Five Years in Spain: Then & Now

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Last month, my 5-year ‘Spainaversary‘ went by, almost without me noticing. Thankfully I have a little holiday by the name of Columbus Day to remind me. However, instead of Spain invading the Americas, this American invaded Spain. :) 5 years already. ¡Cómo pasa el tiempo! 

I thought it’d be fun to take a walk down memory-lane, and compare that bumbling, awkward and challenging first year to now.

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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

basque txapela

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

White wine

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

The Basque flag

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.

Everything You Need to Know About El Txikiteo

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Pintxos and kalimotxos in San Sebastián

It doesn’t take long after one’s arrival to Basque Country to discover that Basque culture is distinct from Spanish culture. This shouldn’t come as a shock, since historically, Basques and Spanish are different people–but you’ll still find the odd tourist wondering where they could see a flamenco show in Bilbao (not to say it’s not possible, it’s just not at all common like in Andalucía.) 

As I’m nearly 6 months into my new life in Basque Country, I’ve discovered a few cultural traditions that I didn’t experience down in Southern Spain, the first of which is El Txikiteo (also known as Poteo).

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Spanish beer and wine

What is El Txikiteo?

El Txikiteo is the simple act of a group of friends (called a cuadrilla here) getting together to ir de pintxos from bar to bar while drinking small glasses of wine or cider (txikitos), or a small serving of beer (zurito). It’s bar-hopping at it’s finest; sampling delicious local wines and specialties of the region, catching up with friends and family, and getting to try out a varied selection of bars in the area. Since they say that The Basque Country has more bars and restaurants than many European Union countries have as a whole, there’s no shortage of  places to txikitear.

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Grab all the pintxos you want directly from the bar!

When Can You Txikitear?

El Txikiteo is for the midday and evening, from about noon-3pm and 7-11pm.

Deep-fried artichoke, wrapped in bacon.

Deep-fried artichoke, wrapped in bacon.

Where in Spain can you Txikitear?

El Txikiteo is mostly done in The Basque Country, Navarra, La Rioja, Cantabria and in the northern part of Burgos.

Why Txikitear?

El Txikiteo is a social institution that’s designed for friends and family to meet up outside of the home over sips and small bites, before a sit-down meal. While it’s origins are unclear, it’s certain that it was designed to relieve the stresses of daily life!

People off to txikitear in San Sebastián

People off to txikitear in San Sebastián

How to Txikitear

Meet with your friends in one of the many zonas de pintxos; located in every Basque city (and nearly every town too!) You’ll know you’ve found a good one when you see lots of bars packed into a small area, locals with drinks in hand and a bar that’s almost too busy to take your order. Almost.

Often, friends will elect one friend to be in charge of el bote–the money that everyone pools together to ir de pinchos. This guy or gal will be the one responsible for paying the group’s tab in each location.

Then, you’ll head straight to the bar, pluck whatever pintxos tickle your fancy straight off the bar itself, order yourself a txikito or zurito, and throw your napkins to the floor when done. Yes, really! In a few minutes be ready to repeat the process all over again in the next bar…and again, and again. Bar-hopping in Basque Country is fun, fast-paced and not for the faint of heart.

De pinchos en Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

De pinchos en Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

My favorite places to Txikitear:

Bilbao

  • Calle del Maestro García Rivero
  • Calle Licenciado Pozas
  • Plaza Nueva (in the Casco Viejo)
  • Calle Somera (also in the Casco Viejo)

San Sebastián

  • Calle 31 de Agosto
  • Calle Pescadería
  • Barrio de Gros
  • Anywhere in the Parte Vieja!

Vitoria

  • Calle Eduardo Dato
  • Plaza España