Petretxema

The final group who made it to the top.

The Club de Montaña Pyrenees Hike yesterday included an optional ascent of Petretxema, which someone on the group told me was the highest mountain in Navarra, but that’s wrong on two counts – it’s about 50 meters shorter than Mesa de los Tres Reyes, and, more importantly, the peak of the mountain isn’t in Navarra, or even in Spain – to get to the top, you cross the border into France. No one who knows me would ever believe I would have worked so hard to get there, of all places. 🙂

Petretxema is higher than Ben Nevis, which I climbed in Scotland, so it is technically the highest mountain I have climbed. It was a shorter hike, though, as we didn’t start from sea level. For me it was still a greater challenge, as we had already hiked for several hours before tackling the mountain itself, and we took it at a quick pace, without any stops. On top of that I wasn’t feeling extremely well that day, and in fact hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Until the last minute, I wasn’t sure if I was going to try the mountain or not. In fact, I had decided against it, as most of the inexperienced walkers weren’t doing it, and I didn’t want to slow the hard-core group down. I started out at the front of the group, and tried my best to keep up with the leader. As we climbed higher and grass gave way to rock, the group split into two – the faster ones, who hadn’t needed a break until then, and the much slower half. It was just then that I started to fall behind, so for the rest of the climb I was my own middle group, pacing myself and listening to myself breathe. I kept looking behind and trying to keep going as the distance between me and the last climbers quickly narrowed. I knew that if they caught up with me, they would pass me and I would never make it to the top in time.

The Final Ascent

The last section of the ascent, just before the summit, is a strange miniature landscape of rock and ferocious wind which blows down from the top, slowing your ascent further. By this point, I was pushing myself by not letting myself stop until I reached this or that rock, and sometimes almost crawling.

The Summit

Finally, I was able to hear the voices from the people who had already made it to the top. One last push, and I was there.

I made it!

The views from the top were spectacular – almost as good as the satisfaction of having made it all the way up there. And I wasn’t even last – three or four people came in a few minutes after me, and a few more had given up along the way.

Anyone who’s never climbed one of these mountains must think I’ve gone crazy, or that I simply enjoy pain… but I’m two in now, and I’m absolutely hooked!

Back to the Fields...

When you’re so focused on getting to the top, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you still have to get back down. But although it’s quite rough on the knees, and you have to watch where you put your feet, it’s still infinitely easier to have the wind on your back and gravity on your side. Everyone is relaxed and talkative on the way down, a marked contrast from the windswept isolation and struggle of individual wills on the way up.

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Already Only a Month

It’s the last day of the solar summer. September is drawing to a close, and that means I’ve been on this exchange for nearly a month. It doesn’t feel like it. Depending on the time of the day, who I’m talking to, what I’m doing, it seems like I’ve been here forever, or like I’ve only just arrived. Never like I’ve been here for a month. And yet, I’ve now spent more time in Spain than in any other foreign country – longer than in Japan or Scotland. The time spent so far has been less action packed than a month of pure tourism, but not nearly as routine as life back home.

It’s funny now, to remember how I arrived in Spain after spending the night in the Manchester airport, how Allan and I wandered through Barcelona for two days as if in a dream, meeting up with Emily in Valencia for Tomatina and the beach, and then spending another long, sleepless night in route to Pamplona. I was happy to have Allan with me for the first few days here, as I moved into my apartment, walked around Pamplona for the first time, as a stranger, and even impulsively visited Puente la Reina based on a single photo in the train station. And then, Allan left, and suddenly I was totally alone, and far from home.

I took things one step at a time, with some challenges leaving me triumphant and others in a pathetic heap, but I got everything straightened out, in the end. I went through orientation, picked classes, matriculated, found my way around campus and groups for projects. I got a hair cut and learned where I could find this food and that and for what price. I learned how to use WIFI and the copy machine and the library and the bookstore. I’ve adjusted to Sundays and Siestas.

I made friends and we had curry parties and pancake parties and long nights drinking wine on apartment balconies. We travelled to San Sebastian and Vitoria and Bilbao. I met up with a girl from Couchsurfing.com and went to a Basque concert with her and her friends. I started learning Euskera. I went hiking in the Valley of Arpan, explored Alquezar and went canyoning in la Sierra de Guara with Club de Montana.

If I put it this way, yes, I suppose it has been one month. And yet one morning when I didn’t have class until 12, I lay in and when I woke up, it took me several long seconds to remember I was in Spain, because everything felt so normal and natural and safe and clean and good. I’ve found a new normal, made a new home here.

Not bad, for the first month.

Bilbao – Bigger, Better, Brighter

To think I’d heard such nasty things about Bilbao. In our geography of Spain unit Junior Year, we’d been told nothing more of it than that it was Basque, northern, industrial. Lacking in charm. Even Ana, my landlady, had said, “Go to the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim is beautiful. But don’t bother with the rest of it. Bilbao’s not a pretty city. It’s not so nice.” Perhaps I’d simply had low expectations – I loved it.

From the Old Town, with the winding alleys and pintxos bars I’ve already come to expect from Basque Spain, all the way to the famous Guggenheim, I wasn’t disappointed by an inch of the Bilbao I explored. I suppose it could be said that I was only really ‘impressed’ by Bilbao’s riverside market (the largest covered market in Europe), the pintxos at Bar Irrintzi (amazing), and, yes, the world famous Guggenheim Museum, but the spaces in between held their own charm. Our walk through the center of town took us past dozens of cheerful parks and row after row of elegant buildings, and our stroll alongside the Nervión river revealed fascinating, if puzzling, designs of office buildings, bridges, and modern art statues. A shameless mountain geek, I also loved the way the city is nestled down between two mountain ranges, earning it the nickname El Botxo – “the hole”.

I found Bilbao’s reputation to be quite ill-deserved – it was on the whole bigger, better, and brighter than I had been led to expect, and well worth a day or two of wandering. But if the great majority of the day trippers go straight to the Guggenheim without passing GO, well, that just means more pintxos for me!

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 22:11  Comments (1)  
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Bilbao’s Mercado de la Ribera

The Mercado from the outside.

Just steps from Bilbao’s old town, you can visit El Mercado de la Ribera, which claims to be the world’s largest covered market. It’s hard to find independent confirmation of this claim, but the Guinness Book of World Records did list it in 1990 as the biggest covered food market in Europe, at 10,000 square meters. Cynthia and I went in for a stroll during our day in Bilbao, but Lea didn’t quite have the stomach for it…

The market is divided into three floors, each with its own theme. To summarize, the basement is for seafood, the main floor meat and pastries, and the upper story fruits, vegetables, and flowers – quite nice, really, as you don’t have to enjoy the aroma of octopus while you pick out your apples or tomatoes!


This is euphemistically called a 'bull's egg' - huevo de toro. Yes, it's what you think it is.

Its a lot to take in for an American – I’m used to being quite separated from the bloody reality of animal products. A quick walk on the main floor brought me past a dozen things I’d never seen in America – entire pigs’ heads, brains and tongues, freshly skinned rabbits, even bull testicles. One butcher was graphically hacking open a sheep’s carcass even as we went passed!

Fish says: 😛

"Mira, mira, para un recuerdo!"

The basement was less frightening but stronger smelling – it had all the fragrance of low tide on a hot day. Still, I know it makes me a horrible person, but sometimes fish just look so funny/cute when dead, with their rolling googly eyes and their tongues sticking out! Cynthia and I stopped to take a picture of one group of them, and a boy working at the market became pretty enthusiastic about getting into our photo. “Look, look,” he said, “For a souvenir!”

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 16:08  Leave a Comment  
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Elements of Pamplona

Since I’ve been here at Pamplona, my experience has sort of splintered into five areas, based on my interests and situation. These are basically the five ‘lives’ I want to lead here, the things I want to explore. Of course, I won’t be fully immersed in any of them if I split up my time, but life is short and I want to taste as many things as possible. 🙂 These are not exactly equal to each other – they vary in terms of my motivation, the time and energy I will put into them, etc, but they’re all things I look forward to experiencing this semester.

1.) The Spanish Experience

Well, I don’t think I could get out of this one if I wanted to – it’s basically my default experience here. And it’s awesome. I’m taking all but one of my classes in Spanish, living with a Spanish woman, and making a few Spanish friends too, so I’m hoping to improve my knowledge of the language and the culture (both with a capital and a lowercase c). I love my province, Navarra, but I’m also very interested in exploring as much as I can of the rest of Spain – I’ve already been to Barcelona, Valencia, and Bilbao, and am going at a bare minimum to Madrid before I leave. Galicia is also on my almost certainly list. I’m also definitely eating as much Spanish food as I can!

Example: Every minute, every day.

2.) The Basque Experience

Yes, Pamplona is most certainly in Spain. But it’s also in Euskal Herria, or, the (greater) Basque Country. Fully half of the people I’ve met who have grown up here speak the language, Euskera, and the political situation is a constantly changing, dynamic thing reflected by graffiti, posters, and protests on the street here. I’m also close enough to Euskadi, or, the (autonomous region of the) Basque Country, that I’m able to explore it as well as I explore Navarra. So far, I’ve visited the three capitals – Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Vittoria – and loved them. With any luck, I’ll rent a car with some friends to head back and see some of the smaller towns. And anyone with a drop of linguistic leaning blood can’t help but be fascinated by Euskera itself.

Example: I signed up for a weekly Euskera course – I couldn’t resist!

3.) The Academic Experience

Yes, it sort of hit me by surprise, too. I may be studying abroad, but I’m still going to need to study – as much or more as I do back home. My classes aren’t just Spanish language, either – I’m studying visual culture, literature and its impact on the modern world, film and literature, linguistics, and the aforementioned Euskera, all in Spanish, with Spanish students. Of course, I can’t claim to love every second of this experience, but it’s a valuable one and fascinating if I let it be. So much of art history, for example, is the same as back home (imagine that) that differences really stand out and shine.

Example: Sitting in a huge classroom and trying to understand abstract lectures about Romanticism, while being unsure whether the processor just said concession, connection, or conception.

4.) The Pyrenean Experience

I love mountains – both for their scenic qualities and the possibilities for fun and exciting activities. Pamplona itself is surrounded by low mountains, and the Pyrenees themselves are just a short trip away. It´s very exciting for a little Missouri girl, and I want to make the most of it!

Example: I plan to go on many of the Club de Montaña excursions, mostly hiking, but this weekend an intense two days of canyon exploration, repelling, etc!

5.) The Erasmus Experience

This one is somewhat controversial among people studying abroad. Some love it and embrace it as a full half of their exchange experience – others feel that mixing too much with the Erasmus students from all over the world will take away from their immersion in the native culture. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it myself, as I’ve already experienced the craziness and wonder of an international community at Mizzou. I also know that spending time with the Erasmus students means more speaking in English and less practice with my Spanish. But ultimately, I think its an exercise in futility and self-isolation to try to avoid it on principle. Besides, the Erasmus students are my friends, they keep me sane, they’re fun, and, since we’re all (let’s face it) just tourists on speed anyway, its nice to have traveling companions. 🙂

Example: Last night a group of us (from Germany, Portugal, Lithuania, Peru, Austria, Finland, Spain, and Taiwan) had a pancake party together. Not exactly traditionally Spanish… but part of the experience, just the same.

Vitoria of the Bean Eaters

This weekend, I visited Vitoria (Gasteiz in Euskera), the capital of the Basque Country. Like other parts of the region I’ve visited thus far, Vitoria charmed me with its duality – the medieval alongside the strikingly modern, the way children laugh and play in the fountains as police block off plazas for protests, the way everything has two names – in Spanish, and in Basque. The residents of Vitoria can be called Vitorianos, or Gasteiztarras… or Babazorros, which means Bean Eaters. I like that.

Sea, Sky, and Sculpture in San Sebastian

San Sebastian seems to be famous for a dizzying number of things: blue waters, stunning vistas, a calm beach here, a surfing beach there, amazing seafood, delicious pintxos, an international film festival, lovely sculptures… and from what I could tell from a single day trip, its good reputation is well deserved. (And, it’s only about an hour from Pamplona by bus!)

Ida, Lea, Cynthia and I started the day with a walk around Monte Urgull on the Paseo Nuevo, which during bad weather can be unpassable as the waves leap over the balconies. When we walked it, the surf was calm and delightful, playing on the rocks below. As we came around the mountain, the sculpture “Empty Construction” competed with the lovely bay for our attention. A crescent moon of sandy beach stretched out before us, snuggled into a natural harbour formed by the Isla de Santa Klara and filled with sailboats gliding about.

The view was nice enough from sea level, but we took the funicular up Monte Gueldo to find what might be the theme park with the best view in the world. The sea and the sky seemed perfect mirrors of each other as we stood suspended between the two. Heading back down, we walked a bit farther past the beach to find “The Comb of the Winds”, another lovely sculpture, or set of sculptures, all rusty red in contrast to the deep blues all around them.

We’ll have to return to give the city itself a fair share of our time and interest, as I know it’s filled with incredible cuisine and lovely architecture. Still, on our way back to the bus stop we did happen to wander through the procession for the 31st of August Celebration – it was a loud and flashy parade of cannons, music, and traditional Basque clothing – what luck that we happened to be there to see it!

Why Pamplona?

The Cathedral of Pamplona, with mountains behind.

There is a very practical and logical reason why I chose to study abroad at the University of Navarra Pamplona – I have to do one of my study abroad semesters through my home university’s school of journalism, and the program in Spain is the only one not taught in English, and the main purpose of studying abroad for me is to improve my language abilities. (There was also an Argentinian option, which was tempting, but it’s an internship rather than a traditional academic experience.)

Despite this logical reasoning, I am thrilled to be going where I am going. I keep forgetting that I’ve never stepped foot in Spain before – since I’ve studied Spanish for eight years, it’s been part of my life for a long time, and the country is a big enough cultural force that even Americans can’t avoid a sense of its presence growing up. When I first thought about studying abroad there, I was torn by its internal diversity, wanting to explore each of its regions for their own individual merit. Galicia, Catalunya, Andalucia, Valencia, the interior, the islands… each with its own stunning landscapes and delicious food, many with their own secondary languages. How could I ever choose?

Pamplona, situated in the north of Spain.

I’m relieved in a way that logistics decided for me, and now I’m all enthusiasm about Pamplona, the neighboring Pyrenees, the Basque Countryside. I think the climate there will agree with me better than that of southern Spain, and I’ve always craved mountains. I’m curious about the Basque culture and social situation. The only downside is that every time I bring up the experience, for the rest of my life, I anticipate being asked the same question – “Did you see the running of the bulls?” And I won’t have, either – that takes place in the summer. Amazingly the city does still exist the rest of the year, though you wouldn’t know it from the media or guidebook coverage.

As far as the University itself is concerned, I know several current or former students there, and it sounds quite nice. It has good ratings, particularly for journalism, which is what I’ll be studying there. It also happens to be run by Opus Dei, the Christian organization which is  made out to be more than a little bit crazy in Dan Brown’s thrillers. So that should add another interesting dimension to the experience!