Around the World in 1998-1999; Northern Spain

Note; this post is recreated from the original wired2theworld website post with the dates below. The old posts were reformatted for the 20th anniversary of wired2theworld. As much as possible, the content is unchanged and unedited from the original, only some formatting, spelling, and link errors have been corrected.

San Sebastian Spain
San Sebastian Spain

San Sebastian, Spain

Kristina’s Journal:
February  24-25, 1999  
US$1=150 pesetas (pta)
Viva Espana

From Bayonne this morning we drove only a short way to San Sebastian, which is on the Spanish side of the northern coastal border of Spain and France. Along the way, we went through the ritzy beach town of Biarritz which was nothing special in the winter.

We left the coast for a while and wandered (a bit lost as usual) on a tiny road through rolling green hills.  At this point we realized we were now entering the true Basque Country, complete with all the political graffiti which I’m sure David will explain later. Crossing the Spanish border was a breeze; just drive through without slowing down. As soon as we were over, we could tell things were a bit different. Ok, yes, all the signs were in Spanish, but that wasn’t really it. There was a little more trash roadside, more graffiti on the walls, everything seemed a bit poorer, not as affluent as France did. And consequently, as we would discover, things were less expensive.

We arrived in San Sebastian early in the afternoon thankfully, because we had to drive around in circles for 45 min until we finally parked and found the Tourist Office. There, we got a list of accommodations and went in search of a place to stay.

We were in luck at the first hostalLa Pearla (Calle Loiola, 10, tel. 943 42 81 23), which is less than a half  block from the Cathedral. Turns out this place was listed in our Let’s Go. We got a great room with a bathroom and a TV  for only 3800 ptas. It also had a little balcony across from the central Market. It had no phone, but for that price you can’t have everything. Another benefit to being here in the low season is that all the rooms are 30-50% less than high season rates. It was good that we were here mid week because the 12 rooms were completely booked for the weekend. We liked it so much we decide to stay two nights so we can do our laundry tomorrow and see the sights.

La Perla San Sebastian 1999
La Perla San Sebastian 1999

San Sebastian turns out to be a town with a beautiful old quarter surrounded by rivers and set on the Cantabrian Sea in a beautiful bay. There is a lovely town square, complete with old merry-go-round,  separating the old quarter from the one surrounding the Cathedral, and the bay borders it on one side. From there, it is possible to look down on the beach, and across the bay to see a castle and monastery. While standing on the steps of the Baroque church in the old quarter, one can see the steps of the Gothic Cathedral, in a direct sight line down the street, a half mile away.

We read that the town supposedly has more bars and restaurants per square meter than anywhere in world. As we were soon to discover however, we were hard pressed to find anyone actually ever eating in these restaurants. Sure, they were drinking, and enjoying tapas and pinchos, but no matter how late we waited, we hardly ever saw a restaurant with more than three people eating in it.

We discovered that the Basque country, and most specifically, San Sebastian, is the holy land of sorts for the Basque version of tapas, called pinchos (pintxos in Basque). In the rest of Spain it seems, that tapas are basic little snacks, like a small plate of olives, or fried calimari, or even a slice of tortilla espanola, to be washed down with beer or a glass of wine while standing at the bar. Pinchos are the haute cuisine form of tapas.

In San Sebastian they have elevated this to a high art. In every little bar, by 11 AM every day, the bar top is covered with dozens of plates of food, waiting to be consumed. Some are little morsels with toothpicks stuck in them and some are towering creations of multiple ingredients that cannot be eaten in just one bite. So it appeared to us, that in this part of the country, this is how most people eat, grazing their way through the meal, for we rarely ever saw people sitting down to a full meal.

Our second day in town, with just slight trepidation at the protocol of such a meal (does one simply help oneself to the food, or order from the bartender?) we find a small bar with the best looking pinchos and dive in. We talk to the bartender, asking him what things are, and then order a few items and a couple of beers. Some are served cold, an some are heated briefly in a microwave behind the bar.

We had, possibly, the best tortilla, I have ever had in my life. For those of you that don’t know, tortilla espanola is not like the Mexican tortilla which is wrapped around a taco or burrito. Tortilla espanola is like a thick omelet, or frittata, usually with cooked potatoes inside, served at room temperature, cut into pie shaped wedges. This one however, had been cooked, sliced in half horizontally like a cake, and then filled with jamon (a dry cured ham very much like prosciutto), cooked spinach, and a sort of creme fraiche. We also had some excellent marinated sardines and cooked, marinated shrimp on skewers. Some of the pinchos were highly stacked hors d’oeureves, like the layers of roasted eggplant and zucchini rolled around jamon and cheese, all on top of a small toasted piece of bread. All in all, an excellent way to have lunch. And not too expensive either, we spent less than $10 for the two of us.

The old quarter of town is where we finally found a place to do our laundry, no small feat in Europe, where coin operated laundries are not as common as in the States. When you do find them here, they are significantly more expensive as well, costing $5-$8 a load to wash and dry. Maybe this is why so many backpacking tourists tend to smell after a while, I don’t know…

We wandered around the old quarter for a while and David finally found an real barber for a haircut. All through France we looked for an old fashioned barber, and all we found were hair salons, incapable of giving just a inexpensive, simple short haircut. Well, he finally found one, and boy, did it come out short! We also bought him a Beret Basque, or boino  which is what he said all the men in this part of the country wear and he has always wanted one. What we hadn’t really noticed until then was that although many of the men we saw wore the beret, most, if not all, were over the age of 65. David decided to wait until we left the region to wear his new hat.

We also began our search, in vain for English language guidebooks for some of the other countries we were planning to visit. The book we had, Let’s Go Europe, was becoming just too broad based for our needs and we wanted books with more detail. However, our choices we limited, and what we did find was in the $40 range for just one book! We were beginning to regret not buying more books at the large English language bookstore in Paris.

 David’s Diary:
February  24-25, 1999                                 
Vive Paix Basco y Donostia

The Basque are serious about their independence.  They have preserved their language and culture effectively, but to this day, have no sovereign land of their own.  Once you reach Donostia, known to the rest of the European Community as San Sebastian, you realize that this is the heart of the Basque Nation, and that you are not really in Spain.  First thing one becomes aware of is the number of Xs in all of the words.  The X is like ch  in Spanish.  The next thing you notice is that all of the older men wear a boino, or basque beret, which is black, not navy blue like the French.  The boino is not just to keep your head warm, it s a political statement which says “I belong to my own nation” .  The French beret, on the other hand, says “look, I am an artiste from the old counterculture with a cold head” Not that have anything against a beret, mind you, especially a red one, for those who have earned the honor to wear one, but there is a distinction to be made.

The basque beret is worn floppy and large brimmed, as compared with the french ones which tend to be smaller and tighter. Not all have a leather band inside, but the better and more expensive ones do, as it keeps the wool from fraying around the inside, and stays more firmly in place, especially on a bald head.  My old navy blue beret was worn away, and I have always wanted a Basque beret, more because it is black than because of the statement that it makes, so we set off on course to purchase one for me.

After a bit of looking around and trying on in different shops, we settled on a local hat maker whose fine quality hats were also affordable.  However, as I had long known from past experience, men of my age in Europe simply don’t wear boinos, in fact, they don’t wear hats at all.  There were boinos on heads as far as the eye could see in the streets, and not a one of them without grandchildren.   It was not my intention to wear the hat until we were long out of range of the Basque country. Probably not until I reach the USA, where young folks and middle age folks, like myself (30 and balding) can easily get away with the novelty of wearing such a head cover, both for cranial warmth, and to make a statement such as “I am a supercool world traveling kind of guy”, or with a  pointy goatee and thin shades on at night, it might say  “Hey man,  like dig it, and get hip to the groovy threads of my beatnik outfit”.   

The most visible political statement made by the Basque separatists, however, is through language and vandalism.  All of the state road signs bear the names of the towns and streets, etc. in both Spanish and Basque.  On nearly all the signs we observed, however, a black line had been spray painted on the Spanish version of the name, leaving only the Basque name legible.  This was especially apparent on the signs posted at the edge of a town, as one entered or left it by car.  At times this was frustrating because we did not know all of the Basque names for the towns, and our map had Spanish names for all but the largest cities, where it posted both.

The Basques have obviously gained a measure of success with their movement as the inclusion of their language on everything official says volumes about the dominance of their culture in these parts.  Their methods, however, have often come under fire from the community at large.  ETA, the Basque separatist party has been of the historically most violent political organizations in Europe, at least over the last 200 years.  If you go back further, to when the Catalunians were autonomous, they were a vicious and gruesome bunch of happy go lucky torture freaks!

Graffiti in Donostia is 99%  political.  There is almost none of the self-serving egotistical teenage tagging of the sort we are familiar with in LA.  No gang signs, street names and numbers, and names like snoopy and floppy and little puppet (all real names from South Central LA, where I used to work) sprayed on a gang’s turf.  This turf is different, and these guys want more than just respect.  They want sovereignty.  And they are willing to use explosives to get it. Not surprisingly, the graffiti in the south of Spain, Andalusia, is all staunchly anti-ETA, and often there are vulgar and nasty things about them sprayed onto Autopista overpasses.

Bombings in the basque country were something of a regular occurrence, until the week we arrived.  I read in the ever-faithful International Herald Tribune that the leader of ETA had called for a cease-fire and a full stop to the violent actions in the name of the party.  Maybe, I thought, the world is heading to a more peaceful place after all.   Wrong.  Dead wrong.  As I am writing this one month after the fact, I can say with perfect clarity that it was wishful thinking on my part, and that, in fact, THE END of the world is upon us.  Since that sunny day,  The French arrested the same leader of ETA in Paris and rioting broke out in Donostia, causing the long sought after cease-fire to go up in smoke.  Our START II treaty with the former Soviet union fizzled.  The Chinese are going to take Taiwan back and start a big nuclear war.  And we are bombing the beegeesus out of the former Yugoslavia.  I say we are likely to become the Country Formerly Known As the USA and our symbol will look sort of like the hood ornament of an old Buick Skylark. Nothing so cool as the Artist Formerly Known As…   

There is no question but  that I have the answer to question # 6 on our frequently asked questions page:  The world is most absolutely going to hell in a handbasket.  Which brings up another off color question:  why a handbasket?  Why not the trunk of a 1967 Cadillac Eldorado? or the sidecar of a Harley Davidson?  Or strapped to the back of a rabid gorilla in a mine shaft? It seems to me, and maybe I’m wrong,  that in these days of Lucasfilm and Dreamworks, there are much more dynamic ways to go to hell available to us.  What kind of ratings is ‘the handbasket ride to the everlasting inferno’ going to get anyway, especially when its up against CNN? 

Leon Spain

Kristina’s Journal:
February  26-27, 1999

Today was another long drive, this time to the city of  Leon. We left San Sebastian with no plan as to where to go today, and decided spur of the moment, to go to Leon, after we read that the cathedral could be the most beautiful in all of Spain and that the stained glass justified the trip alone.  Arriving late, we went to the tourist office, got a list of accommodations, and stayed in first pension we looked at; the Hostal Guzman el Bueno (Lopez Castrillon, 6, tel. 987 23 14 62), 5000 ptas. It had a nice, small room, but had a TV with CNN! And a phone so we could finally check our e mail.

We had a long hunt for dinner, per usual. Exhausted, we finally decided on a restaurant near the cathedral, which was completely empty. At 9:30 PM we were the only ones in there. When do these people eat? I had an appetizer of various smoked and cured meats and an entree of the local specialty, Bacalao, which is a salt cod dish I have been seeing everywhere. This one was prepared with a tomato-roasted pepper sauce. It was prepared well, but too fishy and salty for my taste. I won’t order it again. David had an appetizer of scrambled eggs with asparagus and smoked salmon and a nicely done “entrecote” (thin steak) for his main course.  With the meal came water, bread, wine, coffee, and dessert, tax and “service”, which is standard when one orders a menu.

Our second day in Leon was a bit of a disappointment. It rained all day and we just had no energy to go out and “see things”.  In the evening, when we set out in search of dinner, again we encountered the same problem; hordes of people in the streets, walking, chatting, and going from bar to bar and the restaurants all deserted and empty.

Finally we said, “lets just go have tapas” and wandered into a bar where we could see a gentleman frying fish and calimari in the front window. We walked in and discovered that there were actually people eating in a small back room! Figuring we were onto something good, we ordered a couple of drinks and waited for a space to open up. In the meantime, we asked one of the men behind the bar if there was a menu (thinking we could look at it while we waited). Initially, he told us “no” but then turned and asked the man frying fish if there was a menu. Obviously, he was the man in charge! He hesitated, but then replied, “sure, fish or meat?” and then proceeded to tell us the fish menu was better for 950 ptas.  I realized there there was some misunderstanding going on here, but for 950 ptas just decided to go with it. All I wanted was a printed menu to look at!

So, after about 20 minutes, we were shown into the back where there were three large tables. We sat at one and prepared to eat the menu they made up just for us; glass of wine, fish soup, fried little fish and calimari. The fish soup consisted of chunks of fish in a tomato broth with vegetables. It was brought to the table in a large pot and two bowls were placed before us. Help yourself! The next course was a large plate each filled with fried calimari, and whole fried fish (similar to the smelt I had as a kid) with a wedge of lemon. In all, pretty good for $6.50 a person.

The following morning, there was sunshine, so it was time to go see the incredible stained glass windows inside the cathedral. But first, breakfast! Breakfast in Spain, like most of the rest of the world, is not like the “typical” American breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast. Like most of Europe, breakfast in Spain consists of a cup of coffee and some sort of pastry. We have become accustomed to this and now know how to order the equivalent of a cappuccino in several different languages.

In Leon, we found a very nice place called the Cafe Europa where they make great coffee and toasted croissantsIt is located in the Plaza Regla to the right of the front of the cathedral. What made it special, besides the great coffee, is that they are on a corner with a large semi-circular window. In this window is a table with best view in town, the cathedral from two sides in all its glory. It was a great way to start the day.

Cathedral in Leon Spain

The cathedral itself is incredible. From the outside it is an imposing gothic structure that spanned over a century to complete. It appears to have two facades, one main, front facade, and one smaller side facade, with nothing much on the other sides of the building. What is special about the cathedral however, what sets it apart from being “just another church”, are the stained glass windows, over 1800 square meters of them.

Cathedral Leon
Stained Glass in the Cathedral in Leon

The most famous are the windows that are an intense, vibrant blue in color. Once inside, it is clear that the restoration is still in progress. Some of the windows have gone through the painstaking cleaning process and some are still dingy with centuries of dirt and pollution clinging to them. The ones that are clean are magnificent and rich with detail and stories from the bible. When the daylight shines through them the burst with color and inspiration. The photos we have of them on our photo page cannot possibly do them justice.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

David’s Diary:
February  28-March 1, 1999                           
Follow the yellow brick road

Santiago de Compostela may not be the emerald city of OZ, but at times it felt like Dorothy and I had arrived, and were looking for the wizard.  Actually, we were looking for a place to stay, and winding around very thin, ancient cobblestone streets without much luck.  Finally, Dorothy clicked her heels together three times, said “There’s no place with a Phone”  over and over, and bingo! We had found a great little hostal with a cafe in house, a clean bathroom, and phones in all the rooms.  It wasn’t Kansas, but we didn’t want to be in Kansas anyhow, we were traveling in northern Spain for crying out loud!  The magic of Santiago de Compostela lies under its cathedral.  It is said that the tomb of the apostle James was discovered by a pious old hermit who was wandering through the hills when the location of the saintly remains was revealed to him in a bright vision.   Thus it was that a grand cathedral was erected on this spot, and Catholics worldwide began to make it a destination of pilgrimage.

Today’s pilgrims are a far sight more modern than their ancient counterparts, but they still walk, mostly.  In fact, most of the pilgrims go first to Leon by bus or car, then walk.  Allowances have been made for modern life, and one must only walk 100 km in order to receive a certificate of pilgrimage from the church organization.  However, if you should wish to make your pilgrimage on a mountain bike, you will be required to travel 200 km.  And no cheating is allowed, because He is always watching.

The pilgrim trail was originally designated by Benedictine monks, who constructed a network of monasteries along the path to provide shelter for the traveling pilgrims, and today there are bright blue signs along the path so that nobody gets lost.  The symbol of the pilgrims is the shell of a sea scallop, worn by all pilgrims, and once used to drink water from the streams along the way. nowadays, the shells are more symbolic than functional, as nobody in their right mind drinks from a low altitude stream these days, unless they want to be martyrs as well as pilgrims.

This year has been declared by the church as an ano santo, or saintly  year, in which the Pope will visit the cathedral and open the sacred door.  Because it has been so declared, there are more pilgrims than usual out along the trail.  We drove by several groups of kids that looked like entire school classes, who had their marching outfits on, their shells slung around their necks, and, invariably, a large flag of some kind no doubt representing their school or district or town.  I was certainly impressed.

Because of the ano santo,  masses in the cathedral were being held on a daily basis to accommodate the incredible volume of pilgrims.  The day after we arrived we decided to catch the pilgrim mass in the cathedral, because in a way, even though we drove to Santiago, we feel like pilgrims of a sort, and we have certainly traveled enough distance over the last months to deserve somebody’s blessing.  We were not cheating by doing this, of course, as true walking pilgrims carry a passport that gets stamped at various checkpoints along the route, authenticating the experience and validating them for reception of the certificate.  But mass was open to all, and a good old fashioned sermon in any language should not be missed, especially when it is being delivered in the auspicious surroundings of so grand a cathedral as this one.

Santiago De Compostela Cathedral
Santiago De Compostela Cathedral

After the mass, we got a little taste of the enormity of the ano santo, as the groups of schools- they were indeed school children we saw- were arriving in the main square in front of the cathedral, and converging en mass. A huge symbol, similar to a bow tie but undoubtedly of significance, had been taped out in the square, and the thousands of school kids were filling in the form.  There were TV cameras everywhere, as this supposedly represented the largest single group of schoolchildren to make the pilgrimage in one day.  I feel sorry for the guys who had to prepare all those certificates by hand.  But I was honestly more curious as to who got to eat all the scallops?  I love scallops, but they are usually so expensive, and rarely done well- usually overcooked-   I digress.

Santiago Pilgrams 1999
Santiago Pilgrams 1999

Among the crowd of the day was one extremely pious pilgrim who deserves special recognition.  This young man of thirty odd years was barefoot, and clad only in a white sheet and a crooked neck staff, another pilgrim accessory. he had apparently made the entire trail barefoot and thus clothed, and obviously had not shaved in weeks.  Still, it takes something more than devotion to a faith to make that serious a pilgrimage, so I hope that he received a little extra recognition from Upstairs- if you know what I mean.

For me, the most wonderful experience of Santiago came later that same night.  As we walked the venerable streets of the old city in search of a restaurant with people actually eating in it, we stumbled upon a distinct group of individuals.  Many of these were clad in long flowing black capes, and some were carrying instruments.  The leader, a charming and distinguished looking gent was standing in the middle of a circle of people, some of whom were obviously with him,, and others who clearly were not.  All, including Kristina and I were curious.

As the music began to play and the people, all Spaniards, began to clap in perfect rhythm, I realized what was going on an said to Kristina, “Estan dando pasos” with great excitement.  “They are giving steps” is the literal translation, but what it means is that they are dancing sevillanas, which are a beautiful and traditional dance, done with much grace and panache.  The crowd claps as the music builds, and the couple or couples dance, for several short steps, a minute or two at most, and then in perfect sync, hands up in the air, the music stops, the dancers stomp their feet, and shout “ole!”  It is a magnificent thing to see, especially when it is genuine, and not part of a restaurant’s dinner theatre or floor show.

As luck would have it, one of the young women in the crowd knew the dance moves, and she was pushed into the fray by her friends.  The result was one of those spontaneous things one will never see on the streets of any American town, as we don’t have quite the same attitude or traditions as they do here.  We watched the young woman and the gentleman dance for about 15-20 minutes before everyone had to continue on their way to wherever they were going.  For a moment, however, I was transported back in time to a place far, far away from our world, when Ferdinand and Isabella ruled, and minstrels were respected professionals, and everyone without exception, knew how to dance.

Kristina’s Journal:

On our way from Leon to Santiago de Compostela we drove through  a small town called Astorga where there is not only a beautiful cathedral, but the Palacio Gaudi, right next door. This is a small palace built by the famous Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudi. Unfortunately, both were not open on Sunday.

When we finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela, we parked the car as close as we could get to the center and took off walking in search of a room. As with most old European towns, the center is filled with narrow walking streets not open to cars.

After checking out one place which was kind of scary (picture slanted floors, sagging beds, toilet down the hall, and proprietor who belonged with the undead) we found a great little 2 star hospedaje for only 4280ptas; Bar Hostal Suso(Rua do Vilar, 65, tel. 981 58 66 11). They had a great central location, TV, phone, full bathroom and a big bed! Some rooms with balcony look out onto the street but ours didn’t. It was here that we discovered a little publicized fact about phone usage; it is much, much, cheaper to make any phone calls after 10 PM, any day of the week and it’s almost triple to call on weekday mornings.

  The next morning we went first to the open food market to check out the local products. It seemed very limited, with parts of it closed down, but I think that was only due to the time of year. As with much we are finding this time of year, we told each other, it is probably better in the summer.
After the market, we went to the very interesting Museo do Pero Galego which focuses on Galician history and culture. The building itself was interesting, a former convent dating back to the 17th century and attached to a church. The museum was mostly an anthropological look at Galician history including the examples from the earliest settlements in the area. There were ancient fishing boats, tools used by farmers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, an amazing collection of pottery, and beautiful examples of clothing worn through the ages.

School children in the square

As David mentioned above, we attended the pilgrim’s mass in Cathedral. This is the first full mass I have ever attended and my grandmother would be proud. Although it was in Spanish, it was still interesting to sit in the full cathedral. Usually, we see cathedrals when they are cold, dark, and empty of people except those few tourists walking around. Instead, we got to experience it as it was meant to be experienced with lights lit, priests chanting, and people singing. I only wish they had lit the giant swinging incense burners that looked like they took three priests and an altar boy to carry.

Helpful Guidebooks for Spain:

Eyewitness Northern Spain
Fodor’s Essential Spain
Insight Guides Essential Spain

Have you been to Spain? Thinking of going?
Leave me a comment below and make my day!

You can also find our other travels within Spain here.

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