Chilled Whines and a Scary Costco in the Basque Country

Friday November 15, 2019….

After a night of tossing and turning worrying about oversleeping and missing our pre-dawn departure to the Basque Country, we heard the alarm sound at 5AM. The thermometer read 8C, a chilly morning….I got in the hot shower to revive my tired body and made a cup of thick instant coffee. After a quick bowl of cereal, we grabbed the bags we had packed the night before and headed to the metro, where once again one of our students had fended off another pickpocket attempt a few days before. Thankfully, we were riding an almost empty metro. We exited the Urquinaona station in the dark and made our way to the school, where a bus was already waiting for us.

Little by little students started rolling in and Rodrigo from SAE Barcelona checked off the names as they loaded their bags into the cargo hold of the bus. We were heading the the north coast of Spain, to the Basque provinces, where it was rainier and even colder than it was here. We heard that Glen, one of our students, wouldn’t be accompanying us on the trip, as he was in the infirmary.

The first stop in our long journey was to be the Vivanco winery, a traditional bodega in the La Rioja region, one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain. The drive there took six hours. We saw a great film on the bus called, “Ochos Apelledos Vascos”, which literally translates to “Eight Basque Surnames.” It is a good romantic comedy, starring my new favorite Spanish actress, Clara Lago. The film was in Spanish with English subtitles. You might find it on Netflix under the name, “A Spanish Affair”, which is not only an inaccurate translation, but it has little to do with Spain, since it is more about Basque culture. The Basques, like the Catalans, do not see themselves as Spanish even though they are part of present day Spain. Anyway, if you want an insight into Basque culture with a comedic story, I recommend this film.

Riding through the Meseta Central, we passed through Zaragoza and followed the path of the Rio Ebro for a while towards La Rioja. The Ebro is one of only five major navigable rivers in Iberia. It began to drizzle. The mountains in the distance were covered in a thick white blanket of snow. The hills nearby showed signs of recent snow just above the altitude of our Autovia.

On the right side of the highway stood a huge metal cutout of a bull, signifying our arrival into La Rioja region. La Rioja, lying inland from the Basque provinces and in-between Navarra and Castilla and León, is the largest wine producing region in Spain. It has been a productive wine region dating back to Phoenician times. Mostly the grapes are Tempranillo, although Graciano and Garnacha varieties are also grown here. The Rio Ebro flows nearby, and there are distinct climate zones within a short distance of each other, which allows for multiple types of grapes to be grown here, each area offering a different terroir. We pulled into the parking lot during a cold rain, so our tour did not take us through the rows of vineyards. I heard some whining about an outside wine tour. Our guide kept the outdoor lecture to a minimum as we quickly went back indoors to tour the museum of wine culture.

The vineyards of Bodega Vivanco

Once inside the museum, we saw the largest collection of corkscrews in the world, including ones from centuries ago. We also got a good lesson in viticulture and how the process of aging the wines and storage imparts different tastes to each batch. The barrels for aging are made from white oak, some of which comes from Kentucky. For a wine to be a Chianza, the period of aging must be a minimum of two years, with at least one year in the barrel. The aging in the bottle is just as important. Light must be kept to a minimum and a constant temperature is important. To be sold as a Reserva, it must be aged at least three years. Geography of the climate and soil are only part of the equation…..the market distance, shipping, and barrel production locales are also factors. Even my students who weren’t enrolled in the Economic Geography class were interested in this.

We went through the cavernous cellar stacked high with barrels filled with aging wines, a sight that would make Bacchus the Greek god of wine proud. Later, we went upstairs for a tasting of a few of the Crianzas.

Working up a thirst
Our guide explaining before the tasting

After sipping some wine, we walked back through the cold rain (I heard some whining), and loaded the bus for another 75 minute ride to Bilbao, the largest city of Pais Vasco……Hence the name for the first part of the title to this story. The bus parked near the river about 10 minutes from our hostel, so we trudged up the stairs in the rain with our bags to check into Poshtel. Beth and I had a private room, while the students had 8 to a room in bunk beds. A group of Washington students also traveled with us. Our room was freezing, so we cranked up the heat to 28C and changed into dry clothes and waited to go with the group to dinner.
Bilbao is a large city near the Bay of Biscay. It is the second most industrialized city in Spain after Barcelona, and was an important industrial city built on the production of steel due to the rich iron ore deposits nearby. It’s location on a narrow estuary made it an important port city, and much of its gastronomy is rich in seafood dishes. It rains a lot here due to its northern exposure and the east-west trending mountain ranges behind the city which trap the marine air. The city is undergoing a transformation from an old industrial city and transitioning to a more modern service centered economy. One of the anchors for this is the Guggenheim Museum designed by architect Frank Gehry. We plan to visit it tomorrow.

The Basque people are a hard working, proud and fiercely independent people who have a unique culture which is largely based on their unique language. The language is Euskara and they call their land Euskadi. It resembles no other language on planet earth and it’s origins have many linguists confounded. Some think it is the last remnant of ancient people’s who once lived in the Iberian peninsula prior to the arrival of Indo-European languages. One hypothesis states that the language is evidence that Earth was once visited by aliens from another planet, who landed in the western Pyrenees and on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, but left our planet because the environment was too inhospitable. The only thing they left behind was their language.

Franco also suppressed it under his dictatorship as he did with Catalan. Basque people are also found across the border into southern France. Parts of Navarra also have Basque speakers. Because they are hemmed in by two dominant cultures, they are very nationalistic. Although they speak both Spanish or French, they really appreciate it when outsiders use a few words in the local tongue. When you do, it really opens up the door to their hearts.

We headed out to dinner and sat together around two long tables. In typical Basque style, plates of many courses kept coming, from which we all shared. I eschewed the smelly Bacala, but enjoyed the tender steaks, salads, and mixed vegetables and the local wine. The last course was creme broulet and coffee. We were stuffed to the gills. Afterwards, I got a smile from the waitress when I said “Eskerrik Asko,” which means “Thank You” in Euskara. Hannah, who works at SAE and was on the trip with us, used to live in Pais Vasco, and knew some words. To remember how to pronounce it she said it sounds like “A Scary Costco”, so just think about shopping at your local Costco store on Halloween when the lights suddenly go out…..a good way to remember the word! When I left the restaurant I got another smile from the owner as I said “Agur” (goodbye).

We couldn’t believe how beautiful the night was as we stepped outside. It had stopped raining and the waning almost full moon was shining brightly. The air was clean and there was little wind. We wanted to take a long walk to burn off the huge meal, but the hostel did not want anyone wandering around with keys after 11PM, so we took a short walk down by the river and took a picture of the bridge at night.

Dinner Basque style
Bridge over the Ria….not a Rio
Bilbao por la noche

With that, we headed to the hostel and the room was warm by the time we got back. The first day of the trip was coming to an end….I will leave the rest of the trip for the next post.
Egun on eta agur!

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