Our Lady of the Assumption
Other titles in the running were "Basque-ing in Spain" and "Basquet Case". But this is a respectable blog, above cheap puns for titles (but not too good for opening paragraphs).
Anyway. For the week of Semana Santa (Easter), which is a pretty serious occasion in Spain, I went to Basque Country. We had Good Friday - Easter Monday off the ol' clock, so I decided to head north to Bilbao. Thanks to some hustle on the part of the reliable moms, I got my mitts on an International Driving Permit just in time to rent a car and head forth into the wild Spanish motorway. While I've gotten used to the pace of not having a car, the roadtrip jones' had been growing strong (gnawing, if you will). To say I was eager to get out just me, a car, and my camera would have been considerably understated.
There was the tiny matter of learning to drive in Spain. Piecing together bits of advice here and there (roundabouts, narrow streets, yields vs stops) I was feeling relatively good about squeezing myself into a tiny european coche. Even if it was a manual.
Hopeful that getting lost on the way to Avis wasn't foreshadowing, I eventually stood holding a guitar, camera bag, tripod, backpack, and keys to a little (little) automatic BMW. Given the caution supplied about adding car theft insurance (which I declined per old advice from Mr. Spilberg), I had a slight nagging nervousness about taking a Bimmer* across Spain. It was eased by the fun of scoring a BMW for the price of a Peugeot.
*I am corrected
On the road at last. With a hangover of course. Because I like to set myself up for success.
No regrets. The night before I checked out an English style pub called Michael Collins near Sagrada Familia and caught a local group called Crawfish. It was mostly Johnny Cash and Elvis cover songs, with a generous seasoning of CCR. No regrets.
I was all shook up (get it?) from the eventful nature of the prior weekend's travels. My first time driving in another country, and a somewhat ambitious roadtrip to boot. The most immediate fears were a) getting into a car accident getting the rental out of the city and b) having the car stolen and c) all other disastrous situations unforeseen.
Fortunately the city was pretty well cleared out for the holiday weekend, and so as I cruised out of town and past the mountain Montserrat I stopped at a gas station for a cafe americano and croissant. True to form, they weren't the best I'd had, but the fact that a gas station breakfast tastes like a gas station breakfast warmed me again to the road. I for one, happen to love a gas station breakfast.
So with my liter of water, ibuprofen, coffee, and croissant riding shotgun, I rolled down the window and turned up the music. The sun shining in a car windowed pattern on my arms, croissant crumbs in my hair, and the taste of metabolizing alcohol in the back of my mouth, I felt wholly like myself.
The drive was beautiful and I was lucky with weather. I had decided on the more northern route that skirted the base of the Pyrenees along the Spain/France border. At Huesca A-22 turned to A-132, the mostly 2 lane road winding through small towns and along a river gorge. My little car handled honestly, even though it was the slowest going. The white peaks of the range dipped in and out of view.
After a day of meandering driving and an almond pit-stop in Pamplona later I pulled into Pueblo de Arganzon- a small village about 25 minutes outside of Vitoria-Gasteiz. The wheels scraped off the highway into the little town around the time shadows start growing longer and everything takes on the favored soft hue. While I had seen some photos, they did no justice.
I think when my heart dreamed of Spain it intended that this is what it would find. The smells, silence, and crisp dry air set this place apart from the towering classic architecture of the city. Saturated greens of the Basque countryside shone unapologetically and the sun reached at relentlessly lovely angles. It was like the perfect bite of food for my eyes. A culmination of all the je ne sais quois of a lifetime.
I immediately stashed the car (locking it 4-5 times as I walked away) and commenced the wandering process. The town was small and could easily be traversed in a matter of less than 15 minutes (generously).
Usually when I find times where the light is and does, it tends to turn into more of a race to catch the fleeing quality while it lasts than an art of the savor. I'm positive the sun gets heavier as it sags closer to the horizon given how it disappears with increasing haste.
The afternoon was ticking away as I hurriedly parked my car in the completely unnecessary space provided by the hotel and threw my bags onto the nearest pastel twin bed in my little room. Behind the town there was a pondlette and stream where the locals were making their evening rounds, strolling arm in arm in small teams. Dogs and children ran by the bank as men half-heartedly casted for small spiney fish.
Fresh wet dirt sweetness was going to my head and once the sun was all but gone the air cooled and dampness settled on my skin. My hangover had effectively burnt off about 3 cafes ago but the short night of sleep and the waning road trip adrenaline had left me lacking.
As I lay in my twin bed that night, I drifted to sleep listening to a Basque language I didn't understand with percussive intermissions of another round being delivered. Cigar smoke hung in the dampish air and I found a night of bizarre dreams.
The next day I rolled out early in hopes of seeing a little bit of Vitoria and Bilbao. My driving nerves were considerably less, but I wasn't sure what kind of terrain I would find between Pueblo and the coast. The day was enduringly sunny and after repacking the little car I headed for Vitoria- passing through endless patches of borderline offensive green.
The drive from my coffee stop and chilly morning walk in Vitoria was comparably as beautiful as the day's before. I continued the practice of semi-distractedly peering out the windows of the low visibility windshield. The Basque and Pyrenees mountain ranges were still capped with snow from winter rain and bucolic little towns were scattered in the hills. I despaired at the lack of shoulder pull outs on the road, my shutter finger was itching, but the thought of veering into a ditch kept my gaze (mostly) on the road.
To be honest, I could have pushed harder. I could have gone to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. I could have done a pinxto tour of the city. I could have found a place downtown to park and check all the top spots off the list. Ultimately, my anxiety was running high. My experience with London travel had left me feeling fragile and vulnerable in an unfamiliar world. If I were a horse I would be going about this trip with rolling eyes and flaring nostrils, anxious and ready to f(l)ight, blowing at every car that cut in closely or every panicked pocket check for my credit card/passport/car keys/cell phone/driving permit/hotel key. Stomp. Snort.
A day at the beach seemed like a good way to get my heart beating back in my chest (as opposed to all of the other extremities to which I kept finding it) and get some of my boldness back. Trip advisor was my trusted guide and suggested an out of the way and lesser known beach with sweeping cliffside views called Azkorri. The directions took me through an unsuspecting neighborhood gratuitously sprinkled with speed bumps. I made a pit stop at a small place a bit up the hill and had a simple and perfect tiny tuna sandwich and a cortado.
Aside from the food being arguably better, I couldn't help but feel as if I was sitting in Spanish Santa Cruz. The people were chill and cervesa poured freely. Loose dogs, bare feet, and lounging couches set a scene of relaxation aimed to calm my high wire act (I was still nervous my car would get towed from the grassy spot found).
Azkorri has a steep walk down to a dark crescent of sand and grass. The coastline itself was remarkably different than the vast sandy beaches around Barcelona. I was reminded of the long drives I used to take up the California coast on Highway 1.At the top of the bluff along a paved trail there was a little park of benches for people to rest after the ascent. I sat and read for a while and enjoyed the sanguine sol.
The day lingered and I found a fancy Basque restaurant and sampled some scrambled eggs with little tiny mushrooms and red wine. Why not? The food was rich but delicious and I drove home in a practically irresponsible food coma.
As it did the day before, the sun started setting, and everything was suspended again. This time at least, was less manic as I took my time back to Pueblo Arganzón.
I even saw some fat happy ponies enjoying the evening on the way back.
My last morning in the Pueblo was lazy and I planned my route out back to Barcelona. Clouds were settling in but I was able to catch a few last rays to light up my morning walkabout.
Walking back to my packed bags in the moody light I looked more closely at the church the village was built around. Our Lady of the Assumption.
Given that I didn't know what the assumption of Mary was (two cheers for the religiously ignorant), I just thought this sounded like the creed by which I unfortunately stumble through life. Really. My proclivity for assumptions is shameful. I need this church. I could be High Priestess.
I said goodbye to my little Pueblo, already hoping it would be in the cards to find myself in this place that felt so much like a little island in time again. Driving home with a different luster from which I arrived, I took a route through Spanish wine country and down through Zargoza. And despite the nerves and the occasional swallowing of tides of panic, I conquered my trip and I felt like la Reina de España.