The title translates into English literally as “The Mother Country” or colloquially as “The Motherland”. This name for Spain is commonly used in Latin America. The relationship between Latin American countries and Spain is….complicated.
In Spanish, the phrase “Qué padre!” is roughly translated as “Cool!” or “Awesome!”. In contrast, the phrase “Vale madre” translates roughly to “it means nothing” or, more coarsely, “it doesn’t mean shit”. A “madriza” is a beating. Yet, if you insult a Latino or Latina’s mother, you will most likely get your ass beat.
As I said, it’s…complicated.
Traveling to The Center of the World
Spain emerged from the Crusades and the Middle Ages strengthened by the victory over the Moops and newly-united. While the large number of small feuding kingdoms had made the Iberian peninsula vulnerable to attack from the outside and within throughout the Middle Ages, the unification of most of modern-day Spain into one coherent state (through the unification of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castille) and the influence of the Renaissance in promoting scientific thought and exploration gave rise to the Spanish Empire.
The official beginning of the Spanish Empire is considered to be the moment King Ferdinand (from Aragon) and Queen Isabella (from Castile) commissioned the Italian (Genoese, to be specific) Christopher Columbus to find a new route to the Far East and gave him administrative rights to any lands he discovered and any others he could conquer. From that point until the end of the Spanish Empire, Madrid would become the center of the world.
This is where my trip began.
When I was a wee lil balls going to kindergarden in Mexico City, our neighbors from across the street, and my parents’ good friends, were a couple from Spain. I remember they were funny as fuck. It’s not necessarily that they told jokes because they didn’t. It was more their outlook on life and the comments they made about everyday things that were always self-deprecating, funny, and with a positive outlook towards life. To them, life was there to be enjoyed and everything provided an opportunity for amusement with a touch of sarcasm.
Visiting Madrid, sitting in tapas bars or chocolaterias, and listening to conversations, I now know where that came from. The people of Madrid are warm, funny, and keen to enjoy life. They love to take crappy and/or tragic situations and find the humor in them. At the same time, they are direct, no bullshit types. Madrid is the capital of the country, the business center of the country, and the origin of all roads in Spain. To say that the Madrileños think they are important is an understatement.
This makes for an interesting mix and a study in contrasts. One part of you wants to not like them for certain reasons but another part of you wants to like them for others. In the end, the friendliness won out for me. Maybe it helped that I speak Spanish, but, if anything, I thought they treated those who did not speak Spanish just the same if not better. They know where their bread is buttered.
Madrid wears its history well. Its architecture struck me as similar to its women: Many are older yet classical in style and completely made up to look just as good as they did in their heyday. At the same time, there is something there that is unique: A certain world-weariness. A sense of “I’ve been through some shit, I’ll have you know. And I’m still here.”
Madrid is the 40-50-something MILF that wears yoga pants and runs in the park. While smoking a cigarette. Or ten. She don’t give a fuck. And, if she feels like it and you are deemed worthy, she will give you a hell of a ride. Oh, and she doesn’t get out of bed until 10 on weekends. Seriously, there was jack shit open until 10.
One of the great traditions that Spain has bestowed on the world is the siesta. Another is the tapa. This is a great way to eat. The concept is simple: You go to a bar or taberna and order a drink (beer was cheaper than sodas, btw) and what is essentially an appetizer. You consume them both, have a chat with your friends, and move on to the next place which could be next door, across the street, or blocks away. Rinse and Repeat.
You should never go to a tapas restaurant in the United States. They get the concept wrong. Restaurants in the US want to keep you THERE to spend all your money with THEM. Thus, they offer a ton of food options and execute them… poorly. In Spain, you are EXPECTED to move on to the next place, so bars/taverns reduce the food options and often tend to specialize in certain dishes. One place might be famous for its octopus. Another one for its callos (tripe). Yet another one specializes in snails. You get the picture. Bars and taverns don’t try to hold on to their customers as long as they can. Instead, they serve them well for the time they have them and move on to serve the next one. There is a sexual metaphor in there somewhere.
I took almost as many pictures of food as I did of buildings. Even the stuff I didn’t absolutely love, I liked. If that makes sense. Here are some examples of classic Spanish tapas:
While you would think people would be fat from eating all the delicious food, you would be wrong. The center of the city is mostly pedestrian-only, car traffic is highly restricted, the metro system is extensive, and the central core is pretty hilly. On top of that, there is the Parque Del Retiro, which is a gigantic park in the middle of the city where I saw tons of people riding bikes and jogging. That means people burn a lot of calories and stay thin. Also, this helps:
Seriously, they smoke A LOT over there.
Driving the World’s Fastest Car
Allow Jeremy Clarkson to illustrate:
After a few days in Madrid, I got a rental car and we drove north on Spain’s fabulous roads. My fastest car in the world was a Seat Ibiza hatchback diesel manual. It had scratches all over the place and I got the “SuperRelax” insurance package. It was seriously an extreme pleasure to drive in Spain in this thing.
Not only are the highways and toll-roads very well-maintained, they were mostly traffic-free at a 120 kph (72 mph) speed limit and the few drivers that shared the road with me were courteous and maintained strict lane discipline.
That means EVERYONE drives on the right unless they are in the process of passing someone. It was heavenly. Two hours felt like 20 minutes.
On the northernmost part of Spain, there are many high mountains. The Spaniards have cut through those mountains and built so many tunnels, I felt I was back in Austria or Switzerland. It also helped that all the road signs were in Euskara, the Basque language. I really felt like I was in a foreign country then.
The scenery was breathtaking.
In the final stretch, the mountains gave way to the ocean and the highways straddled them both. I may have to grab a map and unzip…
Euskadi – La Patria de la Madre de la Madre de mi Padre
Our destination was the Basque Country. More specifically, Euskadi, the autonomous province in Spain commonly referred to in Spanish as The Basque Country. In fact, The Land of the Basques (Euskal Herria) includes Euskadi, the Spanish autonomous province of Navarre (Nafarroa), and the southwestern-most tip of France called Iparraldea. Together, they all make up the complete Basque Country.
My dad’s grandmother was born in Bilbao (Bilbo in Euskara and part of Euskadi) and my parents and I wanted to go see the places she mentioned so many times when we were all young.
I was actually lucky enough to have met my great-grandmother and spent time with her. She lived into her 90s, just like my grandmother that just passed away last fall. I still remember her stories and her cooking.
My parents remember her better than me and told me stories while we were in Spain that I’d never heard before. Stories such as how she left Spain, how she met my great-grandfather, and the amazing adventures they both had. The late 1800s were a crazy time, man. No wonder so many TV shows are set in those times.
This added an extra special dimension to the trip that I had not anticipated. Tourism to discover a new place and its people is awesome. To travel places and have a personal connection to them gives travel a context that makes trips even more special. Going with my parents made it even more so.
Do these pants make me look fat?
This was the other reason for us to go on this trip: Basque cooking is amongst the best and most innovative in the world right now. There are more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the Basque Country than anywhere in the world. The good food, though, is not restricted to expensive restaurants. Every single place we ate at had delicious food. Even our hotel restaurants had amazing and inventive menus.
The Basques call tapas “pintxos” and going out for a night of pintxos (“ir de pintxos” in Spanish) is as time-honored a tradition as freshmen throwing up at their first college party.
The difference between Basque pintxos and Spanish tapas is that the pintxos tend to be more tied to the seas (the Basques are famous fishermen) and that Basque pintxos have lately leaned towards the most gastronomically-adventurous and exotic side. Think modernist cuisine in tiny portions. Check that, modernist cuisine on a tiny plate or napkin.
The other way in which Basque cuisine differs from the rest of Spain is that they also feature a set menu in which the chef will put together a meal and you are expected to eat everything. It’s different from typical “prix-fixe” menus in that the Basque menu has a lot of food. I mean, a LOT. I had one such meal in Bilbao (see those four pictures above? That was it.) that knocked me out for two hours. Damn was it good though…
The New Old
It is this mix of old ingredients and new styles that essentially defines the Basque Country of today. You can see it in the architecture
and you can see it in the people. Young folks wear the latest styles while old men still wear their boina. There is a deep respect for the traditions of the past tied in with a modern inventive look to the future that makes the whole area unique from the rest of Spain. Heck, the rest of the world.
In truth, the Basques do consider themselves different. Politically, this has been seen over the last 50 years with the rise and fall of ETA and the Basque separatist movement. While ETA has finally disarmed (the latest handover of weapons happened while I was there), the path forward is uncertain, specially with the Catalan Referendum vote looming.
For the first time in a long time, however, it seems like the Basques are growing and prospering. They have always carved out their own niche in the world despite what any politicians say, but this time it seems that the Basque success is growing in a sustainable way. This cannot be anything but good.
Fun and Games
Of course, I could not go to Spain and not attend a soccer game. My dad is a huge Real Madrid fan. I am a Barcelona fan. Funny, right? While we were in Madrid, we went to the Bernabeu (Real’s home stadium) and took the tour. It was pretty impressive and my dad was like a kid again. He even got to sit on the bench and he was thrilled.
On the weekend we were there, Real hosted the Madrid derby against Atlético Madrid. Since it is a highly popular game, it was sold out and any tickets available on the secondary market were outrageously expensive. Looking at the schedule, I noticed that a game would take place in Bilbao on our last Friday night in Spain. A quick change of plans/hotels and a purchase of 3 VIP Area tickets later, we were set to go to the new San Mamés stadium in Bilbao, home to Athletic Bilbao.
One of the many new stories I heard on this trip was the story of one of my relatives who apparently played for Athletic way back in the 1940s. I had no idea. If Barcelona is the heart of Catalan pride, Athletic is the heart of Basque pride. The team famously only has Basque players, no foreigners. Yes, “foreigners” includes Spaniards.
Not to say that Athletic are the only team in the Basque Country. As a matter of fact, there are currently 5 Basque teams (out of 20 in the whole league, mind you) that play in La Liga, Spain’s top league: Athletic (Bilbao), Alavés (from Vitoria-Gateiz, the Euskadi capital), Osasuna (from Iruña (in Basque)/Pamplona(in Spanish)), Real Sociedad (from Donostia (in Basque)/San Sebastian(in Spanish)), and Eibar (tiny Eibar is a village in the middle of the mountains. Seriously, I drove by there. The stadium is next to the highway and the town is super small.)
Not to go all Archer on you, but if you get a chance to watch a game in the VIP area at the San Mamés, you simply must.
For the low low price of 160 Euros each, we got early access to the game (90 minutes prior to the start) and were fed gourmet pintxos by Michelin-starred chefs and beer/wine/sodas. All that we wanted.
The food and drinks were probably worth the 160 euros by themselves. Add to that awesome seats in a private section and a great view of the game (a 5-1 win by Athletic, no less) and it was an amazing way to spend our last night in the Basque Country.
Post-game, we headed back to the hotel to sleep, drove back to Madrid the next day, slept a night at the airport hotel, woke up early the following day, and headed home. It was a hell of a trip and I will cherish it always. The people were amazing, the locales were beautiful, and the stories that were shared by my parents were priceless.
I know that, in this day and age, people are hesitant to travel. I cannot stress it enough: PLEASE GO! There is an amazing world out there full of awesome people. Yes, there are assholes everywhere, but the good people heavily outnumber the bad ones. On top of that, partly due to this hesitancy to travel, fares are amazingly low. So go. NOW!
Yes, I’m tired and my sleep patterns are still not fully restored, but it was worth it. So fucking worth it.
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