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Football-free and better for it: Basque Country


There had been no formal indication that I had crossed into the Basque Country. When I saw the slogan ‘Herri Batsuna’ repeatedly painted on the sides of houses and dilapidated barns, I knew that I had driven beyond Spain as I knew it. The Basque words translate as ‘Popular Unity’ which is the political wing of the organization known as ETA. Drive carefully through our separatist enclave, might be the more edgy subliminal message, indicated by the words Euskadi Ta Askatausuna (long for ETA) also daubed large and defiant on plenty of walls. What I knew about the Basques can be summed up briefly; they invented their own shoes, have a distinct language and hold sheep fighting contests called aharitalka.

What I was hoping, and wrongly assuming, was that the Basque country would be like the rest of Spain, in that there was a high volume of tawdry bars, with tanned, lager soaked ex pats propping up the fittings, showing the FA Cup final that day. I followed the winding road into San Sebastian, amid a thickening industrial backdrop of tall cranes and chimneys. I had time on my side so could afford to slow peddle along the Rio Uremea, before turning off to follow signs to the centre. The place was busy – not unusual for a Saturday afternoon. Eventually I found a parking space and squeezed Ludwig my campervan into a narrow gap between two municipal trucks.

I set off at a gentle jog towards Parte Vieja (the old part of town) on the intelligence that it had the highest concentration of bars. Parte Vieja comprised of a uniform arrangement of dank and narrow gothic cobbled streets, lined by boutiques and patisseries with a colourful display of cakes on show. I rounded a corner into a street heaving with bars, a gauntlet of tables and chairs spilling out onto the cobbles. Just about every building regardless of what lurked above and behind, offered some kind of catering space as street level frontage. Mainly Tapas Bars with plated nibbles to tempt the passer by on view. Window after window crammed with these shiny available treats, like a strasse in Amsterdam; all lurid primary colours, latex like textures and enticement to gorge beyond your natural appetite. Peering into each window over the day- glo mounds of spicy peppers, burnished chorizos and indeterminate ‘regional’ dishes soaked in viscous sauces,worryingly there was no sign of any football.

I enquired where I might find the above, an authentic latino barman – greased back black hair, tight fitting trousers that Simon Cowell would be jealous of, and chunky Cuban heels, simply ignored my spluttering Spanish. Christ where were all the drunken English fans and the Lineker Bars when you need them! I skipped hopefully towards a Harp sign, hanging resplendent above a doorway, it merely advertised the vacant space of a closed down restaurant.

Standing beneath the Guinness sign I was now in clear sight of the sea and the Playa de la Concha, waves crashed onto the perfect half moon bay with brochure golden sand as far as the eye could see. As luck would have it my eye also caught sight of the Hotel English, surely there’d be a telly in there, and so far I’d only missed the first half. I ran through the glass double doors and collided with the front desk,

‘Football!’ I exclaimed to the receptionist, more an affirmation than a request. She looked up at me from a sheaf of papers over thin, rimmed spectacles. The receptionist at the Hotel English spoke no English! In fact no-one spoke any English or indeed Spanish, although it’s questionable that they simply didn’t speak my kind of Spanish. Judging by the unrecognisable high pitched chatter being exchanged in the lobby and further off in the lounge, Chinese was the language of choice for guests and employees alike at the Hotel English. I was now exhausted as I lurked giddily in the lounge before flopping down onto a vinyl armchair next to a large plastic pot plant. I breathed in the safe aroma of air conditioning an floor polish, and considered that if not in Spain, where the hell was I!

San Sebastian’s harbour was crammed with vessels of all shapes and sizes, the majority fishing boats – the cobbled quayside stacked with baskets full of the day’s catch. Down on the beach, bathers soaked up the gently caressing warmth of the early evening sun, whilst the promenade which runs the length of the sand heaved with promenaders. Whilst locals filled the bars and restaurants which line the back of the quay, not a sombrerro or bucket and spade in sight.

After a tasty platter of seafood – juicy giant prawns, chewy calamari and crab washed down with the Pais Vascos speciality cider, served from a great height by an old waiter whose jowls hung down like a hamsters, I watched the last of the sun, and considered why I’d never considered the Basque country before. Judging by the apparent lack of tourists in such a picturesque destination I wasn’t the only one.

San Sebastian might be harbouring numerous would be freedom fighters with a major grudge against Spain, but this only made the place more appealing to my schoolboy sense of rebellion.. They might not care for English football (and why should they) I might not understand a word anyone was saying (it wouldn’t be the first time) but what I was seeing was the Spain I’d expected but somehow better, somehow more foreign than I’d imagined it to be. This place wasn’t all fish and chips and cheap lager. It was Spain without the Brits! The only irony was that the people who made San Sebastian Spain for me, would almost certainly kill for it to be anything but Spain!

Donostia San SebastianRegardless of the politics San Sebastian is a seaside town popular by Royal association, as kings and queens have come to ‘take the waters.’ More specifically they came just before the First World War, coinciding with Britain’s own blissful Edwardian years, a golden summer before the long winter of slaughter. Like certain seaside towns back home, San Sebastian retains an air of faded, gaudy splendour.The harbour front, Paseo de la Concha, can justly be called a promenade in the English tradition, it’s period lamp posts, charming tamarind trees and elegant white railings making it a natural open air stage for strollers.

Beneath the grounds of the Palacio Miramar lies the opening of a tunnel, which leads through to a beach adjacent to La Concha – Ondarreta beach. At the far end of this second beach sits a sculpture by the Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. The late Chillida is generally regarded as the defining artistic spirit of the Basques. El Peine de los Vientos (Combs of the Wind) is his key work – and is sited permanently in San Sebastian. The sculpture is certainly an arresting sight, huge curving hooks of iron built into the rocks just off the rugged coastline. The solidity of the ironwork forging with the natural landscape shouts eternal defiance across the crashing Atlantic Ocean.

Chillida was a child during the Spanish Civil War and as an adult was to create his own representation of Guernica, a giant bomb-crater mouth, containing within it a single upright piece – about the height of a human. Another defiant image, an affirmation that even in the midst of carnage, man, or at least his spirit cannot be entirely obliterated. Still in place is a sculpture park created by Chillida and his wife Pilar Belzunce on the outskirts of San Sebastian.

Chillida also had more than the occasional interest in football. As a youth he kept goal for the local Basque club Real Sociedad and was even considered for Real Madrid. His football career was ended by a knee injury – and the beautiful game’s loss was sculpture’s gain! However Chillida never forgot to acknowledge his debt to the game, tracing his awareness of shape and space to those early years in the goalmouth. Significantly, much of his work feature hands, strong and accommodating ones. Maybe certain English goalies should study Chillida – Maradonna probably did!

The first days driving out from San Sebastian I enjoyed some wide open beautiful space punctuated by tight winding roads that hugged the cliffs to one side, cowering from the dramatic Atlantic ocean on the other, white horses pounding against the scraggy rocks. I headed towards Bilbao making a short detour into Guenica for a coffee. My spirits sunk as I passed through the faded salmon apartments, drying washing coloured over wise gloomy balconies. The weight of Guenica’s history hangs heavy even in bright sunshine:

Guernica is and was a market town, a place of plenitude, community. On Monday 26th April 1937, in the late afternoon, as the market square teemed and bussled with farmers, house wives and children, folk gathering from miles around, the church bell rang. It was the signal for the imminent air strike. Flying at high speed towards the little town was an assortement; a showcase if you like, of the newer machines of German aerial warfare; Heinkel 111’s, the high speed Dornier Do 17 and, on it’s first official outing, the Messerschmitt BF 109. The air show was an extended one – it was about 7.45 pm before the earsplitting bangs finally ended, giving way to a hideous eerie calm. Three hours of bombing had left the little town of Guernica an unrecognisable mess of crumpled stone where houses, shops , schools had only hours earlier basked in Spring sunshine. The people too were unrecognisable – charred corpses – or less of humans and animals. 1,645 was the Basque government’s estimate of the dead.

Picasso chose Guernica for the subject of his mural painting in the Spanish Pavillion at the Paris World Fair that same year. Times correspondent George Steer had just happened to be in the area that fateful day and brought the event to the world’s attention. The recurrent question – why Guernica? The coffee I sat and drank in the central square could be nothing else but solemn, the town 68 years on has been rebuilt, but the unbearable din of the dive bombing Heinkels and the agonised cries of mother and children screaming filled my head.

I sensed a mood whilst sitting in the market square that forbade jollity. I went back to Ludvig to find I’d got a parking ticket. It was somehow fitting, despite, under closer scrutiny, there being absolutely no indication that I couldn’t park, or had to pay to park where I had parked. Oh well, I think if I’d been a warden in Guernica I’d be splashing tickets onto German vehicles left right and centre as well!

I parked up for the night in an empty car park, in the protective shadow of an overhanging cliff, some 27 kilometres north of Bilbao in the ETA stronghold of Plentzia. I washed a bottle of cheap Spanish wine down with a satisfying feast of chicken, sausages and an Avacado salad. I cooked the meat on a disposable BBQ then watched the dying embers blend in with the lights of the nearby town. As I watched the waves rolling onto the silhouettes of the beach, swimming in rose retrospection, I considered my arrival into a Spain I’d never known existed! Package holidays and sangria seemed a long way away, and the moment had passed…. I didn’t really care who’d won the football now.

More by this author – and buy his book about driving across Russia – at his own website.

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