Don’t get me wrong, I love Barcelona. Blessed is the hour of vermouth. Blessed are the castellers. Blessed are the chringuitos, the horchata, the boquerones, the sobremesa, the neighborhood festivals, the Picassos, the Guadis.
But to be honest, I couldn’t wait to escape. During this sweltering European summer, sweaty Barcelona with its crowded Rambla and snaking tourist lines and crammed beaches had become less like home and more like a swelling blister. The throngs of tourists, thousands upon thousands of them, were like zombies with luggage, clogging the circuitry of narrow streets, making me wait to get into my favorite eatery. They were chock-a-block on the city’s beaches, competing with locals to take up every bit of space along the beaches of the Barceloneta. There were places where the water was greasy with sunblock.
We had enough.
And so my family and I rented a car and at 6 a.m and made our way across the baking landscape towards the other side of Spain—passing Lleida whose first recorded settlements date back to the Bronze age, then past Zaragoza, through the Rioja with its vineyards standing firm against the blinding heat and into the Basque country.
We knew we had arrived when we started to see Basque names along the highway. A national park named Gorbeiako, villages called Dlika or Ea, sound as though they could be anywhere other than Europe. Basque names are themselves an adventure. The language, called Euskara, is nothing like Spanish, indeed nothing like anything found anywhere in Western Europe. There are DNA studies indicating that Basques themselves may be genetically distinct from the rest of Europe.
As we passed through the mountainside, we could feel the heat surrender to a refreshing cool. We turned off the air conditioner in our Peugeot and let the cool wind stream against our faces. My son picked up his binoculars to spy hawks and eagles meandering in the sky above. My daughter let the air whirl through her curly hair.
There is something lost when the experience of travel is rendered into internet reservations and long lines. And sometimes it is hard to imagine that in Europe, there are places that are still relatively undiscovered by the tourist hoard. To be sure, the well-traveled cities are beautiful—London, Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Barcelona— but they are the objects of a love that can sometimes feel stifling. We wanted to see another part of Europe and of Spain—not necessarily an adventure so much as a set of experiences that restored our memory of wonder.
We skipped past Bilbao, past Guernica, known largely for it bloody history as one the first victims of the aerial bombings of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and settled to a little beach called Laga. We drove along a winding road that hugged the cliffs. And then the road dipped a bit before we got there.
The beach sits beyond a sharp towering rockface. The waters of the Atlantic are cooler than the Mediterranean and in the fall and winter, they pound the cliffs and can toss ocean-going boats around like toys in a bathtub. Up the coast, in the French side of the Basque Country Quicksilver CEO Pierre Agnes, 54, set off from the surfing resort of Hossegor, Landes, on a winter fishing trip and never returned. But in summer the ocean is gentle, welcoming enough for even beginning surfers to try their hand.
Some 30 years ago, I learned to surf at Laga. I remember the cool air, the soft rocks where the Bay of Biscay meets the shore and the waves that made me feel like I was in a washing machine when I fell. And to my great delight nearly nothing had changed since then. The little bar at the end of the beach still sells tapas and pintxos—a Basque specialty. And there is a small shack where you can rent a surfboard and a wetsuit for something like 12 bucks. I’m a surfing novice but the Basque country is a serious surfing destination. Just down the road in Mundaka the waves hollow out perfectly and powerfully. The town is home to the Billabong Pro Mundaka competition, one of the most important stops on the pro tour. Other beaches like Zarrautz, Zurriola and La Salvaje are also homes to serious surfing communities.
I wanted to get in a bit of time on the waves but my 8-year-old wouldn’t let me. “Papa, papa, papa, let me try,” he said. I attached a leash to his leg and took him out to where the swells were just high enough for him to ride. We looked out on the horizon for maybe 10 minutes or so where I familiarized him with the ocean as a kind of rolling landscape. He began to learn how to spot when a wave was coming, how to position himself for its arrival. And when it arrived I gave him a gentle push and, in an instant, he was off. Surfing is an endorphin producing addiction and he couldn’t get enough of it. Finally, he tired, and after we made sandcastles on the shore with his 2-year-old sister and my partner we decided to set off again.
Let’s see. Can you pronounce San Juan de Gaztelugatxe? We went there next after a long meandering drive where the roadside is covered with ferns, which in turn give way to towering pine trees. We arrived expecting the worst since San Juan de Gaztelugatxe had for some reason become rendered as some great castle in the television series Game of Thones. The locals in the next village down told us that the church, had been overrun by foreigners and fans of the series. Game of Thrones fanatics were even pulling up stones from the 241 steps that lead to the church entrance to keep as souvenirs.
But when we arrived, we found that the countryside definition of a tourist hoard was far more benign than anything anyone living in Europe’s major cities has experienced. There was a little wooden booth at the entrance to the church. They gave us a ticket and asked us not to pull up stones. Sounds reasonable. I put my daughter on my shoulders and began my way down.
There are certain places that look like they come out of a dream. And as they look this way, they are impossible to describe. A remote church on an outcropping that looks almost like island, which is flanked by another little island, which are in turn is surrounded by sea and hills the color of okra.
There were many such places nestled in the hills of the Spanish Basque country. Walk through a two-street town called Ea, behind the little houses and apartments and there is a little pathway that leads to a series of stunning cliffside views. Ride up to Elanxtobe and watch intrepid kids and adults do summersaults as they dive from the harbor walls into the water below. And while you may feel like a traveler, you don’t need an internet reservation in order to participate.