Saturday, November 26, 2011

Don't be a square

Something that I find particularly strange about the Basque culture is the existence of things called 'kuadrillas' (quad-ree-uhs).  A kuadrilla is a group of friends who formed this circle in elementary school.  Normally this same group sticks together through thick and thin all thier lives and are very close.  Essentially a glorified clique, every Basque person belongs to one - be it a big kuadrilla or small.  Most Basques do practically everything with thier kuadrilla- dinners, trips, holidays, beach days, etc - and they are basically a huge group of best friends.

It's a great concept...if you are in a one.  If not, they make it quite difficult to enter.  It's sort of like the exclusivity of a sororiety or fraternity but without the hazing and pledging.  Say for example, you go to a bar alone.  In Berlin or New York or Tempe or Longview, someone would probably talk to you and you could even leave the bar having made a new friend.  Here that is almost unspeakable.  The kuadrilla keeps to themselves and normally aren't too intersted in looking for new members.  They are content with thier group and that's enough.   

Being Joseba's wife, I am automatically accepted into this kuadrilla but it's not my own.  Not having my elementary school friends here puts me at a disadvantage for starting up my own kuadrilla but alas, I am part of a newly formed one.  My 'foreign' friends and I decided that we too deserve a kuadrilla!  My new group is composed of Emma (the girl who was with me during my wedding, from Madrid in gray), Brenda (her close friend that lives here, from Mexico in blue) and Montse (my old roomie and bff, from Barcelona in green).  While two come from Spain, we are all still considered outsiders here and have no kuadrilla and happily pronounced ourselves one.  We do dinner every week (very kuadrillaish), and are already planning our Carnival outfits (no kuadrilla goes out without a group costume).

Forming a kuadrilla at this age seems to make more sense than when you are 5.  Imagine your intersts change from 5 to 25...then what do you do?  Nothing.  Switching kuadrillas is not something that is done.  Making friends with other people who share your intersts outside of the group is doable but usually something most kuadrilla members frown upon.  Can you believe that?  It's like a jealous girlfriend or something!

It makes it seem like on the whole Basques are very closed, and I will admit some are.  But the others are incredible.  Some of Joseba's friends are so outgoing and friendly and have accepted me as a friend right away.  Other Basques I have meet through classes or other friends are equally as open to meeting new people as me, which is refreshing.  The concept of the kuadrilla makes sense if you think back to the past of the Basque Country - a hilly land with many small towns spread through the mountains and along the coast.  Without transportation the distance between one town and another could take days, so people became very close to those who surrounded them.  This idea continued on into the present, and it is neat to see how well the Basques preserve thier history.  

Really our kuadrilla is just a great excuse for us to get together on a weekly basis and catch up during our girl's nights.  Here are our first photos as a group!  More photos will surely come with time.  Maybe we will even participate in Kuadrilla Eguna - Kuadrilla Day.  Yes, it is true, there is a day set aside to celebrate your group of friends, which I don't think is a half bad idea!


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday is the new Thursday

With another Thanksgiving upon me, I told Joseba I would like to put together a little Thanksgiving dinner for our first one together. Nothing extravegant like Grammy does but some of the Turkey Day goodies - turkey of course, potatoes and gravy, veggies, a pie of some sort and of course the all important wishbone (that my Grammy sent me last year after I missed the holiday yet again).

Seeing as you can't buy a WHOLE turkey here (well that's a lie, you CAN but you have to order it one month in advance from your butcher - no joke), we decided to just get some turkey breasts to get our gobble on.  Potatoes and gravy (packets from home) were a shoe in and veggies are available all over, so that was no problem either.  The big decision was what to bake...and in the end I decided a carrot cake would be fitting.  Joseba isn't one for super sweet apple pies and we can't buy pumpkin pie mix here, so I have always love carrot cake and have never tried to make it so I thought I'd make our first Thanksgiving memorable.  In the end, my first 'Acción de Gracias' as it is called here, was more special than I could have imagined, because of the fact that it truly was an 'Acción de Gracias' in Spanish and all.

Every Tuesday we have a dinner at my mother-in-laws to get the family together.  She always makes delicious food and we chat away and catch up on the week.  As is customary, Joseba came and picked me up from the train station and we drove to her house.  On the way he asked a few questions about what last minute things he needed to buy at the store for Thursday's festivites as well as how to make gravy - could he use a fork?  I, having always made the Thanksgiving gravy with a whisk, told him that it was forbidden to make it with some piece of silverware.  He kept prodding about the fork business and so finally I told him I GUESS it was possible but that for years I have done it one way and that's how I planned to make it at home.  We walked in his mother's house and to the kitchen where pots were bubbling and the table was set.  Because she always has a million things cooking (she really spoils us on Tuesdays) I didn't think twice about what was on the menu for the evening, until Joseba said 'Happy Thanksgiving'.  At that point, I got a bit of a confused look on my face to which Joseba said 'I didn't bring the whisk, so I hope you can learn to make gravy with a fork' and I started to laugh and surprise surprise cry.  Between tears I managed the sentence 'como siempre' ('like always' in Spanish) and everyone started laughing.  I cried at Christmas last year, I cried at the sum it up, I'm a soft-hearted girl.

So we sat down and pour glasses of wine to toast to Thanksgiving and I told them all how thankful I was for them and for making me feel at home celebrating my holiday.  The cups clinked and then the eating business got underway.  First was a delicious tortellini salad topped with ham, next some cous cous with plums, cheese and tomoatoes.  I would like note that there was even some cheeddar cheese -  my fave!  It's hard to come by here, but there it was in all it's glory which let me explain my obsession for Tillamook cheese to everyone.  The potatoes and gravy were accompanied by a Joseba-version of turkey dinner - a 9x13 inch Pyrex filled with veggies and turkey cooked in white wine.  Stuffed to the brim after all this food, no one could even think about dessert but I explained that that's how we knew it was close to a real Thanksgiving - you are always super full but always manage to squeeze some dessert in.  While we had an American dinner we had a tasty Basque dessert - a traditional one at that - roscone de reyes.  A donut-shaped pastry, it might remind you of a fruit-cake because it is filled with figs, quinces, cherries or other dried fruit.  These particular ones were mini and had been sliced in half and filled with custard and whipped cream and boy were they delectable.  We will have them again at Christmas...looking forward to it already.

At a table lacking a big bird, cranberry sauce, rolls, pumpkin pie, sweet potates and gravy made by turkey fat, I can honestly say it was one of the most memorable Thanksgivings I think I will ever have.  To be surrounded by such loving people who were concerned with making me feel at home here and close to home at the same time was very special, hence the crying.  Be it Basque family or American family and friends, I am SO thankful for all of the amazing people in my life.  And as you all sit down to a Thursday 2pm dinner followed by football, remember I was thinking about you on my Tuesdsay 9pm alternative Thanksgiving dinner - more grateful than ever. 


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Drop-dead gorgeous?

The other day I did something I've been thinking about doing since we moved to the Egia neighborhood - I went to the cemetary at the top of the hill.  Reason being, it's been sunny for an endless amount of days and quite warm too, and since it is mid-November I know this summerish weather isn't going to last much longer, so if I wanted to see the cemetary in sunlight, my days were numbered.

Named Polloe, the cemetary has been open for 133 years and is the biggest in Donostia.  We drive past it every day and the massive stone crosses peep out from the fenced cemetary, cold stone against the blue sky, which has always made me curious to visit.  From my first step through the massive iron gates, I could easily say that it is the most beautiful cemetary I have ever been to.  Here in Spain (also Italy, Portugal and some other European countries), the gravesites are spectacular.  So strikingly different from a US resting place, I thought I would share a bit with you about the whole process of death here - from the actual passing to these massive graves, so you can see how this tradition changes so drastically between countries.
Upon death, the local police need to be identified, unless the person died in a hospital, in which case it is done by the staff there.  The police notify the forensic judge who comes to the location of the passing and authorizes the removal of the body.  An autopsy is only needed if there is foul play.  The person's doctor must also be notified to issue the death certificate.  Once the papework from the police is signed, you immediatley become tied to a local Funeral Director and begin planning the funeral - which normally takes place a mere 24 hours after the person's final exit.

The Funeral Home can quickly walk you through the options, which include:  viewings/funerals, gravestones, flowers/wreaths, paperwork and documentation, cremation or burial, obituaries and vehicles for family members.  Normally people contact the funeral home within one hour of passing to get this set up as fast as possible.  There are also cases when the family has pre-paid the funeral services.  On average, a Spanish funeral costs around 2,500€ ($3,300).

From the moment of the death, the body is kept at the funeral home and the family is by thier side - every moment until the service.  The service is normally held at a church and the whole world comes.  If it was someone from your small village that you barely knew, if it was your friend's boyfriend's grandfather, if it was someone who worked in your office, you go.  The services are normally packed and then after the family and close friends while only close family is invited to pass by the coffin and give thier last goodbyes.  After this step, the coffin leaves the church and everyone stays inside as it exits.  Directly after, condolences are given to the family.  Being such a big event, it is stressed that you don't linger with the family but instead give a few heartfelt words, a hug and move on.  However, you are not supposed to leave until the hearse and the relatives have left.

The family accompanies their loved one to the cemetary and there the coffin isn't lowered into the ground, but instead into a niche area on their family's plot.  These niches can be rented for X number of years and when the rental period is up, the bodies are moved to a common grave.  Also unlike home, more than one person is buried in one spot.  I saw gravestones with atleast 10 people in the same 'grave' niche area.  It's sort of like an apartment for dead people, with monthly/yearly rent and all.  The headstones are decorated with either the person's favorite flower or flowers in his favorite color.  The national death flowers are yellor or white chrysanthemums.  Soon after a funeral banquet will take place - at a close relative's home or even the deceased himself.  People normally bring a dish each - some sort of comfort food.

The deceased's resting place becomes thier new residence - and not only because that is where they will remain for years to come, but also because of the Spanish's cemetaries.  After the 19th century, the boom of the borgeouis city life transferred to the cemetaries too - in the sense of layout.  This particular (Polloe) and many other cemetaries in Spain are laid out in a large city style way - wide avenues (with the most important graves) and smaller 'roads' connecting them.  At the entrance of the cemetary are the biggest and best headstones and as you continue along they get less and less adorned and extravagant.  Some families don't have a headstone for thier loves ones, but instead an entire vault - some of which you see here.  Some almost the size of a small chapel, each has a little sitting area where family members can sit and give thier respects inside thier family's tomb.  The ones in this cemetary were decorated with elaborate carvings, stained glass windows and marble.  They are amazing and although mostly of the vaults/crypts were decorated with gothic touches, the fact that I was there are sunset was not scary at all.  It was amazing.

Most of the graves had flowers on them, even some maybe left over from November 1st - here celebrated as All Saint's Day.  A National holdiay, it is similar to our Memorial Day, but is for anyone who has passed.  Traditionally, families get together and go to the gravesites of thier loved ones to adorn them with flowers.  This year on this date we were coming back from the Pyrenees and as we passed the cemetary we saw the parking lot overflowing with flower vendors probably making a killing on bouquets and wreaths.  

Maybe creepy at midnight, this cemetary as sunset was astounding.  It's very interesting to see how different cultures care for thier deceased.  With these ornate headstones you can see that passed relatives still hold an important role in the famliy here.  While I have never attended a funeral or visited a known person's grave (and hopefully won't any time soon), I still find beauty in the rows and rows of tombstones.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A blog so good you want to eat it ;)

Recently, Joseba and I received a very special box - one that contained a touching present.  A cookbook.  But not just any cookbook - no siree - a personalized cookbook from many family members, sharing thier favorite recipes with Joseba and I as we start our journey as a married couple.

After a bit of a hassle to just get the box (wrong post office, wrong hours, etc), we finally brought it home and anxiously opened it.  Carefully wrapped with beautiful twine and topped off with small flowers, the box itself smelled delicious and that should have given us a clue as to what was to come.  First was a gorgeous set of silver measuring spoons - each adorably engraved with flowers, hearts and a little dragonfly.Each spoon has a different flower but all are equally cute. I unwrapped the present and saw the cover of a cookbook with words in Italian - formaggi, ravioli, pere, etc.  With Tuscan colors the watercolor painting on the front of the book is a beautiful Italian table bursting with tasty treats.  And then I opened the book...and immediately started crying.

I saw hand-written recipes from my great-auntie Shirl, my Grammy, my cousins Vicki and Jacki and of course my cousin, Cathy.  At first, Joseba didn't understand what it was nor why I was crying.  Only after he really took a good look at the book and the individual recipe cards (each person with a different set), did he realize how special the present was.  From soups and salads to desserts and seafood, the book is filled with amazing recipes from special women in my family.  Some I have tried - Cathy's Spinach & Roasted Potato Salad.  Some I enjoyed growing up - Grammy's Ginger Snaps.  Some come highly recommened by Cathy's little notes on the other people's cards - Auntie Shirl's Chicken Wings.  And some I have never tried but make my mouth water just reading the note cards - Vicki's Thai Chicken Wraps and Jacki's Honey Mustard Chicken.  We have recipes for days and also more recipe cards for us to add our own favorites to the book.

Joseba was pretty shocked at the gift.  The amount of work and love that went into it sort of blew his mind.  These types of gifts aren't really given much here, so he was very surprised to see how much planning and care went into this little book.  Not having ever been to the USA or having dated an American, I was happy to show him how an American family is, at its best.  A very heart-felt present, I can't truly express how much it means to me.  Being away from home for so so long, this present made my family feel like they were almost here.  Maybe it was recipes I grew up with, or seeing everyone's handwriting, I don't know, but I couldn't control the tears as they got in the way of my eyes as I tried to read each and every recipe.

On that note, I thought I would share a little recipe with you all that is very common in our home - the Spanish omelette.  It's quite simple (a bit time consuming) and very tasty.  When made correctly it comes out like a round 1/2 inch thick 'cake' of fried potatoes, onions and eggs.  Filling and yummy, we make it for dinner, for going to the mountain (a little tortilla sandwich), for the beach (easy to put in tupperware) and sometimes we even eat it at a bar (it's ubiquitous).  And, to try and make it seem more authentic, I'll throw in the Basque version too, because we just learned how to do recipes last week.  So here goes:

Spanish Omelette (Tortila)
Ingredients (Osagariak)
 - 1 cup virgen olive oil (edalontzi 1 olio)
 - 4 potatoes - peeled and diced (4 patata - zurituta eta kubotxotan)
 - pinch of salt (pixkat gatz)
 - 1 onion thinly sliced (tipula 1 - xerratuta)
 - 4 large eggs (4 arrautza handi)

Preperation (Prestaketa)
In a 9-inch skillet, cook potatoes and onions slowly until tender.  Do not fry!  After cooking, drain potatoes and onions of thier oil and add the 4 eggs (already beaten and salted to taste) to the pan.  Let the mixture sit for a few minutes without putting it on the stove.  Lower the stove to medium-high heat and start cooking the mixture.  Shake the pan to prevent sticking (very important).  When the potatoes start to brown, put a place on top of the pan and flip the pan.  Transfer the mixture back to the pan with the uncooked side down.  Brown the other side.  Normally served in pie-shaped servings with a bit of bread.  Enjoy!

Zartaginean, patatak eta tipula sukaldu sumar daudenean arte.  Ez frijitu!  Sukalduaren ondoren nahasturari olio kendu eta arrautzak (moldatu eta gatzekin) gehitu zartaginera.  Nahastura utzi batzuk minutuak sutegian gabe.  Tenperatura gutxitu medium-gora eta hasi nahastura sukaldu.  Zartagina irabaiki patataks ez eranstea (oso garrantzitsua).  Patatak beltzarandu dutenean, platera bat zartaginaren gainean ipini eta zartagina bestealdea itzuli.  Nahastura zartaginera aldatu.  Sukaldu beste alde.  Normalean, zerbizatzen du pasteleko itxtura eta ogirekin.  Gozatu eta on egin!

While it's not as amazing as your own cookbook with special family recipes, I hope that one day you try it out - its quite tasty.  Here you can find it with everything mixed in- ham, sausage, mushrooms, you name it.  There is a bar by my house that even puts cheese and toppings on it like a pizza.  I added some pics from a long time ago (me my first month here and my friend making us lunch two years ago) so you can 1) see what it looks like (or what it should look like) and how to do the all-important flip!  

The main thing is that I want to do share something from my table with you - albeit from across the ocean.  Another thank you to those who took the time and heart to send us such a special gift that we will cherish for years to come and have already started adding to!


Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Poetry of the Pyrenees (Part 2)

After an amazing start to our weekend (and a long 7 hour hike), we decided to take it a bit easy on Sunday with a short climb - only 4 hours up and back.  Our destination?  Mount Oroel - the namesake for our lovely hotel in Jaca.  Thanks to the time change, our bodies were all confused and tired from the night before and somehow we woke up at 7am and decided to take advantage of our before-alarm-clock awakening and head out to hopefully get some sun before it clouded up in the afternoon.

The winding road out of town and up half of the mountain was shrouded in fog which hovered over the trees making thier fall colors barely visible.  The hike started at a lookout point that had a restaurant/café that the Tourist Office handout said was 'practically always open'.  Well, when we arrived at like 8am, it wasn't open.  Just saying.  We snapped a few shots of the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance in case it was cloudy by time we reached the top and headed up.

A rather boring hike - a zigzagging path that slowly inclined and didn't provide much in the way of picturesque scenery, we were happy that our morning start time had made us one of the few groups on the mountain at that hour.  Since it is quite an easy hike, it is frequented by lots of tourists, families, picnic groups and such in the afternoon, all of which we kind of wanted to avoid.  Although the 2 hour climb wasn't incredible, the view when we reached the topped was worth it...and did measure up to the Tourist Office's description.  Lucky enough to have a high-cloudy day, we could see miles and miles of Pyrenees and in between fog batches, little mountain villages in the valley.  Against the blue sky the view was priceless and we took some personal time each to take it in.  Having never seen the Pyrenees before this trip, I was elated to be able to see the majestic peaks in full panorama form.  We even tried to capture the feeling of vast grandness with a panoramic shot, but as anyone who's ever been to a wide open space like this knows, a photo just can't translate the chills you get in the moment.

With growling tummies, the time difference made itself glaringly obvious again as we munched on our sanwiches for a 10:30am 'lunch'.  Practically alone at the top, we passed tons of people on our descent and were pleased with our early start - like we had had the peak to ourselves, even if just for an instant.

Two hikes under our belt and freshly showered, we decided to head out and see the town of Jaca.  Known as a town for 'white sports' (do we call skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc that or is that a direct translation from my Spanish??)  the town was everything you would hope for from a quaint ski village - steep roofs, beautiful woodwork, cobblestone streets boasting glamourous winter clothes shops, bakeries with fresh pastry smells wafting out the front doors and of course beautiful people in athletic clothes (but we decided half of them probably hadn't even gone hiking haha).  With a citadel from the 16th century, a medieval church that includes scaling towers, and lots of little bars with new pintxos to try, we were happy campers wandering around the little town until we puttered out and turned in early.

The next morning we set off on our final hike of the trip - a big one - and headed to France to start it off.  We found a small parking lot on the map and headed across the border and laced up our hiking shoes (new ones for me - thanks to Joseba's nice birthday present to me!) to march onto Ibón de Estanés (Estanes Lake).  Joseba showed off his rather good high-school French when he reaffirmed with another hiker that we were on the correct path to the Lake.  Flea fly flew flaw flou it sounded like to me, but in fact yes we were going in the right direction.  The two hours we walked until we reached the lake were stunning - again fall colors at thier best, and this time with the peaks right alongside us as we walked.  And again, we didn't see a soul until we reached the Lake, which glimmered in the sun and was surrounded by the peaks on one side, low-lying grass-covered hills to the other and a green valley to the front.

From there our map got a bit tricky.  It told us to go a direction we couldn't find any markers for.  Learning from our mistakes on the first hike (remember...huffing and puffing Amanda), we wandered around searching for markers and even asked a few fellow people, none of which had the slightest clue.  Our goal was to do a loop so we could make it back to the car without re-tracing what we had just done and see something new at the same time.  When we finally found some markers that seemed like they went towards the mountains we wanted to head to, we ran into a Spanish couple who we asked for advice.  To our surprise, they knew the whole area by heart!

Turns out our trail that we had taken to arrive to the Lake wasn't listed on our map, so we had arrived at a totally different point and that's why we had had trouble finding the marks to continue...because there weren't any!  Regardless, they told us that rocky mountainside path we were crossing them on led to a beautiful valley full of wild Pyrenees sarrios frolicking about and that it'd be worth our while to continue on and then backtrack later to the car.  Seeing as they seemed like pros, we took thier advice and began a strenuous climb up a rocky path which later fed into a long narrow valley.  We continued following the markers until we came to another jagged hill to climb and after we reached the top, stepped into a massive valley.

Surrounded by peaks peaks and more peaks, we figured out that the large valley curved around about a mile in and that fog was billowing from the bend.  Intrigued, we headed there to try and catch a view of these special sarrios charging down the rocks.  Sarrios are a special type of goat-antelope animal that are native to European mountains.  Into the fog and out the other side, the wind blew hard in our faces but we kept on.  About an hour of walking and with still no glimpse of this animal that we were starting to question if even existed, we chomped down a chicken empanada to give us strength for our turn-around and hike back out of this brutal valley.

The rocks in the valley were so strange - like layers upon layers of thin sheets of rocks turned upwards so that you could see the edges.  It made the walk back bearable and as we came out of the windy bend we were again impressed by the massive valley and it's small exit that opened to a rugged cliff.  After passing a dead vulture (no worries, they don't eat thier own kind) we disappointedly starting heading back down the steep rugged rock only to see a sarrio!  And then another and another!  Rushing down the jagged cliffs into the valley!  Our winding path finally got us down to the valley and when we headed back the way we came we glanced up and saw what we had missed on the way in.  Because of the way the rocks were situated, a big group of sarrios were chasing after each other and charging down the rocks!  THIS was the Valley of the Sarrios - we realized.  So, where the heck had we been?!  We took out the map and realized that since we didn't see the sarrios the first time around we had accidentally ventured into a completely different valley and that we had went about 3 miles out of the way.  Whoops.  Well, that's why we never saw those sarrios in that valley - we weren't in thier spot!  Kind of laughing to ourselves we finally had the chance to admire these daring animals during play time but after the unexpected detour were careful to watch the clock.  What had been planned as a 6 hour hike was quickly turning into a full-day one.

Crossing through the valley again and back down the rocky mountainside past the Lake and speed-walking down the foresty path to the car, we made it with still lots of daylight (our major fear).  At the start of the hike, when we had stopped worrying about time and arriving, we noted the little river we had crossed over early that morning and decided our feet deserved a cool-down, of the freezing river type.  We stripped off our hiking boots and socks to let our feet breath a bit of fresh Pyrenee air before we dipped them in the stream.  Talk about cold!  Joseba proceeded to stand up in the water and wince, to which of course I laughed.  Not pleased by my mocking, he dared me to walk across the whole stream without showing any pain on my face.  I accepted and failed miserably.

I easily made it across the stream - it was only about 10 steps - but the sheer temperature of it made it impossible not to clench your teeth.  Joseba snapped some pics while I did it and then decided he wanted some pics of himself doing the same, but I refused to cross the river again to come get the camera, so the poor boy crossed it twice!  Using the sports setting, I managed to get every frame of his walk and boy was he cocky - acting like it didn't hurt at all!  But his last pictures show the pain in his face!  Ha!  An unusual way to end a hike, we made our feet even happier when we sat down in the car and headed back for our last Jaca night.

For our last night we decided to go all out and try a few nice pintxo bars and a very romantic restaurant that Joseba's co-worker who has a vacation home in Jaca recommended us.  The first pintxo bar was really a vinoteca - a wine bar.  While we are lucky to have Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines (the best wine regions in Spain) all the time, we decided to go out on a limb and try some local wine from the Aragon area to accompany our Spanish cheeses.  Later, we tried a very local pintxo bar where I ordered a toast with a smorgasboard of cheeses and Joseba a toast with an incredibly light foie - both utterly delectable.  For dinner we ordered from the set menu and were delighted with each plate.  We decided to repeat the Aragon wine we had ordered early on in the night and that was our doom.  Quickly after dinner we realized our pintxo + wine + pintxo + wine + diner +  wine + wine equation equalled tired and tipsy us!  A night that we had planned to paint the town turned into a 1am bedtime haha.

We headed back the next morning in the rain - shocked that we had lucked out with the weather.  Besides the 20 minutes of mist we had on our first day, we had perfect weather for a whole 4-day weekend and the exact day that we were leaving it decided to pour buckets!  As we pulled out of town and headed home, I watched the fall colors through the wet window, remembering all the beautiful scenes I had the chance to see this beautiful trip.


Monday, November 7, 2011

The Poetry of the Pyrenees

Last weekend we were somehow lucky enough to get a 4-day weekend!  When a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, Basques usually take off the other day of the week so they they automatically get a long weekend.  All Saints Day fell on a Tuesday this year so we got the chance to scoot out of town and enjoy the mini-vacation time and headed to the Pyrenees.

While I live so close to the border of France and Spain and the Pyrenees are the mountains that seperate these countries, I have never actually been to them.  On some hikes we can see the snow-topped peaks from a distance here, so when we decided to spend the weekend in Jaca, a small ski-resort town in the Pyrenees, I was pumped.

We arrived late Friday night and from the curvy 2-hour drive were beat and happy to have found our hotel easily.  We snagged an attic room in a lovely hotel named after Mt. Oroel, the closest mountain to the city of Jaca.  With peaked ceilings and skylights that looked out to tree tops, the cozy room was perfect for a mountain trip.

Up early the next morning, we headed out energized for our first hike - The Valley of Izas.  Recommended to us by our brother and sister-in-law, we knew we were in for a beautiful walk.  As a big fan of Fall, I was especially excited for a autumn-colored hike.  Last year we went to another Spanish mountain range - The Peaks of Europe - and were amazed with the vivid changing of the trees, so we had high hopes from the get go.  Driving from Jaca to the start of the hike, we passed through small little villages - some no more than a main street.  Canfranc was one of those towns and used to be the first train stop after the inaugural railway that traversed the mountains in 1928.  The train station, massively impressive, is decorated in such a way that just looking at it makes you imagine families from that era arriving with thier skis for the winter snow season and getting off the trains and heading to the numerous cute snow shacks and buildings in the town. 

The hike started with a steep incline but soon leveled out as we headed into the forest.  It was remarkable to say the least.  Pumpkin oranges, squash-like yellows, faded browns and the lingering green leaves surrounded us as we trekked along.  While predominatley deciduous foilage, evergreen trees spotted the landscape as well - with thier deep greens providing a lovely contrast to the fall color pallete.  Strange enough though, red, an expected fall color, didn't make an appearance in the form of a leaf, but instead, sprinkled in some of the trees with ripe berries (no worries, we knew not to eat them!). 

Soon the river we were following led us up, up and away from the trees and to rockier ground.  And once he trees dispersed and the rustling of the leaves was gone, we could hear the the little stream trickling down.  Following the path was going well until the path came to a fork and we thought we continued on the correct way.  Wrong.  What's that quote - two roads diverged and I took the one less travelled?  Well, that is one of those situations, but not by choice.  We had gotten used to have a trail marker every 5 minutes or so, so after about 10 minutes we got a bit worried, but seeing as the marks are painted on trees or rocks, from off the path its almost impossible to spot the right way.  With the map, we knew more or less what part of the mountainside we needed to get to, and in the end realized we were only a bit off course.  Great!  But in the meantime we did some very difficul and obviously we saw later uneccesary climbing.  We haven't done so many hikes lately so I was sure huffing and puffing and once we started headed back towards the trail def needed a little snack break.

Soon after we started hiking up again, this time on track, towards a refuge in the mountains where we had our lunch haunched down in the little cement house.  With its full little fireplace and a cardboard box on the floor, we saw that somewhat had obviously slept there recently!  And while it seems romantic to sleep in the woods, when the misty rain started, we decided that 3 hours one-way was enough and the rain a bit unsafe and headed back towards the car.  By time we made through the rocky area it had stopped raining and we could again enjoy the wooded area's colors without squinting from the precipitation.

Through the whole hike I was so suprised to see one type of flower in the valley.  Now, correct me if I am wrong, but most flowers around this season wilt and lose thier petals no?  Well this flower was more like a tree - it's petals became a deep rust color and stayed intact.  The image of a flower bud making its way into autumn was incredible and I gazed at each flower every time we passed a patch.  Have you ever seen such a thing?

Six hours in total, our first hike out of the gates was pretty intense but a perfect start to a good long weekend of hiking.  More to come soon!


Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Well, I don't know where the month of October went, but we are already in November and Fall is in full swing here in the Basque Country.  I thought I would take the opportunity to share some Autumn colors with you - nothing awe-astounding, but just little things I see on my way to work.  The photo of the street is something that really took me by surprise though - but I am not sure you can make it out completely in the picture.

In this little street that runs parallel to a main road, the residents have strung together fallen leaves and made something of a hanging banner of them.  Think popcorn on a string hanging around your Christmas tree, but with rust colored crunchy leaves draping the street.  Seeing as we have had really nice weather so far this Fall, the leaf streamers remain intact and really add a nice touch to the otherwise bland street.

With many National Parks and other more pedestrian ones along with the scenic hillsides that border the highway, I am lucky to get to see various colors of the season (which although I am missing a bit of football, still is my favorite season).  I know most people choose Summer or Spring for the gorgeous blooms, and don't get me wrong I adore them as well, but for me, Fall just has something special.  I guess I would agree with a quote by Albert Camus that says 'Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.   I try to take advantage of any sunny day I get, to atleast be outside for a little bit because sooner than I know, these bright cranberries, vivid goldenrods, soft oranges, rusty browns and deep crimson and colors will be gone.  I hope similar colors catch your eyes too and you can enjoy them while they last!