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Northern Spain – Catalonia and the Basque Country

June 19, 2013

Taking Note of Notable Northern Spain

By Gwen Gibson

To  fully enjoy the riches of Catalonia and the Basque Country of northern Spain the new or inveterate traveler needs stamina, curiosity, a hearty appetite for fine wines and gourmet foods and a  knowing, multi-lingual guide with friends in high places.

I realized this during a recent, 10-day trip to this beautiful, autonomous corner of Spain. Initially, four items were on my “must-do” list. One, visit La Sagrada Familia, the magnificent cathedral created by Barcelona’s famously controversial architect Antoni Gaudi. Two, eat pintzos (Basque-style tapas) while strolling the soft sands along San Sebastian’s sea walk. Three, visit the newest Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. Four, eat in Pamplona where Ernest Hemmingway dined and wrote part of “The Sun Also Rises.”

I accomplished this and a great deal more by booking a study tour arranged by the Texas Exes, the 52-year-old travel arm of the University of Texas Alumni Association. Thirty-three others had booked the same tour through the Exes.


Thirty-four Flying Texas Longhorns pose in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, one of many stops on their tour of Northern Spain. Photo by Leslie Cedar.

We were a large, diverse group with different backgrounds and political leanings.  We were from Texas, after all.  But we had a sense of camaraderie thanks in large part to the patience and abiding sense of humor shown by Antonio Ruiz, our tour guide, aka “campus director” in Spain.

A native of Spain with a degree in linguistics, Ruiz escorted us to scores of famous landmarks as well as to bars, restaurants and concerts.  When we encountered waiting lines Ruiz  waved us past like a seasoned maître d.

Four other accredited academics talked to us about local lore and culture in the cities we visited.

The history of Catalonia and the Basque Country predates the formation of Spain as a unified country. Indeed, the medieval kingdoms of Navarre and Aragón helped to create Spain.

But neither Catalonia nor the Basque Country has ever been an official nation.  Despite this, they cling to their centuries-old culture, while occasionally threatening to secede.

The Spanish Parliament granted autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country on 18 December 1979, but the debates go on even as these areas bask in their glory as some of Europe’s most modern and popular tourist areas.

Our tour started in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and a bustling port city on the Mediterranean Sea. The second largest city in Spain, after Madrid, Barcelona is home to a famous opera house; a 100,000-seat football stadium; a 60,000-seat Olympic stadium; noted museums like the Picasso, Miró and Maritime, and the popular Las Ramblas boulevard that reaches from the heart of the city to the sea. Busy shops, cafes, markets and street performers keep this stretch alive, day and night.

But nothing here attracts tourists like the works of Antoni Gaudi, the modernisme, or art nouveau, architect who was 100 years ahead of his time. These include his early lampposts; the several houses he designed (and which locals boast inspired Star Wars creator George Lucas); the magnificent Parc Guell in suburban Barcelona, and La Sagrada Familia, or The Sacred Family, the city’s number one tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage site.


1. The exterior of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s landmark cathedral where architect Antoni Gaudi worked for 41 years. Started in 1832, it is still under construction. Photo by Diana Reeves.

Construction on La Sagrada Familia started in 1832. Gaudi worked on it for 41 years and is buried in the crypt. But the magnificent cathedral is not finished. Six architects are still at work here.  Completion is scheduled for 2026, on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.  “But don’t bank on that,” one worker laughed.

From Barcelona we travelled by private bus to Zaragoza, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Pamplona. Since billboards are limited on these roads, we could see clearly the green fields, poppies and wildflowers along the way. (Lady Bird Johnson would have loved this.)

We also hiked on city streets, rural routes and mountainsides. Antonio equipped us with head phones, called “whispers,” to keep us informed—and in line.

We needed these in San Sebastian, the proud capital of the Basque Country which extends from the foothills of the Pyrenees into southern France. Site of many landmarks, museums and parks, San Sebastian also beckons tourists with a four-mile oceanfront promenade that wraps around the city’s beaches.  You get a sweeping view of this from atop nearby Mounte Igeldo where—on a clear day–you can also see France.


Street dancing–as seen here–can erupt at any moment on the streets of bustling San Sebastian. Photo by Diane Reeves.

Like Antonio, our lecturer here, David Bumstead, emphasized that San Sebastian “is one of the safest cities in the world.”  He alluded to the ETA, the violent separatist group that operated out of the Basque country of Spain and southern France for years.  ETA translates in English to “Basque independence and security.”

“The ETA is no longer big,” Bumstead stressed. “It went too far, did some terrible things. But they have since become marginalized and have declared a permanent ceasefire.”

Bilbao, another safe city, was transformed from a dark industrial town, known for exporting steel and coal, into a clean and popular tourist site after the Guggenheim Museum opened here in 1997.  Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the distinctive building is constructed of limestone, glass, and over 30,000 thin titanium plates which change color dramatically as the weather changes. From some angles, it looks more like a sculpture than a building.


“Puppy,” a 43-foot floral sculpture of a West Highland terrier sits outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Once controversial, it is now a beloved icon. Photo: Diane Reeves

Bilbao landed the handsome museum by paying millions for the building and the Guggenheim name with taxpayer dollars. The Guggenheim Foundation chooses the art exhibited.

In sharp contrast, the principal attraction in Pamplona is the raucous, week-long Festival of San Fermín which opens with hundreds of bullfighting fans running through city streets to the bull ring, ahead of six frightened bulls. Held each year, from July 6 to July 14, it honors Saint Fermín, the city’s first bishop and patron saint who was beheaded in France in the third century.

“If you have anything bad to say about Hemingway, don’t say it here,” lecturer Guillem Genestar said. “If you have anything bad to say about France, go right ahead.”  Our close-knit group of 34 had a four-course meal fit for a matador at Café Iruña, where photos of Hemingway still line the walls.

To cover all the fascinating sites in this history-steeped part of the world would take a book. But here are some facts and fiction you might not have heard:

*Spain is the highest country in Europe outside of Switzerland. Catalonia and the Basque Country are the highest points in Spain.

*The flags of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Spain are all red and yellow but with different designs—and different devotees. Be careful what you salute.

*Ferdinand Magellan was not the first to circumnavigate the world. He was killed during a battle in the Philippines.  The second in command, Juan Sebastian Elcano, a Basque explorer, took over and completed the voyage. A monument to Sebastian Elcano stands in Gitaria, a seaside community near San Sebastian.

*Catelonians have lost their taste for flamenco, “but it’s popular in Japan,” said flamenco guitarist Juan Manuel Avila of Barcelona.

*The Basque language, still spoken by many, does not derive from any other language.  It originated locally.

*The Basques are “taller, blonder and have larger ear lobes” than other Spaniards, said lecturer David Bumstead.

*All of Catalonia and San Sebastian in the Basque country have banned bull fighting, but this remains Pamplona’s most lucrative attraction.  The hotel room where Hemingway stayed during the bullfighting festival now costs two thousand euros per day. Orson Wells stayed here once and skipped out on his bill for two thousand euros. Proudly framed, this hangs in the hotel lobby.

As I told you, this trip took stamina.  But if I could do in my eighties so can you. It’s worth the effort. Catalonia and the Basque Country, combined, are no larger than New Hampshire, but the welcome you feel here is as big as Texas.


From → Travel

  1. Theresa May permalink

    What a temptation, Gwen! I’m checking to make sure my passport is current!!

  2. Thanks for taking me to Spain in your article Gwen. I learned so much. It’s now on my “Places to Go” list.

  3. Al Spivak permalink

    As outstanding as usual, Gwen — informative and colorfully-written.

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