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!