Last week Emily and I had the absolute pleasure of having my childhood neighbourino and bestest buddy Christina Bartlett to stay. She and her husband Jesse are in the process of moving to the far north of Canada to a 900-person town called Norman Wells (worth a google-map), and while Jesse was converting his pilot qualifications to their Canadian equivalents, Christina travelled even further away from home to spent 10 lovely days with us.
Of course we did a few touristy things: walking through the different neighbourhoods, showing off our favourite eateries, hitting up some art galleries… But what impressed us most about Christina (and her favourite thing here) was that she would go off down our little suburban Madrid street and do the shopping - all by herself! From the patisserie across the road, which tempts us with its insanely delicious smells each time we pass; to the fruit seller opposite, who, when she mentioned she wasn’t sure what to cook for dinner, proceeded to give Christina a long list of suggestions to make the most of the produce he had on offer. She bought us flowers for our dining table. She made us delicious lentil soup. And then an absolutely scrumptious chocolate tart. She made my bed each morning (really well). I’m pretty sure she also tidied my room a bit. (As my mother will recall, Christina did this consistently through my childhood since my room was always a complete shambles and beyond help.. My complaints that messiness is a sign of genius fell on deaf ears). In short, Christina was the perfect guest.
Meanwhile, Em and I were finishing up one of our courses here, an intensive Spanish language night course. We had the exam last week, and both passed! So one down, three to go…
Last weekend was one of Spain’s many “puentes” (literally, bridges; but also long weekend) thanks to Labour Day being on a Tuesday, and Madrid’s regional day on the Wednesday. Five day weekend? Yes please. Having chanced on 10 euro Ryanair flights between Bilbao and Madrid, Christina and I headed off to País Vasco - the Basque Country - in Spain’s north for three nights.
We caught the speedy train (which still took five hours!) to San Sebastián, which is on Spain’s north coast very close to the Pyrenees and French border. I think it is the most beautiful city I have been to: like the heart of Paris on the coast - with beautiful buildings, grand old bridges spanning the river and some of the best patisserie outside of France; mixed with Waiheke Island or Mount Maunganui: pristine white beaches (conveniently, a placid one for swimming and, across the river, a popular surf beach), and rolling green hills away from the city. Basically, I want to move to San Sebastián! Did I mention that it’s supposedly the food capital of the world? It has the most Michelin-starred chefs per capita of any city in the world; and the region invented the concept of pintxos - tapas - which you find displayed in every bar, plates of two-bite deliciousness of every imaginable combination which go down nicely with a glass of Txkotli - a dry, almost sour young white wine of the area.
Needless to say, we had a great time being food tourists. From our first dinner, which actually was just dessert (all we could afford) at this incredible gastronomy-type place; to experimental pintxos (think squid ink aioli, grilled artichoke with gold dust and foie gras) with three anaesthetist friends we made at the pensión; and more than a few excellent pastries, we feel like we embraced the true spirit of San Sebastián..
Our last day started with a short bus trip from San Sebastián to Bilbao, the biggest city in the Basque Country and home to the famous Guggenheim museum, an architectural delicacy of silver scales and silky curves. The building itself was as much a work of art as its contents; and to be honest some of the latter were slightly disturbing, such as a photographer who photographs herself inside body suits/masks modelled on members of her family. E.g. self portrait as my brother John; or self-portrait as Grandpa. Quuuite strange. Our day in Bilbao coincided with Labour Day, and in true Spanish style there were hordes of protestors out in the streets demonstrating against the government’s latest austerity cutbacks. Despite the hefty amounts of graffiti that accompanies such a protest, Bilbao was a beautiful city and had a lot more architectural gems than just the Guggenheim.
Contrary to my mother’s fears, we survived the Ryanair flight back to Madrid; and had a Final Supper together at a Thai restaurant (one starts to crave pad thai) before poor Christina had to go back to the airport for a 6am departure back to Canada. Hopefully the trip was worth the sleep deprivation! I had an absolutely fantastic time, I’m completely enamoured of País Vasco (although I can’t speak a word of their crazy language, Euskadi) and super sad that it could well be years before I see Christina again, given her new hermit-like lifestyle! Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later. Until then, I’l; be following her fantastic blog (http://delacasa.wordpress.com) and you should too!