all school field trip to Salinas de Añana. As with all school trips here, the parents are not asked to chaperone. In addition to an educational experience, the students enjoyed a salt spa, picnic, and yet another water fight. According to the Morgan it was superrequetebien. They returned tired but happy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Tourist's View: Part III The Final Chapter

Hard to believe Kevin and Lynne's trip was already nearing an end. By Monday they were well adjusted to the time zone. So, it was the day of the grand tour from Algorta to Bilbao. We put on our walking shoes (no we didn't walk all the way to Bilbao...).

We started outside their Hotel High Tech Tamarises and walked along the coast toward Las Arenas. Its a very nice stroll along the water which included in numerous locations plaques describing the historic mansions we were passing along the way.

We crossed the Nervión river on the Puente Vizcaya to Portugalete, where I had lived. From there it was an uphill walk through the Casco Histórico and then on to catch the metro to Bilbao. It was nice to share a little bit of Portugalete with friends. I was hoping to stop for coffee in La Giroa, the bar that once played "Born in the USA" every time I entered, but it was closed. We continued on to the metro.

We got out in the Casco Viejo, Bilbao which has that typical narrow street, old building, no cars feeling that characterizes many cities in Spain. It is the one area of Bilbao that really hasn't changed. The store names have changed but the overall look and feel is still the same. After a beverage and some outstanding and unusual pintxos in the Plaza Nueva we stopped in the cathedral. I had never been in it before. While there were clearly some people in there to pray, I was surprised by the number of tourists inside taking pictures on a Monday morning.

As we moved out of the Casco Viejo area we happened upon a rather curious garden. As it turns out Bilbao is in the middle of some sort of a garden competition event. I couldn't decide whether what we found was funny or creepy. What's your vote? Oh, and yes it did win an award.

From there we crossed back over the River Nervion (crossed from Las Arenas to Portugalete, crossed again in the metro to Bilbao, twice, and now again to head to the center of the city.) The River Nervion snakes around. As we crossed, the backside of the train station caught my eye. Architecture along the river is quite beautiful. Once across, we walked the pedestrian mall that parallels la Gran Via. We were in search of the best looking typical pastry we could find, including pastel vasco. It was our last night together with Kevin and Lynn as well as being their anniversary. We found what we were looking for on the corner of the Gran Vía near Moyua.

Following our purchase we continued on to La Alhondiga. As described in earlier posts, its a very unique and beautiful building both inside and out. Before we entered we came upon a mirror with a bronzed frame.  Perfect for taking a picture of your reflection. The inside of the building however has low lighting which doesn't ever seem to work well for pictures. At that point hunger was setting in so we headed to Moyua and filled ourselves with more amazing pintxos from El Globo, my favorite pintxo spot, followed by ice cream from Heladería Alaska.

Our final destination, the Guggenheim. Unfortunately it is closed on Monday's. So, we settled for some good pictures from the outside. I had to leave the group behind as it was nearing 4pm and I needed to pick up the girls from school by 4:30.

Eventually we all met back in Algorta. Our evening ended with a nice home cooked meal and, of course, the pastries we picked up earlier in the day.

Tuesday was a short morning as we only had a bit of time to share breakfast with Kevin and Lynne, and take a walk back through the Puerto Viejo of Algorta and along the beach before the cab to the airport arrived.

It was a very quick five days together but I think we all enjoyed it. Every once in a while it's important to play tour guide in your own city. Too often we forget to look up and to see what we have until it is time to discover and share it through the eyes of a tourist.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Tourist's View: Part II The Basque Coast

In this part, I no longer get to play tour guide. Together we discovered Guipuzkoa and southern France visiting places new to all of us.

Our plan included meeting friends at noon. On the way we stopped in Gernika. The last time the Casa de Juntas building was closed. This trip we had just enough time to see it. The building is quite beautiful and I especially enjoyed the stained glass ceiling. Of course it was nice to get some close up pictures of the original and the offspring famous Árboles de Gernika, the very important oak trees I talked about in my previous post.

From there we headed to Lekeitio where we found our friends from Vitoria, José, Rosa, and their girls. They had met Kevin and Lynne on a previous trip to the states when we were all in California together. It was nice to have them as our tour guides along the coast.

After walking around Leketio for a bit we began our drive along the coast. The scenery was amazing and the roads were quite curvy. Morgan learned the hard way that she needed to look out the window, not down at her DS. We went through several small towns along the coast and eventually stopped at Zarautz. It was nice to get out of the car, stretch our legs and find a meal. As it turns out, we happened upon a triathlon. It was a really nice course as the swim started in a neighboring town and finished on the beach of Zarautz. Our lunch spot was right along the rows of bikes. I'm not sure where the bike and run went exactly but with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, it had to be a beautiful course.

We have noticed that they take their races seriously here. They have relatively short time maximums on their courses so that if the racer doesn't finish each event within a certain amount of time, the racer is disqualified and not allowed to finish. I suspect that makes it easier for the race officials and volunteers. Of course that would also be very disappointing for someone who has trained for a race and then doesn't get to finish it.

Following lunch The kids let out some steam on the beach and in a park.

Our travels continued on to San Sebastian. Parking and traffic were tight as always so we headed up Monte Igueldo to take in the spectacular views of San Sebastian below and a bit of amusement. From the top of the tower which was built in 1778 as a lighthouse, we had a great view of the city, the ocean and the amusement park. The girls took a ride on the roller coaster, known as the Montaña Suiza (not rusa). In the center of the tram is a man whose job is to handbrake the coaster throughout the ride. Can you imagine spending your entire day on a roller coaster, repeating the same ride? Another unique feature is the view of the Cantabrian Sea from the coaster set in the mountains. So, I guess if you have to ride a coaster all day long it helps to have amazing views.

Not far from San Sebastian we found our casa rural, Artola, in the mountains. It was in a great location overlooking the coast. We were welcomed by a herd of grazing sheep. The downstairs part is a sidrería, cider house, but it wasn't serving on Saturday as it's a small family run place and it's past season. After settling into our rooms, we headed down the mountain for dinner. We ate at Petritegi Sagardotegia cider house. The food was delicious and plentiful but the girls favorite part was catching the cider in the glass. There is an art to it and according to those who frequent these places, the cider tastes different if it is poured from far away and hits the bottom of the glass with a splash.

After breakfast we headed to France. We visited a really cute town in the Basque region called San Juan de La Luz. The walk around town was beautiful yet much more touristy than any of the other places we have been. Many little souvenir shops and specialty shops selling "traditional" goods such as woven shoes and items made from striped fabrics that are typical of the Basque region. We also happened upon some sort of horse event as there was a parade of people on horseback dressed in traditional costume and marching their horses. We saw no graffiti on the walls of this French Basque community unlike what we have seen in much of the Spanish Basque region.

We then moved on to Hendaya where we stopped for lunch and to take in the views. It was there that we parted ways with our friends from Vitoria.

We decided to head home stopping for a quick photo shoot in Mutriku. One of the more interesting features we saw was a "natural" pool. They had built a wall in the ocean in a protected but relatively deep area. The tide naturally fills and cleans the pool daily. It was protected so safe for people of all ages to swim and big enough for lap swimming.

All in all it was a busy but very nice weekend of seeing new sights and sharing time with good friends.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Tourist's View: Part I

For over 20 years the Basque Country of Spain has had a tremendous influence on my life. In fact it changed my career path. In that time I have had few opportunities to introduce this world to close family and friends. Other than my husband and children, no one we know from the states has seen or experienced life here the way that I have. That is until now...

A few weeks ago friend, Sarah, from Madison came on a work trip and I had one rainy day to give her a quick tour. That helped me think about what places and spaces have left the greatest imprint on my life. Then on Thursday, June 9 our good friends Kevin and Lynne arrived from California to spend several days with us. It's amazing what you start to pay attention to once you play tour guide in your own city. Of course paying attention to Kevin and where his professional camera pointed helped me to see things I hadn't noticed as well...

We began with a quick Thursday evening trip through Sopelana. That's the small town we usually stay in when we come to visit.

The girls went to art class and the rain held off long enough for us to take a walk to the wall for a nice view of the beach. We then took a quick snack and drink break at La Kala our favorite bar, while Morgan and Maia finished their class. My sister MaLuz stopped by to chat with us for a bit before we caught the metro home. Kevin and Lynne did quite well on jet lag and little sleep.

Friday the weather was a bit dreary and we were keeping things pretty low key. We took a tour of Algorta starting at the Hotel High Tech Tamarises. From there we walked along the beach and into the Puerto Viejo. It's a beautiful part of the city which has been well preserved.

After wandering the streets for some photo ops we headed on a path toward a cafe on the hillside where we sat for a cup of coffee. The views were fantastic. We kept running into a group of woman with a tour guide. I took that as a good sign. Clearly our tour must have hit the important points along the way.

From there we continued on the streets that followed the curve of the coastline, stopping at a bakery for a bit of typical San Juan pastry, which is available only at this time of year. On June 23 is the celebration which includes bonfires and festivities at the beach. I'm not sure of the details yet.

We headed to La Galea, which is a walk along the cliffs next to the ocean. We decided to check out the ruins of the old fort.

While we were enjoying the walk we eventually looped back for lunch at home and to pick up the girls from school. Friday night we headed up to the new Algorta station park where our friends Patricia, Eusebio and their girls joined us. The evening was full of conversation, pintxos, and relaxation in outdoor terraces. Very typical of a night on the town as they are celebrated here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friends & Family

The past two weekends we have stayed close to home. We are trying to enjoy as much time as we can with family and friends and visiting some of our favorite places. I can't believe how quickly five and a half months can go. In the remainder of our stay we will balance our time spent with family and friends, with seeing and doing as much as we can in the short time we have left.

Weekend 1: May 28-29
Saturday we spent shopping as the girls have outgrown many of their clothes. I suspect there is a little more shopping to be done before they go off to summer camp here as well. I didn't really plan for away camp when we packed for this trip. My guess for their growth spurts is the good nutrition in the school lunches. Coming from the states I never thought it was possible to have "good nutrition" and "school lunch" in the same sentence. Hopefully upon returning to the states we can maintain at least some of the habits and routines we have picked up here.

Sunday, Beatriz and family invited us to Nando's parent's house in Gorliz. Gorliz is the neighboring town to Plentzia. Andrea, Bea and our gang took the metro to Plentzia and walked along the ocean to the Gorliz beach. The girls always love spending time with cousin Andrea.  It was a beautiful day, perfect weather for the beach and ocean. We also happened upon a collector's car show. Nando met us a little later as he rode in on a vintage motorcycle.

The sand was great for playing and the water, well, it was more like ice but that never seems to stop the kids.

After a few hours at the beach we headed up to the house for lunch where we were joined by Nando, his mother and his aunt. Lunch was followed by some time to relax,  work on an enormous puzzle, and give the kids rides on the vintage moto around the abandoned tennis court.

Weekend 2: June 3- 5
Again the weather was perfect despite the predictions for rain. We started by pulling the girls out of after school activities and went with Viviana, Raul and Fernanda to a beautiful park in the woods of Leioa. The girls played, we all ate and then played some more..

Saturday was very spontaneous but worked out quite well. We started our day with a bike ride picking up Morgan and Maia's friends, Eugenia and Alejandra, along the way. We headed to Las Arenas where we found La Feria de Movilidad Sostenible, a festival on green transportation. They had some learning games the kids participated in about different kinds of energy, various electric cars and bikes, and other literature to fill our backpacks.

From there we continued our ride through Las Arenas to the path that goes along the ocean. We stopped for a drink, to climb a tree, and enter a cave... because we can...

Our return of Alejandra and Eugenia evolved into lunch at a Cervecera in Berango to which we were able to bike. Cerveceras are very common in this area of Spain. Typically they offer both indoor and outdoor seating and most of them have a park or similar to entertain the kids. The idea is to go with a large group of people, order roasted chicken, fries, salad, and other options including tortilla patata, croquetas, pimientos verdes,... You order at a counter and bring it all to the table to eat family style. We arrived around 3:30pm, a pretty typical time for the biggest meal of the day in Spain. We stayed until after 8pm as the kids enjoyed the park and we were enjoying the company of our friends. Fun for the kids never stopped as the evening ended in a sleepover. All in all it was a long but great day.

Sunday was a day of putting together some puzzle pieces. I learned in January that some colleagues of mine from Wisconsin, north of Madison, have roots in the Basque region. Cristina, a Spanish professor is from San Sebastian, about 1 hour from Bilbao. More recently I learned that she and David, who is on the committee for the program I direct, have two children, very close in age to our girls. We decided it was time our families meet so they came to Bilbao.

We began at the Museo de Bellas Artes.  It's perhaps a bit crazy to think that 4 kids between ages 8-11 are going to truly appreciate and want to hang out in an art museum so we introduced a game. They had a list, a scavenger hunt of items to find in the paintings, about 25 or so, and they got points for what they found. The items had different point values depending on how hard I presumed it would be to find them. We inter-mixed the kids, the 2 oldest and the 2 youngest. They were totally engaged and did quite well. In addition to the regular exhibition there was an exhibit by Daniel Tamayo, an artist from Bilbao, whose work is imaginative, colorful and busy so a great option for the kids to study as they looked for objects. I don't think I have ever enjoyed an art museum so much with kids in my life. Morgan and Maia were clearly more entertained there than they were at the Guggenheim.

From the museum we headed for lunch where we met Begonia. (Spanish speakers, I know it is typically spelled with an ñ but everyone that I have seen write her name spells it like the flower.) Anyway, Begonia has been a friend of my sister MaLuz for a long time, as well as a friend of Cristina's from back when they were both studying in Cincinnati. She is also connected to people at the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, with whom I have made connections. So, the world is small and it was nice to finally place that piece of the puzzle.

After lunch we headed to the park by the Guggenheim where the kids could burn off some energy before going for ice cream.

We finished our day with a visit to the Alhondiga, an amazing building both in its beauty and its contents. It combines, cultural exhibitions, with a beautiful library, and a recreational sports center with a pool. There is also a cafe, gift shop, money machine, cinema, if they had beds, one could live there and never have to leave.

We arrived home a bit after eight, exhausted but happy. Our kids now have another Wisconsin family with whom they can connect on many levels as their new friends also lived and studied at an elementary school in San Sebastian during Spring 2010.