Days 28-31: Galicia and Bilbao

Funcionarios on Parade- Santilana to Bilbao driving, Sunday 26 April

There is not a lot of daily evidence of the hard times Spain experienced through the global financial crisis, and is still enduring in terms of unemployment rate. There are beggars at the tourist attractions in the cities, and in regional towns outside supermarkets there are often 30-40 year old men with a backpack or sign perhaps saying their child needs an operation or they haven’t had work for 2 years? [I didn’t think it appropriate to ask them to translate their life story.] According to Ken in Oviedo it was felt hardest in regional areas rather than Madrid, especially in Galicia where agriculture and coal production were major employers. When I aired my thought the public service sector may have taken a hit, the response was blunt…”we are a socialist country and the public service have jobs for life. It is everyone’s goal to be a ‘funcionario’ for the government: money, security, do nothing, and look down on everyone”!

Maybe the funcionarios get out and about on Sundays? The cafes and promenades of the icon Cantabrian seaside towns of Santander, Santono and Castro Urdiales were bustling as we dropped in our drive to Bilbao. But I guess that’s the cultural thing to do on a Sunday in Spain – go for a stroll with family, friends or companion and finish off with several drinks, smokes, and an animated afternoon chat. I really wanted to break out the bikes in Santander – it had a long, flat bike track running around the bay and port area and we would be joining the throng of activity. Lucky we didn’t as it had started to rain soonafter as we picnicked in the pretty town of Santona, famous for its anchovies [which I did buy this time!]

Choosing the BBK Hostel to stay in at Bilbao, instead of remaining in Castro Urdiales seems like a good idea at the time – until we tried to drive there. Bilbao has a manic mess of freeways, and we drove on all of them before being successful. But that’s another thing – the roads in Spain are sensational and must have had untold zeros of euros spent on them quite recently. From a country lane to a tollway the bitumen surfaces, shoulders and kerbing are pristine. Not to mention the tunnels and bridges. Drive a country highway in Australia and you’d think we were a bankrupt country of beggars.

“This is Bilbao, we do things differently here.” Bilbao Monday 27 April

Took the Metro into the city and straight to the award winning tourist office; sundry maps were handed over gratis, phone calls made and websites visited on our behalf. [No wonder it had won awards, and I recalled a comment from a toll-booth attendant we had inadvertently met on a toll-road in the lost world we had been in trying to drive into Bilbao the previous night. When I commented on how cheap the 38 cents toll was, he replied…”This is Bilbao, you will see we do things differently here”.]

Meddling rain meant the walk through the city streets to the Fine Arts Museum was a purposeful march, and the warmth of the Museum resulted in a prolonged examination of the works. All periods were covered; from vibrantly colored, 14th century religious paintings of tempura on oak panels, to last decade modern art pieces using acrylic paint on mylar. All the big names were represented: Goya, Picasso, Cassett [impressionist]…but the standout section for Jordy and I was a special exhibition of protest ephemeral art of the 1960s. A small group of artists known as ‘Equipo Cronica’ printed mainly black-and-white posters, calendars, cartoon books protesting at the dictatorial rule of Franco in Spain. Two simple posters almost took us to the era of oppression and secret police: a darkglasses-clad, weasely man in a sitting pose like he was on a park bench titled ‘spectator of spectators’, and a bold fonted message ‘en esta tierra hay eso’ that translated to ‘you find that kind of thing here’.

Walked to the recommended pinxos/pinchos [tapas outside of basque country] street for some celebrated lunch nibbles with a glass of vino. I think we had…bread with special jambon ham of course, some mushroom croquette, probably some anchovy thing, a stuffed something else…nice, but obviously not memorable!

Elly shared her umbrella as we made our way mid-afternoon for the shops and narrow streets of the old town, and the market building. The latter wasn’t open contrary to google’s search result – so it was checking for an Athletic Bilbao soccer shirt for Jordy, coffee out of the rain for Elly, and the Basque Ethnographic Museum for Michael. So we still got something out of the day.

Metro-ed back to collect the car then drove 10km out to the village of Loiu, and our warmshowers host Chris and family [wife Patricia and primary age children Katalina and Martin]. Much welcomed dinner of vegetables [soup, grilled artichoke, zucchini and leek – yumbo], and great conversation about life in Spain and Australia. It was a treat to be in a family environment, and learn.

Beautiful Guggenheim and the Beautiful Game – Bilbao, Tuesday 28 April

Bussed into town with two goals – buy tickets for the Basque derby between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad [San Sebastien], and visit the Guggenheim Museum. Came up trumps with both! After a decent walk across town in fine weather this time, four tickets [an extra for Chris] were purchased for the big game in the mid-price section [Jordy had saved up!]. Smiles all around, but the old foggies were wondering if they would still be awake for the 10pm kick-off.

Next stop Guggenheim – a stunning building of curved surfaces of silvery titanium panels and glass, filled with modern art. Well I suppose it doesn’t matter what period or school of art you look at, there will always be some stuff that appeals and some that doesn’t. But sometimes it’s hard work to be in awe of works of modern art. As we entered one room for example, we overheard an English guy coming out with ‘well, that was just a load of crap!” to his girlfriend. I didn’t agree on that particular installation, only because I thought there was worse crap than that? Elly and Jordy weren’t impressed with much, but I was less dismissive – imagination, inspiration and implementation are great things. The absolutely amazing exhibition was a retrospective of over 200 works by French-American Nikki de Saint Phalle. She died about 2002 in her early 70’s and had phases in her productive life of ‘the white period’, ‘the rifle paintings’, ‘the nannas’, and towards the end of her life a series of stylised ‘cause’ books, posters, and letters against the treatment and fear of AIDs sufferers, war-mongering George Bush II, domestic violence, racial intolerance…I think I had seen some of her ‘nanna’ sculptures somewhere, but I felt quite ignorant, as if I should have known more about her.

Four hours later, after watching a few lovely short films highlighting the cultural and artisanal handskills of weavers, lacemakers, spinners, and stamp printers across the globe, we emerged. And talked while we walked. Art, life…and sport.

It was time to prepare for the game. Jordy finally bought his shirt, I got a deal on a scarf, and we were set in red-and-white to meet in the pre-match gathering street leading to the stadium. Grabbed some Italian in a quiet restaurant amongst the bustling bars and singing street drinkers, then joined the throng marching en masse to the ground; Elly having had just enough glasses of red and white to be getting right into it! Terrific spectacle inside and out, and a tolerant atmosphere given the opposing team was basque. [Chris told us some old-time supporters will still not go to the home match against Real Madrid in protest against ‘Franco’s team’!] Our area was particularly tolerant given we had French and Scottish visitors around us, and a local family of 4 in front who supported both teams! Fitting result then that it ended in a one-all draw. [And a fact for Noel Bull at home – the colors of Bilbao were copied from Southampton in England.}

And without much fuss we even caught a taxi home at nearly 1am! Bilbao…done.

‘The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war [Erasmus]’: Discuss. – Bilbao to Gernika driving, Wednesday 29 April

Left our cheery warmshowers hosts and headed for Bakio on the coast. It had a wine museum above the tourist office – we were keen and the attendants keen to see us I think; we walked out with an armful of maps and a high step! Four wineries in the Bakio valley produce a particular type of wine called taxocli [chacoli]. A new interactive display, 360 degree theatrette was high tech and very informative. Quick view of local surfers in action, then short uphill drive to walking path entry to spectacular San Juan de Gaztelugatxe chapel on an island outcrop. A severe walk down the cliff and steps up causeway to chapel got the sweat running and it wasn’t even hot. Evidently to ring the bell is to go, as it wards off evil spirits. So I obliged – three times three! Picnic lunch on a point looking back over San Juan and the rugged coastline, and before all fell asleep in the occasional warm sunny patches, we moved on to Gernika: Peace Museum, oak tree, Picasso mural, a parking ticket!

It was worth the fine though, and not just because we got into the Peace Museum for free being teachers! The Gernika Peace Museum is the sort of place we should all try to visit. Gernika was stratified by aerial bombing on 26 April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War under the order of Nationalist General Franco but with assistance from German and Italian aircraft. Over 1000 people were killed and only two buildings in the significant town of basque history remained intact – a bridge and the armaments factory. Years on when the Peace Museum was established and Germany apologised for its part in affairs, the remaining witnesses/victims said in response [paraphrasing] ‘when we came out of our shelter and saw the destruction and fires we did not have retribution in our hearts, only a desire that from the ashes a flag of peace could be raised.’ In a short video of peace makers and reconciliations, two segments caught my attention. Australia got a mention for saying ‘sorry’ to the aborigines and activist-lawyer Mick Dodson’s [past student of Monivae, Hamilton] response was in the clip. Then images of Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders staff working in the field [who we support through our bike rides] flashed on screen. [Consider donating to them. They do amazing work.] We should all be working for peace every day – in our homes, workplaces, communities and countries. It’s a glib statement, but the alternatives are violence and war. Are they what we should work towards instead?

Grabbed a caravan park cabin for 60E, and Jordy again did a number on dinner while Elly and I internetted. All feeling a bit weary: tired from our late previous night out [dunno how the Spanish manage it], and maybe just a little emotional…


1 Comment

Filed under 2015, Lisbon to Lyon

One response to “Days 28-31: Galicia and Bilbao

  1. Jen

    Good blog Mike! When Jane and I visited the Guggenheim it was all about the building – didn’t worry too much about the crap inside. Although we lucked out because there was an Anish Kapoor exhibition on and it was very worthwhile. Good to see the minds being altered by experiences and red wine!

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