A Basque Experience
While wandering down an Edinburgh sidestreet one afternoon my husband and I noticed a travel advertisement.
“Visit the Basque country, revel in the panoramic views of our mountains, take time to soak in the breathtaking scenery of this ancient land.” A young couple were portrayed astride bicycles gazing up into the distant blue of mountain skies.
The north of Spain was our destination. It was mid July and we'd enjoyed the sail on the cruise ship and its arrival at the port of Bilbao was imminent. Our coach waited while we all disembarked. Climbing onto the coach I noticed we were mixed ages and there must have been at least 35 passengers heading for the same destination. The coach made for Eibar, the village where our hotel was based.
A postcard was passed around illustrating a long ranch type building encircled by high walls thick with clinging ivy. Lawrence and and I were both thrilled to be staying in such a romantic looking establishment. The postcard read “The Arrates Hotel.” Resting on open grassland it stood out as an impressive Spanish residence and on seeing it we could hardly wait to arrive.
At last the coach slid down a hill, turned a corner and Eibar was upon us. I wished I had a camera ready to catch the expressions of our fellow passengers as well as our own.
The anticipated village was a concrete maze. The streets cobbled and narrow had various articles of laundry of all shades and volume hanging from open windows. An assortment of bright clothing appeared to reach endless heights from shadowed apartments.
It must have taken the coachload of holidaymakers at least ten minutes to grasp the fact that this congested town was our holiday location. There was silence. Bewildered looks were exchanged between couples. Nothing was said.
Our coach drew up at a hotel. Off-white in colour, it was at least nine floors high. The building was entered by four wide steps a few feet from the pavement. Our courier helped us alight from the coach and quickly transferred us to the reception area. Prominently displayed above the receptionist's head hung a picture just like the postcard. Scrawled inside the frame were the words “The Arrates Hotel”. It was a strange incident. Perhaps in another time there had been such an establishment and this was the modern version. Our party must have been in holiday spirit however because the main reaction was amusement. If there was any real disappointment felt, no one made it known.
Eibar was an industrial area where little English was spoken. The hotel staff were limited to a few words and no information office was available. We later discovered a road out towards the hills, but this proved to be worthless as dense forests blocked us from any prospect of climbing.
On our second day in Eibar we travelled by coach to San Sebastian and this was the highlight of our holiday. This city has many impressive features. Set deep in the heart of Basque country the coast curves round from Southern France. Standing in the midst of the circle of a bay a green mountain stood on either side, with a little island right in the centre. The startling white sands, magnificent architecture and curving promenades had our cameras clicking constantly.
Time stood still that day as we lingered on the main promenade facing the bay.
Towards the shoreline we were surprised to see only two couples sunbathing. Their vivid sun umbrellas only emphasised their isolation on a beach of such outstanding appeal. We would have expected it to be crowded with visitors. We later realised this is normal for the north of Spain where there are numerous deserted coves at the height of season.
San Sebastian, famous for its sea-food, provided a host of fish dishes to sample. The restaurants are good, but it's the tapas bars in the Old Town which are renowned. Tapas are small dishes served singly or with two or three other combinations.
Until the time of the Civil War these dishes were served free along with the drinks which were purchased. They are no longer free, but still good value and a delicious way to have a snack. Arrayed on gleaming counter -tops they are rapidly consumed by the steady stream of customers who quickly fill seats as soon as they become available. The carefree atmosphere and hearty welcome make these bars the favourite rendevous for everyone.
The next two days in the Basque region were spent exploring Biarritz situated just over the
French border. Shopping there tends to be expensive, but for sheer originality this resort too is a photographer's dream. Because we were based in Eibar these areas were within easy access and we guessed this was why this particular town was chosen.
The people of Eibar are helpful and kind, though the first impression they give is of a rather stern and forbidding nature. In the evening the local men walked about invariably in groups of three. No women were with them. They would visit a bar, spend about ten minutes there and proceed in animated conversation to another one. This continued until most of the bars were covered. It was their custom and intriguing to observe. At no time did any of them appear the worse for wear or unsteady on their feet.
Saturday night was the night out for everyone. We had the impression that from the eldest adult to the youngest child a special effort was made to be extra smart and all were clad in their best finery. This was the time for leisure and enjoyment. The usual lively centre was swarming with all ages, the elderly sitting on benches basking in the atmosphere.
To stand apart as a cool breeze blew and listen to the soft laughter, the mixture of Spanish accents, along with a sprinkling of Italian and French was magical.
Our last evening in Eibar left us with an entirely different impression of our first sighting of this rather obscure town. These few hours were so uplifting it was hard to admit tiredness and bring an end to what was left of our time there.
A little further on is the treasure of Spain ; a mixture of sea, mountain and deep green valley. When we were initially swayed by the advertisment, this was where we assumed our hotel would be, and on reflection realised we had scant information about its exact location.
This is indeed a mystical country which has managed to avoid the onslaught of mass tourism. The reason for this is the weather. Sometimes it can be very hot with temperatures much higher than places in Britain, but it is an Atlantic coast, and the climate is not as predictable as the Mediterranean.
Altogether our twelve days was an experience loaded with surprises. We felt we only touched on what the north has to offer. Reluctantly we headed home, via the cruise ship, totally content with the climbing holiday where we didn't even reach the foothills.