Saying Goodbye to San Sebastian

It’s hard to say I’ve been halfway across the world for three weeks, and even harder to say it has come to an end. My time in San Sebastian was a roller coaster of emotions to say the least, from biking to school on the first day and getting lost, to spending late nights and early mornings walking down the streets of San Sebastian. This program was beyond life changing, as I will never forget the Basque culture and all the amazing experiences I had.

The sun setting after a long day

The first week was such a crazy experience words don’t even come close to describing it. This was my first trip off of the North American continent, so to say I was a bit nervous is an understatement. Once we had landed and taken the bus to the dorm, we were let loose to find our first meal, which I am not proud of saying was an overpriced hamburger. The next morning, we were set on finding our way to Lacunza, our school for the next few weeks, and being generous we gave ourselves about 40 minutes for a supposedly 20 minute bike ride to find our way, and still somehow ended up 30 minutes late. The rest of the week was about getting into a routine and integrating the Basque culture into our lives, from changing our eating habits, to getting use to how much walking and biking we were doing. Some other highlights from this week was visiting France for a day, our Pintxo tour in Old Town, and the wine tasting.

Week two was about sticking to the routine I had created and continue exploring the city. My nervousness was now replaced by a sense of exploration, wanting to do as much as I could with the time I had. From the aquarium to the funicular up to the Monte Igueldo amusement park, a late-night gelato run, and learning to salsa and surf, the entire week was filled with exploration and stepping out of my comfort zone to try new things. To close off the week was a free weekend, where we were given free rein to explore wherever we wanted. While most visited Madrid, I ended up visiting PortAventura World with a friend, which was a wild experience to say the least. Being out on our own, walking down the streets of San Sebastian at the early hours of the morning to catch a flight, to hopping from bus to train to arrive there was an experience unlike anything I had before. While throughout the trip, we had been on our own to go wherever and do whatever we wanted in San Sebastian, this truly felt like an escape into our own world.

One of my favorite rides at PortAventura World

When returning from the park, we both had, either accidentally or purposely, labeled San Sebastian as our home. Week three was a hard pill to swallow. Now being used to all the beauty of the city and the routine we had fallen into, we knew we eventually had to return to our actual home, but made sure to make the most out of the rest of the trip. I spent the rest of the week exploring what few more places I could before returning, enjoying my favorite chicken pintxo for the last few times, shopping for trinkets for my family and friends at home, enjoying pintxo pote one final time, and finally the farewell dinner. While we couldn’t all be physically together as a few had gotten sick, we still came together for one final goodbye to the city. With one final walk back through the entire city late at night, and one more gelato for good measure, it was sad to say it was the last time I’d see the city for a long time, if ever again. Waking up the next morning was probably the hardest, knowing that the bus to the airport was soon to be waiting downstairs for us. Some even joked around, saying it was funny to think we had to leave, but in the end, we all piled onto the bus (except for Sam S, who had planned on staying longer) and watched as the city slowly disappeared behind us.

The view on our last late night walk home

Some say it’s hard to capture San Sebastian in one picture, which I absolutely believe as well. While it is physically hard to get all of the city into one picture, just one picture couldn’t ever include the wide range of emotions and the multitude of experiences I had in and around the city. It’s hard to even say in words my feelings about San Sebastian, but I can conclude with one thing: I hope to return here someday and continue my unfinished exploration, as I definitely missed out on plenty in just Old Town alone.

Vamos A Madrid

The time was around 3:45 am Friday morning and the silent rain of San Sebastian poured as we stood half awake in the lobby of Olarain Residencia, impatiently awaiting our cabs. In the distance, the hazy lights of the cabs finally drew closer and the 11 of us were on our way down the steps to settle our bags in for the short ride to the San Sebastian-Donostia Train Station. Since we had the first train of the day, the station was yet to open and our arrival was greeted by a closed door and other tired travelers. After around 30 minutes of waiting outside, security opened the doors, and we made our way to have our tickets scanned. The line stretched far to the back of the station, so we were lucky to have arrived earlier (despite losing some sleep). Upon everyone having their tickets scanned we rode the see-through elevator to the first floor where the empty tracks lay. We all stood at the yellow caution line curiously looking to the right, then to the left, trying to guess which direction the train would arrive from. Shortly, the ground began to rumble, and strong lights lit up the dark sky. The train rushed in front of us coming to a slow and steady stop. We hurried along with the train trying to catch the carts each of us was in. The cart doors opened swiftly and everyone made their way to their seats. At this moment we were one step closer to the capital of España.

The train ride was about five hours long and having left around 5:00 am we were due to arrive at about 10:00 am. The route was very scenic as the train made its way through many diverse landscapes. During the first few hours, we rode mostly through mountainous and suburban areas. The clouds hung low and the peaks of the mountains pierced through the sky making you feel as if you were inside a painting. The more suburban areas also offered breathtaking views. Some areas had green rolling fields that looked like they went on forever, while others had a forest-like environment with trees lined up in straight rows that stretched for miles. Towards the end of our ride, the atmospheric scenery quickly transformed to more city-like with tall buildings decorated in graffiti and pedestrian-filled streets. The rapid change indicated that we were close to the capital city and soon enough the conductor came on the intercom and said that we will be approaching the Madrid station in fifteen minutes. The train began to approach the station and before it came to a stop everyone began to get up and grab their belongings from above the seats. Once the train finally came to a stop, the cart doors opened and we were finally in Madrid, España!

The sun in Madrid shined bright and the hot and still air instantly filled our lungs. The change in weather was noticed immediately as it was drastically different from the cool breezy weather of San Sebastian. However, despite the intensely hot weather, we continued down the tracks into the large train station of Madrid where we stopped for a quick stretch and snack. We then continued to the metro station so we could go to our hotels and drop our bags before we explored the beautiful city of Madrid. Navigating the metro in Madrid was definitely half of the experience as there were many floors with various tracks. Luckily one of our friends was an expert and easily got us where we needed to be. Without her, we probably would not have made it out of the station. We then got on the metro and some of us split up as we had different hotels. When we arrived at the hotel we dropped off our bags, settled our things, and went out for food.

For food, we went to the Mercado de San Miguel which is a large food market that had many eclectic choices which ranged from seafood to empanadas, to fresh fruit, gelato, and even fresh meats and different quesos. It was amazing to see so many vendors with different food specialties all come together in a small space to give you a unique taste of España. Each of us got something different and it was delicious for the most part. However, In my opinion, the bacalao (cod) empanada was not my favorite but I think it’s because I was so accustomed to the fresh seafood off the coast of San Sebastian. After having our lunch, we decided it was best to get dessert which consisted of churros from the famous Chocolateria San Gines which has been running since 1894. The churros were crunchy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside. They were also surprisingly not too sweet but that did not take away from how delicious they were. If anything, it gave the churro its own uniqueness. However, the chocolate dip that came with it was our favorite part and definitely the cherry on top. The chocolate was a thick syrup-like consistency and it stuck firmly on the churros giving it more texture and immense flavor. We sat outside the Chocolateria for a while enjoying the churros and planning our schedule for the next day. We then asked for la cuenta and headed to the main street in Madrid to do some light shopping at the department stores. The stores were very large and had many more options than we would normally see back home which was ideal. Each store had at least 3 floors and the fashion ranged in style. Some of us bought some stuff but at this point, we were extremely tired from lack of sleep and walking around so we decided to head back to the hotel to take a short nap before dinner.

We headed out again around 6 pm to continue exploring the city and went on the lookout for dinner as well. The place that came to mind was Plaza Mayor. The walk to the Plaza was scenic as we made our way through the small allies of Madrid consisting of cobblestone grounds and local shops and restaurants that were in m neutral-colored buildings that stretched tall. We took our time getting to the Plaza and tried to take in as much of the city as we could. Upon arrival, a large arc in the corner welcomed us into Plaza Mayor. The plaza itself was a large area encased in a large red building with arcs on all four sides which took you into different parts of the city. The Plaza also had a large statue of equestrian Phillip III that caught everyone’s attention as it stood alone in the center of the plaza. Around the plaza were many restaurants that had a very interesting way of getting customers. Coming from San Sebastian, we were accustomed to approaching a restaurant and reading its menu on the walk then deciding whether to eat there or not. The waiters did not did not approach customers unless they made the decision to eat there. However, in Madrid, it was very different. The waiters at the restaurants would approach you while walking and ask you to come to eat and some even began to explain their menu. It was not necessarily a bad thing but it was intriguing to notice the different etiquette within the same country. Although the restaurants in Plaza Mayor looked appetizing, it was recommended that we eat from restaurants that were just outside the Plaza as they had better prices and arguably better food. In our experience, we enjoyed the small restaurants outside the Plaza Mayor. The food was great and it was notable that the chefs put much effort into each dish they made. After dinner, all of us met up for a late walk around the city before we called it a night and headed back to the hotel to prepare for the next day.

The next morning we had a fairly early start as we had a reservation to go see the royal palace. We had a quick breakfast and walked down to the royal palace. Just outside the palace was a gorgeous garden with a large fountain, bushes cut to perfection, and statues of previous kings that ran along both sides of the garden. The garden was very beautiful but our focus was on the palace. So after a few pictures, we made our way to the outside gates of the palace to enter. Upon entrance, we quickly noticed the arcs on the right side of the palace which looked down upon the city. The view was absolutely breathtaking and looking out gave a full view of Madrid along with what looked like mountains in the distance. The view was hard to leave, but eventually, we made our way into the actual palace. The entrance was grand with extremely large ceilings and windows that decorated the front walls. Walking more into the palace and up the main stairs was a large statue of what seemed like a previous king on a large throne. Then looking up at the ceiling was a grand painting that consisted of a light blue sky, civilians, and angels. While admiring the painting, we also wondered how the painting was made with such precision on an extremely high ceiling. We then continued up the stairs where the self-guided tour really started. Unfortunately, it was forbidden to take pictures or video of the upcoming rooms but it was for the better as it allowed us to really take in the moment and appreciate the history and art in such an important place. My favorite part of the royal palace is how every room had its own style. Each consisted of its own ceiling painting, painting of previous monarchs, and artifacts like large grandfather clocks, mirrors, and various tapestries. Even the wallpaper that decorated the walls remained unique to every room. Although every room was directly connected to the next, none seemed to remind you of the last. The designs were impeccable and the stories behind each item in the room were interesting. Some decorations were made per request while others were gifted by other countries to express close relations. Continuing through the tour some of the rooms we were able to visit were various bedrooms, the Crown Room, the Royal Chapel, The Stradivarius Hall, and The room of King Charles III and the Queen. Having visited so many rooms in the palace it was nowhere near the actual size of the palace since the palace actually consists of 3,418 rooms. After finishing our incredible tour of the museum we went to the gift shop to get some souvenirs then went out for lunch which we had at a local place near the palace.

After lunch, we had one more thing on our bucket list for the day.We decided to visit the Almudena Cathedral. Inside the Cathedral was beautiful and it gave a very rustic style. All the windows were paned with mosaics and the architecture was truly magnificent as you could see the arcs on every walkway and exposed beams that gave it a more open feel. It also contained mini stations along the sides of the cathedral. Each station lit up with artificial candles but also had a mini-story along with a display. The cathedral also had multiple spaces for people to pray and even a separate quiet room. Overall it was a great experience to have extremely eye-catching architecture and the art inside. Upon finishing up at the Cathedral most of us split into smaller groups and continued our day with more souvenir shopping and sightseeing. After dinner, we met back up at the hotel and went to bed dreading that the next day was our last in Madrid.

Sunday was a short day as we had to pack our bags and head out for the train station around 4:00 pm. We tried to make the most out of our day by going to brunch together and also walking around Madrid trying to soak in all its glory before leaving it behind. To me, architecture always stood out and I enjoyed everywhere we went, the allies always provided a scenery that is almost hard to describe with words. Our last stop in Madrid was a small bakery near the royal palace that was well known for its meringue. Upon finishing up, it, unfortunately, was time to head to the train station and say goodbye to the capital of Espana. Our short time there was filled with wonderful experiences that are truly unforgettable. We were so lucky to be able to travel to such a diverse city that is rich in history and art. Whether it was the Gran Via, Grand Boulevard, Plaza Mayor or the side streets and little alleys, every walk was filled with unforgettable scenery . Although leaving Madrid was sad, I think a lot of us agreed that we were a little homesick from San Sebastian. Speaking for myself I can say I missed the normality that I felt. But despite that, I heavily enjoyed Madrid and hopefully will be coming back sometime in the near future for a longer stay so I explore the parts that I have yet to discover. Hasta Luego Madrid!

Week Two Wrap-Up

As our second week comes to an end, most of us agree that exploring San Sebastián and the Basque Country have been nothing short of surreal.  The freedom to navigate the city on our own has definitely instilled a feeling of self-confidence and satisfaction in us.  Many times, we’ve encountered situations that seem overwhelming and daunting at first, but, with time, I think all of us have discovered that we are more than capable of making mature decisions, even in a place with a culture different from that of our own.  That being said, here are some highlights from session 2’s last two weeks in the Basque Country.

Sunset in San Sebastian on Pintxo Pote.

  Pintxo Pote (Pronounced P-een-cho) is a promotion in San Sebastián that many bars and restaurants (specifically in the Gros neighborhood) take part in every Thursday night.  Typically, a bar will offer a pintxo and a drink for one unit price, typically around only two euros!  This popular event often attracts many customers, and it was not uncommon for us to see massive crowds in line at a bar streaming out into the street.  Oftentimes, it can be a challenge to find the right bar to stay, because we don’t want to sacrifice quality for speed.  Bars with better pintxos will be busier, and therefore the longer the wait.  That being said, there is a certain charm to the crowded bars during Pintxo Pote.  Everyone is having a good time and enjoying good food, and it is truly a unique atmosphere.  Pintxo Pote is a great opportunity to socialize with friends and enjoy some delicious Basque cuisine, and it has quickly become one of our favorite parts of life in San Sebastián.

Sam and I try our hand at Salsa.

During our second week of classes at Lacunza, several of us heard about a salsa dancing class being taught.  While I’m not one to typically put myself out there (choreographically speaking) I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.  The class took place at a bar near our residence, and it was easy to get to.  Inside, it was hot and crowded. There were plenty of young people, but also plenty of older folks too which I thought was really cool.  The class was fast paced and challenging, and it was difficult to keep up.  Thankfully, doing it with friends helped to make the whole experience much more approachable.  As my friend Sam Hargett puts it, “Salsa is a very rhythmic art form, and it was great to experience a dance that so many people enjoy but that is also so intricate”. We learned a dance move called the ‘suzie’, which involves a type of criss-cross pattern with the feet, leading with the left foot moving to the right, then the right foot moving to the left.  This quickly became a favorite for many of us even when we moved on to partner work.  While we certainly are not professional Salsa dancers now, it was a great experience to put ourselves outside of our comfort zone and try something new.

‘Charmartin’ train station in Madrid, Spain

As the weekend fast approaches, many of us plan to travel elsewhere in Spain: a group of us to Madrid, and a group of us to Barcelona.  While it is a great privilege to visit areas of Spain outside the Basque country, it also comes with a set of challenges.  For most of us, this was our first time attempting to book a trip by ourselves, let alone in another country.  Attempting to find the best way to get there became an obvious challenge.  In America, flying is usually the expectation when traveling a longer distance, but in Spain, their public transportation infrastructure is so successful that we had many affordable and efficient options for traveling. Besides flying, there were many rail and bus services that were accessible to us. We decided to travel by train, although flying would have been only marginally more expensive. We used the Spanish rail network ‘Renfe’ to book our tickets and we were happy to discover that their website was very user friendly.  The only thing more difficult about traveling in Spain is the increased number of options compared to the United States, but this is something I think we could all quickly get used to.

 The past couple weeks have certainly flown by, and it’s hard to think we only have one more week to go.  It’s certainly been an amazing experience to try new foods and gain new experiences, growing more accustomed to the various nuances of the Basque cuisine and culture.

Santa Clara, Little Island off the Coast

Arrival on the Island

In the late afternoon hours of July 19th, our class of 12 set off on the Aitona Julian III ferry to Santa Clara Island. The ride was a mostly smooth one, and it was not too hot, since it was an overcast day. After a short trip, we arrived on the coast of the island. The small port where we docked was overlooking the island’s ghost beach, which would soon disappear with the high tide. After climbing off the ferry, our class walked up a stairless incline, where we found a grassy spot to rest. Gathering around the teacher, we recounted our experiences in San Sebastian thus far.

View of Mount Igeldo, San Sebastian, from Santa Clara Island, San Sebastian

Class Discussion

With a view like this, it was difficult to concentrate on what the rest of the class was talking about. Surrounded by flowers, trees, and the ocean, it was hard to focus on just one thing. We discussed our final projects, as well as what we’ve experienced here so far. This made me realize that there are still things I want to check off my list. There are so many things to see and absorb here in San Sebastian that it’s difficult to do absolutely everything, especially with such a short amount of time. We talked about the museums, the aquarium, the winery, Biarritz and St John de Luz, and our every-day routine classes. After our all-encompassing discussion, we decided as a class to stay late to explore the island.

The Path we Walked to Climb the Island

Exploring the Island

According to our teacher, we were the first group of students he had that ended up exploring the rest of the island after our class meet-up. The climb was a somewhat steep but short one, and I would say that the view was worth it. At the top, there were public restrooms and an old lighthouse. This island is one of the last places in San Sebastian that is mostly unchanged for tourists, despite the fact that it is only about 500 meters from the mainland coast. As a result of its short distance from the mainland, many people choose to kayak or even swim instead of taking the ferry.

Lighthouse on Santa Clara Island, Dating Back to 1864
View of Gros and Egia, San Sebastian, from Santa Clara Island, San Sebastian

After seeing these views, one can only wonder why no other classes climbed to the top of Santa Clara Island. With an overarching view of the city and the sight of the endless sea on the horizon, Santa Clara Island is worth it.

Leaving the Island

Once we came down the hill, it was clear that the tide had come in, and the ghost beach was no longer visible. I decided that I wanted to take a few minutes to enjoy the water before leaving. Despite the chilly and overcast weather, the water was not very cold. After exploring all there was to be explored, our class caught one of the last ferries to head back to the residence. Santa Clara Island truly is a little gem just off the coast of San Sebastian.

Ghost Beach on Santa Clara Island During High Tide
View of La Concha Beach, San Sebastian, from the Ferry Ride to and from Santa Clara Island

A Vineyard, a Museum, and a Town by the Sea

Waking up to the light of a sun well above the horizon is a welcome respite after a week of early rises to attend Spanish language classes at 9:30. It’s Saturday, July 15th, and today’s activity is a trip into the town of Getaria. At 11:45 we file onto the bus to take us to the town and Professor Zabalbeascoa shares the details of today’s excursion with us. Our first stop will be a vineyard, Gaintza Txakolindegia, where we will recieve a tour and summary of the land, facilities, and winemaking process. Second will be the town itself where we will have an hour to grab lunch and explore, and third will be el Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga, a museum dedicated to the fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Getaria and el Ratón towards the sea

Our first view of Getaria comes roughly half an hour into the drive. On one side, the town lies almost level with the sea, its rustic buildings planted no more than 100 feet from where the water laps at the harbor wall. Just beyond beyond the town, jutting out of the water and yet remaining attached to the mainland, is el Ratón (The Mouse), a mountain named for its resemblance to a mouse when viewed from the sea. The other side of the town slopes upwards, leading to rolling hills covered in orderly lines of crops and crested by streaks of trees.

Inland view of Getaria

After passing through the town we depart the bus to walk the short gravel path to the vineyard, emerging from within the red-roofed homes to a wider view of the distant hills and, in front of us, the central building of Gaintza Txakolindegia. Upon arrival we are greeted by Joseba, whose family owns and runs the vineyard, and we begin our tour.

One of the plots of grape vines

As we walk towards a ledge overlooking a portion of the fields, small drops of water beginning to fall from the sky, Joseba explains that the vineyard consists of 14 total plots of grapes, totaling between 47 and 48 acres of land, much of which is harvested and cared for exclusively by hand. The harvest starts when Joseba’s grandfather says it does, which is usually near the end of September and takes about 20 days. The workers rest until December when the vines must be pruned, a process which takes about three months, which prevents the plants from doubling in size before the next harvest, thereby producing more fruit because none of the plants’ energy is used to grow. The grape flowers are pollinated in May, although bees are not used to do so unlike many other vineyards, and when the grapes are eventually harvested they are separated from the stems and crushed to obtain the grape juice. This juice is used in fermentation, which is done in one of 15 huge metal vats usually kept at 14-15 degrees Celsius, although temperature and length of stay varies by tank. After fermentation, the wine is poured into bottles and labeled using environmentally friendly materials, now ready to be bought and shipped.

Gaintza Txakolindegia

As Joseba finishes his explanation of their winemaking process we exit the packaging room into what seems to be a break/dining room, which today is being used for our wine tasting. Three types are offered: Gaintza Txakolina, which is by far the vineyard’s biggest production, Aitako Txakolina, which comes from vines 100 years old, and Gaintza Rosé, which isn’t really a wine but is still one of Gaintza Txakolindegia‘s main products. All three drinks have a salty flavor not resulting from any added ingredients but from the vineyard’s proximity to the ocean, whose salty air permeates the grapes and the water they receive. After the tasting we head to the entrance of the building where there is a small room off to the side where wine and other goods can be bought, the first tourist-focused part of this vineyard that I’ve seen.

An alleyway in Getaria

Afterwards we take the bus into the center of the town where, surrounded by buildings that are old and colorful but not showing their age, we look for lunch. Shops line both sides of the main alleyway we walk, competing for space but without being intrusive as the buildings rise above our heads, neat and decorated balconies lining their sides making the scene look like an idealistic painting of some rural village come to life. I am enveloped by aroma after aroma passing by different restaurants, many notably frying whole fish on open grills or offering seafood themed pinxtos as is typical of Basque cuisine. I walk through a tunnel underneath a bell tower which opens to a view of the harbor, an area almost as big as the center of the town, filled with boats and showing the true culture of Getaria. We try an international award winning gelato place, but unfortunately have insufficient time to grab lunch before rushing to the Balenciaga museum.

While walking up to the museum from the town’s center, we travel up escalators that, surprisingly, only begin to move once people get close enough to them and shut down after people have exited, which brings to light an interesting observation I’ve had from my time so far in Spain: the Basque people are much more energy efficient than the United States is. In the hotel rooms, your key card must be placed into a slot next to the door that turns off all lights and outlets when it is removed. Most buildings have motion-sensor activated lights that shut off after only a few minutes of no movement, which is in stark contrast to UMass Lowell buildings which, from my experience, rarely reach the end of their automated lights’ timers. Air conditioning is a rarity; open windows are used far more often. Cars are much less prominent and bike lanes and public transit receive a far greater emphasis. Even taxis are more efficient, with many of them being electric cars. I don’t know if this is exclusive to the Basque region or even to Spain in general, but this is certainly an improvement over U.S. energy infrastructure and proves that this kind of efficiency is possible.

The sleeping bag dress

The Balenciaga museum is interesting enough, although I imagine it would be more appealing to someone with an interest in fashion. Some of the Balenciaga’s displayed works catch my eye, such as one dress so black that its folds and general shape are almost indistinguishable, or another with a shape and material reminiscent of a sleeping bag, but it is the other designer exhibited at the museum, Josep Font, who interests me more. His works emphasize decoration more than the abstract shapes Balenciaga seemed to use, looking far more like a work of art than a work of fashion. Some clothes even look straight out of a dystopian movie, with strong colors, straight lines, and a feeling of strict order common in many dystopian worlds. We rush through the end of the museum, running short on time, and pile back on the bus to head back to the hotel.

I take a short nap on the ride back, feeling tired from the fast pace of the excursion, until we arrive back at 4:30 and I am rested enough to continue with the day. A vineyard tour, the exploration of a town, and a visit to a museum all within a day, and there’s still five more hours until the sun goes down!

Gros Pintxo Tasting and San Telmo Museum

Before coming to the beautiful city of San Sebastian there were obviously things that I was worried about. For starters this trip was my first time traveling solo. On its own this did not worry me much however being in a German airport alone definitely did. After landing in Munich, I had about 6 hours before my flight; as many know, this meant I had a lot of time to burn. A quick bite to eat and 3 gate changes later I had made it to my plane. After boarding it did not take me long to fall asleep, I was dreaming before takeoff. After landing, I reached out to those that were on the group flight to see where we could meet. Luckily Bilbao has an extremely small airport, so this was not much of an issue. We then swiftly made our way through the rolling hills until we made it to Donostia (San Sebastian in Basque). After making it to our hotel for the trip I quickly remembered my biggest worry for the trip, my diet.

Gros Pintxo Tasting Tour

Having grown up as a picky eater and now wanting to expand my palete I can say it is extremely challenging. Before coming however, I told myself that I would push myself to try new things even if I did not think that I would like them, because I might surprise myself.

After our Spanish language class today at Lacunza half of us headed off for our pintxo (pincho) tasting tour in Gros. This started off with us meeting up with Professor Zabalbeascoa at Bar Zabaleta. We began with the best Tortilla de Patata that we have had yet. The inside was the perfect consistency, and it was just barley holding itself together. With our tortilla we each had some Petritegi, a brand of amazing cider that has been around since 1526. And last but certainly not least we each had a Gilda pintxo. Named after a movie character, the Gilda pintxos were definitely “hot and spicy.” Although I was not able to even finish this pintxo that consisted of olive, peppers and anchovy, I am definitely proud of myself for trying it.

One of our next stops led us to another bar where once again others were much braver than me, trying a pig feet pintxo. They both said that it tasted good however that they would not go for it again. It was accompanied by a duck liver, they both did not like. I stuck to my roots and had a basic ham and goat cheese pintxo.

Goat Cheese and Ham Pintxo

After that, they also tried fried squid with ink dyed breading. This was topped with a blue sauce that they both agreed was different than something they have ever had before. Overall, “it tasted good, but the breading was a bit much for me” although the plates were wiped clean.

Fried Squid Pintxo

Our second to last stop on our tour brought us to Matalauva (directly translates to kill the grape). When first opening the owner had not yet acquired a food serving license and therefore was only allowed to have a microwave and hot plate. After discovering that this had worked for them, even after acquiring their license they chose to keep it that way as it is today. Here we had many different things. First salmorejo pacense which was essentially tomato soup thickened with bread. The flavor was amazing however, it is meant to be eaten cold which thew me off. Next up, and my favorite item here was, flauta de pan de cristal con panceta joselito. This was a thin piece of bread wrapped in extremely thin cut ham. There was something ever so slightly sweet about this that made for a great taste. We also had láminas de txuleta (chuleta) en salazón. Once again, the natural flavors were amazing but the texture just was not for me.

To wrap up our pintxo tasting tour we did not finish with pintxos at all, but something debatably better, gelato. For the past week we have been stopping by one specific gelato place but today Professor Zabalbeascoa brought us somewhere new, and it is definitely worth the longer bike ride out.

San Telmo Museum

After the tour, we met up with those that were not on the tour to go to the San Telmo Museum. With free admittance on Tuesdays, it was a must for us all. There was a limited time exhibit with many posters for events held in San Sebastian, however my favorite were those about old automotive races. Before seeing these, I had no clue that there was anything of the sort hosted in this amazing city.

Another ehibit that they had was one about bicycles. They had many old bikes and it showed how they have evolved through time. My favorite personally was the old Norco downhill mountain bike. Being most familiar with this style of bike I was able to see they have changed over time. Another standout was one that raced in the first Tour De France. In the exhibit it did not even have tires!

Overall, our time in San Sebastian so far has been amazing, and today just added more to the memory books.

Monte Igueldo: San Sebastian’s Quirky Amusement Park

San Sebastian’s coastal peaks and valleys have made it a prime destination for tourists from Spain and all over Europe to escape the summer heat. Since the Spanish royalty made San Sebastian it’s summer home, the city has exploded as a tourist hub. In 1912, a funicular was built to the top of Monte Igueldo, which looks over La Concha Bay and the greater city. A funicular is a type of cable-pulled railway that pulls a train up the side of a steep mountain. This funicular was the first in the Basque Country, and the third to ever open in Spain. For a long while, this funicular was the only way to reach the top of Monte Igueldo other than hiking, the ride itself was just like if we rode in 1912. The train was nearly original with it being completely made out of wood and having manual gates that the attendant had to close before and after every trip. During the ride, you get great views of the city appearing from below once you get above the station. Despite having one station at either end of the mountain, the funicular was designed to run two trains at a time, so we had the chance to see a train descending while we were ascending.

The funicular inside of the station

Once we got to the top of the mountain, the views leaving the station were magnificent, with one of the first things you see is the full San Sebastian skyline. This view was one of the poorest sight lines on Monte Igueldo since we were still two flights of stairs away from the summit. On the summit, you’ll find a mountain-top amusement park that I could not compare to any amusement park I’ve been to in the United States. This park featured rides for the whole family, with staples like bumper cars, a carousel, a water ride, and a charming haunted house. While those attractions were all charming and magnificent with the scenery, what I was looking forward to the most as a roller coaster enthusiast was their coaster, Montaña Suiza, a 1928 scenic railway that holds numerous records such as the oldest steel coaster in the world and the oldest coaster in Spain. The ride itself transverses the whole summit, giving great views of San Sebastian and the Bay of Biscay. The ride itself is not intense at all, with a max speed of 31 mph and a max height of 32 ft, so you can imagine that it only features a few dips and turns.

Montaña Suiza climbing up it’s 32 foot cable lift

 Despite Montaña Suiza’s age and stature, it has catapulted up my coaster rankings. I have ridden over 80 different coasters across North America and there hasn’t been a single one that comes close to the uniqueness that Montaña Suiza at Monte Igueldo provides. Where else can you ride a coaster that is nearing 100 years old on top of a mountain that’s adjacent to a city and the vast ocean? During my time at Canobie Lake Park as a rides operator, I’ve heard guests remark “I can see my house from here!” or “I can see Canada from here!” a countless amount of times. However, on Monte Igueldo, I was actually able to see the residencía we are staying at and Biarritz, France! Although I was having the time of my life at the park, it was quickly approaching closing time so we got churros before taking the last funicular down. Next up was The Comb of the Winds sculpture that’s situated at the base of Monte Igueldo directly on the rocky coast of La Concha Bay. These art pieces were installed in 1976 by Luis Pena Ganchegui, a Basque sculptor. Three steel structures were built into various rocks and cliffs that have been eroded away by waves slamming against the mountain. Although very abstract, the steel figures are supposed to represent combs that the sea breeze is supposed to pass through before reaching the city. What I found the most interesting was the placement of each of the combs. One comb was placed right on the viewing platform, another one was placed on a rock maybe 20 feet to the east of the first comb, and the last comb was roughly 200 feet from the viewing platform.

The Comb of the Wind and the setting sun

An interesting interpretation that I learned was that the three combs represent the past, present, and future. The comb on the viewing platform represents the present since we can physically touch it, the comb just to the east of the platform represents the past since even though it’s near, we can not touch it, and lastly, the far-out comb represents the future, something that is rather hazy and seems unattainable from the viewing platform. Ending the day on La Concha Bay in front of these art pieces was spectacular. Seeing the sun disappear behind Monte Igueldo and reflect off of the water is something I am going to miss once I return home.

Basque Language Class!

After staying in the Basque Country for four days, we finally took a Euskara language class. The Basque language, also called Euskera, is one of the most unique and isolated languages with a fascinating history. Right before the class, however, my friend Michael Hood-Dowd and I had just ordered lunch from a small pintxo restaurant near La Cunza, which is the Spanish school that we go to in San Sebastián. Pintxos are small slices of bread in which, at first, seem to have the strangest assortment of food placed on top of it. Achovies, eggs, and pickles placed on top of a piece of bread may look strange and offputting, but it tastes great! Soon, however, Michael and I won’t just be eating like Basques, but we will talking like them too.

Sitting in a circle at a beautiful park, our teacher, Stuart Little, who was not Basque, but actually Scottish, taught us Euskera. The only thing I had known about the Basque language was that words with “tx” in in, make a “ch” sound from the Basque Country cookbook by Marti Buckley. Letters that we don’t commonly use in the English or Spanish language, like “k”, “x”, and “z”, are prevalent in Euskera, causing the language to sound very rough and jagged. 

This language utilizes phonemes that help it to set it apart from other languages. Some examples are the “tx” making a “ch” sound, “z” sounding like the “s” sound in the word silent, and “ts” sounding like it does in the word bats. These phonemes are found throughout Eukeran’s words.

Simple greetings we learned like hello was “Kaixo”, pronounced “kai-show”, or goodbye, which is “Agur”, however, the “r” at the end is rolled. The most common one that was used during the presentation was the word for sorry, “Mesedez”, in which the emphasis is on the second “e”, pronounced almost like “Meh-say-des”.

The origin of the Basques are also fascinating. Going all the way back to the 1st century AD, there has been some evidence that the Basque have existed in Navarre and Aragon, which are now northern Basque provinces in Spain. People are not sure if the Vascones, the tribe that lived in those provinces, were ancestors of the Basques. As there is limited evidence, besides a few Ancient Roman tombstones, the origin of the Basque Country has a completely unknown origin.

An interesting fact about Euskera that is different from both Spanish and English is that they do not use plurals when talking about more than one of something. For example, when asking for two black coffee coffees, they say “Bi kafe huts”, in which “Bi” is two, “kafe” is coffee, and the huts is describing the type of coffee as black coffee. In that example it is not “Bi kafes huts”, but “Bi kafe huts”.

Also, in the Basque language, if someone only wants one of something, they will say the noun first and then say one. For example, instead of saying “one wine”, they say “ardoa bat”, which is “wine one”. 

It was interesting learning how many talented and special people have come out of this small place. As a music major, I was glad to find out that the composer Maurice Ravel was a Basque, born in Cibourne, France. Several famous soccer players and golfers have also come out of the Basque Country. Not only famous people, but famous everyday objects like the stapler and a ship rudder was invented in Basque Country including the first use of whale blubber in soap. It is also speculation that the Hobbits from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was based on the Basque culture, as Tolkien was a linguist, creating several Middle Earth languages for his books.

One of my favorite things that I learned about was the Basque surnames in which our teacher, Stuart, told us about a friend he had whose full name in English was Mother Earth Fire Mountain Chicken Path. I can’t remember what it was in Basque, but it cannot be matched, it is definitely the coolest name I have ever heard.

On this trip, we have been bewildered by several city store signs utilizing the letters “tx”, “k”, “x” or “z”. Now knowing that those signs were in the language Euskera has helped me to realize how special Spain is. This extremely small territory, not even as big as New Hampshire, is still alive and held sacred by the locals throughout so much change in our world and especially in Europe. It is fascinating, Agur!

Day Trip to Biarritz!

Biarritz is a city of rich culture and history. Their integration of Basque culture into mundane activities creates an atmosphere of comfort and joy.

The tone for this trip was set on the bus ride over, with a karaoke performance from our peers. “See the line where the sky meets the sea, it calls me!” exploding from the tranquil voices of our peers became the song of the day. Navigating Biarritz was a mission and regardless of how fast and far we walked, there was simply too much to discover. It felt as though we would never reach the line no matter how badly we wanted to get there. This especially rang true on our hunt for a bathroom. We got lost, refused, and scolded with the simple question of “Est-que vous avez aux toilettes?” constantly rolling off our tongues. In this adventure we accidentally got a large tour of the city, running from shop to shop and restaurant to restaurant. Although we spent a very limited amount of time in each place, we were able to catch the vibe of them and slowly we picked up on things like the kinds of food people eat, the clothes they wear, and the places they tend to frequent.

Once we were finally able to enjoy the city, the boutiques and shops called to us at every corner, luring us in with their exotic products. We received a very friendly welcome into the city by a man selling berets.

He insisted we try his berets on!

His amiable and humorous demeanor made us all laugh and got us excited to explore more. His lesson on the history of berets not only provided us with great fun facts for the future, but also an appreciation for the French Basque history. It truly is amazing how many stories something as simple as a chic hat can carry. From there on, our day trip to Biarritz became not just a quick excursion to France but instead, a deep dive into living and learning its true culture.

As we went through the city, and wandered through all of the shops, it was easy and shocking to discern the differences between each and every one. This is especially apparent in the food. Every restaurant had it own specialties. Even every crêpe was different from one other. My friends and I decided to have a crêpe at a cute beach side restaurant with a small glass of sangria on the side.

Miramar Beach

Not only was it so interesting to eat an authentic French crêpe, but it was fascinating to compare it to the crêpes I’ve eaten in the United States. In America, the appearance of food is very important. The plates are very pretty and well-organized in order to appeal to the eye. In France however, I found that the crêpes were very plain on the outside, but had immense flavor within. Here they do not need to showcase their food in a spectacular sort of way because their food and traditional recipes speak for themselves. After just the first bite, my palate was completely refreshed. The texture was nothing I’ve ever felt before. This together with sangria, sitting on the beach, watching the waves crash, while not having a care in the world or being pressured for a check truly made me feel immersed within the French Basque culture. I idolized the French culture of working to live and not living to work.

Furthermore, while seated by the sand, I was able to get a full view of what the city truly looks like; and what amazed me is the similar architecture between French Basque in Spanish Basque, despite them being in completely different countries. In both San Sebastián and Biarritz there is a large prominence of baserri style houses with rustic orange roofs.

In addition, the layout of the cities and even the way that the streets are paved are very similar. It’s astonishing how intertwined the culture between these two cities is. It was almost comforting to be within a city that is so similar to San Sebastián as it created a sense of comfort while we toured this new place in an unfamiliar country that speaks a language we do not understand.

I look forward to learning more about the Basque culture in both France and Spain and I hope that with the rest of the time I have in San Sebastián, I will be able to truly grasp the culture and lifestyle of the people in San Sebastien and Biarritz.

Learning About Basque Culture

On Thursday July 13, we all biked to Lacunza for our daily Spanish class. While we were on our way it started pouring and all of us got soaked. Normally, that would have bothered a lot of us, but being with friends made the experience funny and almost worth walking into class dripping wet.

After class we had some free time until both sessions, along with Professor Zabalbeascoa, met at Cristina Enea Park for our first Basque Language Class. Sitting in the park, we all took turns trying to pronounce various Basque greetings and other words that are commonly used. It was very interesting to learn about the regional language of the place we are staying in and it’s extensive yet mysterious history. After our Basque Language Class, we were able to hear from the writer of one of our assigned reading books, Marti Buckley. Marti Buckley wrote a Basque cooking book titled “Basque Country” and in the park she told us her story and how she ended up where she is. We learned that she was born in Alabama and always dreamed of being an architect. She went to Louisiana State University and while enrolled she was able to study abroad in Spain which was the beginning of her love for the country and all it offered. When she came back from Spain, she graduated, got married, and had a daughter. After spending time at home with her daughter, she was eager to begin working once again. She got a job at a kitchen and despite not liking her first day, she continued to go back and developed her love for cooking and spending time testing recipes. Years later she was able to return to Spain with a program that allowed her to teach English classes and stay in Spain while she did so. Fortunately, she made great friends who decided to open a bakery in San Sebastian called The Loaf, and asked her to work there. Since then, she has been living in San Sebastian and is currently working on her next book. After we heard about her background and what she is currently doing, she walked us through some of the steps she took in writing her first cook book. She explained to us how she researches recipes across various cook books and even asks friends and their family for their opinions and traditions. Once she has collected the recipes she revises and reworks each recipe until she thinks it is clear and concise enough for someone to be able to make this in their home kitchen.  When she concluded telling us how she wrote her book, she welcomed us to ask questions which ranged from her favorite food in San Sebastian to details of her book and experiences unique to San Sebastian. I enjoyed listening to her story and found it inspiring because of how she never lost her love for Spain and because of that, she was able to change her life forever. At the end, she signed books for us and we all took a group photo before thanking her and leaving the park.

Since it was Thursday, we were able to go to pintxo pote which is when bars/restaurants will set pintxos, or small snacks, on their bar top and people can come order them along with a drink for around three euros. When we first got to one of the main streets, we were hit with a wave of strong smells and the voices of people crowding the streets and sidewalks. It was amazing to see so many people come together to enjoy some pintxos and the company of others. Everywhere you looked people were laughing and talking to family, friends, and even people they had never met. Pintxo pote was especially interesting to me because it gave everyone a chance to meet someone who is not from the same area or country as they are. Since this rarely happens to me, it was a great experience which I enjoyed and I cannot wait to return to. When Pintxo Pote ended, we went to La Parte Vieja to a shop called Boulevard to get gelato and walk around. In San Sebastian, gelato is very popular and there are many shops around the city. Overall, today allowed me to spend time with friends from both sessions and immerse myself in the Basque Language. Additionally, I learned about writing a book based around the Basque culture and cuisine. I am very grateful for these experiences and will continue to think about them for the duration of my trip.