- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

BILBAO, Spain — Many visitors to Spain gravitate toward the cities Madrid and Barcelona and the Mediterranean-flavored south.

Our destination for a friend’s wedding was Bilbao, an old industrial city given new life thanks to architect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao.

Our itinerary also included La Rioja wine region; the seaside resort of San Sebastian; and Pamplona during the festival of San Fermin, known for the runs with the bulls.

Before the wedding, we visited the titanium-clad Guggenheim, which evokes ship and fish. On exhibit through much of October are works by American pop artist James Rosenquist and abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. The museum’s impressive collection of modern art includes works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat as well as Richard Serra’s massive “Snake,” a 13-foot-high, 103-foot-long set of undulating iron plates that visitors may touch as they walk through and around it.

The most powerful piece at this museum, though, is the building itself. It opened in 1997 and has been credited with revitalizing this old steel and shipbuilding city, which, fittingly, is a “sister city” to Pittsburgh.

We drove to the town of Guernica, the village that dictator Francisco Franco allowed the Nazis to use for bombing practice by Hitler’s Condor Legion in 1937. Mr. Picasso’s world-famous painting of the horror — considered by many to be his greatest work — is in Madrid at the Reina Sofia Museum, though many Basques would like to see it housed in the Guggenheim. The town has been largely rebuilt, but a solemn history lesson is part of any visit.

About 1,650 people were killed during the three-hour raid on a market day that destroyed much of Guernica. Somehow, a symbolic oak tree survived. Since the Middle Ages, Basques had met in Guernica under an oak in town to proclaim local law. When the tree died in 1860, a sapling from its acorn was planted, and it survived the infamous bombing.

We next went to Sopelana, where we lounged on one of the many beaches along the northern coast and burned our fair skin so that we looked even more like tourists among the locals.

The surf was unusually strong, so swimmers were confined to a 50-yard-wide area. We ventured chest-high into the cold water to cool off, then retreated to our towels to warm up under the sunny blue sky. The sand was rimmed by tall cliffs from which parasailers launched to ride the currents.

We stopped in several Spanish bars (most of which are small by American standards) and drank beer and noshed on pintxos, the Basque tapas. Every bar has either a tray or a small case displaying a variety of pintxos, including a dish of olives; tortilla de patata, a sort of potato omelet; and a thin slice or two of jamon iberico — cured ham from acorn-fed pigs — served on a dinner-size roll.

The ham is a world-renowned delicacy, but you’ll have to go to Spain to try it; it’s illegal to import it into the United States. (Spain’s slaughterhouses aren’t certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) For excellent jamon in Bilbao, go to La Vina, where entire cured hams, hoof to haunch, hang from the ceiling.

The wedding my wife and I attended was in Murguia, a small town an hour south of Bilbao and near Gorbeia, the Basque region’s largest natural park, at nearly 50,000 acres. At 4,862 feet, Mount Gorbeia is the tallest mountain in the range that separates the north climatically from the Mediterranean south.

We walked off the wine and ham from the previous night’s wedding feast by strolling on a paved path, but there are trails leading up mountains and along streams. Many families cavorted in the water to escape the hot, bright sun.

From there we headed south to Laguardia. The town, which sits on a hill, was walled for protection in the 13th century. No cars are allowed inside the walls because vibrations from rumbling automobiles might disturb the wine cellars built under many of the streets.

The absence of cars makes wandering around the narrow paved streets a romantic delight. The homes are narrow and built together, like row houses. Because there are no yards, many of the small stone buildings have colorful window boxes overflowing with flowers.

Wine lovers could easily spend a week touring the numerous bodegas and eating at Laguardia’s many restaurants. A visit to the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes, constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, with its larger-than-life depiction of the 12 Apostles and the Virgin Mary, is a must.

From Laguardia, we headed north to San Sebastian. Just outside the resort, we visited a museum and sculpture garden of the late Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. That night we joined in the local custom of an evening walk on the promenade along La Concha, one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.

The promenade attracted older couples holding hands, a stylish mom pushing a stroller for an aerobic workout, joggers and lollygaggers. We stopped to watch an old woman pull a small fish from the sea, putting it in a bucket with a couple of others.

I tried to figure out where Ernest Hemingway’s Jake Barnes swam in “The Sun Also Rises.”

It was late enough that the beach was closed to swimmers, but kayakers were venturing out for an evening paddle. We didn’t notice the time, and soon it was 8 p.m.; daylight in early summer here lasts until after 10 p.m.

Pamplona was next. The festival of San Fermin is wildly popular, and rooms are booked far in advance. Through an Internet travel site, we had booked a room just outside the city, but when we entered our hotel with our printed confirmation, we were told we had no room. The booking agency had canceled it without notifying us because of a credit-card glitch.

Our option was to sleep in our Citroen in the parking lot or stay up all night. Neither appealed, so with regret, we departed Pamplona and its wine-soaked throngs of people dressed in traditional white and red. Lesson learned: Making arrangements via the Internet is convenient but not foolproof.

We pulled out our guidebook and decided to stay in Argomaniz, several miles outside the city of Vitoria. The Argomaniz Parador, a Renaissance palace converted into a hotel by the state tourism bureau, has about 50 modern rooms and a wonderful restaurant on the top floor.

We sat beneath the high wood-beamed ceiling and enjoyed a bottle of wine with my most decadent meal of the vacation, veal medallions topped with seared foie gras.

Spain has more than 80 Parador hotels in historically significant buildings. Napoleon stayed in ours during the Peninsular War before attacking Vitoria. Though priced medium to high-end, they are considered a bargain for offering affordable luxury. Argomaniz had the largest room of any place we stayed, a king-size bed and spacious bathroom for about $125.

Like many vacationers, we tried to cram too much into too little time. Next time, we’ll do less and relax more, leaving plenty of time for the food, drink and culture of another country.

• • •

Guggenheim Museum: Avenida Abandoibarra, Bilbao; www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/ingles. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.Tuesday through Sunday; admission $16.

Guernica: Gernika Museum, www.gernika-lumo.net. Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Pamplona: Festival of San Fermin, July 6 through 9, 2005; www.sanfermin.com.

Paradors: www.parador.es.

More information: visit www.basquecountry-tourism.com or call the Tourist Office of Spain, 212/265-8822.

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