To the Basque Country
June 11 -- We're on a road trip!
With a few weeks until Courtney and five-year-old Hailey arrive aboard, Con and I rented a car, packed a bag, closed the boat, and took off to the Spanish Basque Country with an added visit to the French Basque northern coastal town of Saint-Jean-De-Luz, France.
The Basque people live in the north east corner of Spain and northwest corner of France bordering the Bay of Biscay and the east and west ends of the Pyrenees Mountains. The Basque Country is an autonomous region where the people have fought for their independence since 1959 opposing the Spanish government in violent clashes right up to 2009. In actual fact, their violent conflicts are rooted back to the 15th century.
The Basque area is prosperous with steel and ship building and rich in iron ore. Living in the Basque country doesn’t make you “Basque” as they’re the indigenous people with a language that's more than 7,000 years old. We found the people to be friendly, and easily jumping from one language to the other. All signs are in Spanish and Basque.
We arrived by car from Valencia, stopping in Zaragoza. By legend, it is said that Zaragoza was linked to early Christianity. Saint James was commiserating by the Ebro River in 40 AD about his failure to spread Christianity when he claims the Virgin Mary appeared to him and handed him a piece of wood saying, “Build a church here.” And, another example of the religious hocus pocus. The people believed, the money given, and the Catholic Basilica was built. The basilica is located just south of the famous pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the Walk of St. James where allegedly St. James’ remain reside, but not his head. A few churches we’ve visited claim to house it. We visited the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in 2007 when stopped in La Coruna after crossing the Bay of Biscay. We arrived at the Cathedral by thumb, bus, and foot.
Zaragoza is built on the Ebro River, which originates in the Pyrenees Mountains to the north and feeds south into the Mediterranean. It meanders through the Basque country at times reduced to a trickle due to the dams and irrigation. We’ve anchored just east of the silting Ebro riverbed on the Mediterranean end which ended abruptly for us when the wind changed dramatically (not forecast), and the waves came pounding surprising us at 3 am pushing us dangerously close to the shore.
Zaragoza hosted the summer world’s fair, Expo 2008 on sustainable development. It’s a pretty city, only 700,000 people and a great first start city for us in this region.
In the morning, we drove on to Pamplona, a main stop for the pilgrim in their Walk of St. James to the coast, but more famous is the Running of the Bulls event. This is quite possibly the most insane thing people can do – on purpose! It’s also In a few weeks, that city will transform for eight days as they run a dozen bulls through the medieval town into the bull fighting arena where six of them will participate in the bull fight each night. If you want a peek at what the event looks like, watch this YouTube video.
We found a restaurant for lunch near the streets where the running will take place imagining how terrifying the whole thing might be – FOR THE BULLS!
We carried on deeper into the Basque Country entering the Pyrenees foothills and ancient mountain range, crossing the Spanish border planting ourselves in Saint-Jean-Du-Luz, France on the Bay of Biscay beach. This town had its successes cod fishing and whaling in Newfoundland, but for two centuries Europe was at war and this area transformed. The fishermen became Corsairs (pirates) attacking any ship not flying the French flag. The corsairs were considered military people and became very wealthy on their pirated goods.
Our hotel room windows are wide open and we can see and hear the Bay of Biscay waves rolling onto the golden beach. I’m remembering begin aboard Big Sky during our three-day crossing. We closed the windows and fell into a deep sleep.
June 12 -- Day Three
We checked into a beautiful hotel on the 7th floor overlooking the Bilbao River that runs through the town of Bilbao. We walked all around the town this afternoon, until we finally pulled up two chairs, collapsed in exhaustion, and ordered tapas.
We visited the Guggenheim Museum where the quirky exhibition of Yoko Ono was on display among other pieces of odd art work. My favourite was the dog made of flowers outside the museum. Tonight is the start of World Cup 2014, hosted by Brazil, with the first game tonight at 10 p.m. (Croatia vs Brazil). Con is currently planted in front of our hotel-room television cheering loudly for Croatia who just scored. Actually, the Brazilian scored the goal accidentally. That guy is going to have a rough night.
June 15 -- Through the Castile Leon region
Driving to Burgos we have passed many hikers and cyclists on their pilgrimage. The gothic church in Burgos is massive! Quite fantastic! I can't imagine the sacrifice people made to give their worldly goods to ensure the church was built. It began in 1221, completed nine years later.
Leon is the capital of the Castile Leon region and the crossroad for the hikers and cyclists heading west. We were traveling south, but not before visiting the Leon church, built on the site of a Roman bath, which created plenty of structural problems nearly leveled the church. When it was built, in the 13th century, just 5,000 citizens lived in Leon. The stained glass in this church is claimed to be the best in Europe. The New Testament stories are pictured on the south, so the sun can light it up brilliantly as it crosses the church. The north side houses stained glass pictures of the Old Testament, with more subtle light, because they hadn't "seen the light yet," or rather, met Jesus. A little subliminal messaging.
We checked into our first parador, a converted monastery, built in the 16th century, as the western headquarters for the Military Order of Saint James, financed by King Ferdinand the Catholic. It's now a hotel museum with cloister, chapter house, library, beautiful rooms, and an outstanding restaurant serving traditional cuisine which we over indulged in last night. This fantastically serine monastery was once a prison during the Franco Dictatorship. The birds' songs echo throughout the halls and centre foyer.
Once Leon was taken back from the Arabs in the 9th century, it was settled by tradesmen setting up shop for thousands of pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela. It was good business in its day.
June 17, 2014 -- We left the Basque Country traveling south toward Madrid, bypassing it by 70 km, to visit Toledo checking into our hotel – a converted 19th century flour mill. The weather was gorgeous, so we headed out on foot to get lost in the pretty medieval streets. Toledo is known as the city of three cultures, historically co-existing as Christians, Muslims and Jews. The old city is located on a mountain top with the Tagus River bending its way around three sides of the town. Walking through the cobble stoned streets we once again pass magnificent churches, but also Alcazar, a stone fortification at the top. Totally exhausted from walking (for three hours) we finally spotted our hotel. World Cup Football was about to begin.
Our trip has taken us in and out of tapas bars with televisions timed for the games. We found great seats in front of a large TV for the evening game, France vs Honduras. I ordered two Agua con Gas and Con selected two plates of food (herring with olives and some sort of stew with a basket of bread). At the 89th minute of the game, I asked, "La cuenta por favor." They gave me a bill for four euro. I smiled, “comida tambien” (food too) and the two women chuckled, "Nada, nada, no charge, es tapas."
Our land tour ended. We returned to Big Sky, filled up our fridge and cupboard and waited for the arrival of Courtney and Hailey in a few days.