Hondarribia Photo Diary

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Happy 2015! To start off the year, I’m sharing some images from Hondarribia, a quintessential Basque town near the French border that I went to awhile ago and never got around to posting. I was there for just a few hours; enough to walk around the Butrón boardwalk, grab a seafood lunch in the lively and colorful Marina neighborhood and unexpectedly witness Joaldunak for the first time.

Joaldunak are the men pictured above with the cowbells on their back. They noisily clank and clamber through town to announce the arrival of the annual fiestas, which take place in early September. Definitely beats traditional advertising!

In the past couple of years I’ve lived here, I’ve found that it’s not out of the norm to turn around a corner and stumble upon a celebration of Basque culture and/or language. This is certainly one part of the world very unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, and they truly have such rich traditions and plenty of reason to celebrate.

Living in Basque Country: What I Love and What I Hate

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I’ve been living in Basque Country for awhile now, and I am so happy I’m here! While there are definitely some things I miss about Andalucía, I have felt more at home in Euskadi in a few months then I ever did in the 3 years I spent in Spain’s south. I think every expat has their region in Spain, the place that claimed their heart and is like a second home, and mine is definitely Basque CountryMy years in Andalucía were a huge learning experience for me, full of lots of ups and downs, and moving was just what I needed to reignite my love for Spain all over again. From the people, to the natural beauty, to the Basque culture, here’s why I’m absolutely, positively enamored with Euskadi:

The Landscapes

San Sebastián La Concha

San Sebastián’s La Concha Beach

Rolling green hills, miles and miles of pristine coastline, snow-capped mountains, lush valleys, lakes, rivers, forests…do you realize how stunning this region is? Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but nobody would dare call Basque Country ugly.

The Lifestyle: El Txikiteo

Pintxos San Sebastian

Sampling pintxos in a Basque bar.

I’ve already written about El Txikiteo, the Basque tradition of bar-hopping for pintxos and small sips of wine and beer. I love this about the lifestyle here, and that people of legal drinking age to retirement take part. It’s such a defining part of Basque culture, where the cuadrilla (group of friends) gets together, rain or shine, to enjoy each other’s company over fast-paced consumption of food and drink. 

The People Walk with a Purpose

Cathedral San Sebastián

Most people here walk at a “normal” pace.

Andalucía, I love you, but (the vast majority) of your people walk painfully slow. I don’t expect speed-walkers, but I was constantly stuck behind someone going at a turtle’s pace; conveniently when I had somewhere to be. Blame it on the heat, blame it on the “mañana” attitude, but if you’re in a rush, prepare to be dodging lots of slow-pokes on the street. Meanwhile, here in Basque Country, while you’ll still get the ancianos teetering along the sidewalks, most people walk with a purpose. My kind of people!

The Cheap Public Transportation

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I wish THIS was my form of transportation!

Bilbao easily has the best Metro I’ve ever seen; it’s clean, there are minimal weirdos hanging around, and it’s fast and efficient. Basque Country is also really well-connected by buses and trains, and the best part is that it’s cheap–especially if you’re staying within the same province. To cross Bizkaia on Bizkaibus will set you back about 3€.

The Basque Cider House (Sagardotegia)

Basque Cider House

A Basque Cider House

I am thrilled to be living in a region that celebrates the Basque cider season by cramming lots of hungry people in a cider house, plopping juicy steaks in front of them, and allowing them to fill their glass with cold cider as they please. I went to my first Sagardotegia earlier this year, and can’t wait to repeat this annually.

The Grandpas in Hats

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I heart the adorable Basque grandpas!

Studies show that there is no higher concentration of grandpas in berets (known here as txapelas) than in Basque Country. ;) I think the abuelitos are just darling in their hats, wouldn’t you agree? My blogging amiga Kaley does!

The Food & Wine

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A glass of crisp, white wine.

This doesn’t require much explanation: I’m living in what’s arguably the nucleus of haute cuisine. And even if it’s not accompanied by a Michelin star, Basque food and wine is damn good, whether it’s traditional or contemporary. No complaints here!

The Basque Language & Culture

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The Basque flag!

I LOVE that I’m living in a region with such a rich history and culture. It sometimes feels like I’ve moved to a different country rather than just a different part of the same country. I’m discovering new things daily, from local fiestas to Basque folk dancing!

The Hiking

Hiking in Basque Country

Hiking in Basque Country

There are so many excellent hikes throughout Basque Country and I’m happily exploring the trails one by one. You can take the girl out of the Pacific Northwest, but you can’t take the Pacific NW out of the girl!

…and What I Hate About Living in Basque Country

I’m going to be honest here. There is really, truly nothing I hate about living in Basque Country. Really! There are a few things I would change if I could, but we can’t have everything, can we? Without further ado:

The Rain

I knew what I was getting into by moving here, but the incessant rain is slowly getting to me. We’re in mid-June and it’s still raining over here! Even my hometown of Seattle tends to get its act together by this time of the year.

Not Knowing Euskara

Just when I felt like I was getting somewhere with my Spanish, I moved to a place where I’m enveloped in Euskara! While in the big cities, there’s much more Spanish spoken than Basque, where I live, it’s definitely more Basque than Spanish. I’m tempted to start learning the language (I know a whopping 15 words/phrases or so) but they say learning Basque is like learning Japanese…that’s not intimidating at all! Anyway, this is by no means anyone else’s fault but mine.

The People Who Smoke in Bars

Ok, ok, you got me. This one I HATE. I’m really sensitive to cigarette smoke (makes me nauseous and bitchy) and every time I go out, there’s some jerk lighting up inside the bar, like he’s above the law or something. This drives me crazy! I would change this in a heartbeat.

 Photo of Cider House via Johnny Hunter and photo of Basque grandpa by a friend.

Txikifest: Txakolí & Basque Pride in NYC

I'm so pleased to welcome Julia Golden to the blog today! Julia was so gracious to cover the Txikifest event in New York City that happened a couple of weekends ago and indulge in a little bit of Basque culture (and wine!) for me. She writes over at Nowhere to Go But Everywhere about her travels and I love her passion for all things Spain. 

The heat in New York is oppressive and unforgiving. Men wipe their foreheads with handkerchiefs as ladies fan themselves with painted abanicos, unable to speak of anything but the sweat dripping down their backs. The line wraps around the block and is beginning to move slowly. The conversation shifts from complaints about the summer’s first heat wave to excited chattering all around, a musical mix of English, Spanish and Euskara. As the crowd finally shifts, we turn the corner and are greeted by smiling faces and the smell of sizzling food.

Txikifest New York City

“Welcome to Txikifest 2013,” drawls a volunteer in an accent I can’t quite pinpoint, handing us each a glass and shuffling us towards the seemingly endless sea of green bottles. This is my kind of place.

Txakoli bottles

Each year, Alex Raij and Eder Montero, owners of Chelsea’s Txikito and El Quinto Pino and Greenpoint’s La Vara, partner with Basque wineries as well as local chefs to put on Txikifest. A celebration of the culture and pride of Euskadi, the festival highlights the Basque wine,txakolí, from fifteen different wineries by offering generous samples paired with dishes from all over the world. An avid fan of wine in any form, I decided to grab a friend and head down to Chelsea last Sunday to join the fun and sample txakolí for the first time.

Txikifest Volunteers

Txikifest 2013: A Review

The festival is set up like a street fair of sorts with three tented stations, offering an escape from the sun that seems millions of miles closer in the heat of the afternoon. Each station plays host to txakolí from five distinct wineries, all chosen to pair with the dishes being cooked up on the other side of the tent.

Txakoli brand names

Poured from high above like cider to allow it to aerate, generous samples of txakolí fill our glasses and everyone in the thirsty crowd sips it eagerly. I am pleasantly surprised by the taste: light, crisp, refreshing and perfect for a summer day. It goes down so easily, in fact, that I have to hand my glass over for the next wine before I even get a chance to check out the food selection. Luckily txakolí has a lower alcohol content than most wines, or I may not have made it past the first tent!

The Food: Drool-worthy

Bottles of txakoli

Properly hydrated with a few glasses of the sparkling drink, our bellies give a little rumble and we follow our noses to the first table of food. The guys from The Hurricane Club are serving up their version of chili lobster rolls: a fresh take on lobster salad infused with sweet chili peppers, and sandwiched between two slices of buttery bread. I think this is what heaven is like.

lobster sandwich

We savor the tiny sandwiches until they disappear into crumbs, washing them down with the latter part of the five-glass flight. The dryness of the txakolí perfectly compliments the fresh lobster, and for a moment I can picture myself on the beach in San Sebastián enjoying this sigh-inducing combination.

I realize my glass is empty and snap back to reality. On to the next tent! We are treated to a rosé txakolí, a slightly fuller-bodied version of the wine we’ve been enjoying. Taking a cue from our slightly fuzzy vision, we decide to help ourselves to a plate of food before polishing off another glass and turn to find txistorra and fresh bread sizzling away on the grill. The chefs from Txikito tend to the grill, making sure the Basque cured sausage is cooked perfectly.

how to cook txistorra

The sausage is savory, spicy and slightly sweet all at the same time. Paired with the rosé, it is succulent enough to reassure this reformed vegan that meat is, in fact, the way. We mop up the juices with the warm bread as our glasses are filled yet again.

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The afternoon continues on a loop like this; a cycle of wine, finger-licking-good food, and more wine. Our favorite dish is unanimous, selecting a rice noodle crepe with pork Bolognese, so creamy and delicious that we ignore our protesting bellies and split another. Honorable mentions include the pineapple-rubbed pork tacos from La Palapa, and the veal meatball sandwich created by the kind people at Sullivan Street Bakery. Each dish has its own distinct flavors, playing with spices from every corner of the world, but somehow all work extremely well with the light flavor of the txakolí.

The Txakolí Winner

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As far as the wineries go, our favorites hail from the Bizkaia province, though choosing favorites is nearly impossible. Nothing we try is anything but fantastic, with the Berroia coming out on top. It is the smoothest, most refreshing, and pairs amazingly with savory treats.

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The afternoon is closed with cucumber-lime popsicles from La Newyorkina and a txalaparta performance. Traditionally played in celebration of wine or cider making, the Basque instrument is made of wood, is played with wooden sticks and accompanied by an ox horn. The pride was palpable in the players’ wide smiles and cheerful shouts, “Que siempre viva Euskadi! Viva, viva!”

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We wander down Ninth Avenue in a txakolí-induced dream state, forgetting the heat for the first time in days. Out of the hundreds of food and wine festivals in New York, this is certainly the most unique. By pairing a little-known light sparkling wine from a little-known land with local eats, Txikifest celebrates the distinctiveness that the Basque region thrives on in a country famous for flamenco and bullfighting. Raij and Montero have found the perfect stage in Chelsea, a neighborhood that celebrates uniqueness above all else, and succeed in proving that Basque culture and cuisine is well on its way to taking over hearts and palates around the world.

For more information on Txikifest and the txakolís that were featured, check out www.txikifest.com. If you’re in New York and looking for excellent pintxos and txakolí, stop by Txikito or El Quinto Pino!

Julia is a world traveler whose heart belongs to Spain. She is trading in her life in New York for a new one in Madrid come September, following her wanderlust in pursuit of the best wine, music and stories the peninsula has to offer. A sociologist and linguist at heart, she is passionate about immersing herself in new cultures and chronicles her adventures on her blog Nowhere To Go But Everywhere. Be sure to follow here on Twitter and Instagram for real-time updates!