Thursday, 1 July 2010

Euskadi, The Basque Country

Soon after I booked the Easyjet flights to Bilbao in January I began to tell people that I would be travelling to Spain in April but by the time of the trip I had started to be more specific and was referring to it as Northern Spain and to be completely accurate the Basque Country. This was because the more research that I carried out ahead of the trip it was clear that I would not be visiting Spain at all because the Basque Country, although part of the Kingdom of Spain is something altogether different.

The Basque Country, or Euskadi in the Basque language, is part of the larger Basque region that also icludes Vavarre and stretches into northern France and is an Autonomous Community of northern Spain that was granted the status of historical region in the Spanish Constitution of 1978. The capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz (Vitoria is the name in Spanish, Gasteiz in Basque) and Bilbao is its largest city.

It was an early morning flight and I slept for most of the journey but woke up as the plane began to descend shortly before crossing the coast of the Bay of Biscay just east of Bilbao so I was in time to see the ribbon of golden sand and behind that the glorious green of the forests and the alpine like mountains rising dramatically out of the sea and concealing lakes and rivers in the valleys and criss-cross gorges of the interior.

In contrast to the grand scenery of the natural environment Bilbao airport was a stark modern structure, a sprawling bleached concrete welcome mat that was austere and unattractive. To be fair it was undergoing extensive refurbishment so perhaps we weren’t seeing it at its best but it was certainly somewhere to pass through quickly. It was a shame then that we had to stay longer than we would really have liked because the Sol-Mar car hire desk was a tedious slow moving disaster.

There was a long queue and only one clerk on duty and each customer seemed to take about fifteen minutes to sign up, which meant a thirty minute wait for us as we were third in line. The whole process was completely inefficient and nothing seemed to be prepared for dealing with what were after all, all pre booked customers. As the line of people behind became more irritable and impatient the tension began to rise and I was relieved when it was my turn to get to the desk but as I did so the clerk disappeared into the back office for a five-minute break.

When she returned it took her about ten more minutes to double the original website quotation through the inevitable addition of insurance, airport tax and the cost of a tank of fuel but this didn’t shock me because this is normal practice for all the car hire companies who all now seem to have adopted the Ryanair business model for surprising unsuspecting customers with a range of additional charges.

We were relieved to complete the process, get outside into the fresh air and then take temporary possession of a flame red Seat Ibiza and we pointed it in the direction of the city of Santander on the Autovia del Cantabria. It was a bit overcast but quite warm and soon we were driving in a wide motorway loop from east to west around the city of Bilbao which after Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville is the fifth largest in Spain. It is also one of the most industrialised and the road took us past large heavy manufacturing plants, engineering works and a huge power station that was belching out flames and fumes. Behind them the mountain sides had been deforested and carved away for mineral extraction to support the metallurgy industries that had been the original source of Bilbao’s prosperity but we were soon past this and the road began to follow the coast line, the scenery improved and it started to brighten up.

We were heading for the seaside town and fishing port of Castro Urdiales and after about thirty kilometres or so after we had past out of the Basque Country and into Cantabria we left the motorway and drove through the outskirts of the town and straight to the seafront and by the time we had parked the car and set off along the promenade the sun was beginning to poke through.

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