As we trundled north along the highway toward Bilbao, a jumble of words caught my eye from a sign. My head whipped around as I did a double take to peer through the tinted window. I had no idea what the word meant, but I knew that the arrangement of letters was nothing remotely close to Spanish. Before I even had time to untwist my neck, another sign sped by, announcing “Ongi etorri Euskadi – Bienvenidos al País Vasco.” Welcome to Basque Country. And then I realized that I had crossed an invisible border into what would prove to be a place that defies comparison to all others I have visited.
The Basque language Euskara, which shares no roots with any other in the world, was only my first taste of the region. I attempted to pronounce a couple of crucial words: pintxo (PIN-cho), which is the Basque equivalent of a tapa, and txacoli (CHOC-o-lee), a famous dry white wine. I soon gave up, though, as the eclectic mix of Bilbao’s architecture tumbled through my vision faster than the bizarre sounds on my tongue.
When we later took a walk through Bilbao, the industrial capital of the Basque Country, I was wandering in a half-dream. The buildings slid from modern office buildings to gingerbread house storefronts to solemn columns and back again. Glass, plaster, titanium, brick. Each bridge is of a different era. And in the middle of it all, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum shocked me into a memory of gazing up at the Walt Disney Concert Hall back home in Los Angeles. Only the Guggenheim, in keeping with Bilbao’s unapologetic quirkiness, is guarded by a gigantic sculpture made of flowers in the shape of a puppy. Alice had officially fallen down the rabbit hole.
The following day we enjoyed the more traditional San Sebastián, a beach resort town home to Spain’s most luxurious quality of life and, at that moment, Richard Gere. We arrived on the last day of the prestigious film festival, and between the red carpet and the surfers I couldn’t help but taste California in the salty air. Not quite. We strolled into the old town and within five minutes I was lost in the turn of the twentieth century. That afternoon, I slipped into a café and was reminded that France is only twenty kilometers away. In the evening, a friend and I rode a creaky funicular up to the top of Mount Igueldo, where the view of the bay and Christ statue flashed Rio de Janeiro in my mind.
All of these small recollections and analogies aren’t really accurate. As my brain tried to piece them together to make sense of these two beautiful and strange cities, the haphazard collage only reinforced my sense that the Basque Country is unique from Spain and the rest of the world. I have no sentiments about the Basque desire for political separation from Spain, but I did feel like I was in a different world. I just didn’t need my passport to enter.