Los Ingleses no quieren aprender
Con un poquitin de suerte
Soy un hombre corriente
La lluvia en Espana
Quisiera yo bailar
La calle donde vives
Los has hecho
Llevenme a la iglesia
Me he acostumbrado a su mirar
My parents are staying and decided we should all go and see a well-known musical - in Spanish - at the theatre last night. So here's a little quiz. The Spanish song-titles are as follows. Which musical is it?
Los Ingleses no quieren aprender
Con un poquitin de suerte
Soy un hombre corriente
La lluvia en Espana
Quisiera yo bailar
La calle donde vives
Los has hecho
Llevenme a la iglesia
Me he acostumbrado a su mirar
(*‘Ongi etorri’ is the Basque phrase for ‘welcome’.)
Well, Aste Nagusia – the week of the fiestas – has been and gone, and very marvellous it was too.
It all kicked off two Saturdays ago at 5pm. Just as we were preparing to go and watch the launch of the fiesta in the Arenal (the big public square by the river, five minutes walk from our flat), the fiesta came to us. About two dozen brass bands, wind bands and pipe and drum bands marched down our street, each one accompanied by groups of revellers, all on their way to the Arenal. Thousands of people passed by in the space of about 45 minutes. There was a wonderful joyful carnival atmosphere, and the musical standards were great – superb brass and wind playing in all the bands. It was a baking hot day and each time the parade stopped because of a log-jam further down the street the crowds looked up to the people watching from their balconies and shouted ‘Agua! Agua!’, begging us to throw buckets of water over them – which we duly did!
Each band and accompanying group of revellers – 27 of them in all – wore a different set of matching clothing. We later learnt that these 27 groups are the ‘konpartsak’ - local associations representing different areas of the city or different interest groups (e.g., political, sporting or musical) that exist to come together to organise the week of fiestas in conjunction with the city council. They also organise festivities at other times of year – major saint’s days, Christmas, and carnival in February, etc.
Each ‘konpartsa’ sets up a festive tent (a ‘txosna’) in the Arenal which acts both as a public bar and as a base for that konpartsa for the week. The square is transformed into a huge street party, and each evening thousands of people go to drink and talk at these various ‘txosnas’ in the square. (We are beginning to realise how important meeting and drinking outdoors is for the Spanish, an observation which has now been corroborated by many we’ve spoken to. We’ve been told too that there isn’t much of a culture of inviting people into your house: you simply agree to meet outside.)
After this parade, we headed to the Arenal for the launch of the fiestas. The square was crammed with several thousand people, all waiting for the appearance of ‘Marijaia’ – the symbol of the Bilbao fiestas (each city has its own symbol) – on the balcony of the opera house (the main building on the square.) Marijaia is a sort of tame, urban version of ‘Mari’, the Basque pre-Christian mountain goddess who is supposed to live on Mount Amboto, about 30 miles away. She’s an effigy of a Basque woman with arms up-stretched in a gesture of joy. She appears on the balcony and the fiesta is then launched with a massive explosion of ticker tape, deafening cheers, and mass singing of a Basque song (no idea what it was…!) Meanwhile, during the wait for Marijaia’s appearance, crowds of hundreds of young people were amusing themselves by throwing flour, eggs, beer and tomato ketchup over each other….
One of the most interesting things about all this – the parade, the launch, the flour and eggs and so on – was the fact that it was all done without any drunkenness or aggression, without any undercurrent of violence – just a joyous lack of restraint. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the whole week was the complete lack of excess or drunkenness. Even at the various late-night concerts around town, hundreds of young people would come to watch bringing a bag of soft drinks to keep themselves hydrated and to counteract the effects of any alcohol. We couldn’t help feeling that it would all be a bit different in Britain.
Next day, the parade of ‘Los Gigantes’ across the city – a group of huge puppets representing figures from Bilbao’s past, including a British footballer (with pasty skin and a handkerchief on his head – see previous post for explanation). They were accompanied by traditional Basque pipe and drum bands (of which more later), and by a mini-parade of what we later learnt were called ‘cabezones’ (big-heads’, young people wearing ‘big heads’ and carrying inflated pigs’ bladders (!) with which they hit children in the crowd – not hard, I hasten to add: apparently, a custom at fiestas in other parts of Spain, too. All very carnivalesque, all very reminiscent of ancient ideas about festivals and ‘misrule’.
During the week, we never knew what would appear outside our flat next: as well as the bands that regularly paraded past (often stopping to play right outside our flat at one of the popular bars), ‘Los Gigantes’ paraded past a couple of times, various other enormous puppets, too – and even Marijaia herself came past. Rather delightfully, the puppets were so big that their heads were at the level of our first floor balcony and we found ourselves face to face with them!
There were also daily performances, around the Casco Viejo, of Basque country dancing and something called ‘bertsolari’ – an extraordinary oral tradition of improvised verse-chanting: I will write more about these in a future post. Each night, too, there was a huge fireworks display over the city at about 11 pm – which signalled the start of a night of festivities, with people dancing and drinking in the square till the early hours, and open-air concerts beginning at 11.30pm...
Beyond the various special events of the fiesta, there was a permanent atmosphere around the town of community festivity, with local people – whether dancers, verse-reciters, musicians, revellers, or simply onlookers – at the centre of it all. Difficult to think of something equivalent at home. It all felt very happy and positive and in many senses inclusive (though I hope to write at some point later about the potential exclusivity of Basque national folklore in a modern multi-cultural city…)
Sadly, we missed the last weekend of the fiestas. At the end of the whole thing, Marijaia is apparently burnt, her ashes sent off down the river, only to rise again phoenix-like the following year.
Finally, quiet political protest was quite strongly in evidence. Here are some pictures:
It’s a baking hot day again – mid-afternoon temperatures have been consistently between 30 and 40 for the last 2 weeks, and there has been no rain yet (though it did threaten one day a few days ago). (It’s apparently pretty unusual to go 2 weeks without rain in the summer here).
The ‘fiestas de Bilbao’ (9 days of fiesta) start today – otherwise known as the ‘Big Week’ – ‘Semana Grande’ in Spanish, ‘Aste Nagusia’ in Euskara. Officially they don’t start till 6pm today, but party atmosphere is already very apparent. Indeed, a large proportion of the population of Bilbao seems to be in our street at present (3pm). (In case you didn’t read the earlier blog post, a reminder that we have found ourselves living in the most popular drinking street in Bilbao.)
The fiesta is focused on the old town where we live, and the streets around us - and especially our street – will be thronging, day and night, with thousands of people for the next week, we are told. We’ve been advised to move out, in fact, and have heard of several other people in these streets moving out for the week. We have the offer of staying at Pietro’s boss’s house outside Bilbao while he is away on holiday, and we’re definitely going to take that up when my parents arrive on Tuesday. Meanwhile, we’ll see whether we can make it till then staying here with the fiestas around us.
Out on the street there are lots of people drinking and talking loudly, quite a few singing, many of them wearing white shirts and/or blue neck-scarves (like the red ones worn at the back of the neck by toreadors) and/or Basque berets. Some are playing folk music on accordions (very popular here). We’ve had a brass band (superb) and a wind band parading down the street. Imagine a big party with thousands of slightly drunk and rather macho Spaniards. That’s what it’s like – and it is virtually in our front room…
Mixed in with all the Basque and Bilbao symbols are plenty of ‘Athletic Bilbao’ shirts and motifs. Not being in the slightest bit interested in football, I don’t feel very qualified to comment on the local team, but it’s very clear that football is almost a religion here, and Athletic Bilbao is worshipped devoutly. The origins of the club are interesting. It was founded in 1902 by a combination of British miners and steel workers who had come to Bilbao to work, and Basque men who had gone to Britain to study engineering, and who had started to play football in Bilbao in the early 1890s. Apparently, this was also true in Barcelona, Madrid and Seville; football was introduced to Spain by migrant British workers and Spaniards returning to Spain from the UK. This explains why many Spanish clubs have English names such as ‘Athletic Club’ in Bilbao and Madrid. There’s also a bit of the riverside by the Guggenheim named after the English visitors – the Campo de los Ingleses. (By the way, locally the word ‘Athletic’ is actually pronounced ‘Atleti’…)
I’ve never experienced a Spanish fiesta before, so it’s interesting to get the feel of it. Imagine a music festival, an arts festival, a folk festival, a funfair and a street fair or carnival, all on at the same time in the streets of the city, as well as in the churches, concert halls, theatres and cafes – that’s what it’s like. It strikes me as typical that Britain tends to separate all these things out with cultural ‘festivals’, pop and rock ‘festivals,’ and ‘fairs’ and ‘carnivals’, all having very different characteristics and demographics. This, however, has a more ‘we’re all in it together’ classless feel to it – the whole of life is here, and here together. No doubt that’s a rather naïve view – but I’m sure there’s nevertheless truth in it.
Over the next week, we can expect Basque folk dancing in Plaza Nueva every night, bull-fighting in the bullring every afternoon, fireworks by the river every night at 11pm, classical music, rock music, folk music, jazz, and world music in various streets and squares round the town all evening until about 3 in the morning, and much more. Apparently there’ll be informal folk music and dance wherever you go, too. And a lot of food and drink. (A lot more than usual, that is – and that’s saying something.) Not to mention demonstrations of Basque ‘rural sports’ (‘Herri Kirolak’) such as wood chopping, stone lifting, bale tossing, scything, hole drilling, espadrille tossing, hoe throwing and sack carrying….
The whole thing starts with a launch in the big square by the river (The Arenal) at 6 this evening, in which a ‘toro del fuego’, a bull of fire (i.e. a man dressed as a bull wearing hundreds of small fireworks), runs riot through the crowds. You know the kind of thing. I did once experience something similarly terrifying done by a Catalan theatre group in Edinburgh. It’s all very reminiscent of ancient ideas of festival – lords of misrule, etc.
Other recent appearances (last couple of days) have included a lot of political posters. Most of them are about the Basque prisoners. A large number of ETA terrorists (over 500) are being held in prisons in Spain and France, deliberately well away from the Basque country. However, since ETA announced a permanent ceasefire last year, there has been a powerful campaign by Basque nationalists to get the prisoners returned (‘repatriated’ as I’ve seen it translated) to prisons in the Basque Country. All over the Basque country (and all over the streets in the Casco Viejo) are flags hanging from people’s balconies demanding the return of the prisoners (see pictures below: the slogan means 'Bring the Basque prisoners home' - 'etxera' meaning 'home'). Apparently, several of the prisoners have gone on hunger strike this week to protest at the refusal of the authorities to release one who has terminal cancer, hence the new posters.
Other posters have appeared at the same time protesting against the bull-fighting (which we WON'T be going to see...) And others are anarchist protests against the state-controlled fiestas.
Our street, as well as being a popular drinking place, also has a very radical, alternative, left-wing, hippy-ish feel about it. (A bit like East Oxford, actually, but less middle-class and more out on the streets!) It’s apparently a meeting place for young radical Basque nationalists, and probably therefore various strands of anarchism and socialism. There are lots of African immigrants here too, often selling things on the streets. (There’s one who plays an African lute-like stringed instrument in the street nearby – and makes a very beautiful sound). It’s all very interesting – though as a non-native, it’s very difficult to ‘read the signs’. Perhaps we’ll understand more as we go on.
It’s not unusual for there to be lots of people drinking in the street at 3pm. We’re beginning to get the hang of the Bilbao day, and the ways in which eating and drinking shape the day. Life here seems to revolve around food and drink, and around local cafes and ‘tabernas’ and ‘cervecerias’ – of which there are dozens. And eating and drinking on the streets, outside the tabernas, either just standing, or perched at a barrel-table, or on doorsteps, happens all over the place.
Breakfast is ‘café con leche’ (au lait, latte) with a croissant. Except that the croissants are large, rather dry, and stickily encrusted with sugar. When we first walked into a local café at breakfast time, we were amused to see everyone eating croissants with knifes and forks. It then became clear that it was because they are very sticky.
At 11.30, many people stop work and go to their local bar or café for a piece of tortilla, as a mid-morning snack, to tide them over till lunchtime which is around 2.30! The first time I left our flat for a mid-week mid-afternoon wander round the Old Town, I was amazed. The cafes and bars were full to overflowing with local people having lunch – in couples, en famille, in groups of friends. (There are very few tourists round here, certainly non-Spanish ones – they all go to the Guggenheim, but not here. The bars, cafes and restaurants are used mainly by locals.)
At weekends, even more people go out for lunch, and it’s traditional to precede lunch – whether eating at home or out - with ‘txakoli’ and ‘pintxos’ in the local bars with friends. Old ladies seem to get their hair done specially, and enjoy doing what in Italy is called ‘passeggiata’ – walking round the streets of town with friends or family, maybe having a drink or an ice cream.
Work starts again at about 5 and goes on till 8. Then everyone is out on the streets again, drinking coffee, wine (the local white wine, ‘txakoli’,) cider (a big thing here in the Basque country), or ‘kalimotxo’ (mixture of red wine and Coke), before having supper at about 9 or 10 pm (later at weekends). Lunch is very much the main meal of the day, so supper might be just a snack – a ‘racion’ ( a slice or portion of something), or some ‘pintxos’ (the Basque version of ‘tapas’) – of which more later.
All this against the backdrop of a worsening national economic crisis – of which we haven’t seen much sign here, though we are told that people can’t afford to eat and drink out as much as they could a year ago. Apparently, the unemployment rate is 35% in Andalucia, 25% nationally, but ‘only’ 15% here. The Basque Country is the wealthiest corner of Spain, with the highest GDP. Not far away, though, is the mining crisis in Cantabria, just along the coast.
I haven’t noticed any activity by ‘Los Indignados’ – the protestors against Spain’s current conservative government’s austerity programme – here. Perhaps the lack of protest here is to do with the fact that the Basque Country has a significant degree of devolved government. The Basque government goes its own way (a bit like the Welsh assembly in the UK?) and is significantly more left-wing than the rest of the country. I have just discovered a ‘Basque news in English’ site run by the local tv company, and noticed that the local news today was an announcement by the Basque socialist government that it would not be cutting health or education in the Basque Country, despite the fact that the national government is doing it everywhere else.
More of this and other topics soon… Meanwhile, here is a picture of yours truly eating sticky croissant in the Spanish mode.
The Basque Country (Euskal Herria) in Spain comprises three provinces – Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba. Bilbao is the main city of the province of Bizkaia. I confess that until now I hadn’t known that the Bay of Biscay – which has mainly featured in my consciousness through O Level History and those rather gung-ho naval songs we used to sing at school – was named after a part of Spain.
Anyway, this weekend I had my first proper experience (since my original train journey from the French/Spanish border) of the Bizkaia countryside. We stayed with Pietro’s Italian colleague and his English wife and their two (as previously mentioned quadrilingual) little girls, at their house in a village in the hills a few miles east of Bilbao. The main event was a day trip to the coast, to the very picturesque fishing village of Elantxobe on the Bay of Biscay, below the highest point on the Basque coast, Caba Ogone.
We were accompanied on the trip, a little surreally, by the Teletubbies (see picture below) who were carefully kitted out with safety helmets (colour-matched) and seat belts.
I hope they appreciated the very beautiful terrain as much as we did. The mountains around here are relatively low-lying, and we drove through lots of pleasantly rolling land (see pictures below), much of it used for pasture and vineyards (growing the local fruity white wine known as ‘txakoli’).
The farm-houses throughout the area are very distinctive. Known as ‘baserri’, they are imposing chalet-like stone houses, with broad roofs and substantial overhanging eaves, and usually with a large stone porch (see picture below). The Basque house is also known as ‘etxea’, a word that (according to the book I’m reading by Mark Kurlanksy) seems to mean something like ‘homestead’- a sort of mixture of ‘house’, ‘home’ and ‘family’, and is a central concept in Basque culture.
Kurlansky claims that naming is particularly important in Basque culture, and indeed we noted on our journey that most of the houses are named, with the name often written in large Basque letters on the wall below the peak of the roof of the house. It was also interesting to see that on local maps, each of the old houses is named (see picture below, taken from the internet).
Our destination, Elantxobe, is a village on the Urdaibai estuary, about 20 miles from Bilbao. The estuary and the area around it makes up the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. The estuary is apparently home to many birds, and the surrounding wooded hills culminate in steep cliffs by the sea. The town at the narrowest point of the estuary is Gernika (Guernica), of Spanish Civil War fame, and the two major coastal settlements are Bermeo and Mundaka.
Elantxobe lies below the highest point on the Basque coast, Caba Ogone, and the whole experience was rather vertiginous, especially for me with my fear of heights. We first walked through woods up to the top of the Ogone cliff, and were rewarded with great views of the coast and the mountains (below).
Then, down extremely steep cobbled streets (in the manner of places like Clovelly in Devon, though somewhat more extreme) through the village of Elantxobe to the harbour, where we had lunch in the harbourside ‘taberna’. (The pictures below don't really give a good impression of how steep the streets are). Interesting to see how people are crammed insanely into these steep hillsides by the sea, whereas inland there are miles of verdant rolling countryside with relatively little habitation. Clearly the Basques saw their main source of livelihood as the sea rather than the land.
Back in the village where we were staying near Bilbao, agriculture was much in evidence. The woman from the farmhouse across the road brought over a massive sack of freshly-harvested ‘pimientos de Gernika’ (small green peppers, very popular here, often fried whole in olive oil.) (Guess what we’ll be eating this week!)
Across the road also is a ‘sagardotegi’, a Basque cider-house (sagarda = cider); very local, no tourists around here! We popped across and had a glass of cider, which was served direct from a barrel. When the valve of the barrel is opened, the cider (always still, not aerated) exits in a long, thin, arched stream and has to be caught in the glass some distance away! Even when served from a bottle, the cider is poured into the glass from above-head-height in order to aerate it.
Now back in the city for a week’s work before the Bilbao fiesta starts next weekend! Of which more soon….
A final image of the Basque countryside... What does it mean? Answers on a postcard, please....
For years, Pietro and I have laughed about the Italian 'translation' of 'The Sound of Music' - which is 'All Together With Feeling' - 'Tutti insieme appassionatamente'. Doesn't have quite the same ring about it, does it?
Well, here's the Spanish version (left) - 'Sonrisas y lagrimas' - 'Smiles and Tears'. I'm not sure they've quite got the point. (Apparently there's another Spanish version in South America called 'La Novicia Rebelde' - 'The Rebellious Novice.')
You'll see that it's on at the Palacio Euskalduna, another of the buildings that symbolises the regeneration of Bilbao, with a state of the art symphony hall that looks very impressive in the pictures we've seen. It is the home of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, which has an impressive season of concerts from September which we think we might go and see.
We’re both working hard this week. Pietro is growing some very smelly bacteria-like things called archaea (I know - I smelled them when I went to the lab a few days ago), and is working on protein structures that might help with a vaccine for hepatitis. I’m trying to get the writing done that I was supposed to do before I left England, but didn’t have time to do (working on a book about teaching literature – due out in Routledge next year!). I am dying to go out and explore everything here, but I’ve got to remember that this is LIFE not HOLIDAY…. My parents are coming to stay in 2 weeks, so we’ll have some more time off then.
I have huge amounts to blog about and lots of pictures to post, and not much time at present, so I am storing most of it up for future posts. But here are some thoughts about the language situation, and some related pictures.
It’s a bit like the dual-language situation in parts of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Everyone speaks Spanish, and some people speak Basque/Euskara, and all public information, shop signs, etc., are in both. As yet, we’ve not heard anyone actually speaking Euskara, however – I suspect you’d have to go into the rural villages for that. Wikipedia says that only about 50% of the inhabitants of the Basque Country actually speak Euskara, and most of those are in the under-24 age group, since they are the ones learning it in school.
The exception to all that is the word for ‘goodbye’. The Euskara word ‘agur’ seems to be the standard word for saying goodbye here, rather than the Spanish ‘hasta luego’. (We also hear local people using colloquial / familiar combinations like ‘Venga! Vale! Agur’! quite a lot, which seems to mean something like ‘ok – all right – see you’. )
Pietro’s boss here, who is Italian and whose wife is English, has two small children who are completely quadrilingual. They speak Italian to Dad, English to Mum, and both Spanish and Euskara at school. Marvellous.
Euskara is quite quite different! It’s a language isolate – unrelated (in any obvious way) to any other languages in Europe, or indeed anywhere else. It is assumed to be the only remnant of the languages spoken by the peoples who lived in Europe before the Indo-Europeans (Celts, Germans, Romans, etc.) got here. There are no clues whatsoever – so it’s a bit like encountering Hungarian or Finnish. Basic knowledge of Romance, Germanic or Slavic languages doesn’t help.
We’re getting a good sense of what it looks like – lots of ‘k’s, ‘x’s, ‘z’s and 'tx's – all very picturesque! Below are some pictures of café, bar and shop signs from the streets around us. You’ll see what I mean. It’s particularly picturesque because most of the signs are printed in a distinctive and rather pleasingly chunky Basque font which is apparently very ancient – deriving from stone-carving traditions during the Roman era – and strongly associated with the revival of Basque nationalism in the 1930s.
Pietro has started reading a book in Spanish called ‘Euskara para Dummies’. (Typical – not only is he learning Basque, but learning it in Spanish, a language he seems to be able to speak fluently despite never having learnt it. Makes you sick.). Apparently, it (Euskara) is a really very complicated language with all kinds of strange grammatical arrangements involving doing unusual compound things with subjects, objects, pronouns and verbs.
Even though the language is only spoken by 50% of the people, the population does seem to be very much genetically Basque. The Basques are quite distinctive in their looks – tending to be tall-ish, lean-ish, dark-haired, long-faced, long-nosed, and – well – in possession of very large earlobes! (According to Mark Kurlanksy in his 'Basque History of the World' (which I'm just starting to read), a derogatory Basque word for foreigners is ‘belarri motxari’ – the stumpy-eared ones!)
There are lots of things I’m not clear about yet, such as the details of the history of Basque nationalism, what goes on in schools, etc., etc. Kurlanksy's book apparently has all the answers. I’m picking up a few choice facts here and there but haven’t got anywhere near the full picture yet. Watch this space.
As for Spanish… well I’m now very proficient at ordering coffees and water, have just about learnt to count, and am beginning to able to understand when people in shops tell me how much things cost. Apart from that, I’m collecting lots of nouns but don’t know anything much about verbs yet. Very soon, I expect to be as bad at Spanish as I am at Italian.
Now, back to work.
Well that's what the weather forecast is for the next four days! 39 degrees on Thursday and possibly more on Friday.... And the following week looks as though it's going to be similar. It rains on 60% of the days in the year in Bilbao apparently, but the sun seems to be making up for lost time now.
A more interesting post tomorrow....
I’ve been here 5 days now. I arrived on Monday evening, and woke up on Tuesday morning exhausted but wanting to explore. So we spent the day - a very hot, beautiful sunny day (what a change from the last few weeks at home!) – wandering through Bilbao, so that I could get a feel for the place. I then went into a decline for the next three days – just very tired, I think! So pottered around at home getting stuff done, doing some work, starting this blog, having early nights, catching up with The Archers (sad, I know)and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, etc. – and now am feeling much better, raring to go…
I wrote about first impressions of the Casco Viejo (old town) in my last post. In the afternoon of that first gloriously sunny day, we also wandered down the river to see the Guggenheim and other elements of the regeneration of Bilbao. The river is a very striking feature of Bilbao – a wide and curving corridor through the centre of the city, now with six or seven bridges across it. It’s several miles to the sea from Bilbao, but by the time it has left Bilbao it has become an estuary. Past the old town, it widens as it goes through the old docking and industrial area of the city. This is the bit that went into a terrible decline in the 80s and 90s and has been regenerated in a quite spectacular way since then – with beautifully designed esplanades, bridges, housing, a new tramline, new university and museum buildings, and the Guggenheim.
As the pictures below should show, a sunny day with a deep blue sky is a great time to see the Guggenheim, creating wonderful light effects on the titanium shell of the building. The combination of water, light and sky is great. Interesting to see the way the museum was integrated into a rather unattractive road-bridge across the river, too. I haven’t been inside yet, but will report on that later.
We wandered back through parts of El Ensanche (the new town, across the river from the old town), though we still have a lot more to see there. It’s much bigger than the Casco Viejo, and it’s where the city’s life really happens in terms of business, government, shopping, culture, etc. Built in the second half of the nineteenth century, it’s a classic European city centre, though perhaps less idiosyncratic than many other cities. As it was built from scratch 150 years ago, its 19th century grid system didn’t have to be imposed (as in Paris, etc.) on older streets and buildings.
As I write, I’m listening to (and half-watching) the BBCSO playing Bruckner’s 8th (superb – listened to a lot when I was 17/18!) in the Proms. Because Pietro has a VPN connection to the Oxford University network, our computer can pretend to be in Britain, which means that we have access to the iplayer (not generally available on le continent.) It also means that we have full access to academic journals online, which will be extremely helpful for work.
So here we are, a little corner of Oxford in Bilbao…
Our flat is in the Casco Viejo, the old town. Confusingly, there is another part of Bilbao - just across the river - called Bilbao La Vieja, which means Old Bilbao. My newly acquired guide-book tells me that this is because when the old town was established in 1300 there was an old village across the river. But then another new town - Le Ensanche (the extension) - was established in the 19th century, so the old new town became the old town. Geddit?
Anyway, we live on one of the original three streets that were built in 1300, called Calle Somera. (The other two are Calle Artekale and Calle Tenderia). 100 years later, four other streets were built - Calle Belostikale, Calle Carniceria Vieja, Calle Barrenkale and Calle Barrenkale Barrena, and together these seven streets are known as .... the Seven Streets! (Siete Calles).
These tightly packed streets are lined with six-storey buildings: the impression is a bit like the old town in Edinburgh (though a bit less dour!). As in Edinburgh, it's difficult to know the age of the buildings. We have old wooden beams all over our ceiling, and I suspect that the basic framework of the buildings is around 17th century, though they have clearly been much adjusted over the centuries, and the frontages look more 19th century.
The frontages of Bilbao strike you as soon as you get here. Having never been to another part of Spain, I'm not sure whether they are found elsewhere, but here the tall old apartment buildings have very characteristic facades with gables of stacked bay windows, sometimes in a rather art-nouveau style (see pictures below). I need to find out more, but these look as though they were added in the 19th century. Anyway, it's all very nice.
It was immediately clear, however, that the different streets of the old town have different characters. The 'seven streets' (where we live) are rather more medieval-feeling (and not in the twee sense) than the surrounding newer streets of the old town, which are a bit posher and more touristy. In fact, the seven streets are a tiny bit down-at-heel in places - and our street, Calle Somera, is by quite some distance the most down-at-heel of the seven. We also seem to be living in the most down-at-heel stretch of the street. So that's all good*... (*quote from the recent brilliant BBC comedy Twenty-Twelve, for those who haven't been watching it.)
Calle Somera appears to be the people's drinking centre of Bilbao. It (especially our stretch of the street) is lined with bars - cerveccerias (cerveza = beer, for those who know as little Spanish as me), and every evening an extensive assortment of ordinary Bilbainos, young and old, and backpackers, etc., come out to drink in the street. Some sit in the bars, but most stand or sit on the street, including on the cobbles and on the doorsteps of the houses. It's a bit like living on the stretch of the high street that has the Slug and Lettuce, the Rat and Parrot, and Wetherspoons - except that the clientele are not generally drunk, as they would be in Britain. But it can be a little bit rowdy, and the noise is considerable, especially given that these streets are six-storey-high corridors which trap the sound. So sitting in our first floor flat with the windows open feels a bit like having your living room in the middle of a boisterous street market.
Last night, we went on a reccy at 10pm to see what the other streets in the old town were like in the evening. We concluded not only that Calle Somera is the noisiest street in the Casco Viejo (and possibly therefore the whole of Bilbao) but also that our stretch of the street is the noisiest stretch of the street. So that's all good... Well done Pietro!
Although it is VERY noisy in the evening (and in fact, being Spain, up to about 2 am each night), we have discovered that:
(1) as long as you are not trying to listen to something (music radio, etc.,) it's actually quite pleasant to have the buzz of people talking and drinking outside
(2) if you do get fed up with the noise, the french windows keep it out very effectively when shut, and the bedroom at the back is fine.
In fact, there are various different phases on the street. Between 2 am and 8 am is very quiet. Between 8 am and 11 am is very busy with lorries delivering stuff to the bars and shops, etc. After 11, traffic is not allowed on the street, so there's a quiet phase till about 4pm. Then, the bars gradually come to life before the evening peak starts at about 8pm.
Apparently, also, during the annual Bilbao Fiesta (the 'Aste Naguria' in Basque), which starts in 2 weeks' time and goes on for 8 days, Calle Somera is the centre of much of the revelry. We have been advised to move out for that period!
Perhaps I've made it sound worse than it is. We really like it - it's lively and full of character, the flat is good, and the noise doesn't seem to be a problem. Most of the time, it's just an ordinary old town street: there are dozens of other people living in the apartments in the street - quite a mixture of old and young, etc.
The Casco Viejo in fact is lovely. Strolling through the streets of the old town is hugely pleasurable, and the feeling of actually living here, rather than just being a tourist, is good - knowing that over the year to come, we'll get to know the shops, cafes, etc. quite well. More to come on this in a future post....
Meanwhile, below - our flat, the building opposite us, and some other splendid frontages from the streets around the old town:
So, I appear to be living in Bilbao. Great place, but I haven't quite got my head round the sudden change of circumstance (new country, less stress!). After the excitement of the journey and arrival, I seem to have gone into recovery mode. After two very stressful months I just feel tired and a bit dislocated. I'll be fine in a day or two. Meanwhile, here's a go at starting a blog.
It all began to get interesting once the TGV got past Bordeaux and started to go very slowly down the south-west coast of France. This is the region of Aquitaine, an area I've never been to. Round here, the countryside became a bit wilder, less flat and agricultural than the main TGV drag through central France. The first glimpse of the sea was at Bayonne, which looks like a beautiful place with a splendid Gothic cathedral. Biarritz and St Jean de Luz came next.
I've since found out that from Bayonne onwards is the French part of the Basque Country - also known as Gascony. Apparently the words Basque (French) and Vasco (Spanish) come from the Latin name for the Basque people, Vascones - Gascon(y) being another variation. More findings: Aquitaine is named after the Aquitani; the language they spoke (referred to as Aquitanian) is thought to be Proto-Basque, Basque being the only remnant of this language family. One of the Aquitanian tribes was called the Ausci, which is thought to be related to the Basque word for Basque - Euskara. (The Basques call themselves Euskalduna - speakers of Euskara.)
Anyway, the final stop in France was Hendaye, a border town where bizarrely everyone has to get off the train and onto another one at the neighbouring Spanish border town of Irun because the rail gauge is different in Spain. I wasn't quite clear how I was going to get from Hendaye to Irun though I had established that there was a bridge over a river between the two towns. In the event, however, it appeared that the local (FEVE) Spanish train along the North coast to Bilbao (run by the Basque 'Euskotren' company) actually runs over the border into France and can be picked up at a mini-station next to Hendaye Station. You only need to cross to Irun if you want to take the main (RENFE) line south to Madrid.
In any case, I was met off the train at Hendaye by Pietro, who I hadn't seen for 4 weeks. After an emotional reunion, Pietro relieved me of one of the three very heavy bags which I had dragged across London and Paris, and we set off on the Euskotren to Bilbao - a 3-hour journey involving a change at San Sebastian (or Donostia as it appears, in Euskara, on the timetables.) Not knowing any Spanish other than predictable phrases like 'muchas gracias', 'buenas noches' and 'hasta la vista', I might have struggled with reading station information and buying tickets in a mixture of Spanish and Basque, so I was glad P was there.
The train from the Spanish border to Bilbao - part of the narrow gauge railway system that grinds and winds its way along the mountainous North coast of Spain - was fascinating. It's a beautiful area - reminiscent of the lower Alps - and yet it is densely populated and very industrial. The quite narrow mountain valleys are all packed by blocks of flats, some quite high-rise, with quite a few industrial warehouses and chimneys - in this sense more reminiscent of the industrial towns and valleys of Yorkshire. The main industry here was apparently iron, and Bilbao was known for its weapons manufacture (hence Shakespearean references to 'bilbo' in the context of weaponry in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Hamlet ('mutines in the bilboes')). Also fascinating were the names of the towns and villages we passed - Errekalde, Zarautz, Zumaia, Toletxegain, Elgoibar, Errotabarri, Zaldibar, Etxebarri, Atxuri, etc. ('tx' pronounced 'ch' as in 'church') - a first glimpse of the Basque language which is all around us here in Bilbao.
Eventually, we descended into Bilbao, coming into Atxuri, fortunately only two minutes' walk from the front door of our flat in the Casco Viejo (old town).
To be continued....