Torrijas - bread soaked in milk and fried in egg and olive oil.
What do the Spanish eat at Easter? EGGY BREAD!
Torrijas - bread soaked in milk and fried in egg and olive oil.
YUM! Amost as good as the Passover equivalent, Matzo (unleavened bread) soaked in milk and egg and fried....
Spring has definitely arrived, we’ve been basking in some glorious sunshine (sorry Britain!), and everyone’s out on the streets (yet again.) There was Basque country dancing in the cathedral square last night, and a fantastic jazz band on our street – but the huge outdoor event of this week is the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions. Yes, Easter (‘Pascual’) is coming – and Passover too.
Not much sign of Passover here, where, unlike almost every other Spanish city, there has never been a Jewish community, even before the expulsion in 1492: so we’ll be eating our hard-boiled eggs and salt water on our own on Seder Night (Monday).
But Easter is a BIG deal here. As in the rest of Spain, Holy Week is marked in Bilbao by 8 days of extraordinary religious processions, from Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) to Easter Sunday (Domingo de Resurreccion), commemorating the events of the Passion. From Maundy Thursday to Easter Monday, the whole country shuts down.
Today we went to see the Palm Sunday procession at San Vicente in town. (Each procession leaves and returns a couple of hours later to one of the city’s churches, a different church for each procession.)
The procession was slow, sombre and impressive – and fantastically colourful, especially since most of the nazarenos were carrying long palm leaves.
The processions are organised by ‘cofradias’ – fraternities (mostly connected with parish churches). Each cofradia organises a band of ‘nazarenos’ – penitents – to join the procession. Each has its own particular costume, but all of them wear the penitential robes of various colours – with hoods and pointed hats (‘capirotes’) – which have been used since medieval times (a style unfortunately later also adopted by the Klu Klux Klan in the States). The hoods are/were apparently used to hide the identity of the penitents who are/were ashamed of their sins, including their responsibility for the death of Christ.
At some point in the procession, ‘pasos’ (religious sculptures – many several hundred years old) are carried on heavy floats by some of the nazarenos called ‘costaleros’.
Each cofradia’s group of nazarenos also includes musicians who play special traditional tunes with wailing trumpets and ceremonial drums of various shapes and sizes. (Once again, we marvelled not only at the extraordinary community effort all this involved, with hundreds of people participating, but also at the ability of the Basques to produce so many talented drummers and brass players in their communities).
The whole thing is extraordinarily medieval – it’s been going on in Bilbao since 1553, and much earlier in other parts of Spain. Although the Basque Country is pretty Catholic, it’s hard to say how much of it is a sign of religious devoutness, though. The processions seem to be done by people of all generations, including many children (who by the way don’t wear the penitential hoods); but we have noticed that church-going seems to be mainly done by old people. In the end, much of it is perhaps more about the continuance of a powerful dramatic community tradition involving lots of dressing up and music….
You can get a sense of what the processions are like here:
Lots more processions to come, so watch this space….
The Guggenheim is the most famous of Bilbao´s regeneration projects but many other impressive new buildings and projects have been built in the last 20 years as part of the drive to renewal. Many of them relate to public services, which are taken pretty seriously here – and there´s enormous civic pride in them and in the role they've played in the regeneration.
The metro is a good example. It´s a beautiful system designed by Norman Foster. Inside, the corridors leading to the staircases down to the trains hang delicately over the railway, and the design of the whole is coherent and slick.
Outside, many of the metro entrances are marked by elegant glass and metal ´porches´, known locally as ´Fosteritos’, which act almost as extensions to the escalator tunnels leading down into the system
Libraries, community centres, theatres, museums and so on have played a significant role in the regeneration. The city council has systematically rescued fine old buildings and modernised them for public use.
For instance, there’s the 18th century ‘palazzo’ on our street which has been modernised and turned into a council office.
There’s the beautiful Moorish-style ‘Campos Eliseos’ theatre, with its modern extension...
Similarly the old Moorish-style bath-house, now a council office:
And the Archaeology Museum, an old station given a new lease of life:
And there's the recent modernisation of the Ribera market building:
The flagship city council project, however, is ´the Alhondiga’. This building is a huge 19th century art nouveau wine warehouse in the centre of the new town, which had been derelict for some time. It has been turned into the city´s major leisure centre, designed by Philippe Starck, with state-of-the-art library, gym, swimming pool, exhibition space, cinemas and so on. Three new buildings were built inside the shell of the old building. The effect is stunning, if quite hard to take good pictures of…
The most extraordinary features are the columns that support the three internal buildings. Starck conceived these as a kind of ‘library’ of architectural styles:
One fun aspect of the building is the swimming pool, built across the top of the buildings, the floor of which can be viewed from the atrium below.
Another great library building in the new town is the Biscay province library, a stunning building which is part of the Biscay government complex. The windows are decorated with proverbs in many languages, and at night the whole thing is lit up to display the books inside.
The Basque Country regional government (‘gobierno vasco’) has also put up some striking buildings, for instance its main office in Bilbao, which has an undulating glass front overlooking a public square next to the Alhondiga.
There is also the amazing Basque Country health service building:
Then there’s the interesting new Bilbao city hall (‘ayuntiamento’) extension:
The riverside has been a major focus of new building. In a previous post, I mentioned the key riverside development by the Japanese architect Isozaki, built inside the shell of the nineteenth century customs building.
Its two towers play on the motif of the enclosed balcony which is characteristic of Northern Spain, and are linked by a dramatic staircase, which also connects the river and the new Zubiburi bridge (by Calatrava) to the new town, with a steel sculpture by the most famous Basque artist Eduardo Chillida at the centre.
It´s part of a riverside renewal project which has involved constructing new riverside promenades on the old wharves all the way through the city centre, which are extremely well-used and a popular location for Bilbainos to take their evening ‘paseo’.
Further down the river, there´s the Euskalduna Palace (see last post) and the Maritime Museum, which contains one of the best audio-visual presentations I´ve seen in a museum, about the regeneration of the city. It employs a huge model of the city which lights up in different colours as a dual-screen film about the city plays.
As the river wends its way out of town, one comes to a strip of land called Zorroatzurre, which lies between the river and the canal, and is now an ex-industrial wasteland. A vast plan has been formulated, designed by Zara Hadid, to rebuild this as a central business zone – but the financial crisis seems to have stalled the project.
One commercial building that has been built is the Iberdrola tower. It looks good from some positions, but on the whole I'm not keen on it. Like a lot of the new towers in London, it stands arrogantly and incongruously in its surroundings, disfiguring many views.
There are plenty of other interesting buildings – universities, hospitals, museums, etc. – but no space to mention them all here. You can read much more about these and many other aspects of Bilbao architecture and culture at www.bilbaointernational.com.
After Christmas, when the celebrating’s over, the weather’s not so good, and the earth isn’t yielding up its usual plethora of delights, the Spanish don’t by any means desist from their usual eating, drinking and socialising pursuits, but they do seem to need to make an extra effort to keep things going by organising elaborate winter food and drink rituals.
We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve recently been introduced to a couple of these by some of Pietro’s lovely post-doctoral research colleagues.
So yesterday we went to a Catalan spring onion party – which the Catalans call a ‘calçotada’. This is a party where folk gather to consume barbecued ‘calçots’ (pr. ‘cal-SOTS’), which are a variety of spring onions which are extremely popular in Catalunya when they are in season in – you guessed it – the spring. Calçots are like normal spring onions except that, as they grow, the depth of soil is increased so as to lengthen the tender white parts at the bottom.
At the calçotada, you cook the onions over charcoal and dried vine shoots until they are charred.
After the onions have cooled down for a couple of minutes, you hold one by the top and pull down and remove the charred outer layer, revealing the tender and delicious flesh inside. You then dip the onion into a pot of special calçot salsa made from tomato, nuts, garlic and oil, dangle it into your mouth and eat. It’s very messy but very delicious! And then you have as many more as you want. (Our party divided between onion-sceptics who had only one or two, and onion-embracers (like me) who had 20 or more!)
If you’re lucky (we were), this will be accompanied by the Catalan favourite, ‘pa amb tomaquet’, (bread with tomato), which is bread rubbed with soft tomato, garlic and olive oil. Simple but utterly delicious.
This event was organised by one of the Catalans who work in the lab, who brought the onions and the sauce back with him from a trip back home. It took place in a house on a farm in the village of Lezama, a few miles from Bilbao, where one of Pietro’s colleague’s lives.
Here's a little video (from YouTube) of the big spring onion fiesta in Valls, Catalunya, complete with Catalans in fetching red hats:
And now - a cider party...
A month or so ago, a couple of Pietro’s Basque colleagues organised a traditional Basque winter event - a coach trip to a ‘sagardotegia’ (cider-house) near San Sebastian for a Saturday lunchtime 'txotx', a sort of cider-tasting gathering with lunch.. This took place in the town of Astigarraga, the centre of cider-making in the Basque Country. There are many cider-houses in the town (and many more in the wider San Sebastian area), and people come in coach-loads from the surrounding area during the cider season (December-March, after the apples have been harvested in the autumn.)
In the traditional cider-houses, you find tables set up in the cellars of the farmhouses where the cider barrels ('kupelas') are kept.
There’s no heating, it’s all pretty basic – just excellent cider and hearty country food. The food is the same whichever cider-house you go to, a sequence of favourite simple Basque dishes: ‘tortilla’ (Spanish omelette)’ followed by ‘bacalao’ (cod) followed by ‘chuleta’ (steak), followed by ‘queso, membrillo y nueces’ (Idiazabal cheese, quince paste and walnuts).
Every few minutes, the owner of the cider-house shouts 'txotx' (pr. chotch, a bit like 'church'), and you get up from the table and queue up to get some cider from the barrel. When the valve is open, the cider streams out in an arc and you have to catch it in your glass in mid-air; someone is queuing directly behind you to catch the stream as soon as you have finished with it. You end up with cider all over the floor, of course, but that’s all part of the experience!
Catching the cider at a distance is done to aerate it (Basque cider is not fizzy and much more like scrumpy than British bottled cider). You are also supposed to take only a small amount of cider each time – maybe half a centimetre’s depth – and go back frequently during the meal. (Here is a picture of yours truly playing his part in the ritual....)
And here's a little video of the cider house experience (taken from YouTube):
The Spanish generally drink small amounts very slowly. Anything as big as a pint of beer is unheard of. If you want a large beer you ask for a ‘caña’, which is probably about two-thirds of a pint. But a caña will last you a long time. In general, I’d say that a Spanish person will drink three times less than a British person in the same amount of time! Consequently, they don’t get drunk (except very occasionally at fiestas.) (These are of course generalisations but….).
It was interesting therefore to see what happened to Pietro’s young Spanish and Basque colleagues at this event. Because of the routine of taking a small amount of cider and drinking it quite quickly before it loses its fizz, and then going back for more every 5 minutes or so during the meal, we must have ended up drinking a pint of cider in an hour or so – a relatively large amount, relatively quickly, for the Spanish! Consequently, quite a few of them got drunk quite quickly and quite uncharacteristically.
We then all went on to an Irish pub in the nearby town of Hernani where they proceeded to get even more drunk on quite small amounts of beer. (There are Irish pubs everywhere, by the way: you know the kind of thing - not really Irish at all but with an Irish name and vaguely British pub-like décor. There’s one in Bilbao called ‘Mor o’r Less’!).
I am not much of a drinker, but I drank at least as much as everyone else and remained entirely sober! I looked on as amusing and occasionally mildly riotous scenes of drunkenness developed, and several people had to take ‘time out’ to sober up. Eventually a chaotic return to Bilbao was made at about midnight, by which time everyone had calmed down.
In true Spanish style, after a day of eating and drinking which had started at lunchtime, we were then entreated to go on to ‘Rasputin’, the Russian bar in the new town, for vodka cocktails….
This short flashmob video (made as part of a project to raise funds for research into neuro-degenerative diseases) was made on one of the main drinking and socialising streets in the centre of Bilbao’s New Town on Saturday 1st December.
It’s a well-made and enjoyable little film, and I’m posting it mainly because the first couple of minutes give a great sense of the atmosphere when everyone is out talking and drinking and playing in the streets. This was probably filmed between 12 and 3 in the afternoon, which is when everyone is out (before lunch starts at 3!).
You also get a good view of one of Bilbao’s great new buildings, the regional library, which I’ll say more about in a future post. And you get a glimpse of one of the best pintxo bars in town, El Globo, if you watch carefully!
You can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utyhx5pn4b8
Don’t give up when the guy starts singing: he is joined later by a choir, orchestra and dancers, and it’s quite a spectacle.
Here’s the blurb about the video:
On December 1st 2012, Mikel Renteria walks through the streets of Bilbao, carrying his guitar, amplifier and a poster, looking like a street musician. Mikel is heading towards one of Bilbao's bustling pedestrian areas in the heart of town. He sets up his equipment and begins to play Today Is My Future, one of the songs he has recently composed as part of a new album scheduled to come out in December 2012.
In 2010, Mikel and his wife, Mentxu, created a non-profit (the Walk On Project, WOP) to support research aimed at finding a cure for neurodegenerative diseases. Parents of 3 children, they were made brutally aware of such illnesses on October 13, 2008 when their apparently healthy 6-year-old son, Jon, was diagnosed with a fatal neurodegenerative disorder known as Leukodystrophy.
So on that first day of December 2012, few people knew what was about to happen, or that the event would become the largest and most complex flashmob produced to date. At first apparently all alone, to the surprise of passers-by, Mikel was steadily joined by more and more people: the WOP Band, a symphony orchestra from the nearby Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga Conservatory of Bilbao, a chorus formed for the occasion, and over 40 people who simultaneously began to dance a choreography created specifically for Mikel's song.
And here’s a video about the making of it: