Zaragoza—San Sebastian day 1

Friday 14 June 2013

If Zaragoza is a sultry serendipity spliced onto an arid plain by a raging torrent, then San Sebastian is a riotous row of can-can dancers teetering on the brink of the Bay of Biscay. You just don’t know where to look or what to bite next: the whole thing is a visual and gastronomic orgasm.

The fact is you’re in a different country. The Basque Country is as different from Aragón as Madrid is from Cataluña. The geography, culture, language and food all shift around as we shunt from one province to the next. So what on earth is ‘Spain’?

Whatever it is, it keeps on getting better. Just when you think you’ve seen the best of it, the next leg of the journey takes your breath away again. In San Sebastian, Susie and I spent most of the time beside ourselves. Because this is a recount, however, I have to backtrack and tell you what happened in chronological order.

We lugged our packs to the local bus stop in downtown Zaragoza and caught the Number 34 bus to the enormous transport hub where we had arrived, where we purchased a bus ticket for a later stage of our journey (i.e. from Santiago de Compostela to Porto in Portugal) and waited around the rather dismal bus terminal for an hour.

We had managed to secure the two front seats on the bus (numbers 3 and 4) which had the benefit of a nice view, minimal sway, and a respectable distance from the toilet. It also had a drawback we had not anticipated, however: we were in range of the driver’s radio, so we could hear the vacuous pop music and appalling advertisements that are the trademarks of commercial radio. Even though the language changes, the tenor of commercial radio never does: the voices wheedle and simper one minute and then trumpet bombastically the next. Although I could make no sense of the machine-gun delivery, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were saying ugly things like they do back in Australia. If Hell has a soundtrack, you can bet that it’s commercial AM radio. How I missed my noise-cancelling headphones!

There is one clear benefit of buses over trains, however: you can take in much more of the view at 100 km/h than you can at 300 km/h. As it turned out, we were able to take in the view at speeds much slower than this…

The first thing we noticed on leaving Zaragoza was the wind farms. Parts of Aragón must be very suitable for harvesting this renewal energy source, because dozens of wind turbines would suddenly sprout out of the landscape at regular intervals like giant, surreal whirligigs.

Fifty kilometres from San Sebastian, the landscape changed dramatically: the freeway began to snake around heavily forested slopes. And then there were the mountains—serious mountains, the likes of which are not seen in Australia.

As the bus climbed through wind and haze, it drew to a complete halt about 40 km from our destination. The autopista (freeway) had been blocked off due to an accident. After we spent some time at a standstill, the traffic was gradually funnelled onto local roads. The bus driver was fuming, but as we descended into the first valley, Susie looked at me with a Cheshire cat grin and said “It looks like we’re going to get our road trip after all”.

We took the turn off to Berastegi. The other Conda bus in front was overheating (we could smell the engine cooking) so it pulled over and transferred its passengers to our bus. We backtracked for a while in the wrong direction along roads that had been painstakingly carved from the sides of the hills and valleys. This afforded a close-up view of the countryside that would be impossible from the autopista; but the roads had to be navigated at what seemed like a snail’s pace, and they were barely wide enough for the heavy traffic that was diverted.

It soon became apparent that we were in Basque country, in the state of Navarra. The towns had names like BETELU, ARRIBE, ATALLU, GIPUZKOA and LIZARTZA. Some were separated by only few hundred metres. They were nestled deep in mountainous country that was heavily wooded on the slopes and in the valleys. The bus lurched precariously between streams and waterfalls, stone walls, cutaways covered in moss, fernbanks, and beautiful stone houses whose thresholds opened right onto the road. The balconies and window boxes were decorated with red and purple geraniums in pots. Behind the houses we glimpsed terraced paddocks grazed by long-haired sheep. There were stone bridges with wooden handrails draped in hanging moss as if they had grown green beards whilst gazing over the streams for centuries. For most of the journey, a clear, shallow stream banked by dry stone walls meandered alongside our bus on the left hand side of the road. It was an enchanting diversion through a world that was built in another time and on another scale and in a language we had never heard before: BETELU, ARRIBE, ATALLU, GIPUZKOA, LIZARTZA. Navarre was a landscape mapped in a language older than the idea of Europe.

At 15:48 the bus surfaced onto the autopista about 21 kilometres out of San Sebastian like a silver whale surfacing from the historical unconscious. We caught a taxi to the fringe of the old city, and walked to the Pensión Amaiur, where we were greeted warmly and given an extremely helpful induction to the city, a map, and a list of the best places to sample pintxos. These are the Basque version of tapas, and they are one of San Sebastian’s many great attractions. Our first-floor balcony looked over La Calle 31 de Agosto. The cathedral was right next door. The action was right underneath our feet.

We began our visit with a walk around the dramatic headland that skirts the old city. We then explored the sleepy marina that nestled in the bay on the other side. The sun was shining and there were people all over the beach. Our meanderings ended in a cool beer next to some fabulous, huge green olives in an expensive beachside café, where we soaked up the afternoon sun and the beautiful scenes in front of us. Susie commented that the whole thing looked like a European painting. Was it the light or the colourful concentration of holidaymakers on hay-coloured sand? There was definitely a softness in the light that we were not used to. We were looking into a Monet rather than a Brett Whitely.

For dinner, we had to face what turned out to be the biggest challenge of the day: getting in the door of La Cuchara de San Telmo, a pintxo joint one block down the street that was highly recommended. When we arrived around 9:30 p.m., the place was buzzing. Even though the entire restaurant is not big enough to swing a cat in, there were about sixty people pressed into the place like tinned bocarones. Placing an order was like trying to pole vault in a crowded telephone booth. Everyone was very pleasant, however, including the guy taking orders, who was a pillar of cool at the centre of the mayhem. We ordered four pintxos which we washed down with a glass or two of rioja: Canelas cremosa de asados y cocido; Chuleta de vaca reposada con pan, tomate, ajo y alvahaca; Bacalao faroe a la plancha con “tetziki”, and Carrillera de ternera guisada vino tinto. Even the words taste good in your mouth. Each dish was excellent, but the fourth one nearly knocked us back to Zaragoza: it was a small, neat pyramid of molten beef. It was so rich that we could not have eaten anything afterwards even if we had wanted to.

After La Cuchara we drifted into the Plaza de la Constitution for a nightcap, next to a table full of men who were smoking skunk. Before returning to the pensión, we searched unsuccessfully for a supermarket, but discovered the layout of the old city in the process. The streets were buzzing with life; tourists rubbed shoulders with locals who were out celebrating the end of the week. People and coloured light spilled out of every bar onto the narrow, cobblestone streets. Notwithstanding the rivers of alcohol, there was no aggravation; there was just the hive of San Sebastian: honeypot of the Basque Country, buzz of the Bay of Biscay.

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