I just returned from a long weekend away with my husband in Bilbao, Spain. I say that with trepidation, as, according to many Basque people, it is not Spain, but Basque Country. There are some who are content to remain part of Spain and France, and others who want independence, so when in Basque Country, say it the Basque way.
As a lover of history, linguistics and just about everything else except strenuous exercise, I can say that it was a great weekend (even though a lot of exercise snuck in)! Great weather, great food, great architecture, confusing languages, and interesting sites all round. Here are some highlights:
Guggenheim Museum: The building itself is well worth the visit! The architect, Frank Gehry, literally designed the building on one of his free-form doodles. With only one straight wall that I could see, I can imagine that he was doodling when the phone rang and made his hand jerk, causing the straight line… it’s an engineering feat, to say the least. Just outside the Guggenheim are several sculptures, notably a giant dog made of flowering plants; it was intended to be a temporary display, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, and it’s now a permanent landmark. There’s also one for us odd arachnophiles out there, a giant spider. Two sculptures look like they’d float away, even though they weigh tons: “Tulips”, and a tower of balls.
The weather was perfect, so we took a “Bilboat” tour down the waterway; it gave us the chance to see areas of the city which are usually far from the tourist route; areas that are in the throes of rejuvenation and restoration.
Pintxos: You can’t go to Basque Country and eat in a usual restaurant! You need to go (what my husband and I dubbed) “Pintxopping” – like pub crawling but for a Pintxos (“Pinchos”) dinner. They are similar to Spanish tapas but far more elaborate; 5-6 will make a meal. 12 Euro will get you 6 Pintxos and a pint of beer. Any Pintxos bar worth their salt will spread out a wide variety of the treats along the length of their bar, and diners choose a selection of hot and cold delicacies. Bars pride themselves on signature creations; one bar we ate at had a mound of crab meat baked under a layer of squid-ink-tinted cheese, in the shape of a regional mountain. Most are served atop toasted slices of Baguettes, though there are also many on skewers, or served as spring rolls. If you’re now hungry, sorry about that – but you can find recipes all over Pinterest.
Language: The Basque language (Euskara) is a language isolate – in other words, it is unrelated to any other known language. Within language families, one could interpret this or that word based on a known relative language, e.g. between English street and German strasse. But looking at a road sign in Bilbao, you would have NO clue as to which word is the street name, and which is the word for street, road or path. Unless you know Basque, you would have no chance of interpreting anything – even if the context is known. An example sentence from the article on Wikipedia illustrates that point: “Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit” means “Martin buys the newspapers for me”. It is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe, with every other language that might have existed in relation to it having gone extinct, so there’s no way to decipher it based on a comparative method, linguistically. It may have been related to the Aquitanian language, which was spoken in the region before the Roman Republic’s conquest in the Pyrenees region, but the exact origins are unknown. It’s a fascinating study, if you’re interested!
One of the images above was taken on my flight home; the Alps were in fine form, and the weather great for flying; Matterhorn can be seen in the centre. I hope you enjoyed my mini-tour, and I would recommend that you get yourself a pintxo or two to tide you over until your next meal…