Want to get a taste of Spanish food, hear Flamenco music and see beautiful footage of the Spanish city and countryside? Then take a few minutes to watch this beautiful video from The Perennial Plate. Cut together with footage and experiences from two weeks spent in Spain, this video features food and travel imagery from Basque County, Galicia, Andalucia and Barcelona. Retrace the steps of The Perennial Plate through this video and savor the Spanish view.
The Basque region straddles the border between northeastern Spain and southwestern France. For the past five days I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region, and today I and my group are crossing the border into France.
One of our Basque guides, Josu, says the culture on the other side of the border isn’t as strong. While only 28% of Spanish Basques can speak Basque (Euskara), that number goes down to about 15% in France.
“They don’t have as strong of an identity,” Josu says. “They didn’t have Franco, they didn’t have Guernica, they didn’t have the Carlist Wars.”
And that’s an important factor for the whole Basque separatist movement. Being a distinct cultural and linguistic group got them a lot of grief from various Spanish governments. Just like with other minority peoples, that helped strengthen their identity, which in turn increased their separation from the nation. And while the Spanish Basques aren’t being persecuted anymore, they still mistrust the central government. In France there’s been more of a live-and-let-live feeling. ETA, a terrorist group that wants an independent Basque state, has committed relatively few attacks there.
%Gallery-124848%Today politics are on everyone’s mind. There are local and regional elections all across Spain and Josu is standing for mayor of Alcalá, a scattering of 23 villages with fewer than 700 voters. He’s in the Bildu party, a separatist party that was only legalized a month ago and has already caused controversy because of its alleged links to ETA. Some people call it ETA’s Sinn Féin. The supreme court, however, saw insufficient evidence of a link and allowed them to run.
Josu doesn’t think he’s going to win because he hasn’t done much campaigning. He’s mostly running so Bildu will be on Alcalá’s ballot. There’s some tension under his calm demeanor, though.
It’s a shame politics have to mar such a beautiful landscape. We drive only a few miles into France and our route has us walking along the seaside until we reach the border again. The views are excellent, with waves crashing into sheer cliffs and large fingers of rock stabbing out of the surf.
“Legend says that giants used to throw rocks at the people and they’d land in the water like this,” Josu says. “There are stories of witches too. They used to fly to the caves to have their covens.”
One true tale of this rugged shore is about the wreckers. These were a type of land pirate who lured ships onto the rocks and then looted the cargo. Josu tells us the women would stand up on the cliffs holding lanterns on dark nights to fool sea captains. When a mariner followed the signal of what he thought was a lighthouse, he’d crash on the rocks and have a horde of wreckers descend on the surviving crew. Read Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn for a great fictional account of this line of work.
In contrast to the shore, the land is peaceful, with broad green fields and apple orchards. A stately home with graceful, round towers stands proudly in the distance. The cliffs gradually level out and we walk along a wide sandy strand. This is Hendaia Beach, the longest in the Basque region. Like along other parts of the coast, it saw its heyday in the earlier part of the century when elegant villas and casinos housed and entertained the wealthy. It’s still popular for surfers willing to brave the cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea.
All too soon we’ve made it back to the border, where we go for lunch in Hondarribia, a very Basque town. While there we do a very Basque thing–bar hopping for pintxos! The Basque answer to tapas, these elegant little meals-on-bread will fill you up after two or three servings. There’s an endless variety and each bar has its specialties. They’re best when washed down with some txakoli, the Basque sparkling wine.
After lunch we return to San Sebastián, the wealthiest city in the Basque region. This port was the place to be back in the region’s days of high-class tourism, and our hotel, the Hotel de Londres y de Ingleterra, once accommodated the likes of Mata Hari. Check out the photo gallery for their astounding view of the bay.
Still talking about our very Basque lunch, we head out for a very Basque dinner on the outskirts of San Sebastián, overlooking the industrial port. With the sun setting and the ships coming and going, it’s a location to touch any traveler’s heart. We arrive a bit early so we go to a bar along Pasajes de San Juan, a street that seems to be a virtual Basque cultural center. Basque flags and protest banners adorn the windows. Basque is almost the only language heard in the bars as a band goes from place to place playing traditional music, to which everyone sings along as the txakoli flows freely.
Josu looks very at home, joking with crowd and smiling at the band. His mobile rings every few minutes as friends call him to give him updates. He plays it cool, still insisting he’s not going to win. I don’t quite believe his nonchalance. As another politician once said, “You don’t run for second place.”
Dinner is at Casa Mirones. The food is the usual high standard I’ve come to expect from this part of the world, while the view is incomparable. One wall is all glass, and we’re treated a full view of the harbor at twilight, the ships passing by so closely we could call out to the crew. Sometime during the excellent paella, Josu gets the call he’s waiting for. His face lights up and he beams a grin at the world. The table erupts in applause as he announces he’s won.
Bildu made a surprisingly strong showing. In the Basque region they got 25.9% of the vote and their candidates won many regional and local seats. Whatever people think of Bildu, it looks like it’s here to stay.
It’s not every day that your tour guide makes the news.
Coming up next: Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of the Basque Country!
Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.
This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.
Well, Epiphany actually, but in Spain this is when we give presents. Christmas in Spain is a time for big meals and family fun, as well as church services for those who are so inclined. Santa passes Spain by to deal with the Anglo and Germanic countries, and Japan from what I hear. Spanish children wait for Los Reyes, the Three Kings, who come on their camels bearing gifts for good little boys and girls just like they did with Jesus all those years back.
The night before, it’s traditional to eat roscón de Reyes, the tasty donut-like creation seen here. This year my wife Almudena took some time off from astronomy to bake her very first roscón. It came out great. As usual, we ate it over at my 99 year-old neighbor’s place, and my wife’s roscón was better than the store-bought one she provided. Roscón is typically eaten with chocolate, hot chocolate. Now this isn’t your wimpy American cocoa; it’s a big chocolate bar melted down and served in tea cups! Perfect for dipping your roscón into.
Every roscón comes with a secret toy surprise baked somewhere inside. If you get it in your slice you have good luck for the rest of the year. I got the toy from the store-bought one, and my son Julián got the one from my wife’s roscón. Some mothers mark the spot where the toy is and make sure their kid gets that piece. I can neither confirm nor deny that Almudena did that.
Another tradition on January 5 is the Cabalgata de Reyes, a big parade where the Three Kings pass through town accompanied by their friends. Check out the video below to see this year’s parade in Madrid. After the parade the kids go to sleep, setting a shoe out for the Kings to leave the gifts next to. They also leave supplies for the hungry Kings and their camels. Julián left out peanuts for the camels and Baileys for the Kings. Remarkably, it was all gone the next morning! I thought of making a trail of peanut shells leading from Julián’s bed to his presents, but decided that would be a bit creepy.
The morning of January 6 is just like Christmas morning in other countries. The kids are up and out of bed early to see what those magical home invaders have brought. Since Julián was a good boy he got everything he asked for in his letter to the Kings. This was easy because he only requested four things. Ah, the advantages of not having a television! In fact, he got more than he asked for.
Now we’re off to my mother-in-law’s house because the Kings stopped there too. I have a shoe sitting in her living room and I’m dying to know what’s next to it. Although we did our shopping last minute (some traditions are universal), we made sure every shoe was well stocked. A few years back we got our elderly neighbor a Furby, which she still has and loves. Yeah, we all made fun of those things when they came out, but imagine how amazing a Furby is to someone born in 1911.
One of the best things about traveling around Spain is trying out the various regional cuisines. Here in Extremadura, in the southwestern part of the country, the people are known for the quality of their cuisine.
First off, there are these shapely pig legs pictured on the right. Cured and ready to be cut into thin slices, this is called jamón, and is a personal favorite of mine. In a country where people are always saying their regional food is the best, a lot of people seek out Extremaduran jamón. The care and feeding of the pigs is the key.
Spaniards love their pork. While their beef steaks are only OK and their chicken dishes good but unremarkable, they seem to have devised unlimited varieties of pork products. There’s lomo (tenderloin), morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo (sausage with dried smoked red peppers), salchichon (Spanish salami) and a million kinds of embutido (seasoned sausage). I’m very glad I’m not vegetarian.
One surprise when visiting Extremadura was to discover my favorite cheese comes from there and only there. Torta del Casar is a soft white cheese made of sheep’s milk. It comes in a soft cake that is sliced open to reveal the gooey cheese inside. It has a creamy consistency and rich flavor, perfect to put on crackers. Extremadura produces a whole range of good cheeses, but torta del Casar is the most unique.
The region is also well-known for the quality of its paprika, called pimentón in Spanish. Not surprisingly it makes it into a lot of dishes, including cazuela, a paprika butter that’s very good on bread. Like every other region, Extremadura also has its own brands of olive oil, preserves, and sweets.
And let’s not forget the wine! One good line is Habla del Silencio, a full-bodied, slightly biting red of consistent quality. Another is Theodosius, a Tempranillo/Graciano mix named after the famous Byzantine emperor.
Every town in Extremadura has at least one shop selling local food and wine. If you’re in Mérida, check out Serraquesada on Calle José Ramón Mélida 24, close to the Roman museum, where most of the photos in the gallery were taken. This family-owned business focuses on Extremaduran products and stocks pretty much anything you could ask for. The front has rows and rows of jamón, and shelves stuffed with other food and condiments. In the back is a well-stocked bodega with a few tables so you can sit and sample Extremadura’s wonderful food and wine. Their website is still under construction but the business offers international mail order via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of Extremadura’s better-known products such as jamón and torta del Casar can be found in better shops all around the country.
Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest
Coming up next: Top five castles of Extremadura!
As a poor college student backpacking through Europe, one of the more painful ordeals I experienced was exercising enough self-restraint at Spain’s delicious tapas bars to not eat myself into even worse poverty.
The temptation was nearly irresistible. Let me set the stage for you: after a full day of walking for miles and taking in the sights, I’d find myself in an aged and weathered pub in the early evening, hunched over the bar and staring at dozens of small plates loaded up with the most tantalizing, bite-sized morsels–each of which pleaded seductively for me to wolf it down.
These compact, culinary masterpieces were dollops of perfection bursting with rich and addictive flavors that threatened to bleed my money belt dry. And, at a couple of bucks a pop, this was a very likely scenario considering that it would have taken a few dozen to satiate my appetite.
I’m looking forward to returning to Spain one day now that I have a real job and with it, the freedom to eat as many damn tapas as I please. In the meantime, I’m going to file away a wonderful Travel & Leisure article I recently came across featuring 36 of the very best tapas bars in San Sebastián, Barcelona, Seville, and Madrid. And then one day, I’m going to eat my way through Spain.