Bilbao, Spain

In Madrid, when I learned my brother would be going to Bordeaux, France in a few days on business, I immediately ditched my plans to go someplace warm and sunny in favor of visiting him.

Guggenheim Bilbao

The next day I was on a bus five hours north to Bilbao, the largest city of Spain’s Basque Country—a region and people defined by their ancient language, Euskara. A city so proud, they’ve never fielded a non-Basque on their football club. They even refuse to keep corporate sponsorship on their jersey because they regard it as their national team.

I sat down with a young Basque. It is her generation that was one of the first to be educated in Euskara from primary school. Born in 1978, she speaks it with her peers and her pupils at school. She speaks Castillano (Spanish) with her parents, who are part of a generation that was persecuted under Franco. Then citizens could have been imprisoned or even killed for simply speaking Euskara.

Over a glass of tinto and pintxos, in which Basque Country is said to have the finest in Spain, I got a language lesson fit to survive around town, and more importantly, adequate to order the next round.

I inquired more about the Basque ethnicity and what it takes to consider a person Basque. To further prove her point regarding the vital association between ethnicity and language she responded, “The Moroccan immigrants I teach at school—they speak Euskara—they’re Basque.”

What really makes Euskara of special interest is that it’s classified as a language isolate; which means geographically it’s surrounded by Indo-European languages, but isn’t related to any of them. Today it’s estimated that one million people speak Euskara.

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In 1997, the city of Bilbao put itself on the map with what is arguably the greatest building of our time. The incredible, unforgettable, flowing titanium curves of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao are just as impressive (if not more, in my opinion) from the inside and the building alone is worth the €12 admission price.

The spaces Frank Gehry has created inside, allow the visitor to be easily propelled around the glass-walled atrium through the 19 galleries on three floors. Unfortunately, most of the installments and exhibitions throughout the museum, pale in comparison to the space that was built to house them.

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San Sebastian

After a couple hours sleep I barely caught a 7am Sunday morning train, transferred at Bordeaux’s St. Jean, and another at the border, and by 2pm I was back in Spain’s Basque Country walking around center San Sebastian.

San Sebastian, my travel guide told me, was the “undisputed Queen of the Basque resorts”. Complete with a nice old town, excellent tapas bars, and a magnificent crescent- shaped harbor with beaches to match.

After enjoying a stroll up and down the promenade, I caught a 4pm bus back to Madrid where I arrived just before midnight and faced the question of what I would do until my job started on the 30th.

Posted by Stephen Bugno (June 2008) for the Blog of a Modern Nomad.