After a walk along the river and through the town, we Quixoteans, Panzas y Rosenantes set off for the cathedral town of Burgos. Burgos is important for three things; two of them are its cathedral and the fact that was the home of Rodrigo, El Cid. The cathedral is on UNESCO’s world heritage list. It was built between 1300 and the nineteenth century and is in the end stages of restoration. As mere tourists, any description we provide would fail to do this magnificent structure justice. It is as beautiful as any cathedral we have ever seen, and not nearly as crowded as Notre Dames or even St. Patrick’s. The chapels are incredible in their attention to detail, use of color, and lavish design. There is even a da Vinci there—a painting of Mary Magdalene. What do we know? Little, but we felt safe in concluding (with one another and not our guide for the cathedral, Carlotta) that it was not Leonardo’s best.
The cathedral is a stop on the way (El Camino) of St. James, an 800 kilometer trek from France to Santiago de Compostela. According to Mark Kurlansky (more or less) in The Basque History of the World, the story goes that St. James left his home after Christ ascended into heaven and went to distant lands to convert the heathens. Rumor has it that the distant land was Iberia! After working in the conversion business for a while James returned home to Jerusalem. It is not clear what sort of a reception James might have expected, but what he got was a beheading from Herod, who then refused to bury him—the nerve! So, under cover of night, James’ followers took his remains, placed them in a marble sepulcher, and sent them off to sea in an unmanned boat. About 800 years later, a pilgrim wandering in the hills saw a ray of light shining down from above. When he followed the light to the place where it hit land, he found a small Roman cemetery. The light centered on a small, overgrown mausoleum. Ah ha! The burial place of St. James—Santiago—and so the cemetery became known as Santiago de Compostela. But that was not the last word from St. James. During the Reconquista, Santiago appeared on a horse in the Battle of Matamoros and smote the Moors. St. James was extremely versatile. No wonder he has been such a big favorite of pilgrims.
The cathedral in Burgos also contains the tomb of the Burgean local hero, El Cid. El Cid is, in some ways, the Roland or Arthur of Spain. While his life is shrouded in some mystery—after all, he died in 1099, and that was before computers—we know he fought the Moors, fought with the Moors, and then fought the Moors again. His last go round made him a figure of some distinction in the mythos of Spanish nationhood. El Cid died seeking to retake Valencia and when he came home dead, his wife strapped him back on his horse, Babieka (which means stupid) and sent him back to battle. Even dead, El Cid was a great leader (Note: leaders fighting battles after death is another theme of this journey. Hopefully, the Dictator Franco will stay in his place in the Valley of the Fallen!) Our guide also reminded us that in the movie version, Charlton Heston played El Cid and Sophia Loren played his wife. Of course, we do not know how El Cid himself felt about the Second Amendment because he was dead by the time it was ratified, but the portrait of Rodrigo that we saw in the cathedral looked more like James Garner than Charlton Heston. But in all seriousness, we tip our hats to an actor who could play Moses, ride a horse called Stupid, and survive the Planet of the Apes. For Juan. the coincidence of a group of El Cid aficionados (especially our fearless leader Tom) encountering the grave of the great man and his wife, Doña Jimena, was somehow fated and a nearly transcendental experience. Spain is, as they say, the land of saints and mystics!
The third thing that Burgos is known for is the world’s best lamb—that is what Juan assured us, and he was right. Brought out in big pots, the lamb was succulent and flavorful. It does not have the big flavor of New Zealand lamb; it is more subtle, very moist and unspoiled by that very English institution—mint jelly. ¡Olé! Some of our group, not fans of lamb, supped on a tasty dish of pork shoulder (yes, pork again, but it was incredible). ¡Que rico!
Tired and full of lamb, we arrived at our hotel for the evening, a modern hotel at a winery in La Rioja, the region just south of Basqueland. The winery and hotel was named Bodega Ugarte. From one side of the hall we looked into the area where the Ugartes stored thousands of barrels of wine. From our rooms we looked out over 140 acres of vineyards. Tom and Randy went out for their evening walk through a small olive grove, past the vineyard’s small chapel, and came upon a green house set among the vines. A man in a beret walked out of the green house. We smiled at him and in a thick Spanish accent he asked us (in Spanish) if we were guests at the hotel. Randy replied, “Si.” Our new friend smiled and informed us that he was Don Vitorino Ugarte, the owner and founder of the winery. Don Vitorino invited us to his man cave (a “tsoko” – Basque for a place to have a light meal with your family). After using a key hidden in a small niche behind a rock, we entered what was literally a cave carved into the hillside. Vitoriano immediately went to a basket hanging on a pullied cable from the ceiling and took out a piece of bread (he assured us that it would stay fresh for up to 40 days and this loaf was only 30 days old) and some definitely aged cheese. Before drinking, he insisted, we must prepare our palate with the bread and cheese. Then we got a tour of the cave – and what a cave. It was decorated with awards that the bodega’s wines had won, old family photos, tools, two mannequins dressed in Basque wedding clothes from centuries gone by, and a mélange of chandeliers Don Vitorino said someone was going to throw out! Niches in the back served as natural wine cellars and also a place to cultivate mushrooms. After the tour and our palates were properly prepared, we shared a bottle of Crianza 2009 with our host.
While the family has been in the wine business for generations it was Vitorino who displayed true management and marketing genius. He began with 14 bars which he and his wife, Mercedes, managed and then leased to others with one condition: Only Ugarte wine could be served! In the ’80s, Vitorino dreamed of building a hotel and a series of caves under the hotel and winery where the storage conditions would be perfect and where customers could come and enjoy a couple of bottles in their own little tsokos. So Vitorino and four boys began to dig. Today a series of fantastic caves wind underneath the post-modern hotel. In one corner of the cave is where Vitorino and Mercedes ashes will be stored (at least one half of them—the other half will be scattered over the fields) in two ornate cookie tins atop approximately 1,000 bottles of House Ugarte’s best wine.
Eating at the Ugarte Winery was our opportunity to eat Spanish-style barbecue. Those of us who had lived in the South and Southwest tried to explain barbecue to Juan, but we could see just there was a cultural divide. Barbecue in La Rioja is closest to barbecue in Memphis—it is fry barbecue. The simplest way to say it is we ate more meat—much more meat. In all honesty, we cannot recommend La Rioja to our vegan friends. Meat and cheese are absolutely everywhere. For instance, at Ugarte we ate chorizo; and then we ate salchicha—a sort of juicy hot dog. Wow! And those were just the appetizers. The main course was flank steak cooked over dried grape vines.
The next day, on the way to our next and final stop, San Sebastian, we stopped in a beautiful monastery from the middle ages with a fabulously preserved cloister. Juan, the magnificent, lectured beautifully about the symmetry of a wall sculpture depicting Christ’s crucifixion. At the end of the homage to this beautiful piece he rhetorically asked, “And we call it the dark ages, is there anything dark about this?” Our silent nods conveyed our understanding and agreement.
Leaving the cloister, we were getting hungry since we had not eaten since breakfast. Luckily, we soon stopped in La Guaradia and made our way to a cozy upstairs nook. On the way we caught a glimpse of the Indy 500, then enjoyed a tremendous salad with lettuce, tomato, white asparagus, tuna and salmon topped with vinaigrette. We sat back and sighed with satisfaction (in fact, I daresay some of us were relieved to have eaten a relatively light meal), but then the steaks and Spanish (looked French to me) fries arrived. There was truly no way anyone could eat more, but it would have been rude not to have one little taste. Addictive—there is no other way to describe the steak. Within minutes, there was not a Spanish fry to be seen anywhere and barely a morsel of meat left for the dogs. So vegans beware (and carnivores come on down!).
With the unseasonable cold in Spain, we decided to briefly abandon our group (to finish off the steak and Spanish fries) to find down jackets. Our waiter kindly sent us to a place called Stradivarius (after the famed violin maker) which unfortunately sold only women’s clothes. Moving on to noted Spanish stores such as Pull and Bear and Zara we discovered, after prying ourselves out of the florescent sausage skins that were marketed as sweat jackets, that the European physique and sense of style are somewhat different from America’s. In the end, we decided to be Macho Americans and continue without jackets, leaving several broken hangers behind. The storekeepers were happy to see us depart.
Next we moved on to the coastal resort town of San Sebastian, where happily we would stay in the same hotel for four nights. San Sebastian is on the Bay of Biscay. Along with Biarritz (another Basque city), it is the place where the beach resort was essentially invented in the nineteenth century.
In San Sebastian we were ensconced in Basqueland. There are seven provinces traditionally known as Basqueland—four in Spain and three in France. Navarre, in Spain, is perhaps less Basque than it used to be. The Basques are one of the oldest cultures in Europe and their language is also one of the oldest. They have been great whalers, cod fisherman, iron miners, bankers, soldiers and ferocious nationalists. Ironically, except for a short period of time, they have never been independent. But, while part of Spain, their economic success over centuries has given them some serious bargaining power. The Basques have their own local governments, their own police, and their own schools. That said, demands for independence are still heard, especially from a group known as ETA which has, at various times in its history, resorted to violence but now eschews the sword and seeks to negotiate. The Spanish refuse to talk further until the ETA disbands. It is what one might call a vicious circle.
On our first morning in San Sebastian, Tom and Randy decided to climb a local mountain topped by El Cristo del Coro, a giant statue of Jesus with the Sacred Heart. Landslides due to excessive rain closed all entrances, but your intrepid group leaders were very pleased with themselves to find one where the emergency tape had been torn down. Little did we know! After climbing to the top we took a different route down – to find the exit blocked! At first we thought we might become new additions to the English Cemetery which is also housed on the mountain. So it was back up the mountain and down again to find our original entrance. It was more exercise than we had originally planned but buns of steel are never a bad thing.
After that we showered and walked to the market. Led by our guides Lourdes and Christina, we purchased the ingredients for the paella we would cook—rabbit, chicken, onions, tomatoes, clams, mussels, calamari and beans. We also bought chocolate and eggs for the mouse. Our paella class took place in one of San Sebastian’s 75 gastronomic societies. These “men’s clubs for cooking” are located all around the city. In some today women can sit and eat, but they cannot cook. As Americans committed to not discriminating on the basis of gender, we all cooked together. We chopped onions; we grated tomatoes; and we cleaned squid, getting an anatomical lesson in the process, with a focus on the teeth and tentacles. As our paella expertise sharpened, we made one batch in the Valencian way with only meat of the earth (rabbit—we called ours Pedro—and chicken. To that paella we added saffron. The other paella we cooked the Basque way. They were both excellent, if we do say so ourselves, and we polished of the meal with our fantastic homemade mousse.
Basque country is the land of pinxtos, their own version of tapas. So, following the old adage of when in Basque country do as the Basques do, we went on a pinxto and cerveza crawl. Fortunately, our Paella guide, Lourdes, had provided us a list of the city’s best places. We had Pinxtos made of beef cheek topped with a savory pepper as well as the classic Pinxto which as an anchoa (anchovy), olive, and a pepper all skewered on a toothpick. This delicacy is now called a Gilda, in honor of Rita Hayworth. We ended up in a Pinxto bar called the Monto where the owners kindly played Randy’s favorite songs in Spanish, including Aventura’s “Cuando Volveras” and Miguel Bose’s “Si Tu No Vuelves.” (We heard “Just one more song!” at least five times!).
Rising, we boarded our coach, ably driven by our amigo Javiar, and took off for Bilbao. Travelling through the hilly Basque country we saw examples of traditional Basque homes, which have red tile roofs and faded white walls. Bilbao is the commercial center of Basqueland and was formerly the site of Spain’s most significant steel producers. While they still make steel in Bilbao, it is now more of a banking center. It is also the home of the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum. The art is modern—very different than what we saw in the Prada. One of the most intriguing exhibits in the Guggenheim includes seven sculptures by the San Franciscan, Richard Serra. They play with one’s sense of space and reality. As one walks through these large steel statues one is unsure if the world is up, down, over, under or through. There are feelings of dizziness, isolation, fear and even a second of panic. We felt a bit like Alice when we came out of the room. We had plumbed our psyches, explored the nature of reality, and come out the other side. While the art in the museum is challenging and avant garde, one might pause over the $100 million cost of the building (all paid for by taxpayers) and the $100 million deal the locals made with the Guggenheim Foundation (again with tax dollars) to use its name and display the collection. For the traditionalist, there is more air in Los Menones than there is in the Guggenheim.
On our last full day together, we awoke to rain—serious rain. While one of us had come down with a cold and another decided to keep the afflicted company, the rest set off for France. Entering French Basqueland, we changed languages but not scenery. Javiar dropped us off in St. Jean de Luz to see some traditional Basque houses and get a coffee. Then off to Biarritz for a lunch of seafood soup, calamari, fava bean mousse, steak, salmon and other delicacies. As we ended lunch we took part in what has become a ritual for us—paying the bill. When we eat together and the meal is part of our trip we walk away from the table at the end of the meal. When we eat together and the meal is not an official part of the trip agenda, we must pay. Our custom has developed over our 10 days together. One person takes charge of the bill and then divides the total by the number of eaters—as we are generous people who value efficiency we do not worry if one may have had salad and another had dessert or if one may have had diet coke and another wine; we are too big to let such differences divide us. As the person who holds the bill announces the fare for each we rise and pass by the divider, putting our Euros into his or her hands. As the last person passes, the moment of truth arrives. And, incredibly, there is always enough; we are always within a few Euros of perfection; and whatever is left we leave to say thank you for the excellent service we have received.
As this entry ends, we are driving from Biarritz back to San Sebastian. This afternoon, we will pack, perhaps shop, get some exercise, and breathe the Basque air together before our farewell dinner tonight. Tomorrow, two of us will go off to Portugal; two of us will fly home to New York; and one of us will fly home to Miami. The other nine will tour Guernica, the sight of a terrible massacre orchestrated by Franco, the Italians and the Germans in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Then eight of us will travel back to New England and one will stay in Spain to cruise the Mediterranean for 10 days.