It was a superb summer day in September – hot sun, brilliant blue skies – and we decided this would be the perfect day to return to the Urdaibai estuary, north-east of Bilbao, an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’, as we call them in the UK.
We’d been there a few weeks before, on a car journey with Pietro’s boss and family to the cliff-side fishing village of Elantxobe (see earlier post). This time, we took the train that heads to Gernika (Guernica) at the bottom of the estuary and then trundles along the estuary to Bermeo, the town at the river mouth by the sea. (Gernika is of course a most important historical site, and we’re planning a visit there one day, but on this occasion we were drawn to the sea.)
Bermeo was more important than Bilbao in medieval times, and at one point the ‘capital’ of Vizcaya, the Biscay region. It’s now a small town of about 18,000 inhabitants, with an extensive harbour. Fishing has been at the heart of Bermeo life for many centuries.
The place was packed with thousands of Vizcayans from Bermeo and the surrounding towns and villages, every single one of them wearing blue (which turned out to be the colour of the local boat team) including the blue neckerchiefs that are typically worn at fiestas..(I’ve already commented in a previous post on the very marked mono-ethnicity and cultural homogeneity of this occasion: it’s rare to be in a place with so many hundreds of people all looking the same and wearing the same.) There were the usual fiesta bands on the streets, and hundreds of people eating and drinking outside the tabernas.
I haven’t yet written about the Basque mania for food – I will – but it was certainly on display here, with many of these community groups gathered around large portable stoves where people were cooking large quantities of Basque delicacies. These communal cooking sessions are a major part of Basque fiestas. We especially saw a great deal of the extraordinary black dish ‘txipirones en su tinta’ (squid in its own ink) being cooked and eaten (- a dish that rather turns my stomach as I have a deep aversion, no doubt rooted in the Jewish laws of kashrut, to any form of seafood that doesn’t look like a proper fish – i.e. slimy things in shells and all those horrid squelchy things like squid and octopus.)
Mundaka is beautiful, a medieval village clustered around a harbour with wonderful views over the estuary, famed apparently for its surfing waves. Pietro had a swim in the harbour (losing his glasses in the process – see earlier post).
We had no idea what the regatta would consist of or what kind of event it would be, but we headed back to Bermeo on the train to find out.
The main difference is that the race takes place on a very choppy Atlantic Ocean, quite different from the genteel waters of Putney. I could see too that the rowers – all of them born and bred in the Basque Country – were highly trained and fit, and worked together as a team like the crew of a Greek trireme. (Below, pictures from the internet).
Out of 75 seats, the Basque Nationalist Party (Christian-Democrat-style centre-ish) won 27 seats; the left nationalist Basque Party (Euskal Herria Bildu) won 21 seats; the Basque Socialist Party (also pretty nationalist) won 16 seats; the Conservatives won 10 seats; the anti-nationalist centre party UPYD won 1 seat. So 48 of the 75 seats went to explicit nationalists, with a further 21 going to the nationalist-leaning socialists. 37 went to socialists, 28 to centrists, and 10 to tories.
The main shift in this vote was away from the socialists and towards the nationalists, apparently intended to show Madrid that where Catalunya goes the Basque Country is likely to follow. And there’ll be a crucial election in Catalunya in 3 weeks’ time. Watch this space.