Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
What I found particularly interesting in the two short days we spent in the Basque country was the way that the political climate contributes to the way that locals choose to interact with tourists. Where service staff at most other cities and towns we had visited were very patient with our rudimentary attempts to speak Dutch, French or Italian, the opposite was true in Bilbao. Our attempt to order in Spanish at a bakery was met with derision and impatience, with the salesperson becoming increasingly frustrated with our attempts to communicate.
This I think, is a particular reflection of the Basque pride in their cultural identity. People from Basque country are proudly Basque – they are not Spanish, Catalan or Galician. While Spanish is officially used as one of the languages in the region, the clear preference for locals is for Basque. The one bit of advice I would give other travellers planning on visiting the Basque country is to ensure that you get better service, try and learn a few basic phrases in Basque to use in shops and restaurants, rather than relying on your knowledge of Spanish.
We stopped off briefly in San Sebastien on the drive from Toulouse to Bilbao. The famous beaches of San Sebastien weren’t appealing as it was much too cold to even sit on the beach (hats off to those actually braving the surf), but it made for a particularly picturesque short break from driving. The buildings of the city itself seems to lack a bit of local character, as it feels a bit sterile in the same way as Geneva. Still, for those who are more nature-focused than ourselves, I can see why San Sebastien would appeal as a holiday destination.
The main goal for our visit to the Basque country wasn’t beaches, but a visit to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. While we’re both art and museum lovers, I have to say that I prefer the Romanticism movement of the 1800s over modern art which I can find challenging and confusing. Still, given the status of the Guggenheim as one of the premier modern art museums in the world, it would be a shame to not visit the museum given that we were sojourning in the Basque country on the drive from Toulouse to Madrid.
Disappointingly, our timing for visiting the Guggenheim was spectacularly off. Jeff Koon’s famous Puppy sculpture was undergoing its annual replanting, meaning that we couldn’t see one of the signature items of the collection. At the same time, the entire second level of the building and half of the first floor were closed to visitors as they were in-between exhibitions, preparing for a new African-themed exhibition. This meant that only half of the museum was available to us, though visitors were still charged the full admission rate, which was particularly disappointing.
What I did like was Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time work. I had seen a piece by Serra outside the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and become quite interested in his work. And needless to say, the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao itself is a drawcard, with a spectacular innovative design by Frank Gehry. The audioguide is fantastic in providing some insight from Gehry himself on the principles he used when designing the building.
I think it would be well worthwhile to spend a few extra days in the Basque country in the future – for the food alone if nothing else. While we only had the one meal out at Amarena, I think that the surprisingly satisfying meal that we had at our choice of a random restaurant is truly representative of the importance of cuisine in this particular corner of the world. No matter what café or restaurant you walk into, you’re probably guaranteed a great local meal. The fact that we didn’t get to try the traditional Basque bar dining method of pintxos (bar tapas/appetisers) is worth a second visit in itself!
Just make sure that you time your visit well so that you’re not disappointed by closed museum exhibits!