Friday, December 24, 2010

It's time for a blog

After not writing for so many weeks, I felt it appropriate to write a little blog to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  So far this year has felt like the most Christmasy of my now 3 years of holidays in Europe.  The previous two years the local government didn't put up Christmas decorations or lights due to the recession and this year they decided to break them out and deck the streets.  Now every main street sports lights on the tree-lined streets and a few decorated Christmas trees dot the town's plazas. 

To make it more festive we somehow got blessed with some snow a few weekends back.  Joseba and I went to our favorite mountain where we normally go hiking and played around in the snow for a few hours, like little kids who have never seen snow!  With such a sunny day, the crisp air wasn't too cold, but the wind that whipped around the moutain made for some sharp ice crystals that poked through our jackets and sometimes made walking almost impossible.  On a mission to do our normal hike to the top, we eventually turned back because we came to a corner and it seemed that each time we tried to make it around the bend the snow blasted in our faces.  Although we didn't make it, we were happy with the gorgeous views and photos we got.  It's not often you see the snow and the beach at the same time!  Between snow angels and snowball fights, we considered our playtime as preparation...because on the 27th we are heading to Copenhagen and Stockholm to ring in the New Year, Scandinavian style. 

The past few days have been all hustle and bustle.  Between arts and crafts with the students and watching Christmas movies, I felt quite festive.  Can you believe I was able to download Mickey Mouse's Christmas Carol, Frosty the Snowman and Ruldolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!  I was estatic!  The kids loved them as well, but I am sure I was the happiest in the room :)  It feels so much more like Christmas when I watch those movies!  Now with no work, I have been running around, buying some extra sweaters (it's probably going to be around -4º in Denmark and Sweden!) and last night made a cheesecake while rocking out to Christmas music.  I will bring the cheesecake to the Christmas Eve dinner I have tonight with Joseba and his family and then tomorrow we will celebrate Christmas Day again with his family and more extended family too.  Although it's not my USA family, it will be nice to be with family on Christmas. 

Today, I stepped outside while taking a break from decorating the cake and wrapping presents to go buy a tasty breakfast treat and while outside saw the Olentzero parade.  Instead of Santa, as you may remember from a blog two years ago, the Basque's have Olentzero - a miner who comes down from the mountain to leave Christmas presents.  While we send letters to the North Pole, some of my students told me that in the days before Christmas they go to the mountain and leave notes in certain rocks that thier parents tell them Olentzero passes on the way down to the villages.  I guess whether it's Santa or not, kids love to write the letters!  Another funny difference is that I found that while we leave milk and cookies for Santa, the kids here leave Santa/Olentzero cookies and WINE!  I'm sure the parents suggest that idea haha.

Off to finish preparing, but I wish you a very Merry Christmas.  Yet another holiday spent across the pond, but no less Christmas cheer.  I wish only the same for you all!

Merry Christmas!  Eguberri On!  Feliz Navidad!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Life without it possible?

Living here, I have become quite accostumed to good wine.  Just a stone's throw away sits the famous Spanish wine region - La Rioja, so a good bottle of wine doesn't really cost more than 3€ or 4€ ($5 or $6).  When we go out for pintxos or take strolls around town and stop in at a bar to warm up, we normally order a wine.  Funny thing is that it costs MORE for a bottle of water here than a glass of wine.  It's like they WANT you to drink the wine, which I buy into easily.  In my apartment, we normally share bottles of wine during the week and usually have a glass each during dinner.  It's a part of life here and has become a part of my life too, but unfortunatley this week...its not!

This week I have a doctor's prescription which highly advises that I don't drink alcohol - or else I might end up puking everywhere.  So, for 10 days, I am not allowed a single drop of wine!  Unbelievable.  It's not really THAT bad, but I guess it makes me take a step back and appreciate the delicious wine I am so accustomed to.  Recognized as the Premier Wine Region in Spain, the Rioja region has been home to vineyeards since the 11th century BC when the Phoenicians settled in the area after traveling up the Ebro River.  Centuries later, the Romans conquered the area and started setting up bodegas all around to supply and sustain the troops.  I read that a 75,000 liters (19,813 gallons) container was unearthed in the region...obviously proving the Romans had some pretty thirsty soldiers!

The reputation of Rioja wine grew in the Middle Ages as pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago trekked through the region on thier way to Santiago, Spain.  When in la Rioja, they of course tested various wines.  With its growing popularity, the wine-makers started to look for ways to spread thier product around and begin shipping bottles to the Basque Country.  Being a very important port area, Rioja wines were able to reach Dutch and English wine merchants, and so the popularity for Spanish wine began to grow.

Once wine-makers learned of oak aging barrels, the shelf-life of the wine was stretched.  This made it possible for the grape juice to find its way all the way to Cuba and Central America.  When epidemics hit Galician and Bordeaux bodegas, the Rioja region capitalized on the situation and supplied the high wine demand with thier wines.

After such a great period of success the Rioja was depleted of any vines after WWII when the country was famished and the government ordered the grapes to be replaced with wheat to feed the Spainairds.  Finally, in the 1960s, the vines were replanted and the wine-makers began to experiment with aging, grapes, etc and made a new and improved Rioja wine, that I happen to appreciate every time I take a sip.

Knowing all this, it really makes you want to have a nice glass of wine no?  Well, you guys go ahead...and I will too, in 10 days! 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bits of Basque

As you know, I signed up this year to learn Basque - one of the so-called most difficult languages in the world to learn.  It's coming along and I feel I am picking it up quite well.  I can feasibly read some things and recognize vocabulary all over town, but am still of course embarassed to speak! 

I go to class with my roommate and we study together from time to time, but I have also bought an extra book of activities that I do on my own and when I see Joseba he corrects them and we go over them together.  Two weeks ago, when I was learning how to say things like 'This is a pencil.  That's a door.  That's not a window, that's a table.' we did some oral practicie - him asking me about things and me having to answer.  The best was when he asked me 'Is this a language school?' and my answer should have been 'No, this isn't a language school, its a house' but in the end, it was both haha!  It makes me laugh, because they are such elemental things, yet I get so excited when I learn a new vocabulary word or can say a more complicated phrase.  I guess that makes me a geek huh?

I am so into it that I have even made myself some flashcards for the vocabulary words.  Seeing as I have a 45-minute bus ride both to and from work, I try to use the time wisely and quiz myself on the bus.  It makes the journey go a bit quicker!

I was passing over my notes today on the bus and realized that for only a month and a few days, I have learned quite a lot.  Not only vocab and grammar, but also some things of the language that I found interesting that I thought you guys might like to learn about.  So here goes...

Days of the Week (aste):
M - Astelehena (translation = first of the week)
T - Asteartea (translation = middle of the week)
W - Asteazkena (translation = last of the week)
Th - Osteguna  F - Ostirala  S - Larunbata  Su - Igandea
So, as you see the first three days of the Basque week follow a pattern.  We learned that this is because before Romans tooks over the area, Basques believed in a 3-day week.  The 4 other days were merely added to keep up with the Joneses. 

Basque numbers go in quite different way than our numbers.  Until 29, the numbers go regularly.  However when you get to 30, instead of having a specific number for 30, you say 20 and 10.  For 31 it would be 20 with 11.  Making sense?  I think its quite difficult.  Here, I'll attempt to show you a little of what I mean.
1 - bat, 2 - bi, 3- hiru, 4 - lau..............10 - hamar
11 - hamaika, 12 - hamabi, 13 - hamahiru, 14 - hamalau
20 - hogei, 21 - hogeitabat, 22 - hogeitabi, 23 - hogeitahiru
30 - hogeita hamar,  31 - hogeita hamaika, 32 - hogeita hamabi
40 - here it changes for the next 20 numbers - berrogei, 41 - berrogeita bat, 42 - berrogeita bi

Kind of see a pattern?  I totally underSTAND it but let me tell you, I find it quite hard and always do a little stuttering when someone asks me to say 76 or 92 or some big number! 

Word Formation:
aberatsa = rich -- loosely translated to mean the one who has the animal.  Because this is quite an old language, the people who used to have the animals were the wealthy ones.  Now spoken in the 21st century, some words still show how old language really is.

idaz = word -- from this we get two jobs.  The first is idazlea which translates to mean a fan of words (like being a fan of baseball...but instead, words).  If you're a big fan of words, that makes you a writer!  The other job with this word is idazkaria which means someone who works with words - which becomes a secretary!  As you can see, the suffix changes the word - which is something I am slowly learning to accept.

Basque is just like English
One of the very few things that I can relate from English to Basque is the possessive.  In Spanish, they don't have this 's function like we do.  Steve's book, Laura's car, etc.  Instead, in Spanish you must say the book of Steve or the car of Laura, which gets lengthy.  To my surprise, Basque works like English in this sense.  At the end of someone's name, you put the suffix -ren and it means the same as 's.  For example:
Liburua Steveren da.   or    Kotxe Lauraren da.  or   Hazel Amandaren amona da. 
Granted, the word order is much different, but hooooray something that me, the one English speaker in class can relate to! 

Well, after my flashcards on the bus, my homework when I got back and now this blog, I am Basque-ed out.  In 8 1/2 hours I have class, so I think I will close out this blog and rest up for more Euskera!  But, before I go, I will leave you with a little saying we learned in class:  'Eroriz ikasten da oinez' which means 'you can only learn to walk by falling down'.  One month in, I am still falling down of course - more like tripping all over the place - but am happily in the process of learning this language!

Muxu bat! (A kiss)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Exte berria (The New House)

Although I have lived in my new apartment for over a month, I am just now getting around to posting the photos for you guys to see, and putting up my new address.  The apartment is great!  I started looking with a friend, after sort of realizing that the past two years I have lived here, I never have lived with a friend.  I was always so happy in Arizona and New York with my roommates and liked being at home.  I hadn't had that feeling since I moved to Spain and decided the best remedy was to move in with people I liked and chose to live with.  That said, I now live with my friend Nerea, from a nearby town.  She moved in and we started looking for a nice roommate for the 3rd bedroom.  After ladies who were 40, Americans who couldn't speak a lick of Spanish (Nerea speaks no English) and a bunch of boys calling, we finally found a nice 26-year old ballet teacher from Barcelona. 
We all get along great and most evenings drink wine and watch TV or do our homework together.  Monste (the Barcelona roommate) and I go to Basque classes together, so we study together a lot!  The house feels like a regular apartment to me now - and finally I feel comfortable being at home, such a relief.

Of the 3 bedrooms, I have the exterior one, with a window that lets in a lot of light.  For the occasion of having a flat with people I like, I went all out and finally  bought new sheets, instead of the hand-me-downs I have been using for two years.  My theory the past two years is that I shouldn't spend money on sheets if I am only going to stay a short time.  But now, I admit it to myself, I plan on being here a long time, so I went ahead and bought some sheets.  It makes it feel much more like it is 'my' room.

The best part of the entire apartment is the living area.  Called an 'American Kitchen' in Spanish, the kitchen, dining room and living room are all one room.  Typical for us to see, this set-up is quite unheard of in Spain, so I am happy we found one. 

Back again in Gros, my neighborhood from before, I feel right back at home - with my favorite grocery store, bakery, paper shop, corner store, bars, etc.  The funniest is that I used to live on San Francisco street and now I do again, just a few blocks up the street from my old apartment.  Here is my new address:

c/ San Francisco 42, 2º-2
20002 Donostia - San Sebastian
Guipuzcoa, España - Spain

Sorry for the long delay, but glad I could finally write a blog about my happy home life!



Saturday, October 16, 2010

Amongst the peaks...Part 3

After being rained out the first day of hiking, we were very much looking forward to the Ruta de Cares - which is a path that follows the River Cares through the deep gorge that the water made thousands of years ago.  One of the most popular hikes in Picos, we were pumped and jumped in the car to race to the starting point.  However, when we put in the starting point (the city Cain) in the GPS, we were sad to find out it was 1.5 hours away, and so begin the drive to the hike.

Although long, the drive was beautiful.  With hillls carpeted in trees, we were lucky enough to be in the park at the exact time that the leaves had started to change.  The result was a gorgeous pallet of harvest oranges, muted greens, rustic browns and sometimes bright reds (that one's always my favorite to see).  Going only about 30 or 40 miles per hour, the curvy road sometimes looked as if it were going to go off the edge but then quickly we would make a sharp turn and continue driving along the steep rocks looking out at the landscape.

We arrived in Cain and laced up our hiking boots (mine, which I bought 3 days before and only cost 14€ woo hoo!).  The hike started with a control house of the hyrdoelectrical project that was created in in the 40s.  Years of geological work made the river but man harnessed the water's power from the river that connects two Spanish provinces (Leon and Asturias).  After passing by the control house we entered a narrrow and low-hanging cave, or more a series of small tunnels.  Thankfully, I am short and didn't worry too much about hitting my head, but it was quite comical to see the tall people crunching down and walking.  With dripping water, I was also lucky to be wearing a hat.  As you will see in most of the photos, I sport a winter hat that Joseba bought when he was trekking in Peru.  I kind of stole it, so now it's mine because I like it so much :)

In the small breaks between the caves, we were able to gaze down in the gorge and were quite surprised at how turquoise blue some areas of water seemed.  To me it looked as if we were on a tropical island hiking instead of hiking between slabs of massive limestone wearing fleeces and hats!  Being the most popular hike in the Peaks, the tunnels were crowded but it gave us an idea of what it might have been like in pre-historic times to take the trek from Cain to Poncebos (our finishing city). 

Emerging from the moist caves, the path became more simple, a medium-size gravel way hugging the wall.  From time to time we could hear a loose rock fall off the path into the Divine Gorge as they call it here.  Don't worry, I didn't go too close to the edge - I left that to Joseba, so he could take some good photos!  Continuing along the path we came in contact with the Goat King of the mountain.  Perched atop a rock that hung out over the gorge, we sat regally on his perch while his goat friends (or maybe his followers) rambled about the path.  Not as scary of an incident as the bull the day before, we allowed ourselves to take a few moments and have a photo shoot of him - and he loved it!  It was if he were posing! 

We kept on, paralleling the man-made canal that operates the hydroelectic powerhouse, and eventually crossed a small bridge that connected the province of Leon into Asturias.  Kind of like crossing state lines, but instead of driving across the border, we stepped across, with a small waterfall to mark the crossing.  From Leon we couldn't see how beautiful the canal we had been walking along had been, but from the other side of the wall in Asturias, we were able to see the arches that followed the route above and with the gaping gorge below, it was a stunning view. 

All tour books say the first hour or so of the hike, starting in Cain, is the most beautiful with its narrow walkways and the tunnels, so since we had passed this part already we were now enjoying the vast openeness of the gorge and from time to time a passing animal or a tree losing its leaves.  More than halfway, we decided to eat lunch and picked a fantastic spot.  Sitting on the poncho, we sat on the edge of the pathway, our feet dangling over the nothingness below.  Sandwiches (turkey, sausage and mozzerela - quite delicious) in hand we peered out at the landscape.  Something that I found somewhat surprising is that many people, as they walked by and saw us eating, said 'buen aprovecho' which means enjoy your meal.  I thought to myself...if I were hiking in the States would I tell someone to enjoy thier meal if I passed them?  Probably not, I would probably just say hello.  A random thought, but it made me smile.  Ohhhh how I adore this country.
After lunch and hiking a bit more, we turned around and did the same hike back, but this time with a different perspective.  Funny thing was that we passed almost the exact same people as when we were walking to Poncebos because walking from Poncebos to Cain and back or Cain to Poncebos and back are both very popular and since it can be done in about 4 hours, a lot of people do it.  We said lots of 'holas' and from time-to-time and 'aupa' (which is sort of like hey in Euskera) when we came across a group of Basques.  Avid outdoorsmen the Basques are, Joseba could not only tell a Basque from a few feet away by thier face and hair, but also by thier clothes.  I guess there are certain clothes brands that Basques wear more than other people, so its a giveaway when you see someone.  Because I went shopping with Joseba at the local sporting goods store and bought similar brands of clothes to his (because he is quite a hiking fan and knows good brands for the sport), I even got some 'Aupa'!  Can you believe it!?

Back in Cain we stopped for a hot coffee and a small break to look over the photos we had just taken.  All stunning!  Luckily the fog from the day before had left and provided us with a quite sunny day, but as we headed home it rolled in again.  We didn't mind much though, since we had just finished a great day of hiking!

The good weather quickly changed bad on Monday and instead of hiking in non-stop rain we took some time to check out Cangas de Onis - the city we were staying in.  Of course we had went to dinner and walked around a bit in town before, but with the rain we focused more on being tourists than hiking. 

Our first experience of the city was 'El Abuelo', a restaurant recommended to us by the clerk in our hotel.  With a Menu of the Day for only 10€, it was a bargain and the clerk told us it was also quite tasty food.  Our first night in Cangas we went to a bar for some Asturian cider and some tapas (as they call them in Spain - you probably are more used to me saying pintxos).  However, the next 3 nights that we were in Cangas we ONLY went to El Abuelo. 

El Abuelo (grandfather in Spanish) actually exists too - a cute old man with peppered grey hair and black glasses with a blue checkered shirt - just like on his menu.  While the food was delicious and the rice pudding dessert was scrumptous, the thing I liked most was the cider-pouring contraption they had at the restaurant.  Sold in most of the souveiner shops in the town, an old grandpa holds a bottle above his head and when you press the button and put your glass in his other hand, a stream of cider squirts out into your cup!  In this area (as well as in the Basque Country), they pour the cider holding the bottle high above thier head and somehow manage to get it into the cup.  Although we ordered wine at the restaurant I never tired of watching someone press the button - and oddly enough, the grandpa was a spitting image of the cider-pouring man.  It made me wonder if he cut his hair and got glasses just to match his cider machines haha.

On the topic of food we were also lucky enough to be in Cangas de Onis during not one but two food festivals - a cheese festival and a honey festival!  After one day of hiking we passed the large tent that had been set up in the center of town to try some of the famous cheese from this area - queso de cabrales.  Kind of like a blue cheese, it is made with the milk from a morning milking and a night milking of the cows, goats and sheep.  After the curd is formed the cheese is put in a mold and kept at a very hot temperature for a few days.  Next, the cheese is placed in the caves of the area (Asturias is famous for its numerous caves).  With 90% humidity and temperatures from 40º-50º, the cheese is left for two to four months covered with wet maples leaves until it is ready to eat.  A creamy blue-cheese, I was surprised I thought it was good, because I am not the biggest blue cheese fan.  We passed a restaurant and ordered a plate of french fries covered with cabrales cheese and although tasty it was quite heavy, due to the richness of the cheese - but yummy nonetheless.  Besides this famous cheese, there were also various others types of cheese for our testing pleasure.  Free to the public, we even got to participate in the cheese associations ranking table - where we ranked 4 cheeses on thier appearance, aroma, cut, taste, texture, etc.  Such experts we are!  We of course couldn't spend an hour testing cheese without buying any and in the end bought a light creamy cow cheese, a hard dry sheep cheese and a soft and rich goat/sheep cheese mix.  That sure brought an aroma to the car on the drive home!

The honey festival was not as exciting but still gave us a chance to try some homemade honeys and in the end we bought one that was made with eucalyptus for the sore throats we will have once it starts getting chilly here.  Besides giving us a place to gobble down cheese and honey, Cangas de Onis was also a cute little town to walk around in.  Founded in 718 by Pelayo (that Spanish King who won the battle at Covadonga from last blog), Cangas de Onis used to be the capital of the Spanish Kingdom, so as you can imagine it has quite a lot of history.  Before Pelayo, Romans ruled the area and although long gone, thier mark still remains with the famous Roman footbridge that has been rebuilt to reflect how it was in the Middle Ages.  Hanging from the center of the bridge is the Cross of Victory with Roman letters. 

I wish I could say I hiked more on this trip that I ate but I think its opposite.  Between the cheese, honey, tapas and dinners at El Abuelo, we ate quite well.  The hikes were spectacular and we have already decided that we will come back another time, stay on the other side of Picos and do other great hikes.  So...maybe next year you will read another blog about the Picos de Europa!


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Amongst the peaks...Part 2

After a spectacular first day with gorgeous sweeping views from the lookout point and the feeling of rushing down the ice cold mountain river, Joseba and I headed off towards the mountain to do some hiking - what Picos de Europa is famous for.  Divided into three areas, we were staying in a town called Cangas de Onis, which is on the west side of the mountain range, so we looked into doing hikes in that area and in the central region.

Our first hike took us up a winding road to the town of Covadonga.  If you remember from the last blog, the entire Picos de Europa National Park started as the Montaña de Covadonga park!  This small town was where we parked and took a bus up a twisting road to the Lakes of Covadonga - Lakes Enol and Ercina.  Known simply as 'The Lakes' in this area, we caught a glimpse of the first (Ercina) from the window as the bus wrapped around 180º corners and slowed down for cows crossing the street.  We were dropped off at the second lake but in the end made our way back to Lago Ercina because we had a gorgeous hike in mind from there.  As we stepped onto the dewey grass, the fog was lowset and we were worried we wouldn't even be able to find the path, let alone follow it.  Quickly though, the fog lifted and we snapped a quick photo of us in our adorable hiking outfits and with the stunning lake background and then headed up the grassy slope towards La Vega de Ario. 
Along the way we passed countless cows with large rectangular bells around thier necks, that eat time they ate rang loudly.  With huge herds of tan-colored cows eating at the same time, while hiking it sounded as if windchimes were echoing through the mountains.  Along with cows, there are also some long-lost herds of sheep and shephards that still roam the Picos, some of the last of thier trade in Spain.  We didn't have the opportunity to meet Mary and her lambs or Little Boy Blue, but did come face-to-face with a bull.  Luckily, sporting purple/black and blue/black, Joseba and I managed not to flash any red in the bull's face and gingerly walked through the pasture, dodging at the same time huge piles of cow poop with scattered rabbit poop in between. 
About an hour into the hike, it started to sprinkle, which didn't bother us one bit.  We threw on the raincoats (and Joseba a poncho so he could carry the backback under it) and kept on trekking.  But, the rain got harder and harder and after taking cover under a large tree for a granola-bar break, we decided it would be smartest if we turned back so our shoes wouldn't get too wet we couldn't use them the next day.  When we were maybe 30 minutes from the starting point, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun decided to grace us with its prescence.  Torn between turning around again or just heading back to Covadonga, we took advantage of the sun with a bunch of photos, and left the Vega de Ario for a different trip.  Looking online at photos now, I see we didn't miss too much and I think we made the right decision to bask in the sun rays while we had them - giving us time to admire the fog creep across the mountain tops, making the lone house that stood there disappear. 
While the rain had stopped and we made it back to the bus stop safely, the fog had quickly rolled in.  While on the bus on the way down, the fog made it almost impossible to see 20 feet in front of the bus.  Luckily, the drivers do this trip a million times a day and know the curves like the backs of thier hands.  Although we only hiked for 2 hours, we took the short bus trip as an excuse to have a little siesta. 

In Covadonga, before going back to the car, we just HAD to see the main attractions - the massive church atop a hill and a small chapel built into a cave hanging mid-air.  This town not only houses two beautiful worshipping places, but also a lot of Spanish history.  In 722, the Christians of Iberia beat the Moors that controlled the area - which started the Reconquista of expeling the Moors from the Iberian pennisula.  A Marian shrine (a shrine to Mary), named Our Lady of Covadonga was said to be hidden in the caves of the mountain, which helped the Christians with thier success.  The story goes that the leader, Pelayo (the first King of Spain), prayed to the shrine to help win the battle and miraculously the Moorish leader fell and his soldiers fleed from the Christian army, standing at the Caves of Covadonga.  Years later in 1877, the Basilica to Saint Mary of Covadonga began to be built to honor this shrine.  With pink limestone, the neo-romantic church stood majestically against the changing-color trees in the background.  With such a breath-taking view, we couldn't believe our luck that as we reached the top of the hill and were almost ready to enter the church, the chimes struck 4 o'clock and not only did we get to awe at the massivness of the place but also were treated to a couple of minutes of bells ringing amongst the peaks.
From the church we could also see the famous Caves that this place is famous for.  In a wall of pure rock, a small cave tunnel leads from one side of the wall to the center, where a huge hole opens up and lets you gaze out at the world below.  This is where Pelayo had the Marian shrine and where his troops held off the Moors.  Set 131 feet above ground, in 718 it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared.  Since this it has been considered sacred and now houses a small chapel and has been named the Sacred Cave.  Below the cave sits a large grotto whose water runs down the hill and makes for a pretty waterfall a few steps below. 
Finally, we headed back to our wooden hotel to warm up and change to street clothes and then headed out to Cangas de Onis for dinner and a walk around town.  Like responsible young adults we didn't stay out late, knowing full well that since we didn't hike too much today that tomorrow we would need to be full force for our next hike - La Ruta de Cares.  More on that to come in the next blog!


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Amongst the peaks...Part 1

With a 5-day weekend in front of us, Joseba and I spent the last few weeks desperatley trying to find a great deal to somewhere in Scandanavia to spend the vacation days.  In the end, we didn't find anything there (we will save it for another trip) and decided instead on something much closer to home - the Peaks of Europe (or picos de europa as they are called here).

A National Park site of almost 65,000 hectacres, Picos seemed like a great weekend getaway and so Friday morning we jumped in the car and started the 3-hour journey west towards the Spanish province of Asturias.  This famous Park, the largest not only in Spain but also in Europe, was originally the first National Park in the country.  Starting as a small park area around the Mountain Covadanga in 1918, it only recently (1995) became as big as it is known now.  And, its so named they say because it is the first things sailors see when approaching Spain from the sea. 

We chose to stay in a town called Cangas de Onis, which is quite popular in the area and allowed us access to good trails, as well as neighboring towns and various activities.  Joseba and his researching skills secured us a good hotel deal that came with a kayak ride down the River Sella - one of the rivers that snakes through the gorges of the Picos.  When we arrived to our hotel - La Posade del Monasterio - we were shown to our rustic room.  In a stone building, on the top floor, our room was beautiful with its wooden floors, handmade nighttables and wardrobe alongside a half-stone half-mustard painted walls all under the wooden slanted roof that had a large skylight the let us gaze at the blue sky.  We would have been happy to take a quick siesta but hurried off to paddles ourselves down the river.
In Arriondas, the starting point city of the kayak trip, we suited up - me in a swimsuit and tshirt and Joseba in his wetsuit and a tshirt and grabbed our paddles and headed down to the river.  After a extremely fast explanation of how to row correctly the guy gave us our container with our lunches and we stuffed the camera and cell phone in and bobbed into the water.  Joseba kayaks quite often and so I wasn't quite worried that I had zero experience.  With me in front and Joseba behind, we floated quickly down the river, carefully making sure we were counting the four bridges we needed to pass before the end of our 10 kilometer (6 miles) trip where the guy was waiting for us. 

With the blue sky above (which was slowly getting cloudy), we made no effort to rush and instead took in the gorgeous scenery.  Along the way, Joseba taught me the correct way to row, we stopped for our chorizo sandwiches and tuna empanadas and took some fun photo sessions - one in which Joseba is staning on the kayaking rowing and kind of looks like a Native American rowin a canoe.  Because I'm not yet a kayaking pro, I kept pouring the water after rowing on my left all over my clothes and hair.  By the end of the 3 hour trip my entire left side was soaked and my arms were a bit sore. We rode back to the starting point in a van with the boss who recommended us some good places to go after we showered and dressed to take advantage of the good weather while we still had it.

So, our next stop was the Mirador del Fitu - a viewing area atop a mountain not far from where we kayaked.  From here, we could not only see the stretching mountains but also the ocean and the small villages scattered throughout the valley floor.  With the clouds rolling in, the sun only managed to shine on the peaks of the highest mountains, giving a shadow effect to the rest of the range that was breath-taking.  From one far-off village, we could make out one stone house with a fire going and the smoke rising into the air, colliding with the standing fog. 

With night making its way, we decided to take the winding road back down and along the way were accompanied  by a group of goats crossing the road and a cow eating the grass along the side of the road.  With the next day in mind we ate a hearty dinner and went to bed relatively early so we could be ready for a day of hiking.  Nestled in our wood cabin with the covers pulled tight, we happily went to sleep after a great first day of vacation.

I'm writing this on Tuesday night, and we just arrived today, so I am quite tired, so will only leave you with our first day activities.  More to come on the subsequent adventures soon!


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hiking to a party...a Basque pastime!

Sidenote:  This blog was meant to be published about a month ago...but since we didn't have internet yet at my new apartment, I kept forgetting to publish it when I went to internet cafes.  So, while it is outdated, I thought you still might like it.

While you have read of my crazy hikes in the past month, the recent hike Joseba and I did was one with a party as the destination.  You might remember me writing about a mountain named Ernio, where we trekked up to the peak of a mountain half-covered in fog.  Ring a bell?  Well, this weekend we headed back, but not just for the hike, but for a Basque festival atop a mountain!

Each Sunday in the month of September, Basques from all over hike up the mountain and celebrate the fiesta which honors this old pilgrimage route.  Dressed all in hiking clothes, everyone gathers at two buildings on a flat grassy area.  Blessed with a cloudless day, we were able to fully enjoy the day and all it brought - which for any Basque party means food, drink, dance and music.

After the hike up, hungry tummies are happy to eat sandwiches with chorizo (sausage) or bacon (which I thought was kind of an odd sandwich option, but was happy to eat it).  To drink, Basque cider is always on hand, but we opted for the chicken broth drink, which is typical on cold hiking days.  While it was sunny, the brisk mountain breeze called for the warm drink.  As a dessert, I tried roskillos, a Basque cookie that kind of reminded me of a wafter covered with a sweet meringue frosting.  We arrived quite early to try and beat the crow, which was pointless, but after we finished eating, the festive live music started which always prompts anyone who knows a traditional Basque dance to rush towards the dance circle and show off thier toe-tapping moves.  I don't know any dances, but am completely entertained watching.  The moves, while they appear to be easy little hops, are so quick that it looks like the women are running from a scurrying mouse, while hopping, clapping and snapping thier fingers above thier heads while turning around all the the beat of the music, which on this occasion consisted of two singers, a tamborine and an accordian.

While we stayed where the party was happening, a good amount of people climb to the peak.  With a narrow path, the way up and down looks like a constant stream of people, and although we didn't go up, the people we talked with told us it was packed up there!  Atop the mountain, the trek becomes more sacred - with the crosses dotting the peak.  Also, before the last few meters to the top, stands a large steel cross with several metal rings hanging from it.  It is said that if you pass your body through the metal rings, that you will be free of illness for the year to come.  Along with that, besides the spectacular view,those who make it to the top get a small token to remember the trek - three ribbons and a bell pinned together to display on your best hiking shirt.  The ribbons are of course red, green and white - the colors of Euskadi (Basque Country).

Even as we hiked down the mountain back home, I could still make out the music and the occasional hearty laugh of an old Basque man echoing in the wind.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Euskera ikasten dut

After two years, I have finally decided to sign up for...Basque!  Called Euskera by the Basque-speakers, I will start Monday morning and have class this year 3 days a week for 2 hours each day.  I am hoping with that amount of Euskera,  I will leave the class in June being able to say atleast something similar to a sentence. 

With an unknown history, this language isn't similar to any other language in Europe.  Some theories state that Euskera is part of the Dene-Caucasic family - which includes languages like Turkish, Siberian and some languages from Eastern Asia.  Other theories presume that since Basques are mentioned and Euskera words are written in the Roman texts found in Aquitaine that this language existed way before the Middle Ages.  More of a spoken language than a written one, the first book on file written in Euskera only dates back to 1545.  The language has remained alive due to talking...and let me tell you - the Basques can talk your ear off.

While passing down the language is how it has survived, only a mere 750,000 Basque speakers in Basque Country - from a total of 2.5 million inhabitants.  Maybe by the end of year, the number will be 750,001!  haha.  The county where I live, Guipuzcoa, has the highest percentage of bilingual (Spanish and Basque) speakers with 53%. 

The challenge I forsee in trying to be trilingual is the fact that since Euskera existed before any of this Indo-European languages, is that it is completely unrelated.  I mean, with Spanish if I wrote Mi nombre es Amanda you would basically understand that I am saying my name - due the similarity in the Latin roots of both languages.  In Euskera however, My name is Amanda comes out like this Amanda dut izena.  Don't even ask me to pronounce it yet!  But while Latin languages usually have a similar word order, the Basque language is opposite - so that sentence would be Amanda I have name.  Quite difficult, and that's just introducing myself!

To complicate matters more, the Euskera I will learn is called Euskera Batua (meaning United Basque) - which is what is taught in the Basque language schools and is a general teaching of the language because each town and province speaks Euskera a little differently.  For example, the Basque I will learn is very proper and clean, whereas the Basque Joseba speaks is more 'worn in' and is spoken the same by everyone in Orio and the surrouding area.  A quick example - to say goodnight, I will learn ondo lo egin in class.  But I have already learned this phrase from Joseba, who taught me how they say it there - ondoloin.  So you can see, they cut out letters, don't pronounce everything, etc.  I have already warned him, that when I am practicing he MUST practice the one I am learning, otherwise I will screw it up even more!  He is tickled pink that I am even attempting to learn and promises to practice the Euskera Batua with me.  

Funny thing is that I will learn this clean, proper Basque and a lot of native Basque speakers, who grew up speaking Euskera, can't speak the Euskera I will learn.  Bahhhhh!  How will I survive?!  For example, my roommate, Nerea, has been speaking Euskera since she could speak (she told me learning Spanish was a big struggle for her).  However, although she has tried, she hasn't been able to pass the Euskera Batua Exam that is given in Basque Country for the language certificate that states you speak proper Euskera.  If someone speaking Euskera for 23 years can't pass, I imagine I will have to study a lot to be able to pass it someday.  The Batua was only created in 1968, when the Basques realized they needed to somehow standardize thier dialects.  Before this time, if you bought a book in my county, a person from a neighboring county probably couldn't even read it because the Basque would have been so different.  Now, books published in Basque are printed in Euskera Batua.  Same with the Basque news channels, radio, etc. 

I already know it is a long road ahead of me, to learn what is considered to be one of the four most difficult languages in the world (I think that list also includes Finnish, Gaelic and Hungarian), but I am very excited to start.  I plan to stay here for a long time, and while everyone speaks Spanish fine, I would like to show some respect to the Basque Country by attempting to speak thier historic language. 

But, while I'm looking forward to learning, I'm also quite nervous!  It's a completely foreign idea to me and I have my fingers crossed that I get a class with nice people - because not only am I learning Basque, but still perfecting my Spanish!  I think the maximum number of students per class is 8 at the euskaltegi where I signed up - so I assume it will be quite an intimate learning haven.  Euskaltegi means Basque language center.  The name of mine is called Hitzez - which I recently found out means 'For words'.  Hitz means word and ez and the end of a word means for.  Similar to German in a sense, to make a sentence more complex or a verb more descriptive, they add letters to the end.  For example house is exte.  If you want to say 'the house' you have to add and 'a' so it comes out as extea.  Please, send me your best wishes for this, because I think I will need quite a bit of positive thinking to weather this language!

Anyways, wanted to update everyone on what's new in my life recently.  School has started, and this year I actually have a private adult student starting English from scratch and a group of middle-age ladies starting English from scratch too.  Since I will be starting a new language from zero also, I think it will not only be a good experience for learning but also hopefully help me see how to teach an old dog new tricks. 

Just so you can maybe have an idea, here are some words/phrases that I will probably learn the first week in Basque.  Give them a try and see how you like them!

I'm Amanda - Ni Amanda naiz (pronounced knee amanda nice)
Yes - Bai (pronounced bye) and No - Ez (pronounced 'S')
Please - mesedez (kind of like Mercedes) and Thank You - Eskerrik asko (sound it out)
1- bat   2- bi  3 - hiru   4- lau   5- bost  6-sei  7- zazpi  8- zortzi  9- bederatzi  10- hamar
January - Urtarrila     June - Ekaina  
Monday - Astelehena   Wednesdsay - Asteazkena

Yea...a little preview of my mornings to come!  Well, at least by the end of the week, I can truly say Euskera ikasten dut, which means I'm studying Euskera! I will keep you posted on the progress.  If I attend 85% of the classes (which of course I will - if I am paying for something you better bet I'm going!) and pass the final exam for level 1, get this...the Basque government will actually GIVE me money for learning!  Along with wanting to learn it anyways, its quite a good incentive. 

Muxu! (this is kiss in Basque, which I have known for a long time...what an expert I am!)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Row Row Row Your Boat

Last weekend, Donosti was host to the most popular rowing contest in the Cantabrian Sea - La Bandera de la Concha (The Flag of the Concha).  Each year, over 100,000 people flock to Donosti, sporting thier team color to cheer on their favorite rowers.  Although many rowing teams throughout the Basque Country and other parts of the Cantabrian Sea try out, only 8 race for the Flag.

The competition takes place over two Sundays, so as to make sure everyone gets a fair shot at lanes and good weather.  The first Sunday, I watched the races on TV, so when I arrived on the last Sunday, I had a pretty good idea of the teams, rowers and thier times.  The times from the two Sundays are added up after the two-heat race and that is how the winner is determined.

Dressed in yellow, Orio's color, I made my way at 10am with Heather (dressed in pink for San Juan) to the port with our bottles of Basque cider in hand.  Not only are the regattas a reason to watch rowing, but like any other Basque festival or party, it is a reason to eat, drink and be merry with your friends.  The races actually start at noon, but we arrived early to make sure we secured a good spot.  The best is to watch it on tv becuase they you know the team times and can see the paddle by paddle action as they row out of the Bay into the Atlantic and back.  But, being outside with the people, all crazily cheering for thier teams makes for a better atmosphere.  Well, I take that back - the absolute best place to watch it would be from a boat in the Bay, but seeing as I don't have a boat, that wasn't even one of my options.

Although the announcing was in Basque, I was able to keep up with some of it - having learned the words for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.  At the beginning of the day, Orio was in 6th place, but with some luck and probably extra work from the big-muscled rowers, they managed to finish the race in 2nd place.  ¡Aupa Orio!  A team from Vizcaya (the neighborhing Basque county) won - it's nice a Basque team had won, but it would have been esepcially great if someone from our region (Guipuzcoa) won, or Orio even better yet.  But regardless of who wins, everyone heads to the Old Part after to celebrate.  At one bar, the Urdabai (winning team) fans started chanting for thier boys, and while I'm not Basque nor from Orio, I was wearing a yellow shirt and felt obligated to shout for Orio.  All in good fun, I shouted Aupa Orio (kind of like Go Orio!) and they all started laughing and hugging me as I headed towards the bar.
Why didn't I cheer for Donostia you may ask?  Well, let me tell you.  Each year, only 8 teams race, but really only 7 qualify.  Great times are expected to qualify and it means the world if a lesser team makes it into the final 8, but Donostia always makes it in.  Although they are bad, they claim that since the race in held in thier Bay, they are entitled to race every year - qualifying time or not.  The funny thing is that although this race is almost the 'Olympics' of rowing in Spain, Donosti never even gets close to winning on thier waters.  White shirts for the Donosti team are scare, and as the fast paddling teams whiz into the Bay, Donosti usually cruises in a nice 15 or 20 seconds behind (which is light years in rowing).  So, I opted for Orio and was quite happy with the choice.

A rowing constant, this competition has been on the books for 128 years.  Besides a few years in the Spanish Civil War, rowers have been vying for the Flag of the Concha for over a century, and I assume will continue to aspire to it for years to come.  While there is an actual rowing season, with wins, losses, etc, all of that goes out the window at Concha.  Whoever wins this race are the rowing Gods til the next year.

Between pintxos and Basque wine (txakoli), I was quite tired by 7pm and headed home.  While I have lived here for two years, I somehow managed to miss both regattas that I have been here for.  Finally make it was great - a sunny day, friends, delicious food and drinks and a water sport - all things Basque.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Euskal Jaiak

With the past few days full of moving, I took the opportunity to reward myself with a day of fiesta!  On Thursday, in the town of Zarautz (about 30 minutes by train from San Sebastian) there was a huge party called Euskal Jaiak - which means Basque Celebration in Euskera.  Although it is a 'national' holiday in Basque Country , it is only really celebrated with a big bang in Zarautz.  Celebrations happen thorughout the whole week, but September 9th is always the most important - as it is idedicated to Our Lady Aranzazu.  Originally just this feast to thier lady in 1924, the city of Zarautz figured that if they made the holiday a weeklong thing that more tourists would stay at the beachside resort long, and it worked.  It has since been celebrated with gusto.
A friend of mine, Nerea (who will soon be my roommate in our apartment) is from Zarautz and invited me to celebrate the day with her and her friends.  On top of that, she offered to lend me a typical Basque costume for the event.  On Basque days like this, everyone dresses up in tradtional Basque farm clothes, a peasant looking type of dress.

The costume, called a baserritarra, used to be the daily dress of Basques - with of course differences between the outfits of the fishermen, farmers, tradesmen, etc.  When Franco took power in Spain he did his best to squash out all parts of Basque culture - from language to clothing.  Only after he left did the Basques manage to revive thier rich culture and were allowed again to wear these traditional costumes.

As you can see in the photo - we are all wearing skirts, but not just one oh no!  I am wearing an underskirt (kind of like a long cotton slip) with some ribbon detail.  On top of that, a dark skirt with tiny white polka-dots, and on top of that, a little black apron.  On the top, normally you wear a long sleeve cotton shirt that matches the second skirt you have on.  Since it was so hot in the afternoon, we just had on t-shirts, but later on I sported the warmer top.  And of course, we can't forget the 'pañuelo', which is a little scarf you tie around your neck.

To celebrate the day, everyone young and old, gathers in the streets and bars and parties all day.  They take breaks for little sandwiches with chistorra (a type of sausage) or other delicious fillings and they make sure to drink a hefty amount.  Some people even go as far as taking carts from the grocerty store and decorate them and fill them up with bottles of cider, txakoli (a Basque wine) and beer.  We didn't go that far, but did walk around with a bottle of cold cider and plastic glasses.  Between the music blaring from teh bars, we were also able to hear some traditional Basque music, accompanied by Basque dances.  The costumes for the dancers are usually different then our street outfits however.

While I have been to typical Basque fiestas like this in San Sebastian (although this was the first time I was wearing the costume), I really enjoyed the outdoor celebration in Zarautz because it took place right next to the beach.  This town, also known for its surfing, has a long, narrow beach and at the edge of the sand is an equally long wide sidewalk for strolling along the water (this promenade is named the Malecon).  However, when the tide is up, there is actually no beach and the promenade falls right into the beach.  So, while drinking our cider, we were able to watch waves splashing a few feet from us, and with the sunny weather it was perfect party atmosphere.

While the party goes on all night, I had to take the train back at 10pm.  But, the few hours of Euskal Jaiak I got to enjoy were great, and now with a costume available, I am already looking forward to the next Basque festival!


Monday, September 6, 2010

Back to the big city

As we all know, I had moved out of my apartment in the Old Part due to the fact that the girls were quite rude and we had basically nothing in common.  I thought I was all set when I found an apartment with two students who seemed quite calm and non-partiers, but as soon as I arrived to the place on August 30th, my new roommates already were on my bad side.  Instead of putting up with people I don't really like anymore just for the sake of it, I turned back in the keys and got my security deposit back and crossed my fingers I'd find something better.  So, my stay at Hotel Amanda Country Home here in Orio was extended, but only for a short while. 

A friend of mine, Itziar, happened to be looking for a new place as well, so we started hunting together and presto we found a place!  It's a 3 bedroom apartment in my favorite neighborhood of San Sebastian- Gros - where I feel most comfortable, because I already have my bank, pharmacy, grocery store, restaurants, etc.  We are in the process of looking for a roommate for the 3rd bedroom!  I am so relieved to finally be at peace at home.  It seems that for almost the past two years, I haven't been great friends with the people I was living with, so I basically lived in my room - not really wanting to come out.  But, living with a friend will change all that!  I will finally be able to hang out in the living room and watch a movie without feeling awkard, or cook dinner for friends without feeling like I shouldn't.  Big smile.

We sign the lease and move in tomorrow, so today was my last full day as an Oriotarra (resident of Orio), so I tried to make the best of it.  I woke up with the sun and Joseba at 6:45am and stayed awake thanks to a large cup of coffee.  Around 8am I did the hike I like so much - Itxaspe - for my last morning walk with the sea views.  After coming home and relaxing for a bit I pedaled into the village and did some grocery shopping - stocking up to what I was planning on doing later, make oatmeal raisin cookies!  With a tuna sandwich and a banana in my bag, I dropped the groceries off and headed to a place in Orio I had never been yet - the lighthouse. 

I have been reading 'Water for Elephants' in Spanish, which someone told me was quite popular in the States, but I just couldn't get into it, so I stole a book from Joseba's bookshelf yesterday morning - 'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress', and before the middle of the day, I was already halfway through!  So, I stuffed the book in the bag and thought a little lighthouse reading session would be great.  When I arrived, I was quite surprised that I was the only person there!  I mean, I know it was a Monday, but I guess I was expecting more people, or any in that case.  I was pleased though and basked in the sun, listening to the waves lap below against the sandy colored rocks of the lighthouse tower as I became engrossed in my book.  With the wind blowing in my face, I was so relaxed, I was actually bummed that I had to leave to head home to bake the cookies, but since I was getting cold, I convinced myself it was the best. 

The bike ride home (and with bad weather coming, probably one of the last bike rides in Orio for some time to come) was beautiful as always, but even better is that since I went on a road I had never been on, I got a view of Orio from across the river.  With the huge church as the city centerpiece, buildings flank it on all sides, but it still stand tall above them.  And, although I ride along it often, I rarely see the city with the river in front of it, so the fishing boats sitting in the water just made it all the more a charming fishing town. 

While small and cute, I am looking back to getting back to the 'big city' of Donosti.  While only having 400,000 residents, it's the biggest city in our county, so even after living in NYC, I now consider this my booming metropolis haha. 

Once the house is all set up, photos will come, but just wanted to write one last country blog - its been amazing to have ZERO to do and occupy my day with bike rides, hikes, cookies, reading, puzzles, etc.  I think it was a great relax therapy :)


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hiking my legs off

With only two weeks left before my job starts again, I have been trying my best to enjoy what remains of my time off...with a lot of outdoor time.  Also, it has been quite sunny, so I try to take advantage of that fact.  This outdoor time, when it doesn't include the beach, normally includes a bike ride or a walk in the country, but lately it has meant hiking! 
Basque Country is full of great hiking routes, numerous mountains to conquer and a coastal pathways to die for.  Joseba, a hiking fan himself, knows many of these spots, and last week we headed to a mountain named Ernio - which is basically known as the mountain of Orio, his town.  We checked the weather the day before and it said sunny in the morning with clouds creeping in in the afternoon, however it seems the weathermen here are just as accurate as a weatherman from home, because when we woke up, a strong wind was already blowing in clouds!  We decided to go anyways and got our hiking gear on and headed out.  A few days before, Joseba and I went to a sporting goods store and he bought me a hiking type of t-shirt...funny thing is that he has the same, so now we have matching hiking shirts - awwwwww such a couple thing hahaha.  

We started on one side of the mountain and as the path wound upwards, we ended up more on the other side of the mountain, and would you believe it that one side of the mountain was foggy and windy and the other side was clear blue sky?!  After a few kilometers we reached the base, which has a little house with picnic tables, and took a short rest before a total uphill walk to the top - standing at 3,500 feet.  The beginning part of the walk was quite easy, but the last part gave me and my running shoes a challenge.  Although I have a hiking shirt, I don't have hiking boots.  I assume that will be my next investment.  Anyways, the terrain changed from grassy slopes to steep hills with loose shale rock that changed the scenery from a green to gray quickly.  With small crosses lining the path, paying tribute to people who had fallen from the path and died, I made sure to watch each step and not to rush and made it safely to the top.  

At the peak were a lot of large crosses (I can't imagine carrying one of them up the shale hill) that had already been enveloped in fog.  Although we couldn't see the amazing view that the top has, the quick moving fog provided us a cool resting spot for a few seconds, where you could hear the wind and feel the droplets of mist on your face.  In between the fog, you could barely see down the hill and instead we were just in a land of clouds and crosses.  

As we came down, we stepped out of the clouds and back to reality, only to be surprised by lots of butterflies.  The 15 minute walk down again changed the outlook from gray to green and this time, the grass was dotted with fluttering butterflies, some of which I had never seen!  I am used to orange and yellow butterflies, but all of a sudden a light blue butterfly flew in our path!  It soon became my mission to snap a photo of it before our hike finished.  Joseba, and his camera skills, managed this shot!  I love it!

By the end of our hike, our tired feet were happy to slip back into flip-flops and our bellies happy to go home and eat lunch while more clouds blew in.  

Another day, with good weather blessing us again, we did a short 2-hour hike that is near his home.  The hike is named Itxaspe, which is obviously Basque.  On the walk, Joseba explained to me the meaning...itxas means sea and pe is a short way of saying the word behind, so the hike leads to a huge Basque house, named Itxaspe - behind the sea!  All large Basque houses have names and since the hike goes to this one, it is so named.

The hike starts in the Old Part of Orio - with windy stone streets.  We walked up the steep hill until we were out of town and passing the cemetary.  For some reason, cemetaries in Europe impress me immensley.  Maybe because they are adorned so beautifully, maybe because the headstones are so massive, I don't know,  all I know is that each time I see a cemetary, I always want to admire it.  This one didn't let me down.  With a stone exterior wall full of crosses, the cemetary guards the bodies of ages and ages of Orio's residents.  

Past the cemetary we came to one of the churches on The Camino de Santiago - a pilgrimage that passes through the Basque coast.  Named San Martin, this church is said to be the first parish church in town.  Even more impressive than this 13th century church that was restored in the 16th century is the crumbling wall that stands in front of it.  This wall are all that remain of a 'seroral house' that stood here centuries before.  A serora is a female sexton and was responsible at the time for the upkeeping of the chapel.  With this job duty, she lived very close to the church.  By the 18th century, the house was in bad condition, and town records show that one serora, María de Lasa, used money from her own dowry to reconstruct the quarters.  Now all that remains is a block of 26 feet of stones that were collected from the town and mortered together.  Along with all buildings from that time, stories swirl around about past uses, and this building is no different.  Because it is on the Camino de Santiago, legend has it that it was used as a leper hospital in the past, but no one can prove it!  

Seeing as we aren't lepers, we didn't stay and instead walked further into the Basque countryside.  A long winding road eventually led us to a spot called buenavista (good view), which is the highest point of this hike - a mere 410 feet above sea level.  But from this spot, we could see the neighbhoring seaside towns of Zarautz and Getaria.  A well-known spot on the Basque coast, Getaria is a small town set on a penisula that juts out into the ocean.  Although the town is charming, it sits on a mountain called 'The Rat', which kind of makes it lose its appeal to me, but from this photo you can see why it is called that.  The penisula consists of a large hill and then a small one - making it appear that it is a rat head and its fat body.  

Once we reached Itxaspe, we start the descent along a gravel road with vegetable gardens lining the road.  Not only gardens, but also goats!  Now, the big ones with the horns are tied up and can only wander so far, but the baby goats, cute as they are, can roam where they like, which kind of scared me.  I didn't want any goat bites!  We traveresed through the scary goat land and finished the hike on the beach - not bad eh??

The last hike I went on, included again this Itxaspe house, but noooo it wasn't a small 2 hour hike.  Instead, I hiked from the beach in Orio to San Sebastian - 11.1 miles.  Yea, long.  It was a sunny day, and I had no plans except to meet a friend in Donosti at 6pm, so I thought to myself, why not just walk there?  I know, its a crazy thought, but I had already done a 10 mile hike from Donosti to Orio once before and I thought that although it was long it was peaceful and enjoyable.  This time I decided to challenge myself a bit more and decided on a 'difficult level' hike, thinking there would more hills and such.  About an hour into the hike, I realized that 'difficult' should have been explained more with the word 'jungle'!  With plants covering the path, rock-climbing, cactus-looking trees that cut me up, and creeks to jump over and hills to scale down with a cable, this turned out to be a pretty serious hike for one little girl in shorts.  

Between almost falling, dropping my new sunglasses and walking 10 minutes back to thankfully find them and wanting to turn back a million times,  I eventually arrived in San Sebastian - 5 hours after I started.  While it was a tough hike, it was filled with great things.  I was quite surprised to see flowers still blooming this late in summer.  With pops of purple, yellow and pink, I was always happy to see these beautiful plants instead of the pokey trees that attacked me.  Also impressive where the hills of only slabs of rock.  While walking along the narrow path to cross them, I tried not to look down, because if I would have fallen I would have slide all the way to the ocean!  Once I finally got across I would always gaze back in amazement.  

With breaks for fruit and small sandwiches, I have to admit the views were beautiful.  Alone, I could hear the sound of the ocean crashing only feet below on the rocks, that over time have become rounded.  And, although by the end of the hike my body looked like it got in a fight with an angry cat and lost, I was so happy to arrive.  I don't think I had ever been so happy to see my town in my life!  From the last mountain I could see the whole town and picked up my pace down the hill, somehow my legs still going.  

With these hikes done, I am giving myself time to rest for a bit.  After that 11 mile hike my body hated me the next day - tired muscles, sore ankle and scratches all over!  But, my friend Emmie and I are already thinking of doing another tough walk next week - only 9 miles!  Piece of cake hahaha.  I'll let you know if I survive!