Fresh Bull Eggs and Googly Eyes

Fishies say 😛

Bilbao, País Vasco, Spain – September 12th, 2010

Just steps from Bilbao’s old town, we visited El Mercado de la Ribera, which claims to be the world’s largest covered market. It’s hard to find independent confirmation of this claim, but the Guinness Book of World Records did list it in 1990 as the biggest covered food market in Europe, at 10,000 square meters. Cynthia and I went in for a stroll during our day in Bilbao, but Lea didn’t quite have the stomach for it…

The market is divided into three floors, each with its own theme. To summarize, the basement is for seafood, the main floor meat and pastries, and the upper story fruits, vegetables, and flowers – quite nice, really, as you don’t have to enjoy the aroma of octopus while you pick out your apples or tomatoes!

This is euphemistically called a 'bull's egg' - huevo de toro. Yes, it's what you think it is.

Its a lot to take in for an American – I’m used to being quite separated from the bloody reality of animal products. A quick walk on the main floor brought me past a dozen things I’d never seen in America – entire pigs’ heads, brains and tongues, freshly skinned rabbits, even bull testicles. One butcher was graphically hacking open a sheep’s carcass even as we went passed!

"Mira, mira, para un recuerdo!"

The basement was less frightening but stronger smelling – it had all the fragrance of low tide on a hot day. Still, I know it makes me a horrible person, but sometimes fish just look so funny/cute when dead, with their rolling googly eyes and their tongues sticking out! Cynthia and I stopped to take a picture of one group of them, and a boy working at the market became pretty enthusiastic about getting into our photo. “Look, look,” he said, “For a souvenir!”

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

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Bilbao – Bigger, Brighter, Better

Bilbao, País Vasco, Spain – September 12th, 2010

To think I’d heard such nasty things about Bilbao. In our geography of Spain unit Junior Year, we’d been told nothing more of it than that it was Basque, northern, industrial. Lacking in charm. Even Ana, my landlady, had said, “Go to the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim is beautiful. But don’t bother with the rest of it. Bilbao’s not a pretty city. It’s not so nice.” Perhaps I’d simply had low expectations – I loved it.

From the Old Town, with the winding alleys and pintxos bars I’ve already come to expect from Basque Spain, all the way to the famous Guggenheim, I wasn’t disappointed by an inch of the Bilbao I explored. I suppose it could be said that I was only really ‘impressed’ by Bilbao’s riverside market (the largest covered market in Europe), the pintxos at Bar Irrintzi (amazing), and, yes, the world famous Guggenheim Museum, but the spaces in between held their own charm. Our walk through the center of town took us past dozens of cheerful parks and row after row of elegant buildings, and our stroll alongside the Nervión river revealed fascinating, if puzzling, designs of office buildings, bridges, and modern art statues. A shameless mountain geek, I also loved the way the city is nestled down between two mountain ranges, earning it the nickname El Botxo – “the hole”.

I found Bilbao’s reputation to be quite ill-deserved – it was on the whole bigger, better, and brighter than I had been led to expect, and well worth a day or two of wandering. But if the great majority of the day trippers go straight to the Guggenheim without passing GO, well, that just means more pintxos for me!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

The Guggenheim

"Puppy"

Bilbao, País Vasco, Spain – September 12th, 2010

I’m not a big fan of modern art. I like some of it better than others, and yes, I try to distance myself and understand that most of these artists know how to paint perfectly well, that they’re not really just a bunch of guys splashing paint around, fooling the critics with a false sense of profundity, and laughing all the way to the bank, but still, it’s not usually my sort of thing.

It really doesn’t matter what you think of the art, though – when you go to Bilbao, you have to go to the Guggenheim. The city and its museum are almost synonymous with each other. Before I ever dreamed of studying in Spain, the name Bilbao brought to my mind a vague image of Puppy, the dog made of flowers which guards the museum’s doors. So it was never really an option not to go, and it was cheap enough, for students.

I have to say that, just like the rest of Bilbao, I was pleasantly surprised by the museum. There were some rooms in the complex that I walked through quickly, utterly unimpressed. One entire floor was a special exhibit of ‘gluts’, which basically just looked like piles of trash to me, however much I sympathised with the artist’s purported message and tried to look at them through that light.

Some "Gluts" (not my photo)

“It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant. I’m just exposing it, trying to wake people up. I simply want to present people with their ruins […] I think of the Gluts as souvenirs without nostalgia.” – Robert Rauschenberg

Other rooms were full of paintings that, to me, lacked any sort of feeling, balance, or aesthetic merit. But someone else may see meaning in them, and that’s what ultimately matters.

What did I like? A lot, actually. I’m partial to modern sculptures because there’s something so physical and tactile about it – just the idea of 3D physical materials and space being twisted into the shape in someone’s imagination is something fascinating.

Walking through "The Matter of Time"

The first exhibit that drew me in as I entered was “The Matter of Time”, which may be Bilbao’s most famous exhibit after “Puppy”. It’s comprised of huge masses of iron and other materials, twisted into shapes such as spirals and waves. You can walk in, through, and around the sculptures, which are meant to distort and represent people’s experience of time. My friend Jorge says he feels like it takes longer to walk out of the spirals than it takes to reach their centers. As for myself, I found it oddly relaxing and timeless to walk around inside of them, with the soft and undulating patterns made by the natural corrugation of the metals running alongside me.

I also loved the Anish Kapoor exhibit, which took up an entire floor. Anish Kapoor is an Indian-British sculptor, and experiments with a huge number of materials and techniques in his work. One segment of his exhibit was filled with mirrors – I loved walking around there, although I wasn’t sure I pulled any deeper meaning from it than I would from a similar room at the carnival! Several other rooms were home to his experiments with colour as a physical thing which exists in three dimensions. He approached this from different angles, with one room housing sculptures made purely from powdery pigment, the result vaguely resembling bright cones of spice and incense. In another room, an enormous, slightly concave wall was painted bright yellow, which almost overwhelmed me as I approached it and played tricks with my understanding of the space.

"Shooting into the Corner" (not my picture)

In two of his works, Kapoor played with deep red wax (think, lipstick) – slowly spreading it across the floor in a circle in one room, and, in another, shooting canisters of it out of a cannon and into the corner. I felt as I had in the mirror room – that whether or not I could discern the work’s deeper meaning, it was wonderful to look at. I almost couldn’t take my eyes off the cannon exhibit, with the deep rich colour, the delicious textures, and the pseudo-sexual imagery so obvious even I picked up on it.

My favourite pieces by Kapoor, and maybe in the whole museum, were in a series he did exploring the ideas of darkness, the infinite, and addition by subtraction. One sculpture was a stone he had hollowed out and painted a deep black-blue inside – from most angles it looked as though there was a two dimensional plaque hung on the surface of the stone, instead of rectangular hole leading to the hollowed out center. There were also three huge concave disks, hung on the wall and painted with the same dark blue-black. It was dizzying, beautiful, and frightening to stand close to them and gaze into their centers, as if you were looking very far away, out into the universe, or into an inky pool of infinite nothingness.

On a simpler, more aesthetic level, I also enjoyed all of the outdoor exhibits – the giant spider, the balloon-like, reflective Tulips, the tower of spherical mirrors, and of course, the famous  and adorable “Puppy”!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Tulips, by Jeff Koons

Spain 2010

A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

August 23rd-December 19th, 2010

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

Pure pragmatics led me to Pamplona. I was studying Spanish and Journalism, and looking to study abroad. The program at the University of Navarra Pamplona was the obvious fit – the only Journalism program taught in a language other than English. When I thought about it, though, I realized that I wouldn’t have chosen to go anywhere else. As I began to make more solid plans, I asked my Scottish friend Allan to go there with me a week ahead of time, so we could see Barcelona and Valencia and attend the Tomatina tomato fight in Bunyol before my classes started. And once I was there, of course, I went on dozens of day trips and weekend trips all over Spain (particularly the north).

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: This trip was unimaginably expensive. Just kidding, but as it was an entire semester away it’s a bit more complicated than normal to sum up the costs. Essentially, I was paying my home university normal tuition, as well as a study abroad fee. It cost me about $1300 to get to Pamplona from Florida, and back again. Apartments in Pamplona usually run 250-400€ a month. Grocery costs are roughly comparable to in the United States. When I took weekend trips, hostels usually cost about 25€ a night, and transportation varied but buses were about 35€ roundtrip to Madrid or Barcelona, 15€ to San Sebastian, Vitoria or Bilbao, 20€ to Zaragoza, etc. My biggest splurges were the Multiaventura canyoning experience, at 125€ (overnight, with meals, equipment, instructors and transportation included), and the U2 concert in San Sebastian (tickets were 60€).

Thinking Ahead: I started applying to study abroad almost a full year in advance. Getting a VISA was tricky and took a few months and a lot of paperwork. I got my apartment lined up ahead of time, but it was difficult and I shouldn’t have bothered – it’s much easier to arrange once you arrive, if you’re brave enough to show up without a place to go. I didn’t really book anything more than a week ahead of time. The MAJOR exception to this was for Tomatina – I booked the hostel in Valencia several months in advance.

Timing: Since I went to Pamplona for the Fall/Winter semester,  I got to experience the leaves changing colour, the first snows, the Christmas season, etc. Tomatina takes place the last Wednesday of August, so that works out perfectly if you’re planning to study in Spain during the Fall. We had really lovely weather in Pamplona until quite late in the semester. As I see it, the big disadvantage of going in the fall is that the weather gets worse instead of better as time goes on, you make travelling friends and decide where you want to go.

Food: Spanish food is quite good, especially if you like fish, ham, eggs, olive oil, potatoes, and tomatoes. The north of Spain is famous for Pintxos, their delicious take on tapas. Things like Tortilla Española (a thick omelette full of soft potato), Paella de Mariscos (a boiled, then baked rice dish with seafood and lots of saffron), Patatas Bravas (chunky fried potatoes served with garlic mayo and spicy sauce), and Croquetas (croquettes filled with bechamel and microscopic pieces of chicken or ham) quickly became my daily bread. For sweets, I recommend Colocao (hot chocolate American style – easy to order in any cafe) with Garrotes (also called Napolitanas, basically chocolate bread)… or, if you want to get fat fast, Chocolate (thick Spanish style  drinking chocolate) with Churros (deep fried pastries coated in sugar). There aren’t a lot of good ethnic restaurants, but if you’re craving something different it’s easy enough to find the ingredients to make your own Asian or American food. Tiny Asian markets are common, and if you’re willing to pay a premium, you can find almost anything in the grocery section of the huge department store, Corte Inglés.

Getting Around: Bus is usually the way to travel – they’re cheaper and much more common than trains in Spain. As long as you’re following the beaten path, there are buses galore and life is easy. Of course, getting to natural areas and tiny villages is a challenge without a car. Flying is sometimes a surprisingly decent option for crossing Spain, if you look online for cheap rates.

Language: Catalan, Basque, and Galician are very real, but a foreigner will never need to know a word of them. If you know Spanish, you’re all set, and people are usually reasonably patient with you. Trying to get by with just English is a good deal harder. It depends on where you go, but Spaniards aren’t as multilingual as Northern Europeans in general.

Other: I was extremely impressed by Spain during my stay there. What struck me the most was the diversity of what it had to offer  – the Spain you hear about most often in America really only represents old fashioned Madrid and Southern Spain (and modern Barcelona, to a lesser extent), and in Europe they think of Spain as nothing more than a giant beach. But in Madrid I found palaces and museums to rival those of Paris, in Asturias and the Basque Country sheer seaside cliffs and quaint villages like you’d expect from Ireland, in Galicia the last functioning Roman lighthouse, and the last fully intact Roman walls, and in Navarra – you have to see Navarra yourself to believe it.

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Itinerary:

I flew with my friend Allan into Barcelona on August 23rd, and did a little sightseeing there before heading to Valencia for the Tomatina tomato fight in Bunyol on August 25th. After another day relaxing in Valencia, we moved on to Pamplona, where I would spend the next four months. We also squeezed in a day in Puente la Reina, a small town nearby, before Allan went back home.

International Orientation was August 30th, and on the 31st the new students took a trip to San Sebastian for a day in the sun before classes started on September 1st. As September went on, I snuck away long enough to return to San Sebastian, as well as visit the Basque Country’s other two capitals, Vitoria (where we toured a cathedral under construction) and Bilbao (home of the Guggenheim). I also joined my university’s Club de Montaña (Mountain Club), and our first excursion was a canyoning adventure in Aragon. I saw September out with a surfing trip in Biarritz.

In October, I traveled further and longer before it got too cold and finals too close. Club de Montaña took us for hikes in the Pyrenees and in the Selva de Irati, and I saw the U2 concert in San Sebastian. I visited one friend down south in Alicante and another for her 21st birthday in Madrid. I took my longest trip in the last days of October, when I went couchsurfing in Gijon, Asturias before meeting friends for a long weekend in Galicia.

In November and December, I started to settle down and into life in Pamplona. Still, I found time to visit Zaragoza, walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago, and take a few road trips around my home state of Navarra before I had to go home on December 19th.

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Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
Sea, Sky, and Sculpture in San Sebastian (San Sebastian, País Vasco – 8/31)
Bilbao – Bigger, Brighter, Better (Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
Fresh Bull Eggs and Googly Eyes
(Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
The Guggenheim (Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
The Witch Caves of Navarre (Zugarramurdi, Navarre – 12/7)
In Ochagavía (Ochagavía, Navarre – 12/8)

Photography: Vitoria of the Bean Eaters, The Castle of Olite, Cumbres Borrascosas