By Robert W. Bone
BILBAO, Spain -- Daniel Garcia, owner-chef of Bilbao's top Basque restaurant, Zortziko, was comparing his business today with that of a decade ago. He gave most credit to the city's most dramatic tourist attraction, the building designed by a popular American architect.
For us, there is only Before Guggenheim and After Guggenheim," Garcia said, explaining that the swirling titanium-skin modern art museum has created an explosion of tourism and economic expansion for this part of northern Spain, and one that is still continuing.
Bilbao's Guggenheim museum was designed by Frank Gehry, whose daring, rules-defying constructions have been seen in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Seattle and several other cities in the United States and abroad.
For 16 years, the gleaming free-form museum, with its twisting metal ribbons, has been attracting sophisticated international crowds to Euskadi. That's the name the Basques use for the three provinces that make up Spain's Basque country.
For some time this part of Spain has also been popular with a specific coterie of younger Americans -- those who seek out the world's best surfing beaches.
Surf shops in the vicinity bear hip names, and the phrases in Spanish and in the Basque language called Euskera are salted with surf culture terminology like "hang 10" and "shoot the tube."
But the tourism newcomers to this part of Basque country are a more culturally and artistically inclined crowd who seek out ancient and modern art and architecture, and are curious about Basque culture.
The Basques have never had a nation of their own. Like much of Europe, they were nominally under Roman rule for four centuries, but they had a reputation as fierce fighters who occupied not too desirable lands.
Hence, they were largely left undisturbed while Rome imposed its will and its language on much of the rest of Europe. Basques still speak their unusual language that's like none other on earth, and one that most scholars agree is the oldest living European language.
One Basque phrase most of us know, however, is "happy game," or jai alai, a sport invented by them. The Basques are also credited with the invention of the beret, and many older men here still wear the especially large black or navy blue headgear as another symbol of the culture.
Until recently many were aware of violent actions of a few separatist Basques. But two years ago, the separatists formally agreed to work peacefully with other Basques and the central government to solve their political problems with Spain.
The Basques we ran across on a one-week visit to several cities and towns in the area were as warm and good-natured as the people once publicly admired by Ernest Hemingway. In addition to Euskera, they also spoke excellent Spanish, and a surprising number of them also were reasonably conversant in English.
Although their roots are unknown to them, Basques have always viewed themselves as a separate yet important group in the history of the world. In 2006 a respected Oxford University anthropologist published a book declaring that the true ancestors of the British people were neither Celts, Picts nor Anglo-Saxons, but instead were Basques.
Until my visit, I thought I was reasonably familiar with Spain and Spanish history. I lived in the country from 1968-71 and have visited several times since then, but always in the sometimes hot, fairly flat and often dusty areas in the central and southern parts of the country.
Taking off from Madrid and traveling north on this trip quickly took me from an orange and brown countryside dotted with olive trees to a cool, green and hilly country quite unlike the rest of the country. It was an especially refreshing experience on all levels.
Here are the Basque cities and towns that I found most interesting:
With its major international airport, Bilbao is the ideal starting point for a visit to Euskadi. Formerly known as a polluted industrial center, the city has cleaned up its air and its act, spurred by projects such as the Guggenheim museum.
A visit to the Guggenheim's interior regions led me to daring modern displays appropriate to the helter-skelter design of its exterior.
Don't miss "The Snake," the series of bent steel ribbons by Richard Serra. Its acoustic characteristics also provide considerable amusement for those who whisper and shout their way from one section to another. This was one of several exhibits that didn't resemble anything this museum-goer has ever seen before.
The city is known internationally from the famous painting by Pablo Picasso recalling its bombing during the Civil War.
My visit to the busy central market on a Monday was a sober reminder that it was on such a Monday market day when German Luftwaffe bombs fell on the unprotected crowds of shoppers from Gernika and the surrounding countryside.
Gernika has long been the symbolic center of government for the Basques, who trace their roots to a specific oak tree under which their laws were adopted. A descendant of that tree still occupies the spot, and we toured several old structures related to the governing process.
The unofficial capital of the surrounding wine country, Laguardia is a 13th-century walled, hilltop town that overlooks miles upon miles of vineyards. Nearly every house has its own wine cellar. Called bodegas, a few of these are open for public tastings and wine sales.
Nearby, in the tiny village of El Ciego, Frank Gehry-designed hotel, the super-deluxe Marqués de Riscal, occupies the grounds of the 1860 winery of the same name. Like his structures in Bilbao and elsewhere, the architect has made use of twisting titanium.
An ecologist's dream, Vitoria-Gasteiz claims that the city's large areas of open space and parkland make it the greenest city in Europe. Often overlooked is its intriguing playing-card museum, housed in a 16th-century palace. This was a chance for me to make close-up inspections of some really ancient kings, queens and jacks.
This charming city borders the most perfect curve of sandy beach on the northern coast, and was a popular royal retreat in ancient times. A short distance outside the city is the unusual outdoor sculpture garden known as Chillida Leku, with works chosen from the 50-year career of Eduardo Chillida. The reverence our young docent showed for the artist's modern works was particularly appealing.
It is known as the Basque Toledo because of its Renaissance civil architecture. One building in Oñati is the Universidad de Sancti Spiritus, an institution of higher learning established in 1540. Some of the ancient structures here straddle a small picturesque stream.
Entering through the main gate of the walled city seemed to take us back immediately into the Middle Ages. Houses and shops built in ancient times are still in use today, although retrofitted with electricity and modern plumbing.
A heavily fortified city, Hondarribia is on the Bidasoa River, the traditional border with France, and pockmarks in the stone testify that the town has seen its share of Gallic battles.
According to our guide, in ancient times the French across the river would sometimes have a hearty lunch of food and wine and then decide they had nothing better to do in the afternoon than to hop over and attack the Spanish during their siesta hours. Nevertheless, we are told, they ultimately never succeeded.
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