Agur Bilbao: Work, Foodstuffs, Slippery Bridges, Starchitects, Going Home

My last full day in Bilbo has arrived: “Agur” is euskera for goodbye. Although it is the universal farewell term here even when people are speaking Spanish, and I easily jump into “adéu” and “fins aviat” when I’m in Barcelona, until yesterday I could never get myself to remember using this one little word when taking leave. Probably because I speak Catalan, and euskera looks like this:


Because it is a non-Indo-European declined language, full of -zkis, -zues, and whatnot, and little or nothing about it sounds recognizable to the uninitiated, it triggers (in me?) puzzlement and analysis rather than intuitive appropriation. Especially given that three of my five visitors were linguists, and trying to get from any point A to any point B was unfailingly delayed by taking apart apart the suffixes and roots in every sign and trying to figure out any lexical connections to Spanish, or lack thereof (then making up gibberish according to our invented Basque grammar and giggling until somebody gave us a nasty look).

HENCE, yesterday I felt as proud of my first spontaneous euskera goodbye as parents must feel of a baby’s first word. As luck would have it, I used it on the one non-Basque sales lady I seem to have met, who responded with “adiós.”

With all visitors gone, my last few days were dedicated to a little exploration of the lovely Biblioteca de Bidebarrieta

Bidebarrieta1     Bidebarrieta2

and the sleek Biblioteca de la Diputación.


I was sadly unable to get into the Sociedad Bilbaína, not because (as in not-so-distant yesteryear) they do not admit women, but because in Spain August is universal closed-for-vacation/limited hours season. Maybe next time…

And, yes, there’s been shopping. I spent yesterday and today all around Plaza Moyúa, as well making return visits to the Fine Arts and Guggenheim Museum shops, acquiring delicacies and gifts for various people (and a funky COS sweater for myself).

Although I generally hate El Corte Inglés (Spain’s ubiquitous department store), a visit to their Club del Gourmet is always in order for a convenient and comprehensive selection of goodies to take home. I did settle on truffled salts and flavored oils rather than the more exotic delicacies…


I’m now provided with an ideal selection of presents and souvenirs that are all small and/or flat and definitely lightweight. Except for that churro-making contraption I impulse-bought Miss H, which looks like some Victorian surgical instrument. Given that I have to overnight in London on the way home, this time I also decided against trying to sneak frozen croquetas into the United States.

In the spirit of Agur Bilbao, today I decided to treat myself to a leisurely lunch, and by sheer spatial memory found a restaurant I’d  loved in 2012 but whose name (Atea) I did not even remember–only to find it CLOSED FOR FREAKIN’ VACATION.


(Dear Spaniards: I really do not get why y’all have to go on holiday simultaneously.)

So I moved on to the Guggenheim’s Bistro for a much-better-than-anticipated repast consisting of a lustful tomato-watermelon gazpacho with prawns that I must try to replicate the moment I get home, baby squid (txipirones) on a bed of crispy fideuà with a squid ink decoration,


and homemade chocolate-cream ice cream–all bathed with a chilled white wine as abundant as it was delicious, for the very reasonable midday prix-fixe of 27.94€.

It was the one and only place I’ve found this summer to be faultlessly air-conditioned, and the view of that pink University of Deusto building on the left with its three perfect palms amid whatever the other trees are was so soothing (and did I mention the abundant, exquisitely chilled white wine) that I lingered at the table reading a mystery novel


until I realized I was in the midst of that European phenomenon aptly named (by my italophile cousin and the cousin-in-law), conti-pation–whereby no restaurant server will ever bring you the check, il conto, until you’ve specifically asked for it, and sometimes for hours after you have. In Spain, this is specifically to facilitate the custom known as sobremesawhereby you may end up having dinner at the same restaurant where you had lunch, simply because no one got up and left at any point.

(BTW, conti-pation is culturally related to that other Spanish phenomenon, Spain in the Ass–whereby nothing that works or goes smoothly elsewhere behaves similarly in Spain. Especially applicable to any situation involving bureaucracy or a web site.)

But leave I did, and instead of taking the convenient tram back home on this unusually hot August day in Bilbao (it might have gone past 80º), I walked so as to be able to cross, for the first and last time this year, the Zubi Zuri bridge, built in 1997 by Spanish “starchitect” Santiago Calatrava:


I just noticed, when looking for a link, that Zubi Zuri is not featured in Calatrava’s web site, which seems appropriate given the many conflicts between the architect and the city to which it gave rise. To begin with, the bridge’s glass floor panels (themselves fragile and very expensive to maintain/replace) made it “nothing short of deadly for children and the elderly,” so the city soon traversed it with black non-slip tape. Today I observed that since my last visit here they have moved on to some sort of black rubber carpet:


TO CONTINUE WITH, in 2007 Calatrava (yes, the man responsible for the glass bridge floors on one of the rainiest cities in Spain) sued Bilbao over the addition of a new footbridge designed by Japanese starchitect Arata Isozaki at the end of Zubi Zuri, to extend its reach from the riverwalk to the upshore Isozaki apartment/office complex:

Isozaki1    Isozaki2

He sought the first application of the Spanish Law of Intellectual Property to an architectural work. That year, as explained in this fascinating summary of the case, a judge ruled in favor of Calatrava, considering both that original architectural works were protected by intellectual copyright and that owning the bridge did not entitle the city to alter it. However, he added the further consideration that, a bridge being a public work, public interest (being able to reach the new complex without having to go down and up numerous flights of stairs) had to at least partly limit the architect’s “moral rights,” and thus allowed the addition to remain (despite Calatrava’s request that it be demolished). After the last appeal, in 2009 the province’s high court maintained the ruling in favor of Calatrava, but awarded him 30,000€ instead of the 250,000 he sought if the Isozaki addition was removed, or 3,000,000 if it was not.

I’m kind of happy the city stuck it to Calatrava, not only because he has for years been building all sorts of beautiful but crapshit structures all over Spain and the world–as hilariously satirized in this 2012 Gran Wyoming skit (in Spanish)–but because I do believe in the supremacy of public interest over the integrity of what is in the end a public work: a bridge is for getting to wherever people want to go. Additionally, however, Bilbao is to me (much more, in some ways, than even Barcelona) a city of architects. That is, if Barcelona featured the original architect vs. engineeer feud in the nineteenth century (see Eduardo Aibar & Wiebe E. Bijker, “Constructing a City: The Cerdà Plan for the Extension of Barcelona.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 22.1 [1997]: 3-30), and once again became Spain’s architectural mecca as of the 90s, on a much smaller scale (or because of it) Bilbao not only showcases but literally connects the work of great modern architects. It’s all about going from Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim through Calatrava’s bridge to Isozaki’s towers or Juan Coll-Barreu’s Health Department headquarters or Rafael Moneo’s University of Deusto library, via Norman Foster’s thrillingly futuristic (and immaculate) metro stations:


It’s the sum-total ensemble, wrapped around the medieval old city and the river, that makes the city what it is (thus, no room for divas, say I–other than me of course!).

Anyway, that was that. I came home to my last Bilbo sunset:


Tonight a quiet parting drink with a new friend. Tomorrow off to London for an overnight stopover, and on to New York (some business required moving my return a few days up). I’m sad, but also excited: I miss butter, pizza, a little traffic noise, and some people dear to my heart.

Agur Bilbao! Next (and final?) post from the right side of the Atlantic.

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Museum, Mundaka: From Polychromes to Rip Curl (and Shopping)

Then came another brief visit, this time from Messrs. J & F, and time for a bit more explorin’ (and, if I don’t finish this chapter, some splainin’). I decided to take them to the other jewel of the Bilbao art circuit, the very fine Fine Arts Museum. Although it has existed for over a hundred years, it was beautifully renovated in 2001 (Guggenheim side-effect, I suppose) to showcase a considerable collection of international, Spanish, and Basque art from the twelfth to the twenty-first centuries (we loved the little “S. XX-XXI” gallery sign, it doesn’t seem like many museums have those yet!). Temporary exhibits were pretty much forgettable (for me), except perhaps for “The Grecos at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum” which nevertheless disappointed because despite the great fanfare of the title (on the fourth centenary of the painter’s death) it included only two works, St. Francis in Prayer Before the Crucifix and The Annunciation. Still, each original painting is accompanied by light boxes with X-rays and infrared reflectograms to give an idea of El Greco’s process, as compared to that seen “behind” what is now widely considered a fake, the Penitent Magdalene (which I was happy to learn was sold as the real thing to none other than Antonio Cánovas del Castillo).

The permanent collection features other important, interesting, fascinating works that I (not being an art historian) will not try to describe; you can link to some of the best-known ones from the last paragraph on this page. I do find Orazio Gentileschi’s Lot and his Daughters singularly hypnotizing. According to Mr. F, who is an artist, it must be because of its impeccable triangulation, and how the interplay of the three primary colors (and subtle combinations thereof in the details) visually mirrors the relationship between the three characters. I think it’s more because of how Gentileschi represents the seduction of Lot by his daughters in the aftermath of Sodom and Gomorrah’s burning: the emphasis (already, granted, in the biblical story) on his unwitting participation in the incestuous act, ascribed entirely to the daughters he had previously offered to passersby. By the way, you too can touch Lot’s poor daughters at the Touch Art initiative, where some of the museum’s works are reproduced as textural panels to be experienced (through spoken description and touch) by the visually impaired. I discovered I would be in real trouble if I went blind, since I couldn’t tactilely recognize anything at all (guess the perennially numb fingers from broken neck incident don’t help).

Aside from all the nineteenth-century art, particularly the many Zuloagas, my favorite objects in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum are Quintín de Torre Berastegui’s spooky wood polychrome sculptures from the 1930s-50s. Spooky because wood polychrome was traditionally used in Spanish Baroque religious art partly as an alternative to expensive materials like marble or bronze, and partly because the Catholic Church insisted on the most vivid hyperrealist representations of martyrdom and crucifixion–and sometimes pretty attractive virgins–to hit the many ignorant faithful (kept so by the counter-reformation) on the head with doctrine. So an incredibly skillful and elaborate art form emerged to convey the ideals of self-denial, shame, sacrifice, suffering, and death that ground our Catholic culture.


Credit for the image above goes to this very interesting art history blog, which in turn refers to this fabulous 2010 National Gallery exhibit.

[If I’m sounding especially sour on religion it’s because aside from great art it’s mostly given humanity evil and death, as in the current horrible insanity in Israel/Palestine.]

Anyway, Quintín de Torre takes up religious polychrome in the twentieth century and indeed produces images for churches and processions. One example is at the Bilbao museum. But the works that really strike me (and that I’d like to see as parodies although I’m almost certainly wrong) apply the genre’s techniques to everyday Spanish types from the Second Republic, Spanish Civil War, and Francoist periods.

Anciana  NiñaPasiega


Everyone I know hates these sculptures, and the word “kitsch” has been uttered more than once, but to me the Bust of an Old Lady, the Cantabrian Girl, and even the seemingly innocuous cafe-society Portrait of a Young Woman, rendered in the meticulous carving and painting of policromía, transfer the ideological associations of seventeenth-century religious art to the figures of people who had to go about their lives amid the poverty, turmoil, and political repression of early- and mid-twentieth-century Spain, so rooted precisely in religious conflict (intertwined as usual with class, of course). The braided girl, especially, has that “living dead” face one often sees in Civil War and early dictatorship film footage. And let us not forget that, like the early-1600s statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola by Juan Martínez Montañés,


polychrome sculpture was sometimes modeled on plaster death masks.

Well, that was depressing. So for day #2 of J & F’s visit we arranged an excursion. I really wanted to see the Pozalagua caves or the flysch geopark, but we only had a day and, as we know, no one around me deals well with early starts. It was, curiously, not only the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (a local holiday on account of his birth in nearby Azpeitia) but an unusually sunny and warm day, so despite the threat of too much bonding with The People, on a friend’s excellent advice we headed for the town of Mundaka–a one-hour train ride away and world-famous, as it turns out, for its surfing importance. Since that peroxide-haired, puka necklace-wearing high school sweetheart whom I used to follow to this little island (in Puerto Rico not Spain)


on an actual surfboard (but not in actuality surfing), the only wave I’ve been known to ride has been at a soccer stadium. But I was tremendously excited to find out about this once endangered left-handed rivermouth wave (whatever exactly that means) and its… resurgence (notice my astonishing ability to always find the perfect word for the communicative situation).

IN ANY CASE, I saw lots of beckoning bollycaos:

surferos  surferos2

Ok, more walking and swimming away from than beckoning me, but I was once again sporting a gay couple adornment so it wasn’t a good time anyway. I did, however, get to watch them surf!


And I went to the low-tide estuary beach; even wore my decorous old-lady bikini (not photographed for posterity, thank you) and no one ran screaming from the shore.

Beach   BeachMe

For a moment, I thought it was the most sophisticated and fantastic beach I had ever been to…


but Messrs. J & F scoffed at my interpreting that third sign on the left as “champagne this way.”

Surf and beach aside, a stroll through the charming town was a treat in itself, with its beautiful port, its old chalets and casino, lunch under the trees, and the inevitable hilltop church (no beer available either, though).


Another easy train ride, and back to Bilbao for a little shopping (everything on sale at Mandarina Duck! everything on super-sale everywhere, this being the beginning of August!). Details on Le Dining, not to be forgotten… I took J & F to my two favorites, Epelde & Mardaras and Restaurante Kokken, where we all had the INCREDIBLE seven-course menu and (jointly) consumed two bottles of wine, all for 79€. Everything followed by an after-dinner drink at Lamiak (where the boys imbibed arroz con leche- and chocolate/cherry-flavored orujo, of all things).

Now… alone again, naturally. And with a load of work to do and six days left to going home…



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Bilbao Miscellanea I: With Notable Citizens, Feats of Engineering, a Palatial Paladar

Warning: Do Not Read If You Are Easily Grossed Out

I am blessed with unthinkably fabulous friends. However true Miss LG’s assessment that what I find most attractive in a gentleman is not dimples but Asperger syndrome (no offense to legitimate sufferers of this disorder, please!), my buddies are unfailingly smart, engaging, funny, and generous. Miss H and Miss M, Miss G and Mr. Chxyzk, Ursula, Cruella, Ooh La La, Mr. V, Messrs. J & F, the Welcoming Committee, and many others a) love me despite my occasional bouts of


b) provide therapy during my random bouts of


and c) take care of me through my propensity to interrupt our cavorting by contracting chicken pox, getting my neck broken,

ChickenPox     Neck

or finding myself bitten by a Lyme Disease tick (be thankful I destroyed the bull’s eye rash pic after accidentally uploading it to the DMV while contesting a traffic ticket). Some, like most recently Miss L, Miss R, and Messrs. L & M, often follow me in my globetrotting hoping my disaster-proneness won’t rub off on them (or perhaps that I’ll be their lightning rod). Others I make a point of seeking time and again in my travels, perennially drawn to their warmth and bon vivance.

So I come to speak of Miss I, Notable Citizen of Bilbao, of my friendship with whom I’ll just say it dates back to the paleozoic era, when we both simultaneously got our PhDs (at different places) and landed jobs (at the same university) in what we then and even now, perhaps unfairly, considered Hell Frozen Over, i.e. Rochester, NY. Our friendship is older than my bollycaos, and has lasted through any number of jobs, transatlantic moves, new boyfriends/exes, childbearing and rearing (only in one case), etc. And although some of my friends consider me a pillar of strength (except in situations a, b, and c above), I am a helpless twit compared to Miss I. She compassionately nursed me through the horrible breakup (“honey, get over it: he’s leaving; would you rather drag from his ankle or glamorously chill out over champagne at a fancy bar?”). And devilishly steered me into spending as-yet-unearned money on frivolous luxuries I’ll treasure forever:


(Abovementioned purchase–Maria Frantzi ring–dated 2010 right here in Bilbao at the totally chic S’Ad Joyas; this is after all a travel log.)

I dare you to say we’re not both still looking pretty as pie


and, mind you, she is even more ancient than I am. Do not label me narcissistic; she is also even more brilliant than I am (gasp!): illustrious Basque scholar and linguist (first theoretical and now neuro-, as in she will stick electrodes to your forehead and play with your mind). Because she is also a born storyteller and thus also an even better teacher than me, her engrossing neurolinguistics blog does a great job of conveying to the layperson why Nelson Mandela’s language abilities gave him an edge in negotiating with F. W. DeKlerk over apartheid (which might explain why I am only capable of telling people I love them in English), the communicative importance of function words like articles and prepositions, and or how “balanced” and “unbalanced” bilinguals use different parts of their brain in linguistic functioning (perhaps related to why I become no-lingual after switching from primary English- to Spanish-usage for a week or more).

But the real relevance of everything above in this blog (other than allowing myself the gushing) is the aforementioned Notable Citizen of Bilbao aspect. Because over a drink and pintxos at the popular Bar El Globo


she will instantly design a wonderful road trip itinerary for you, and tell you all about where you should and should not eat. Tip: all those attractive terraced restaurants in the Old Quarter that beckon you… don’t go there. Except maybe for the Restaurante La Peña Athletic, for whose very decent prix-fixe midday menu I can vouch. Very sadly, their web site does not include the menu’s English version, but on the paper version they (too) have adorable translations so you can, if you like, eat “hopeful figs.”

Unfortunately, you can’t call Miss I. But I will let you know about a couple of entertaining things that I would not have been able to do with Messrs. M & L (another two of my excellent globetrotting pals) had she not told us about them.

The first one was an unbelievable dinner at Epelde & Mardaras (web site temporarily down as I write), which is not exactly a restaurant but more like a Cuban paladar. It is, strictly speaking, an art gallery (full of works you can buy) housed in a palatial nineteenth-century haute-bourgeois home.

As–you’ll remember–a specialist in the period, I’ll tell you that 1800s Bilbao became very rich as one of Spain’s earliest industrial centers. It so happened that in 1855 a British engineer named Henry Bessemer invented a process to reduce the cost of manufacturing steel. As I understand it (humanist not scientist–anyone who knows better feel free to intervene), his converter’s ideal operation required both a type of iron with very particular chemical qualities and a fuel known as coke or, in Spain, cok (yes! just like penal/penile–I love it!), both of which were uniquely available in the Basque Country. Hence the first Bessemer converter was installed in Bilbao in 1862, and things took off from there. The broad ría or estuary–whose history you can explore in more detail at the excellent Maritime Museum–also made Bilbao a privileged port city, whose northern location (or was it eastern? or western?) efficiently connected it to England (and English culture has left a deep trace in the Basque Country).

Credit where credit is due: I don’t know all of this because I’m brilliant (which I am) but because of a masterful doctoral dissertation written by my student Mr. O. You can find out more when his book comes out (and Mr. O, if you’re reading this, get your ass to work right now!). But BTW if you want to read a (Spanish-language) novel that will give you a picture of this whole scene and put you in a Bilbao mood, read Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s 1904 El intruso (The Outsider) (he was Valencian, thus the perspective on what he saw as a very closed society).

ALL OF WHICH GOES TO EXPLAIN how homes like the one in which Epelde & Mardaras is located came to exist. Then of course things got totally f*ed-up in the twentieth century, and Bilbao started sucking through the renaissance commonly related to the 1990s inauguration of the Guggenheim. Enter Ms. Emilia Epelde, who with her partner Mikel Mardaras specialized (since around 2000) in staging art exhibits in abandoned industrial spaces. They obtained the giant flat (untouched since the 1800s) to use as a gallery, and although they have made many renovations it still vaguely feels like the ruins of a bygone era. With the incipient Spanish financial crisis came the gastronomical part.

Technically, the very reasonable prix-fixe pays for your leisurely get-together in a gorgeous private room; as a gesture of hospitality, the gracious hostess creates and offers you a meal based on the day’s market products (you can of course choose meat/fish/vegetarian and such). She is known for her fish soup and seafood


because she often brings the day’s catch from her weekend digs in Mundaka, but other fare is equally appetizing. And the big deal about eating here are the glorious spaces. Like the Arabian room:

ArabianRoom     ArabianRoom2

(which made Miss I all Judy Garland). Or the common areas (you can sit down and play the piano if you like):


Or the fantabulous kitchen:


Our own Romantic Room had the original ceiling fresco and beautifully detailed etched glass.


If you’d like to experience this, although you can’t call Miss I, you can certainly call the fire-headed Ms. Emilia at either (34) 94 415 39 98 or (34) 656 701 729.


Once again, we (I?) never get through anything without incident, so the building’s entrance and staircase (which may unfortunately perish to the necessary installation of an elevator)


Staircase Staircase2

were the last things I (always looking at everything except where I’m going) was admiring before I missed the last step and OMG!


Have I ever mentioned my irrational (or rational) fear of stairs, which I’m sure will be my doom???

(Sorry about that image; it seemed appropriate after the chicken pox pic! And I do know some moisturizer is in order.)

The second unusual experience Miss I recommended only takes place in late July. It is the Fiesta de las Paellas (Paella Fair) in nearby Getxo. Hundreds and hundreds of residents gather to participate in a paella contest where prizes go to the most elaborate Gehry-like structures. It would have been really interesting if our customary late start hadn’t resulted in our getting there for the presentation of paellas #146 and later, which were not particularly impressive although they did get pretty large and include some architectural detail.

Paellas1     Paellas2

This is not merely an artistic competition; people also gather to spend the afternoon with friends and family eating their concoctions.


Asked why a paella feast when we’re not at all in paella territory, Miss I clarified that they were not part of the celebration until some drunk visitor introduced them back in the fifties, and it caught on. Popular mythology? I’ll let you be the judge. (Asked why someone was wearing some sort of Scottish kilt, she was at a loss for words.)

But here’s the thing: the general public (us) is not invited to partake. So we moved on to lunch at the Restaurante Cubita (pretty dang expensive but tasty enough prawns and clams).

Then, to complete the nineteenth-century industrial theme, I decided to take M & L to the Vizcaya Bridge, an impressive 1893 structure built by Alberto Palacio y Ellissague, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel. Now a UNESCO Industrial Heritage Site, it is the world’s oldest transporter bridge and still has a working gondola used by both passengers and cars to cross the river. Curiously, when I was there in 2010 with Miss H the iron was black, but now in 2014 it looks completely oxidized:

Puente     PuenteColgante2

Might have made one think twice about walking on the floorboards, through which you can see all the way below to the water. (This time, as you can see, I was smart enough not to wear heels.)


Mr. M didn’t much like any part of this. Hence his tight grip on both the railings and my back, and his firm leg stance.


We crossed over to the Portugalete side, where we found some surprise street fun on account of it being the Feast of Santiago. Vendors vending spices and various extremely useful medicinal teas (should you have an anal fistula you don’t know what to do about).

PuenteColganteEspecias PuenteColganteTes

And a churro stand! To Mr. M’s great delight (he had never tried them).


So anyway, that was that. We had to get back home sometime, and the bridge is really long.


And this post is too, so goodnight!

(Miss I has now sadly migrated on vacation to Italy, where she will for the first time put her new sailing license to use; and Messrs. M & L back to Virginia–leaving me all alone to work. Have fun, my lovely loves!)

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Hondarribia and the Basque Coast: Sleepy Towns, Pedestrian-Tipping, Another Sip from the Holy Grail

Done with one visit, on with the next! Messrs. L & M arrived, and we immediately set off on a second road trip, on another Fiat Cinquecento. This time we drove directly to Donosti, and I won’t say anything more about it except to note…

a) The difference a tide makes in the Paseo LaContxa:


Waves no longer crashing against the wall, and people out on the beach en masse because they don’t always have that enormous stretch of sand.

And b) Lunch at fancy Kokotxa, which has a Michelin star and is quite tasty despite their unfortunate use of Google Translate or somethin’ on their web site, which thus proclaims that “located in a unique environment with marvebus views we arrange everythink for feel like at home.” We sat by an enormous airy window and had their 55€ 5-course Market Menu. It may not have been the best repast I ever had but it was damn good, and pretty:


And then we had “tea” (by which I of course mean cava and some other people mean vodka&tonics) with a view at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, because life is too short to sit under the scorching sun with The People.


So I would not be repeating the exact itinerary of a few days earlier, we decided to sleep in Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía), where I had never been. I figured out where to stay on the road, while Mr. M drove and Mr. L was all alone in the back because our out-of-control luggage didn’t fit in the tiny trunk, SO we had to knock down the rear seats and they got tired of me complaining incessantly about the suitcase that could very well slice my torso in two if we had an accident SO I got the front seat most of the trip. But that too is a digression, and the topic at hand is that I once again lucked out on the lodging.

The de-lightful Hotel Obispo, housed in a fourteenth-century palace, was to be had for 89€ (about US$120) my queen-sized bed room, and 166€ (~US$223) for the super-duper-fancy superior double Mssrs. L & M took. Air-conditioned (a must for me), although I should reveal that the thing kept turning itself off (completely) throughout the night and I had to get up twice to turn it back on. Also the temperature is controlled from the front desk and though I asked for 21º (69.8ºF) they kept raising it to 24º (75.2º). But that’s not the hotel; Spaniards in general have a conflicted relationship with climate control and other conveniences of modern life (like lavatories that use the full amount of water needed to actually flush clean–the latter not a problem at this hotel!). They’re ecological, you see, and as an American citizen I do admire that (we are light years behind).

Anyway, the place really was lovely and tastefully decorated not with a medieval theme, but around its genuine medieval structure:


Most charming is the garden where you can take your buffet breakfast (15€ but they make egg dishes to order and such) next to a waterfall fountain. And the Bishop has free wi-fi in all areas so if, say, your travel companions oversleep, you can always check your email over coffee. Several other amenities too, as detailed in their English web site: “Services Offer: Gratuitous Service of Bicycles. Service of Closed Circuit of Films Gratuitous. We Offer Articles to Him of the Country (Exhibitor-Gifts) to Prices of Cost.”

Priority #2, once again, was nourishment, and we headed to picturesque San Pedro Street, a tree-lined pedestrian promenade lined also with award-winning pintxo bars, as per this 2010 NYT article. Gran Sol and Vinoteka Ardoka are the best-known, but to tell the truth we just needed to sit after the long day (txikiteo is a standing-room-only activity) so we went to some other place across the street. Not a memorable meal but you can’t really go wrong with jamón ibérico de bellota and croquetas.

Mr. M and I were really, really, really happy in our seats:


Next morning another late start (I may not even know any early birds), and a walk through Hondarribia’s sleepy streets

HondarribiaStreet    HondarribiaStreet2

and old-fashioned store fronts.


Then a brief detour east instead of west across the border into FRANCE! Hendaye is a rather unremarkable place except for its view of Hondarribia from the other side of the bay:


And St. Jean de Luz, also rather unremarkable although a bit more tourist-friendly. Where we had a nice lunch at some place de cuyo nombre no puedo acordarme on main street.


Unremarkable as our French detour may have been, it was tremendously illuminating for me, as I learned (I publicly confess) that the northern coast of Spain does not join the northern but the western coast of France (this after some debate about whether that might not actually be the southern French coast). That still blows my mind. (Don’t care if you think I’m stupid; I have a Harvard PhD.)

To see cuter French-Basque towns you have to head a bit further east or north or west or whatever to Biarritz and Bayonne–I’ve been to both and guarantee they’re worth a visit. But we did not have the time because our real goal for the day was to drive back to Bilbao through the northern Spanish coast. Not getting started until 4:00 p.m. meant we had to take the freeway part of the way, but at Zarautz (another stop for “coffee” at its long, long beach) we finally entered N-634, every bit as spectacular as California’s Route 1,

Rt1Coast1   Route1Coast2

if a bit treacherous and sloooow-going at times (warning: do not watch video if you feel negatively about the words “oh, fuck”).

We managed to sort that part of the driving out, but once more could not get through the whole thing without incident. At Bermeo, our evil British GPS made us drive right into the pedestrian pier with its peaceful restaurant terraces (the very one on the web page to which I just linked).


Recalculating, she made us go through the steepest steep climb–none of which, naturally, the Fiat Cinquecento would have (yes, Miss R, you were right). The little engine that couldn’t (even with a/c turned off) would simply not make it up the hill with three suitcases and three overstuffed middle-aged adults, and kept rolling back down (dangerously onto the traffic that started accumulating behind us). It so stressed the normally imperturbable Mr. M out that when I timidly suggested Mr. L and I momentarily get out of the car he, ur, exclaimed that EVERYONE SHOULD STAY RIGHT IN THEIR SEAT!!! But the dismount was inevitable, and then the clunker accelerated so suddenly that Mr. L and I had to run madly behind. (Or maybe it was Mr. M who couldn’t stand us anymore.)

However, all’s well that ends well. We couldn’t stop at other stunning seaside towns (Lekeitio, which I’ve visited before, is particularly dear to me), but we made it back to Gastelugatxe!!!!! Not all the way up, but at least to the lookout from which we could behold a magnificent sunset (luckily this time of year around 9:45 p.m.)


I have no memory of what else might have happened that night, except that we somehow made it back to Bilbao and collapsed. Which is also what I want to do now. The rest of my adventures with Messrs. M & L must wait for another post.



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Donosti: Which Continues W and R’s Excellent Adventure (with Gin&Tonics, Urinals, and Neglected Artists)

Exhausted and hungry from all that climbing and getting lost, Miss R and I moved on to Donosti (San Sebastián) worried about what kind of lodgings we had impulse-reserved (and prepaid), since there was almost no available information on this Casa Nicolasa anywhere on the internet. But the pictures looked good, and I’d had a hunch, and we lucked out incredibly with this pensión. Although it translates to “guest house,” a pensión is normally the kind of accomodation where I would never be caught dead (think shared bathrooms and no a/c). However, Donosti is quite expensive, and every affordable hotel I ever found before is on a secondary beach (Ondarreta) a twenty to thirty-minute walk from the Old Town (Parte Vieja) and La Contxa beach. And Miss R and I wanted separate rooms, so for US$138 each (expensive for a pensión but definitely not for Donosti) we had gorgeous brand new chambers (they opened fifteen days earlier) right in the Parte Vieja with every amenity of at least a three-star and many four-star hotels–down to the large beds (well, two twins together), rainfall shower, blow dryer, minibar with free water/juices/soda, and such.


And I was happy!


Priority #2 was nourishment. I’ve mentioned pintxos before but should probably explain for the uninitiated that it’s basically bar-hopping for wine and tiny tapas (customarily montaditos, “mounted” on a slice of bread). Also known as txikiteo, it’s very common in Euskadi. But while tourists tend to do it at night (as we did) and stuff themselves in at least three or four places (as we did), Basques generally go to one or two places midday, approaching it as a sort of amuse-bouche, and then have lunch somewhere else.

I’ve lost the complete list of places where we stopped and what we ate, but it was more or less what is recommended here. Of special note was Bar Zeruko because of their haute cuisine approach, which includes a famous pintxo named lobster rose (rosa de bogavante)–pictured below–served on a little glass of liquid nitrogen (that you are dutifully instructed not to drink).


That was pretty cool, but my favorite was the mango foie spherification, delectable although it also sounds dangerous.

And so pintxos were had, and txakoli was poured (for me; fine Riojas for Miss R), and I WAS HAPPY.


No less pleasant is the friendly banter from everyone on the scene. (As yet another aside, I have to gossip somewhere–& might as well be here given that dreamboat fellow diner behind me, with whom I had nothing particularly to do–that I have been informed the Spanish term for Cute Boy Toy is bollycao. Which is just AWESOME for all sorts of etymological reasons that I might explain once I study the topic in more detail.) But back to the subject of banter, it is really my perception that something nice about Donosti is that all those touristy things we did are also done by locals. At least there seemed to be plenty of them talking to us the whole time.

Another has-nothing-to-do-with-anything aside is how impressed both Miss R and I were while walking through the old town and the port that night

CallePinchos            Puertobotes

with the latest in public bathroom technology, which we had never seen:


Yes, that is a bright red urinal right smack in the middle of everything. I was gracious enough to take my photograph while it was free (although it got plenty of use). One of the many advantages of being male in this day and age, I guess. And sure as hell one of the great uses of scientific development.

It wouldn’t be an evening out in Donosti–we heard–if it did not end with gin&tonics (which Spaniards are unnaturally mad about) at Atari Gastroteka. I don’t often drink cocktails, but this place had an enormous selection of specialty gins, and dozens if not hundreds of g&t versions, so it was the thing to do. Mine was infused with strawberries and juniper; Miss R’s with lemon and ginger. Delicious and almost charmingly… humanoid:

GinTonics      IglesiaGinTonics

This all takes place right in front of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Choir because, as you already know, in Spain religion and drinking are closely intertwined.

The following morning we (inevitably) woke up late and lingered lazily over coffee at Café Santana, where I think the breakfasts are fabulous. I ordered a chorizo omelet bocadillo that was so tasty I had seconds–something I never-never-well-ok-rarely allow myself.

A stroll down the stately Paseo de la Contxa at high tide (which disguises the fact of how popular an urban beach it is–and how packed with The People it can get)


always makes you feel like you should be wearing a corset and a parasol, although those would have been cumbersome come lunchtime at the Restaurante Igeldo, one of the fish eateries on the pier. Where Miss R polished off a beautiful grilled monkfish, and I concentrated on txipirones,


these divine baby squid I can’t stop eating (better this than my usual obsession with txistorra).

Last (well, next to last) but not least was the mandatory visit to Eduardo Chillida’s 1950s-60s El Peine del Viento (the Wind’s Comb),


a most unoriginal experience that is nevertheless always enjoyable, if more for the dazzling setting than for the sculptures themselves. But their history and architecture (not to mention the difficulties of their placement on those rocks), intelligently told here by the artist’s son, are utterly fascinating. And it really is breathtaking to be there. Makes you feel sorry for the Jorge Oteiza sculpture (“Empty Construction“) on the opposite point of La Contxa that hardly anybody ever goes to see.

So: that was W and R’s Excellent Adventure in Donosti. And I was happy!!!



Curious post-data: I write the city’s euskera name as Donosti, because it’s what I’ve always heard my Basque friends call it. However, it is actually Donostia. Why do they shorten the name? We asked numerous random people. They don’t know why, though they all do. A mystery I might yet solve… (Could it be they just don’t want it to sound like hostia?)

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Gastelugatxe: Holy Grails, More Wishes, the Sublime. (Oh, and once again friggin’ lost on a hike.)


There are mythical places you unexpectedly read about in a novel or see in a picture, and they become an obsession: a Holy Grail you cannot but pursue. For example, Pondicherry. The very first day Miss MC shared photos of this place on her Facebook page, I became fixated on going there someday. But it’s in India, which might delay my gratification a bit. Not, however, San Juan de Gastelugatxe right here in the Basque Country, which I visit relatively frequently. It is a giant rock, Gibraltar-like, on the Bay of Biscay, joined to the mainland by an impossibly high arched stone bridge, with a small chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist at its summit. Its religious, military, and nautical history–featuring feudal lords, Templar monks, knights-errant, pirates, fishermen–goes back to the eleventh century. Its name can be interpreted in two ways: Gaztelu-aitz (Castle Rock) or Gaztelu-gache (Rugged Castle). And doesn’t it just roll off your tongue like an incantation?

So I decided to take advantage of Miss R’s unparalleled stick-shift driving abilities, and off we went on my first road trip of The Basque Summer of 2014, on our little rental Fiat Cinquecento, which she hated and I loved (apparently because I didn’t have to drive it). (Also, she was the one who was right about this, but more about that in a future post.)


Not that we got a particularly early start, because we’re us–and then our first GPS did not work, and we got lost for an hour in Bilbao trying to find the train station we had just left so they could give us a new one, until we had (well, I had) the brilliant idea of following signs to the airport Europcar office to get a new, friendlier GPS (which we named Paquita).

FINALLY we were off through somewhat challenging winding roads with crazy almost 360º curves (thank you Miss R for not getting us killed!!!) and finally made it there. We were SO ANXIOUS to start the climb that we just had to have lunch first at Eneperi, because such a spiritual experience has to be undertaken with a full store of energy. Eneperi includes a very formal restaurant (full that day because of a wedding) and a tapas bar, but we decided on the outdoor cervecera or beer garden, with very simple (but quite acceptable) grilled food and fantastic views of the rock.

Actually the above decision followed a bit of negotiation, because Spaniards in fact believe that no physical effort must be made immediately after lunch, at risk of death, and there is no convincing them that I survived my entire childhood jumping into the pool right after eating. Just as there is no convincing them that it takes bacteria/viruses to make you sick, and pneumonia is not directly caused by breezes hitting your throat or air conditioning. But that is an aside. At any rate, after I did a little violence to Miss R and everyone at the beer garden marveled that we intended to climb up to the chapel after lunch (!!!)–we took off. And I at least am happy this didn’t happen on an empty stomach.

Off we went…


and UP we went,


and UP, and UP…


past the locals below fishing for percebes and having a feast right there (underneath the bridge):


Although it is not clear to me that the guys fishing them (who seemed to be in danger) and the guys eating them (who looked delighted, dressed in white with the typical blue scarf on their necks) were in the same group. And the latter did not seem like the type to suffer, as per a comparison between our modes of transportation (Cinquecento, our own feet) and theirs:


Anyway: we made it! A gravel path, a dirt trail, a bridge, and 245 steep steps UP later, which can be all the same to you if you’re a thirtysomething half-marathon runner like Miss R or make you a bit rosy-cheeked if you’re… not.


At the summit is the quaint little church with a fishing boat-themed altar.


The best thing is that (because this is after all SPAIN) when you get to the chapel you can buy candles for offerings, water, postcards, and naturally, beer (a San Miguel). Not around the back, not in the hiker’s refuge, but right inside.


There we were, and I may or may not have had that beer, and then we followed the pilgrim’s routine: rang the church bell three times and made a wish. Have I mentioned I love to wish (upon a star, upon an olive tree, upon a hermitage bell)?


My friends can probably guess what I wished for. But it was the WRONG wish. I should have asked to make it back safely and without incident. The first part (safely) we did achieve, but the second… not so much. For starters, upon our triumphant entrance


we failed to notice what was a-brewin’. Which was the Storm of the Century:


This picture does not remotely capture its fierceness (we actually feared for the perceberos’ life). But I think it does capture a little bit of its beauty. It was everything I’d expected of Gastelugatxe. It was, in fact, a true experience of the sublime. As Burke described it, “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”

Sublime is what we felt looking at Gastelugatxe before we began our ascent:


The harmony of serenity and monumentality, natural and manmade. The lure of the unmeasurable in every single view.


The insecurity and, yes, fear of finding ourselves in the middle of an enormous gale, despite knowing that we were in the twenty-first century, in a tourist attraction where someone would unfailingly rescue you (if anything did happen). But “no passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.”

After the storm, DOWN we went,


and it seemed the number of steps had exponentially increased, because going down stairs is much harder on your knees than going up stairs, and after the descent there was still another stiff climb up. Which became about 3 kilometers longer because WE MISSED THE TURN into the dirt path that would have taken us directly back to the restaurant/parking lot, and ended up going up a much longer, circuitous road without any idea, until the very last minute, of whether it would actually take us where we needed to go. But it wouldn’t be a hiking (or “hiking”) trip with me if I didn’t get you lost, as Miss H could attest to (from when she and I came to Bilbao together in 2010 and I made her saunter past a herd of bulls because “the trail map wouldn’t have sent us this way if it weren’t safe”).

And of course it rained on us again.


Torrentially. But we were elated (at least I was). Because we made it to one of the most beautiful places on earth. And we had no idea what we were doing, yet we survived.

WHICH naturally made us hungry again. So we moved on to Donosti (San Sebastián), with a list of pintxos bars for all compass. That, however, needs its own post.

And I need to sleep a little bit now…

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Guggenheim: Wishes, Hypnotic Music, Feminine Ways (framed by steak and croquettes)

So on Friday Miss R arrived for a visit, and I took a bit of time off my chapter to show her around town. First mandatory stop was of course the Guggenheim Museum, whose construction and 1997 inauguration spearheaded Bilbao’s transformation from a depressed and depressing post-industrial port into a thriving art and tourism center. Of course this being Bilbao, a funny thing happened on our way to culture…


“This” being the T-Bone steak (chuletón) at Sasibil, with a heavenly tomato-cod salad, because one needs one’s strength to properly appreciate aesthetics.

But we did eventually make it to the museum and, as is usually the case, had to spend at least half an hour just walking around the impressive Frank Gehry building and the river


(gazing at no-less-beautiful surrounding structures like the Universidad de Deusto, which have taken a backseat to the Guggenheim but are worth much attention themselves).

In fact, it always happens that I barely make it to the permanent collection inside, because the outdoor sculptures are so attractive in themselves


(here Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye and Jeff Koons’s Tulips). Even if (like us) you get a stupid txirimiri day (drizzle, drizzle, drizzle).

All attractive–except for that ugly dog, which I hate even if it’s also by Koons.


No matter how you make me focus on it, it just looks friggin’ scraggly and mangy, and the flowers seem all wrong, and the colors are unappealing, and it doesn’t even look like a dog.

Once inside, you continue to ignore the collection, because the building itself is so imposing you just want to walk through the hanging passageways, and see how the glass frames the landscape outside, and just take innumerable photographs of the curves and angles (that you’ll never show anyone because everyone does the same thing), wondering how such an airy, sublime effect can be achieved with stone, iron, and titanium. Another twenty minutes at least must be dedicated to walking through the colossal Richard Serra sculptures,


appropriately named The Nature of Time because you keep thinking they’ll close soon and you’ll never get to Andy Warhol (but then again, so many Warhols everywhere else!).

We never did get to Warhol or Antoni Tàpies, but that’s also because we stumbled upon two wonderful temporary exhibitions. The first one was a Yoko Ono retrospective titled Half-a-Wind-ShowAlthough when I think of Yoko Ono what normally comes to mind (aside from John Lennon, evidently) is terrible pop music and disturbing screeching sounds, this exhibit included some truly intelligent conceptual art (rare!) and extremely beautiful objects and installations. Through which we also just had to walk:


In the photo above are actually two pieces, Riverbed and Morning Beams, in which “one hundred white nylon ropes suggesting sun rays emanate from the gallery’s ceiling down to the floor, where they are anchored with sailing knots.” (And me, ruining the holistic harmony of the composition but not any worse than Ono herself did.) I also tremendously enjoyed the recreation of Balance Piece: “Build a room with a strong electric magnet set on the left side wall so everything in the room is drawn to the left a little in time. This will be a good balance for your mind which is going to the right a little in time” (without a doubt, I would need the magnet on the right, because I get more and more anarchical and irresponsible the older I get–which is not a bad thing at all).

I also walked straight into her Wish Tree installation, but that was not only allowed–it was encouraged. And I love making wishes.


Much better to wish upon an olive tree than upon a star (anybody guess what I wished?).

(And no matter what you think of Yoko Ono, can you believe she is 81 years old? 80 is the new avant-garde.)

The second temporary exhibit, which we almost missed because it’s tucked in there in the Film & Video gallery with the tiny little entrance, was Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors.


SO SO glad we didn’t skip it! It is a multi-screen video installation made at a mansion in upstate New York named Rokeby Farm, which used to belong to the Astors and is now some sort of artists’ colony (one more of those “holy grail” places I now must visit, although that might require picking up some artistic skill). As Kjartansson explains, he brought a group of musician friends there; each one recorded an individual music session, and there was a final collective scene filmed in a single take. The house and the surrounding scenery are bewitching; the experience of watching as you stand there in the dark gallery surrounded by silent spellbound strangers is entrancing. The music itself–a spiritual consisting of the over-and-over-again repetition of the single line “Once more I fall into my feminine ways“–really makes you feel in trance (despite the piece’s title coming from ABBA’s last album). This Art in America review by George Volk captures it very well:

“The Visitors takes its title from the final album by Swedish pop stars ABBA, recorded while the band was being riven by dissension and divorce. Last summer Kjartansson, an acclaimed performance artist and musician, invited several of his close musician friends, mostly from the thriving Reykjavík scene, to accompany him upstate. Each was going through a significant personal upheaval (Kjartansson was getting divorced; Sveinsson was leaving the famous band Sigur Rós). They lived together for a week, culminating in the performance. Nothing of what happened during that time is explicitly revealed. Instead, everything flows into the music: troubles, sadness, joy, trust. After you’ve heard the “feminine” refrain about 40 times it seems almost liturgical, evoking a state where sorrow, resignation, acceptance and elation coexist.”

Then the museum closed, and we never made it to Jacques Lipchitz.

Naturally all that sorrow, resignation, acceptance, and elation make you hungry, so we came home and I made Miss R a nice dinner of lettuce & tomato salad, ibérico ham, and once more (my feminine ways!), croquetas. Which I am getting better at frying, even though some of them still explode. Especially the cheese ones (notice completely empty shell at 11 o’clock):


But practice makes perfect and, as in so many other things, I shall prevail.

Saturday and Sunday were spent on a road trip to San Juan de Gastelugatxe (on my bucket list of holy grail places for years!) and Donosti-San Sebastián. But that requires its own post, to follow very soon…




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Bilbo and the Shire

The Welcoming Committee now gone, I am briefly on my own to once more work out the intricacies of Spanish life–which can be quite intricate–in Bilbo (not a hobbit on Middle Earth but a city in Euskal Herria nowhere as familiar to me as my precious Bar-cel-ona). They left me only essential survival information, i.e., where to eat delicious food in and around town. Since I know who reads my musings and what’s really important to them, here is the complete list:

Comer en Bilbao

Bares pintxos

–    El Globo (c/Diputación, al lado de la Biblioteca)

–    La Viña, al lado de El Globo

–    Sasibil, Berton (c/ Jardines en el Casco Viejo)

–    El Huevo Frito (Calle del Maestro García Rivero, 1)

–    Lekeitio (c/Diputación)


–    Kokken (plaza del Gas)

–    Zapirain  (pescado, caro)

–    Lar (c/ de la Amistad 3) sirve lo que le da la gana, carito pero calidad excelente. No perderse el rape.

–    USB (Indautxu 8-10) chuletón a la piedra bueno

–    Kimtxu (Henao 17) taberna vasco-asiática, con tapas y restaurante

–    Etxebarri (comida a la brasa, excepcional) Calle de San Juan, 1, Atxondo, Vizcaya 946 58 30 42

–    Itxas Gane (pescado fresco y muy bien hecho) en Barrika Carretera General de Algorta hacia Plentzia, 946 77 26 71

–    Casa Rufo (c/Hurtado de Amézaga 5)

–    Restaurante Laga (c/ de la Merced 2, Casco Viejo) viernes noche y sábados puede que tenga ventresca de bonito a la plancha y encebollada (de morir)

Because food is what the Basque Country is all about, I’ll try to cover as much ground as possible (already figured out which places are closed for vacation, since in Spain things are open… when they’re open). The gastronomical future is, however, promising. So far I’ve even agreed to taste hog’s jowls in oyster sauce at Kokken and most definitely did not regret it as I was afraid of. Very proud of myself too as I tried the 5-course mystery menu (13€!) where they choose the dishes, and they only bring out the bones, organs, and fat for select customers that strike them as culinary adventurers (my take-no-prisoners company was definitely a plus). This great review has pictures of other goodies I ate: salmon carpaccio, sirloin with peach sauce, cod fritters with honey (delectable little wonton pasta beef cannellone not shown).

This morning’s first order of business was to procure foodstuffs for home, which was luckily also high tourism as the architecturally striking Mercado de la Ribera (bilingual description/gorgeous photos here) is right around the corner. A special treat, since it was partially closed for renovation the last time I was in Bilbao. The site has been a market since the fourteenth century; by 1870 it consisted entirely of covered stands, and the present building was inaugurated in 1929. The marvelous stained glass and picturesque views of  San Antón Church and the surrounding neighborhood (not to mention some quaint characters)

Image (6)

really make the shopping experience worth getting swindled by the fish lady who knows you’re not from around here.

It was, however, too disappointing to find Lau-Lau, the croquette shop I remembered, closed–these being one of my cherished decadent foods, with which I could eat myself to death. I did later find my way to their other store in the Old Quarter, Lautxo (though I hear the two recently split), and could stock up on THE BEST croquetas I’ve ever had despite what El País may say–so good that after my last trip here I may or may not have smuggled four dozens in my luggage back to NYC. Today, three flavors: chorizo, ham, and roquefort (I won’t be eating them all, guests are coming soon!).

The thing is the market too opens… when it opens. In fact, when General Miguel Primo de Rivera, Spanish Prime Minister/military dictator between 1923 and 1930, decided to tour it upon its inauguration, his visit coincided with odd unexpected closing hours, and it was the presidential schedule (not the market’s) that had to be adjusted. As Mariano José de Larra wrote in his famous 1833 customs sketch, part of the Spanish national character is summarized in the phrase “please come back tomorrow.”

HENCE, for those desperate times when everything is closed and there is dire need for emergency gourmet nourishment, the Welcoming Committee’s top-secret last secret revealed: the ibérico ham vending machine!


It is not entirely true that I was left only with a list of bars and restaurants. A very charming lady I met last night whilst bar-hopping (herself formerly a professor in the U.S.) called me on my cell this morning to let me know (among other helpful tidbits including the location of the eco- & local product- grocery store), that Bilbao men go crazy for women of my type (which I’m hoping means “sultry Caribbean enchantress”), and that there are many doctors (not sure if M or Ph) to choose from. If only I hadn’t sworn off doctors. (I know about my problem with parentheses.)

But before any debauchery (or work, the activity that really needs to take place imminently) can occur, other basics had to be covered. Such as figuring out the clothes washer (mercifully much simpler than most European ones but still takes two hours in the shortest cycle). And negotiating the apparatus-for-hanging-clothes-out-to-dry


without irretrievably dropping the wash down a six-story shaft (needless to say, I now have only one pair of lucky leopard-print undies). This operation takes a double dose of Tramadol if you have any sort of neck injury.

And before any feasting, a little discipline and dietary ground rules (you’re not in London anymore, Dorothy). For tonight’s dinner, a cleansing yet to-die-for homemade lettuce heart and smoked salmon salad with capers and mustard vinaigrette (OK, accompanied by my FIRST SUMMER BOTTLE OF BLANC PESCADOR!!!!), followed by wickedly plump cherries. Moving forward, only two meals a day. Minimum one hour of walking. At least sometimes avoid the outdoor escalators/pay elevator and just climb up the many, many, many steps


that lead, from every direction, to my pretty Solokoetxe street


and my hilltop apartment with a view of my own.


Laster arte! (See you soon!)

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London: Bubonic Plague, Literature, Loos. Then Off to Spain!

Back in London for my last 24 hrs. in England, I was regrettably unable to catch up with Misses B&K, who were detained by work, and so remained in misanthropic distancing mode (already bitchy about temporary quarters and suitcase-living and English food). Stayed at the new-ish Wesley, the cheapest hotel I could find walking distance from King’s Cross with air conditioning (it’s not as cool there as you think, Londoniers!!!) and free in-room wifi. It labels itself an “ethical” hotel which I took to mean environmental sustainability and, yes, that’s part of it, but it’s also somehow associated with the Methodist Church, “rebranding to The Wesley in May 2013 to reflect our pride in our Christian & Methodist heritage.” So basically, I stayed in a convent, and it didn’t explode! (I did remain on my best behavior.) The room was a bit monastic, come to think of it, and the view SO nondescript that they just covered it with frosted glass. But I did get a DOUBLE bed and blessed rainfall shower. By “cheap,” however, I mean $358USD/night (although it did include breakfast), more than the NYC High Line Standard! So goodbye London and your darned £££ living.

I shall recommend no restaurants (ugh!), but champagne at the St. Pancras Station definitely a treat:


Two unexpected tourist highlights, for history and literature buffs:

#1 was a visit to the Museum of London, which I picked over the Tower of London for its free admission, as opposed to £22 (I am not ALWAYS a spendthrift, especially if I don’t care about those crown jewels!). Voluntary donation not collected by human person as at MetMuseum, so I shamelessly just dumped my small change, which given my lack of visual recognition of UK coin, may once again have been dozens of ££. It is an interactive history of Londinium from pre-Roman times (the building actually wraps around the ruins of London’s Roman wall) to the present but, passionate about wrongdoing and uncanniness and such things, I was especially mesmerized with the sections on the 1348 plague and the 1666 London fire. Did you know during the plague people wore perfume because it was thought to ward off infection? ESPECIALLY if it contained ambergris, defined by the museum caption as “whale’s vomit.”

But most fun of all are the near-life size walk-through “neighborhoods,” from the Roman houses to the most “realistic” of all, the Victorian walk:

Victorian walk

Miss L would have LOVED the latter, seeing as she has a wonderful book on nineteenth-century bourgeois urban spaces. I have been fascinated with such spatial simulacra ever since in 1967 I informed my family I did not want to play with a dollhouse, but in a dollhouse, and my terrific much beloved granddad complied (giving all the credit to Santa Claus–my grandma being responsible for the Victorian dress).


Which explains how at the Museum of London I was happy to play for way too long with the make-believe electronic fountain that encourages you to “wet” your hand and then notifies that “you have just contacted the plague. You will develop headaches, fever, and buboes. You will die in three days.”

#2 was to be a visit to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner to pay my respects to some of my favorite dead poets (beginning with Alfred, Lord Tennyson:  Dear as remembered kisses after death/And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d/On lips that are for others; deep as love/Deep as first love, and wild with all regret/O Death in Life, the days that are no more!). But, it being a church and everything, it wasn’t open on Sunday (!).

Thus impeded from visiting Charles Dickens in his grave, I headed to his house in Bloomsbury, with very Low Expectations, as he only lived there for a couple of years (1837-39) and it seemed sure to be a tourist trap. In actual fact, it was a very engaging little stop and the amusing audio tour really brings his environment to life. It was the first house he purchased, when his success had barely begun, and shows (in very Bourdieu-esque fashion) the author’s position-taking, based on his own perception of what a writer’s social standing should or would be.

Image (5)

Most of the furnishings were actually his, and the way he thought about his private space made me think I was his kindred soul: his attention to entertaining and his wine cellar (SO important to him!), the intimacy and comfort of his study with that wonderful desk, where I too would have written Oliver Twist and not some time-wasting travel blog. We both loved mirrors, and not just out of vanity. And our color psychology! Even though his favorite color was SCARLET (his study, pre-Holmes!/my kitchen), he chose a lovely periwinkle blue for his dining room (I for my bedroom). Spiritual twins. Then of course I heard about how he took up with actress Ellen Ternan and abandoned his lovely wife Kate soon after she bore their tenth child, publishing a note in the newspaper for all to know, and keeping her sister Georgina as housekeeper and nanny. (At least he had the decency to keep all those children! And Kate had the brilliance to gift Georgina a ring in the shape of a snake.)  Asshole. So, not my kindred soul. I hope (am I sure?).

After a stroll to the Thames, so no one would say I hadn’t even laid eyes upon it during my third visit to London,


I was really getting close to my fill of THAT much culture and civilization, what with all the accidental stumbling upon more literary sites


and the award-winning public loos.


In any case I did not even have enough time to get the cryogenic lypolisis, from which I’m sure I could have greatly benefited, whatever it might be.

cryogenic lypolisis

So the time came to leave Brittania.

Best of Times

And I was already LONGING for Spain, because… Spain.

I crossed the seas on mighty Vueling Airlines (infuriatingly acquired by Iberia Airlines, which I promised to boycott forever), and made it to Bilbao (sort-of-Spain, in any case: Kaixo, Bilbo!). JUST IN TIME to join the beautiful Misses M&P for the second half of the Argentina-Germany World Cup final (my poor little Messi!). And now I am in what will be my lovely digs on Solokoetxe Street through August 7th.


And the HARD WORK has started.


I can tell it will be a most  prolific three weeks.

(And BTW, I brought them some of the Cornish sea salt, and we tried it, and it tastes… salty!)

Love to y’all talk to you soon!

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Of Love and Travel, Pursuing and Distancing

A wonderful life-saving therapist told me years ago that I am the atypical real fusion of two relationship types, the “distancer” and the “pursuer”–someone who needs to keep others exactly at arms-length, no farther and no closer. Not shy about chasing after whomever I want (or throwing myself at/on the Big Bear beefcake on the next plane seat), I become overwhelmed the moment they start stalking me by, say, texting to see if there’s anything they can do to help while I’m afflicted with a nasty cold. My allergy to assiduousness has more or less turned into a pattern my pal Miss Ursula describes thus:


With which I’ve made my peace (well, 80% of the time, as Miss Ursula’s headaches will attest to), because in the end I’d much rather the people in my life be deeply interesting than… nice.

But that is a digressive preamble: this is not a love-life post. I mention such things only because I’ve figured out, without therapist’s benefit this time, that they spill over into the rest of my life. I am constantly torn between Bell Systems’ “Reach Out and Touch Someone” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (which I would have adopted as a life motto if my dear friend Miss Cruella hadn’t taken it first). And this is never more maddeningly apparent than when traveling solo.

Take, for example, my overpowering need to watch the World Cup in a public place, because I figure fútbol is essentially communal, and what better time to commune with The People than while abroad on my own. Thus I walk into a pub: I’ve tried two in Cambridge this week–the Baron of Beef and the Mitre, the latter


“FAMOUS FOR BEING TWO PUBS SEPARATED BY A YARD NAMED AFTER A MEDIEVAL PRIEST” (whatever). Resigned to having some vaguely nauseating if happily inexpensive food (sorry Brits I know y’all love your mushy peas),


I arrive exactly one hour before the Netherlands-Argentina game, so as to be conveniently seated with a good view of the TV when the action starts. And then some dude decides that right when the referee flips the coin is the perfect time to ask about my identity, origin, occupation, and (immediate) future plans. This being Perfidious Albion (or at least Europa: the English had no beef to grind in this, and I gather from their tone of voice they are always exquisitely friendly to me), he is the only briefly sympathetic soul in a roomful of orange-shirted face-painted Dutch hooligans who eventually succeed in ostracizing me into a lonely corner for being the only voice yelling “Messi! Messi!” with admittedly decreasing fervor–as well the only wine drinker. (I have nothing against painting flags on one’s face,


but they should never correspond to one’s own country; nationalism is EVIL.) Had I had the nerve to remain through the end of penalty kicks in the neck-craning corner where I ended up (something that would have never happened to Miss L, who has the gift of gab), I would have shown them, HA! And now, against my prediction but not my desire, there will be a Germany-Argentina final which I will most likely TRAGICALLY MISS because of my flight to Bilbao!!! (Just to clarify, my team was initially Spain, but oy.)

Thus shunned by The People, the next day I retreated, after a morning meeting with Cambridge colleagues at the University Library,


to the idyllic seclusion of my little flat,


for a bit of writing and a dinner of frozen pizza stolen from my “landlady” and Marks & Spencer generic cava, followed by a huge stomach ache. Also a run-in with Expedia over having sold me a “Secret Save” hotel reservation not remotely in the London neighborhood I had initially searched (and chewing out the customer representative, at 20¢/min, until I got a REFUND on my non-refundable booking). Now I will have to devote my remaining days to embargoing Expedia just as in 2012 I had to commit to devastating Iberia Airlines.

All of which made me pine again for the company of others. Feeling faintly sad and lonely (Miss L, Miss L, why have you forsaken me?), I thought of finding myself a local guide: isn’t THAT what dating sites are for!!!??? Well, not exactly, but I did briefly peruse one before deciding it was an ill-advised idea, without the foggiest notion that swiping left (or was it right?) automatically “liked” a profile. Hence I received a message from a friendly Cambridgshire Camel telling me that “I’m flattered, very flattered,” but “I’ve tried trans-Atlantic relationships before and it was just too tough to sustain.” NEVERTHELESS, “if you’re willing to put in the effort, I’m willing to stay in touch on here/by email/on Skype and see where things go.” Now I know British gents are much less commitment-phobic than Americans (or New Zealanders), but still, I had nothing with the words “put in the effort” or the rest of my life in mind.

Accordingly, I embraced the prospect of a bit of contemplative isolation, and spent my last couple of days in Cambridge a) writing, and b) touring King’s College Chapel and the Round Church. The Chapel, begun under Henry VI in 1441, is a gorgeous structure uncannily reminiscent of a Mediterranean Catholic gothic church, but strikingly clean of idols and other clutter.


Although as a post-Mediterranean gal, I love the iconic excess of Spanish and Italian sacred art, I was quite impressed by the strong connection between religion and learning in a medieval/early Renaissance Reformist church–perhaps nowhere clearer than at University of Cambridge. My peoples came up with the Inquisition, they just liked to burn folk and shit like that until… just the other day? I was also impressed with how educational the exhibit was. Who knew the secret to the lasting power of stained glass was dried urine:

stained glass

The Round Church, built around 1130 and modeled after the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem (although it didn’t much look like the original to me?), was also a beautiful and serene retreat for a temporary misanthrope:


The exhibit posts too were extremely informative, although once again I managed to focus most especially on a tangential piece of data: the origin of the term “Bloody Mary,” which I, acknowledged ignoramus, was not aware of. Again, WHO KNEW!

And that’s that for Cambridge the Old. Tomorrow London, and Sunday, Hispania. Before leaving, special mention must be made of D’Arry’s Restaurant, recommended to me by Miss MC, whom I sadly missed on this trip. I almost paid no attention to her, as she loves mushy peas, but am enormously glad I did! Very good food (if not Jamie Oliver-grade), but most especially memorable for the wine pairings they do with South Australian d’Arenberg wines. I had The Olive Grove Chardonnay and The Hermit Crab Viognier-Marsanne. Delicious.

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