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On Foot in Basque Country

Ancient villages and 'new cuisine' on a walking tour along the spine of the Pyrenees

August 06, 2000|KATHRYN WILKENS | Kathryn Wilkens is a freelance writer based in Upland

BILBAO, Spain — Our Basque guide, Joserra, took yellow ribbon from his pack and tied it onto a tree branch. Our small band of hikers looked quizzically at one another. "What are you doing that for?" I asked him.

"I want to try a shortcut," he said. "If it doesn't work, after you kill me, you can find your way back to the road by following these ribbons." We followed him trustingly as he led us through a dark forest, then across an alpine meadow covered with wildflowers. Within an hour we were back on the main trail, making homicide unnecessary.

My husband, Ralph, and I had come to the Basque country (known as Euskal Herria in the Basque language) in June for a weeklong walking tour. We'd seen enough European cities on previous trips; we wanted to visit the countryside and villages of this land that, in an area smaller than New Hampshire, comprises seven provinces: three in France and four in Spain.

A friend had sent us a brochure for a tour operator called Country Walkers, and we were intrigued by an itinerary that would take us from Bilbao to the Pyrenees mountains on the southwestern border of France, then south to Spain's Ebro Valley, then back north to the Bay of Biscay.

According to Joserra (whose full name is Jose Ramon Combarro), this region should be called Basqueland because it's not really a country. It is a land defined by the ancient language, distinct physical traits and cultural heritage of its people. The Basques have been known for fishing, herding and farming; they have given the world such things as jai alai, salt cod (called bacalao) and berets. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of Catholicism's Jesuit Order, hailed from here.

These days there has been a resurgence in the Basque language, and the area is becoming known for nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cuisine) and for art. The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum alone has transformed Bilbao.

We spent two days in Bilbao before the tour convened, staying at the elegant, French-inspired Hotel Carlton. We walked a few blocks to the magnificent Guggenheim, which opened in 1997. The museum is like a huge sculpture in glass, stone and metal, and the views of the city and the Nervion River are as impressive as the art.

That night I sampled two renowned Basque cod dishes, bacalao al pil-pil and bacalao a la vizcaina, at Matxinbenta Restaurant. Both were excellent, but I preferred the vizcaina's red pepper sauce over the pil-pil, which is an emulsification of olive oil and gelatin from the fish.

The next morning we met Joserra and our other guide, Mikel del Reguero, as well as our fellow walkers. We clambered onto a bus, which carried us less than two hours across the French border to the lovely village of Sare (pronounced sarr), nestled in the Pyrenees a few miles from the beaches of Biarritz.

We warmed up with a three-mile walk through a forest of oak and chestnut, emerging to views of rolling pastureland. The intense green meant frequent rainfall, and I wondered if we would escape it in the next six days. For now, though, it was sunny and warm.

Later we met in the hotel's garden. Joserra said we would gather each day at 8 a.m. for breakfast and set out on our walks by 8:45. Hikes would average about seven miles, more downhill than up, and we would carry a lunch prepared by the hotel. We would meet each night at 8:30 to learn the next day's itinerary, then eat together. I looked around at the other participants, all Americans: one 13-year-old boy and 12 adults whose ages, I guessed, spanned four decades. Would we blend together as a group?

The Hotel Arraya in Sare is a 16th century house, described as a maze by the host, who showed us to our antique-filled room and handed us the heavy iron key. A gift boutique near the lobby featured linens emblazoned with the talismanic Basque cross, or laburua, which looks like a curvaceous four-leaf clover. I began to see it everywhere, including the tombstones in the churchyard across the street.

Dinner that night at our hotel demonstrated the best of Basque cuisine: menestre, a medley of miniature vegetables topped with morsels of ham, followed by duck confit in a cloak of crisp, thin potatoes and mushroom sauce. Dessert was chocolate mousse cake, lemon custard and sorbet served in a cookie shell--not a choice, but all three.

Our first long hike started on a hill in the Pyrenees near Lizarrieta Pass, a few miles from Sare. We walked uphill under a hot sun through open meadows, hearing a symphony of bells from horses, sheep and goats nearby. The path was steep. Looking up, I saw what appeared to be three cloaked men huddling on a rock, so I asked Mikel about them. "Those aren't men," he said, "they're griffin vultures." He clapped his hands and the massive birds took to the sky, making unhurried circles above.

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