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THE Ensanche is reminiscent of London, but before 1870 there were none of the genteel buildings that make it so; the area was farmland dotted with hamlets. The city's expansion here, across the Nervión from the Casco Viejo, was paid for with wealth amassed from producing the iron that transformed England into an industrial giant. More than just commercial partners, the Bilbaínos were ardent fans of the British -- of their economic might, their understated style, their men's clubs, their posh hotels, all of which they tried to emulate. When I first visited the city, a few years back, I had the good fortune to stay at the recently renovated Carlton, a neoclassical confection as elaborate as a wedding cake, made of brilliant-white limestone. The Carlton is situated -- quite appropriately for a hotel with British pretensions -- along the rim of the Ensanche's garden-adorned traffic circus. It was built in 1926 as a miniature tribute to the Ritz -- though the imposing oval-domed skylight in the lobby seems to be a copy of the one in Nice's Hotel Negresco. Thanks to the current favorable foreign-exchange rate, at about $150 per night for a double ($90 on weekends) this five-star hostelry is not nearly as dear as the original, in London. It is quite a historic place, too, having served during the Spanish Civil War as the headquarters of the Basque government. (For more information phone the hotel at 011-34-94-416-2200 or fax 011-34-94-416-4628.)
When friends come to stay, however, I usually direct them to the pension across the street from my flat in the Casco Viejo. The Iturriena Ostatua, with its lace-curtained French windows and wrought-iron balconies dripping with geraniums, is as picturesque as can be, and the prices are equally charming, with double rooms for about $50 a night (telephone 011-34-94-416-1500; fax 011-34-94-415-8929).
Wandering around the Casco Viejo, I find it hard to imagine that up until the turn of the century its maze of ancient stone palacios contained all the enterprise of this ambitious city. Founded in 1300, Bilbao accreted out of just seven parallel streets, the Siete Calles, which run down to the riverfront and still serve as the neighborhood's heart. Indeed, this city's antique half remains wonderfully alive. Bilbaínos work, shop, and live in these austere edifices, which are crammed with bars, cafés, restaurants, bakeries, tobacconists, hole-in-the-wall groceries, furniture shops, and boutiques. So tradition-bound are the Basques that similar businesses may well have occupied these spots for centuries. Sometimes I imagine that the Basque faces I see on my daily jaunts -- long, rectangular, square-chinned visages, almost always sober in expression -- are the same as those of the people who walked these streets long ago. They appear as much a part of the place as the paving stones, worn smooth with the ages.
These people often feel more like roommates than neighbors, because just about everyone in this quarter all but lives in the street. (The temperateness of the climate encourages such behavior -- although, mind you, this is the Atlantic coast of Spain, and days are more likely to be cloudy and damp than sunny and hot.)
Grandmothers gossip outside the fishmonger's, children play ball in front of the lamp store, teenagers in grunge attire and riotously colored hair wander in small packs from the record store to the café to the tattoo shop. People are outside from early in the morning, when housewives set off to the bakery for the breakfast baguette, till the evening, when everyone -- young lovers, families, groups of hearty old men -- partakes in the paseo, the ritual pre-dinner stroll through the streets. And they're there late at night, when gregarious night owls, who seem to make up the majority of the population, roam about in another sacred Bilbaían rite: bar-hopping. The only time the streets are empty is during lunch and siesta. I always know when it's one-thirty, because the neighborhood echoes with the clang of iron shutters coming down over shop fronts. Basques take this Spanish rite of the day seriously, and shops don't reopen until four o'clock.
One of the prettiest spots in the Casco Viejo, a dramatic change from its crooked, narrow streets, is the Plaza Nueva, a great square enclosed by grand nineteenth-century apartment buildings and an arcade chockablock with cafés, bars, and shops. It's a delightful place to rest your feet after a day of exploring and sample some pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. My favorite haunt for these is Victor Montes, one of the oldest and liveliest of the square's restaurants and bars, which has a wonderfully jaunty Belle Epoque décor that's all black and white and gold. Start off with some rabas (fried squid rings) and a txikito of rioja. The txikito is a sturdy short glass with a thick stem and a small hollow that holds only a few sips of wine. After the last sip it's Basque custom to move on to the next bar. The plaza has so many that you may never get beyond the square before the evening's out. But bar-hopping here is not the activity of beer-guzzling galoots that it is in the States. On Sundays you can see three generations of a family making their way through the neighborhood bars drinking rioja in sips and feasting on pintxos.
Another favorite place of mine in the Casco Viejo is the Euskal Museoa, where you can learn much about the Basques and their culture. This little museum boasts an eclectic variety of archaeological findings, quaint ethnographic tableaux, and historical exhibits. According to its energetic director, Amaia Basterretxea, an archaeologist, some tourists confess that they prefer her museum to the Guggenheim. Though it is certainly not as rich or provocative as that distinguished institution, I confess to feeling the same way. Glorious as the Guggenheim is, it offers the artistic trophies of the modern-day global culture in which we all live and breathe, whereas this modest institution reveals a world that seems as fascinatingly remote as it is vivid. I value what's displayed here because I know that this world of shepherds, fishermen, and farmers will in but a few more decades disappear -- as will, most likely, the deep ties most Basques feel to the land.
IF the Basques have succeeded in preserving themselves as a people, it has been through the proud nurturing of their rural traditions. With a population that numbers not much more than two million, in a territory about the size of Connecticut, the Basques remain a people apart. Genetically distinct from every other group in Europe, the Basques are thought to be the direct descendants of Cro-Magnon man, having survived the Indo-Aryan invasion with their culture intact. Their language is equally ancient. With its guttural double rrs, peculiar couplings of consonants, and preponderance of polysyllabic words ending in k, Euskara certainly sounds as remote as prehistory. Yet it remains the defining force of this culture. "The Basque language is a country," Victor Hugo observed on a visit in 1843, "almost a religion." Euskara remains a glue for this people, keeping the culture vital and oddly adaptable despite its conservatism.
The strength of the language is especially remarkable when one considers that it was outlawed during Franco's reign and those caught speaking it were often imprisoned and tortured. Now Euskara is a mandatory part of the elementary school curriculum. Now, too, many middle-aged Basques, forbidden to learn their native tongue as children, have taken up its study. As much as this has been about ethnic pride, it has also, for some, been a matter of professional survival. In the Basque country speaking Euskara is almost a prerequisite for teaching or working for the government. But Euskara's long-term fate remains uncertain. The Basque birth rate is 7.7 per thousand -- the lowest in all of Western Europe, for a constellation of economic and cultural reasons -- and the language may well die out as the Basque people decline in number.
Historians say that the Basques -- hidden away in and behind the Pyrenees Mountains -- were so isolated for so long that most of them remained pagans well into the tenth century. According to legend, however, their conversion to Christianity was abrupt. In the myth, the Basques had learned to worship the sun and the moon from the friendly giants known as the jentillak, who also taught them to farm and who erected the many dolmens -- upright stone structures -- throughout the countryside. One day, after seeing strange omens in the sky, the jentillak announced, "Christ is born, our time is done," and without another word disappeared under a dolmen, leaving only a trail of folktales in their stead.
When I drive south of Bilbao toward Durango, through the verdant landscape with its mist-covered mountains, my mind often turns to Basque folktales, so strong is the air of enchantment. On a ridge of the lofty, dolmen-shaped Goikoa Mountain, just a half hour outside the city on this route, is an inn and restaurant called Mendi Goikoa, another of my favorite places to eat (telephone 011-34-94-682-0833; fax 011-34-94-682-1136). Mendi Goikoa's slogan is "Silence you can hear." It is said that Mari, a witch who watches over the Basques, lives atop the mountain's peak, and when the peak is hidden by clouds, Mari is at home. The restaurant is celebrated as much for its cooking as for its bucolic setting, and has attracted many notables. The King and Queen of Spain, Nobel Prize winners, and various Prime Ministers have all eaten in the dining room, which once served as a stable. Ask the waitress for a tour and, if she's feeling sociable, she'll show you the upstairs, furnished like an old-fashioned farmhouse; she might even point out the bed where Queen Sofia took her siesta after her meal.
The best time to visit rural spots like this one is during a fiesta, when in the village square you can watch the locals competing in the herri kirolak, or "popular sports": stone lifting, log splitting, tug-of-war. To mark the occasion there is always a group of bertsolariak performing -- rural troubadours, many of whom are barely literate farmers. They compose improvisatory songs that are extraordinarily complex in form and thought, on subjects offered up by the villagers. (The Basques were rapping centuries before U.S. youths.) These singers are a mainstay on Basque television, where the exploits of one bertsolari have been turned into an animated cartoon for children.
If you venture out into the countryside or to the glorious coast, I recommend that you choose the Cadogan guide to Spain, by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, to help you plan. Most travel books on Spain give the Basque country short shrift, because with the exception of its beach resort, San Sebastián, it has never been a major tourist destination. This book covers the Basques knowledgeably and wittily, and offers detailed itineraries. Also good but not as comprehensive is Discovering Spain, by Penelope Casas. And on any trip to this region you should bring along Mark Kurlansky's book The Basque History of the World, as a primer on Basque culture. For insight and enjoyment, though, my favorite is A Book of the Basques, published in 1930 by an Englishman, Rodney Gallop, and reissued in 1998. During his boyhood Gallop spent his summers in St. Jean de Luz, in the French Basque country, and I think his book best describes the Basques' history, their reserved and rustic spirit, and their appealing if idiosyncratic ways.
Those, at least, are the terms in which I talk to myself about the Basque spirit in the wee hours, when I'm often kept awake here in Bilbao. City or country, the Basques start loosening up by pintxos time, and once dinner's over, you'll often find these dour-by-day souls merrily singing. In the Casco Viejo groups of txikiteros, young and old alike, carol Basque folk songs as they stroll from bar to bar. By late at night the singing is likely to give way to howls and strange guttural utterances, and I have to remind myself once again how grand it is to be amid a culture where people don't just sit home watching late-night television but go out serenading in the street. In the morning, after a strong café con leche, I feel lucky, again, to be living in this place.