The people of the Basque country call it Euskal Heria or ‘the Country of Euskara’. They, the people, belong to their land and their language. Their soul is defined by these two things. Without both, they aren’t Basque. If they lose either, they lose their identity. A central concept in Basque identity is belonging, not only to the Basque people but also to a house, known in the Basque language as etxea.
I’ve talked before here about a pig breeder Pello Urdapilleta (whose last name means “herd of pigs”) and his farm, who helped save the Euskal Txerria breed. His farm is key to understanding him and his work.
“Even today, some Basques recall their origins by introducing themselves to a compatriot from the same region not by their family name, but by the name of their house, a building which may have vanished centuries ago. The founders may have vanished, the family name may disappear, but the name of the house endures. “But the house of my father will endure,” wrote the twentieth-century poet Gabriel Aresti.” from “The Basque History of the World” by Mark Kurlansky.
The pride in their land and language is therefore rooted deep in their psyche; without both, they cease to exist. And it’s this that partially explains their place in the world and their resistance to external dangers as well as to such as Franco who tried (and failed to extirpate the Basques). But you really need to read Kurlansky’s book to get the full skinny. I’d highly recommend it.
Their industrial heritage is long and storied although there’s large swathes of it that haven’t and won’t now ever recover, such as those graffitied, shuttered specimens along the Zorrozaurre peninsula.
Some of the relics preserved as in aspic, as in the old dry dock area.
It reminds me a lot of photos I’ve seen of Detroit — a city I visited only once, some 25 years ago. The same old beautiful buildings and machinery, not yet all fallen into rack and ruin, but surviving, deliberately in some cases, in others as just an accident of location.
And then — as a not so subtle reminder of and homage to their past — elements of that iron and steel used in their long-gone industries, now an ingredient of the cladding for new, modern, up-market riverside buildings; this one a conference centre.
Other, smaller, artefacts kept as a reminder of that quite recent past in city parks.
Or used to frame views over Bilbo.
Whilst the modern industries start putting up their own markers overlooking the city they serve.
And the old are still recalled in paintings
The town of Portugalete, where these paintings are housed, in a wonderful, small and curiously deserted industrial museum is also home to the Vizcaya transporter bridge, a working — and hugely wonderful — artefact, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that towers over the mouth of the estuary. A view up and down river expanding on either side.
That day was one of the first of the estropadak rowing races held between July and October and from the top of the bridge we could see the minute trainera and their crews below.
Exhausted by all their endeavours, the crowd were able to eat this fresh tuna, cooked over a grill, to conserve their strength for further rigorous viewing
Back in Bilboa, there’s others of the modern world — this one a monument to a water company — trying to define a new Basque way of making their way in the world.
The fish-scales museum silhouetted against the bridge over the river was the start of the push to regenerate the city.
Others still serving their original purpose, as here at the main railway station.
And sometimes not; an old market now turned into an exercise club and luxury apartments. Just what the city needs eh? The regeneration projects talked about (this obvious egregious example aside) doesn’t, yet, appear to have had the same “gentrifying” AirBnB <spit> damaging effects seen in other Spanish cities such as Barcelona. I hope it never does but this sort of “progress” is hard for the people to resist or for their politicians to see it for the social (and ethnic) cleansing that it so often turns out to be.
I liked this one located at the riverside — which reminded me of the NY Flatiron — and is still being used for its original purposes
Unlike this old lift, now closed up. A concrete pantheon.
But before we faint from hunger, let’s stop for a few minutes and take a quick break for some food shall we?
At a buzzy, busy, friendly pintxos bar in the market
Before, suitably refreshed, we head back to the bridge next to the Guggenheim, soon itself to be the subject of a new art installation.
Which, in turn, leads onto this new steel structure, a walkway down to the riverside…
Modern artwork is everywhere; this huge mural under that same bridge on the opposite bank across from the museum, is only fully visible if you climb the lung-aching set of steps up to the top.
Just along the riverbank stands the University; an impressive steel and glass edifice, with other gracious old buildings part of the campus on either side, gardens rising all the way up the hillside.
The socialist past of Bilbo is never far from the surface; this is one of a series of public artwork located directly across the river from the University, examining Spain’s reaction to the human crisis still unfolding across the Mediterranean
And on the day of our arrival, the city — brought to a standstill by the taxi drivers — protesting the incursion of the Uberites. Fuck Uber. Burn it down, salt the ground under it.
Modern street art carries on reflecting this continual struggle
And this to me, a reminder of the Eta struggles of the past.
The museum at Donostia — when you visit you’ll understand why it was voted European Museum of the Year 2013 — uses concrete over the entrance to good effect; to grow and put down new roots into the earth.
Whilst inside, the birds congregate…
And the cinematic master looms, watching over an exhibition dedicated to his life and films.
At Bilbao airport, this glass reminding everyone that Gernika is a city of peace.
With their own copy of the original.
A small town, but the still beating heart of the Basques. Where their council has sat for centuries, where their important literature is stored, where the oak tree has grown and lived and died and been re-planted; a very visible symbol of their connection with the earth.
A working town again. The bombing scars long covered from that day, 80 years ago, although the original air raid shelters used in the Civil War to hide from the Nazi and Franco aircraft are still open. It’s a sombre feeling visiting — as I imagine are all such places, Hiroshima, Oradour-sur-Glane, My Lai etc. — but whilst they display their past frankly and with an understandable sadness, the people and the place is bright, open and welcoming.
We ate, of course. Some of the delicious cold sidra.
as part of a menu del dia delight in the town.
This monument — another one to the deaths of so many innocent people under Franco — is located in Portugalete, alongside an elevator that helps the residents and visitors move up and down a quite vertiginous hill.
Right next to this graffiti on the side of their cultural centre.
And this rather splendid and succinct political statement is plastered on a wall less than a 100 yards down the street.
To my disappointment, I saw no live Euskal Txerria on the trip. Understandable in the city of course, but none appeared on the hillsides out in the country as we wended our slow way up and down on the railway track between Bilbo and Gernika. But this little one popped up its head in the museum in Gernika, so he’ll have to do as a representative of the breed for the moment.
And finally, for this post, I leave you with this charming piece of folk-art fabric wall-hanging in Bilbao museum; ships, food, farm sidra, chacoli and friends and talking. A great summary of the place.