Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021

Spanish architect Santiago Callatrava created a signature look for the Ysios winery in the Rioja.

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Beyond Bilbao

Home to ancient culture, the Basque Country also has some of Europe’s most exciting architecture

The Finisterre lighthouse flashed its signal from Brittany’s coast as my ship passed slowly by. Having sailed from Portsmouth, England, we now headed on a southerly course towards Iberia’s northern shore. The next morning, I watched the surf piling up in the distance onto that recognizable elbow of land where the coasts of France and Spain meet. Basque Country was soon on the horizon.

I kept watch on deck, meanwhile, for the world’s greatest congregations of whale and dolphin species feeding in the bay. It was this famously stormy body of water where the nation’s whalers, fishermen and navigators acquired the skills they exported the world over.

Basque fishermen left place names behind along Canada’s east coast some 500 years ago — Port-aux-Basques and Biscay Bay, for example. Those seafarers had spread the reputation of a proud and independent culture that claims to have survived unchanged longer than any other in recorded history.

If Basque Country itself presents a problem for the visitor, it is simply that such incredible diversity is condensed into a very small package. The landscape contains everything from spectacular mountain ranges and verdant uplands to long stretches of sandy shores, as well as a wealth of natural resources that long ago gave the Basque Country — or Euskal Herria as it is called in Spain — an important role in Spain’s economy. The region is also a gem in the gastronomic order of things.

There are a wealth of recognizable Basque names. Ravel’s music, for example, is a staple in the world’s concert halls. Cristóbal Balenciaga moves over for no one in the world of fashion. And sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s muscular, angular creations occupy city squares and corporate boardrooms far and wide. Meanwhile, the world of sport toasts champion golfer José María Olazábal.

Wine Country Wonder

My most recent visit was prompted by the recognition recently paid to Frank Gehry, Canada’s gift to architecture. His recent achievements for the Basques will probably grant him a place high in their national pantheon. The two structures he has so far designed — one for Bilbao, the other for the village of Elciego in the Rioja wine region — have helped redefine the physical as well as the cultural environment. It is as simple as that.

Oddly enough, for a nation claiming an unequalled cultural heritage, there is a notable absence of outstanding architecture that expresses the essence of an ancient people’s cultural and religious heritage. This is as true of the French Basques as it is of the Spanish. Say what you like about the Guggenheim Museum, there is no doubt that it concentrates Basque minds on issues of identity.

Gehry’s Guggenheim has transformed Bilbao, hitherto a non-descript, rough and mainly messy industrial centre. There is such pleasure wandering a city where a fresh and invigorating landscape has supplanted pollution and industrial clutter. This is the new Bilbao in the decade since the museum opened for business.

The rural town of Elciego is a different story, except for the fact that here the cultivation of the grape has been as important an industrial factor as merchant shipping had been to Bilbao. The mission here was to wrestle a 150-year-old bodega enterprise into the 21st century. The jury may still be out on the final result, but the short-term impact is undeniable. Gehry’s fantastically whimsical creation simply doesn’t compare with anything else.

Less readily observed is how the concept is helping to revolutionize the wine business in the region. At the heart of a timeless pastoral landscape, the contrasts between the simple medieval surroundings and Gehry’s futuristic sculptural hotel on the Riscal winery are breathtaking. If you come this far, even a short stay at this unique retreat will be rewarding. And you will learn first-hand just how Gehry’s influence has helped to re-invigorate the region’s viticultural reputation. After all, this is Rioja country, where the grape rules.

Along similar lines, another highlight is architect Santiago Calatrava’s building at Ysios. The bodega is barely a 10-minute drive from Elciego and in the shadow of the walled 13th-century town of Laguardia. Passing through the lush and gently rolling Álava countryside, with vines crowding the narrow roads and lanes, time seems to slow down.

I pulled over at one of the many dolmens, stepped out of the car and plucked a ripe berry or two from a nearby vine, before passing on. Scattered around the Basque countryside, the megalithic monuments are evidence of long-ago shepherds who grazed their native Latxa sheep, source of several famous cheeses, on these shaded fields.

Basking in France

My onward journey toward France led conveniently past Ordizia, a market town popular for its annual cheese contest. I am a huge fan of markets but this one is special, being home to the world’s single most expensive cheese: Idiazabal. I didn’t catch sight of the €5000 that changed hands when the contest’s winning entry was proclaimed, but the figure took on new meaning when I saw what the amazing sum fetched: just a left-over chunk, the judges’ tastings having accounted for fully one half of the small wheel.

Having repeatedly heard of the economic handicaps particular to the region in France, I was struck immediately as I crossed the border by a general impression of well-being. This, I was to learn, had everything to do with the pride local people take in their surroundings, be it an unsung village in the remote hills, or the two principal centres, Bayonne and Biarritz.

The latter hardly needs an introduction, having become famous following its discovery by Napoleon III. The glorious palace he built on the seafront for his wife Eugénie is now a palatial hotel — the finest along the coast with a view to die for. And while I had long since given up golf, I arranged to meet with the organizers of one of its great events, the Biarritz Le Phare Cup. Its name derives from the majestic lighthouse standing on a point of land that marks Basque Country’s northern boundary. The coastal walk to the Spanish border, Biscay’s legendary surf ever near, is one of the region’s attractions.

The small city of Bayonne proved to be one of the journey’s top experiences — colourful, lively and historic. The half-timbered and shuttered façades lining the banks of the Nive are painted red and green, the national colours.

Overlooking the river on a peaceful evening, I enjoyed a memorable meal. Chocolate as final course was almost obligatory in view of local history. Proximity to the border had made Bayonne a safe haven for Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Among the profitable trades introduced by the new immigrants was the manufacture of chocolate.

St-Jean-de-Luz, the nearby charming fishing village famed in its heyday as the “Petit Paris,” may be where King Louis XIV met and married his “dwarf-like” wife, Maria Theresa of Austria, but to me it will remain as a snapshot of a remarkable modern cultural event.

Basque, sadly, has been a language under threat, as has the whole of its culture. So it was a delight to be there when large numbers of townsfolk were in the main square, performing the alphabet in song and dance. Led by a jolly instructor, they were, in fact, celebrating their culture while rediscovering their threatened language.

Pilgrim’s Way

This trip largely followed in the footsteps of countless pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela. I stopped, therefore, at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a traditional starting point on the route across the Pyrenees. A climb onto the uppermost ramparts overlooking the countryside identified the strategic reasons for the town’s existence. History records this as the place where Charlemagne’s army came to grief, on August 15 in 778. It is said that he had failed to account for the fighting qualities of the Basques.

The modern pilgrim must stop at Gernika, war having taken its dreadful toll down the ages. When I arrived, the town’s central market was greeting the day’s first customers, and April 26, 1937, seemed suddenly like it could have been yesterday. On that day, 71 years ago, the town was about to be wiped out, along with most of those at the weekly market. Each year, when the day arrives, the event is commemorated. A nearby wall has been coloured with a full-sized copy of Picasso’s iconic depiction of the bombing raid which history cannot forget.

The Pilgrims’ Way passes through Gernika as it does Bilbao, my final stop. It runs to the top of the city’s highest hill where the pilgrims’ Church of the Begonia stands. Music was my reason for attending mass, but it seemed appropriate to give thanks here for the warm welcome and safe passage I had experienced in this unique land.

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