The first time I came to the Basque Country, it was pretty late during my stay in Spain. I had traveled to Valencia and Andalucía, to Catalonia and even remote Galicia before I ever got the chance to visit the first marvelous Basque city. One of the great things about my job back then was that I didn’t have to be a common tourist. I didn’t have to take pictures, make sure I was in those pictures, take long walks with an itinerary at hand and come back to the hotel, exhausted, but with wonderful memories to tell my friends once I went back to the normal routine of life. Nope, I got to visit each of those parts of Spain with a purpose – a professional purpose.
First I was in Bilbao to cover a huge anniversary exhibition honoring a Romanian sculptor at the Guggenheim’s and I discovered a gorgeously clean town, wishing I could go back and live there when I retired; then I came back at an international congress on political communication and mysteriously enough, an enchanted book called “The Basque History of the World” came my way; I was sent to cover the famous film festival in San Sebastian during some wonderfully sunny fall days; more recently, I think I got to understand what it was all (or almost all) about the Basque gastronomy and especially one part of it where it isn’t just that, the food, because Vitoria-Gasteiz also means jazz, history, monuments, marvels and even inspiration for contemporary fiction.
I thought I knew all about the history, the unique ancient language these people talk, their unknown origins and even the radicalism of some political views.
Vitoria is such a small town that it seems almost existentially impossible for metropolitan people, born and raised in capital cities, used to noise, crowds, and actually missing it. It made it all the more precious. I visited the Basque capital last year, when freshly chosen Spain’s gastronomic capital. So I was biased. Be that as it may, the amazement didn’t cease to be any less true. I mean, what could one think or feel when the great food, the delicious wines and the long centuries of history and culture meet in one single place, on a rainy day in March, at a bodega in the center of a jewel-like city?
In Vitoria, you can find cheap bars with yummy pintxos, as well as sophisticated restaurants, counting Michelin stars along with professional principles of artwise food and scientifically proved procedures of mixing secret ingredients, just as I used to read in ancient legends and myths.
I ate the brevetted best tortilla in Spain, cooked with the special Alava potato ingredient, the one true pride reason among the locals, I learned to actually enjoy the famous gazpacho made of cold cherry soup and I just loved some delicious beef chops (the English translation doesn’t do justice to this dish, trust me) all strewn with great dry wines from La Rioja Alavesa, a region where people say every house harbors a wine cellar (just imagine the Bacchus-wise richness of the underground). Besides the 2.000 wine growers who claim they live for and through the wine, these people have over 300 restaurants and more than 1.200 bars and cafes – in a city that counts a little under 250.000 inhabitants.
Bilbao is an incredibly clean city, with streets and avenues where you could not be wrong to just… take a seat and enjoy the view: the quiet and orderly traffic, the silent and toy-like passage of the street-car along the river and up to the Guggenheim Museum, the libraries and bookshops, the museums and cultural centers. In one of those I bought a delightful book, Mark Kurlansky’s “Basque History of the World”. The characterization is not at all pretentious, because the book is like no other, such is the marvelous mixture of culinary recipes, history and fun facts, etymological research of words and richly documented explanations for who Basque people are, why they keep so much to themselves and how one can discover their amazing stories.
In San Sebastian I was more of a tourist than ever.
True, I had to cover the Romanian contribution to the International Film Festival, which experts say comes in third after Cannes and Berlin. I had found accommodation in a hotel a little outside the swarming center of the city, which by the way is completely overbooked in September, so I took advantage of the long walks to the press conferences, interviews and the premiere screens and back to my computer to think my articles through and enjoy the view. I took strolls along the beach sketching my pieces in my head and just watching people enjoying the last days of warmth of the year. I didn’t envy the tourists in particular, as much as I did the locals, for being so lucky to live in such an unearthly place: perfect temperature to enjoy the sun and beach, great food and all kinds of fish dishes and cool white wines in the harbor restaurants, and just five minutes away from
a good movie and maybe the occasional real-life look at some American or Spanish famous actor. And this is what has been happening every September in San Sebastian, for the last 62 years.
It’s all about the stories and the food in the Basque Country; everything else – culture, history, assets and riches, good economy and jobs, lucrative and paying hard work – it all naturally revolves around these two down to earth things. This is pretty much how I came to be sure it is almost all one needs in any part of the world.
In every one of the few places I’ve been in this world, I couldn’t help but ask myself how far and away I had traveled from my beloved Bucharest, where I was born and raised, had a happy childhood, filled with books and stories about such seemingly remote places. Back then, I hadn’t even dreamed that one day I was going to leave my city behind and get to visit, know and write about the places I used to read of. It wasn’t because I thought it was impossible, but because I used to think, scantily enough, that books brought me, in my room in a Bucharest apartment I shared with my family, all I needed to know, see and find out about the world. And besides, when could I ever have had the time to visit all the places I read about? It was only a wish, just as fictitious as the stories in my books, never to come any near to a pragmatic realm whatsoever.
Well, some could say: be careful what you wish for, it might just come true. One of the most beautiful and magical realms I got to see, know and write about was the Basque Country.