Many of you are familiar with the tendency that Dave and I have to arrive early for every engagement. Should we show up less than ten minutes early for an event we are greeted with ” Where were you? We were worried!” So unusual would it be for us to be late that it might be speculated that the Slaghts were abducted by aliens or at the very least in a motor vehicle accident, should we ring a doorbell past the appointed time of arrival.
This morning as we sit outside the Santander airport forty five minutes before the doors of the building actually open, we may finally be cured of our zealous nature to be first for everything. After two weeks in Spain one would think we would have acclimatized to the schedule. Most folks just went to bed a few hours ago and breakfast won’t even be considered until three hours from now. So having been delivered by our taxi driver who likely thought we were mad, Dave and I are perched outside the darkened airport. The palm trees stand silent in the windless morning and the sun is yet to rise. Each of us are writing away on our electronic tablets ; glowing back as though shining a spotlight on the idiotic Canadian tourists.
Prior to our departure for Europe, Dave had arranged a guide for a day tour of Bilbao, a city in the heart of the Basque country, east of Santander. The Basque people occupy a shared region in both Spain and France. At 9am yesterday, Aitor Delgado arrived at Hotel Chiqui to pick us up. Yes we were in the lobby 15 minutes early in case you were wondering. Young and full of enthusiasm he reminded us of Africa. Where they differed immensely was their attitude toward the Basque area. As fervently as Aitor championed the Basque culture, people and language, Africa had given us a very different opinion of her neighbors to the east. We could only imagine the dialogue and hand waving that would have gone on between these two young Spaniards should their paths have ever crossed.
In some ways it reminded us of the history of controversy of Quebec within Canada; the value of their own culture and language. As an example Spain has accommodated the Basque people by allowing both languages on signs in the Basque provinces. It is however a requirement that the Spanish flag be flown as well as the Basque flag on public buildings in the area. Apparently there were no mandates regarding size as one needed a magnifying glass to see the Spanish flag on city hall in Bilbao waving limply beside the massive Basque one.
Aitor was keen that we should experience all things Basque and from Bilbao. That we had arrived at the time of festival week brought added excitement. Aitor explained that August is festival season which originated with the celebration of the end of harvest. From the littlest mountain villages to the city of Bilbao at one million, the tradition continues all across Spain. As we parked in what would be a series of very dimly lit parkades through the day, our guide explained the lack of illumination was a cost cutting measure in tough economic times. Africa had spoken of towns where only every second street light was lit at night as another way to save money. Feeling as though I wanted to don a headlamp to prevent breaking an ankle, I wondered if the savings for the electrical department would measure up against the increase in visits to the hospital emergency ward.
The day’s tour began with the festival tents scattered about down town. As the army of city crews hosed off and swept up from the night before it was clear there had been a party of immense proportions. Aitor explained each tent, housing a bar that looked like it could serve a thousand, was fundraising for a cause. Huge slogans and drawings , written in Basque, decorated each tent. Everything from the local football team, to preserving the Basque language, to supporting social programs, to all of the political groups in the area were represented. Aitor explained one would drink at the tent of the cause one believed in. Tourists can drink anywhere apparently. Good news for the Canadians.
Our guide insisted we try his favorite coffee shops and treats. First it was cafe con leche and pastries at the second oldest shop in town. Then to the oldest eating establishment in the city. Blue tiles, like those we had seen at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul last year, covered the walls. Aitor explained such design showed the remaining influence of the Muslim Moors who dominated Spain for 700 years. Even though Christians ‘reconquered’ Spain in the late 1400s , many Muslim artists and architects remained.
First we were encouraged to try the sherry being drawn from a wooden barrel with a long ladle and poured with great flair and at a substantial height into a small glass by a round, grinning gentleman with coke bottle glasses. Sherry seemed reasonable. It was almost noon after all. Then Aitor turned to me and as though he was offering me the most amazing experience of a lifetime. “Would you like to eat some baby eels?” Speechless I believe my look conveyed, “I would rather pop out my eyeball and soak it in a tub of hot tar, but thank you. ” Dave saved me and said he would love to eat them. The man is a saint I tell you. Give me another glass of sherry
Throughout down town we went, stopping to watch a game of Pilota. Looking like it was being played in an over sized squash court, the four men rallied what Aitor described as a golf ball against the walls. The crowd was enthralled. Each time the ball was smacked by one of their open hands my eyes watered with sympathetic limb pain. Our guide explained they develop calluses on their hands ( you think?)
Standing beside one of the city’s Catholic churches built in the 1300’s, Aitor began to describe how for centuries the pilgrims have traveled the El Camino to Santiago. I excitedly told him we knew about the pilgrimage and in fact about the official marking of ‘the way’ on the road in Santillana outside our room window. Aitor pointed downward and there at our feet among the rough cobblestones was the coral shell symbol marking the trail, here in Bilbao 120 kms east of where we had seen the last one.
One of the high lights of our day, and for the last fifteen years the big tourist draw to this manufacturing city, was a visit to the Guggenheim Museum. Described as one of the world’s most striking and well known buildings, the architect Frank Gehry, attempted to blend the massive structure into the old city. Sitting next to the river it’s towering curved metal and stone walls conjure up images of sails or waves. Inside it is as if the architect constantly plays with one’s mind as to what is curved or straight. Every inch of the building is in itself a work of art in the structure. I suggested it would be an architect’s dream and Dave thought it would be a civil engineering nightmare.
After two more stops to sample Aitor’s favourite treats, extra stops for special views of the city and a visit to a Unesco Heritage site where a ferry carry vehicles, bikes and pedestrians, hovers over the river moving via cables on a bridge above, we were delivered back to Santander.
Dave and I rolled out of the car stuffed and exhausted. Aitor looked very pleased with himself as though the ultimate goal of the day had been achieved. The tour had been advertised as a 7 hour experience. We had been out for 12. Apparently this is the Basque way.
As we bid Aitor farewell Dave and I strolled over to the International Festival going on near our hotel in Santander. At 9 pm we commented how the beach was now almost empty at dusk. I went so far as to suggest that since it was Sunday night people likely were preparing to go back to work. On arrival at the festival grounds we discovered that the only thing Spaniards like more than the beaches, are their festivals. With booths of food and crafts from countries around the world we jostled the masses in search of the Canadian booth. We did come across a menu item ‘Costillas Obama’ being sold by the US contingent and had to settle for seeing a reproduction of a Canadian flag with a maple leaf that looked as it went through the lawn mower.
The airport is now open dear readers. Adios Espania! Get your helmets on. We’re headed to Portugal via Ryan Airlines. Oh yes, and we plan to arrive late.