Plaza in Ochagavia

For lunch on the second day of our road trip, Marketa and I stopped in Ochagavía, the most prominent village in Navarra’s Salazar Valley. We walked alongside the river, admiring the traditional architecture and taking pictures like crazy. Then we found a reasonably priced sidrería (Cider-house) to eat at. Marketa ordered “cow’s face” as she called it – some sort of cheek meat, while I ordered traditional Basque meatballs, Basque pate, and cuajada for dessert.

Marketa saw some Kukuxumusu merchandise in a store window in the plaza, so in we went. I was ecstatic to find several animated movies from my childhood – in Basque! Red-faced but determined, I asked the lady behind the counter for Haran Sorginduaren Bila – also known as The Land Before Time. She was very sweet. “I see you like cartoons, just like me!” she said. As she was scanning the movie, though, she realized that it wasn’t just in Spanish, but in Basque! I told her that was why I was buying it, because I was studying Basque a little.

At that, she went out to the street and called in her friends. “This is an American girl, studying Euskera!” she announced. All of them were pretty impressed. “You’re doing what we could not,” they told me. “We’ve tried to learn a little bit, but we’re too old now, it’s too late, we’re the lost generation.”

“Our grandparents spoke Basque, our parents understood it. But then came the Franco years… It skipped us. But now the children are learning again! And even you, an American!”


Zorionak Ainhoa!

Just like in ordinary life, sometimes you have to make tough decisions while abroad. I’d been looking forward to the upcoming International Student Farewell Dinner for weeks, just as I’d been looking forward to my friend Ainhoa’s birthday party. I’d submitted photos to the farewell slideshow, RSVPd on Facebook, and bought Ainhoa a birthday present. Then, the day before the dinner, I got a phone call from one of Ainhoa’s friends. The two events were going to be held the same day, the same time.

It wasn’t a fun decision to make, but I knew from the moment I got the phone call what I would decide. Ainhoa had been a great friend to me. Of all the locals I’d met, she’d made the most sincere effort to include me and show me her culture. I couldn’t miss her birthday, not even for a tear-filled slideshow where all the international students would probably sing along to “as we go on, we remember, we will still be, friends forever…” (and really, what else can happen at an event like that?)

So, I went to Ainhoa’s party. I was meant to meet with the girls who lived on my side of town so that we could take the bus to Txantrea together. I arrived at the designated place at the designated time. It was a cold night, and generally arriving right on time in Spain means you will be waiting 10-15 minutes, but I decided to play it safe because I was meeting with Basques (northern Spanish cultures are a bit less relaxed about time), and because it was a surprise birthday party. After several minutes, another girl who was waiting approached me and asked whether I was Miranda. We chatted and laughed at ourselves for arriving ‘early’ until Andrea came out of her apartment at last. By then we had missed two buses, and since they only come every 15 minutes, we were over an hour late to arrive in Txantrea.

On the way from the bus stop, we suddenly heard cowbells sounding through the otherwise quiet night. To my delight, a parade of Basque Joaldunak ran by! These are dancers who wear cones and ribbons on their heads, costumes of bandanas and wool skirts, and, best of all, two enormous cowbells strapped to their backsides. “Why are they here?” I asked. “To scare away evil spirits!” said Andrea. I laughed at that. “Okay. But why here, and right now?” She just smiled and shrugged.

We met up with the rest of the group and headed to a bar. As we approached, I once again heard the clanging of cowbells. The Joaldunak were taking a break and a beer inside! It was a tiny place, with Basque independence posters joining calls to socialism, vegan-ism, and the legalization of marijuana on its walls. I worked up my courage to ask one of the Joaldunak for a picture. He was so excited that I spoke a little bit of Basque, that soon he was teasing me and telling me I could play with his bells. Awkward in a way but way too much fun to resist!

After some time in the bar, we went back to a friend’s place. This was actually my first and only time in a private house in Spain! (Within Pamplona, it’s all apartments.)  We cooked sausages and croquettes to eat with bread and good Navarran cheese. Everyone wanted to play cards, but after a round or two of playing some Spanish game I never really got the hang of, they asked for an American card game. Okay, fine, but they didn’t have what we would call a ‘standard’ deck of cards – only a set of Mus cards, with less royalty than our decks and suits of coins, swords, cups, and wands, like in tarot.

Towards the end of the party, I gave Ainhoa the present I’d put together for her – some large print photos I had taken of her the day we went to the Cantabrian Sea. Ainhoa and her friends had a present for me as well! I had misunderstood a certain Basque political poster, often hung out of people’s windows in Pamplona and elsewhere, to simply mean, “The Basque Country is awesome!” They all thought this was very funny, and bought me one of these flags. Everyone signed it for me as well.

Zorionak, Ainhoa, eta Mesedez!

Happy Birthday, Ainhoa, and Thank You!

North, to the Witch Caves!

Zugarramurdi, in the Valley of Baztan

In the extreme north of Navarra is a little town called Zugarramurdi, home to 218 people and, four hundred years ago, one of the biggest and bloodiest witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, forty suspected witches were found guilty and sent south for further trial, where many ended up being burned at the stake.

In my second to last week in Pamplona, some friends and I took a rental car up to Zugarramurdi from Pamplona (about 1 1/2 hour drive). We were in a bit of a hurry, so we only took the quickest peek at the new Witch Museum, but we were especially eager to see the Sorgin Leze, or Witch Caves, where the devil himself was said to give services to congregations of witches on the banks of the Hell Stream (Infernuko Erreka in Basque).

The Hell Stream

The first thing we came across while walking the loop path was the infernal stream itself, reddish brown and strangely opaque. It looked as thick as paint, but it was moving too fast and without staining the stones around it. Although we were certain that the colour must come from the soil – clay or something similar – it was easy to see why earlier generations had found it so unsettling.

The caves are enormous and airy inside...

Following the stream, we soon found ourselves in the cavern itself, with its high ceiling and the little chambers above us to the left, where the covens were said to hold more private meetings. Open on two sides to the air, it was more like a natural bridge than a cave, but spectacular either way.

Whatever you believe about the historical ‘witches’, it’s easy to imagine some fantastic bonfires taking place here!

The biggest opening, with the hell stream below.

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 00:54  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , ,


Mus games in Zumaia, Basque Country.

I first saw mus being played in little bars and restaurants by older men in the Basque country – it seemed to have a certain quaintness to it that reminded me more of dominoes than of poker. In Zumaia, I even saw them betting with piles of tiny snail shells!

According to the internet, though, mus is far from a quaint village tradition – it’s the most popular card game in Spain – and a mainstay among college students! If that’s true, then it’s another thing for the north to be proud of – it originated in Navarra and the Basque Country.

Apparently the game is a bit like spades, a betting game played with a partner. The rules I’ve found online look complicated, but I’ve heard it’s really quite simple, that the mechanics just take awhile to put into words. I’ll find out soon, I imagine – I bought my dad a set for Christmas. Unfortunately, no snail shells in this pack!

Published in: on December 6, 2010 at 11:52  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,


In Bilbao, I went to a pintxo bar called Irrintzi. Like the names of many pintxo bars, to the newcomer to the Basque Country it looks like a mess of random letters, more like a random file name you typed out in a rush than a word with significance and meaning. Still, like most of them, it does actually have a meaning.

It’s basically a crazy, high pitched scream, serving the traditional purpose of calling throughout the mountains, like yodelling. Nowadays it’s often used by Basque as expressions of excitement, happiness, and emotion at fiestas and the like. Here’s a definition I particularly like, from buber.net – “The traditional Basque mountain cry, a ululation characterized by a rising pitch and concluded with a kind of demented laugh.”

Because real life has to add a darker and more complex tone to everything, Irrintzi has recently developed another meaning – it is the name of a new Basque terrorist group that works in France with the motto, “Euskal Herria ez dago salgai” – “The Basque Country is not for sale.”

Churros y Chocolate

Churro with Orange Chocolate in Pontevedra, Galicia.

I had been looking forward to real Spanish churros for a long time. Deep fried, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and dipped in hot chocolate so thick it’s difficult to swallow – it seemed like the perfect recipe. Still, I’d tried similar things in the United States – stale tasting ‘churros’ at Disney World, Taco Bell’s “CinnaTwists”, etc… and I was eager to put aside for once and for all the creeping doubt that such a brilliant idea had been allowed to take only such pitiful forms.

I ate my first Spanish churros in Madrid – in the most traditional manner possible. After a night of partying, we jumped into a taxi and asked them to take us to Chocolatería San Ginés – one of the few restaurants open at 5 in the morning, and the traditional place to wind down for bed as the sun rises. The churros were good, I thought, better than any I’d had before – and dipping them into the hot chocolate was a brilliant and welcome decision.Still, I found myself wondering if San Ginés deserved its reputation as the best churros place – perhaps its mere popularity is a self-defeating prophecy, perhaps we simply came at a bad time, but the churros seemed a little bit limp and soggy to me. Anywhere else, I would have been quite happy with them – but were they really the best in Madrid – the best in Spain?

Sara and Colleen are extremely excited about these churros.

My next churros were in Pontevedra, Galicia. My friends and I were craving a real meal, but when we saw a sign advertising churros with hot white chocolate, we couldn’t refuse. The churros here were only decent, a little tough perhaps, but the chocolate was incredible – we ordered one big cup of white chocolate, and one of chocolate and orange, both so rich they seemed alcoholic. We didn’t leave before painstakingly swallowing every last drop.

I decided I liked these churro things, but the search for amazing ones – the ones that could truly embody my ideal of the recipe’s potential – was still on. You have to remember that I’m a Midwestern American girl, that Missouri leans towards the south when it comes to our carnival cuisine, and that I’ve always been a big fan of funnel cake and extra krispies to know where I’m coming from on this, and when I first saw the stand in Utebo, Aragon (near Zaragoza), I think I knew.

The Search for the Perfect Churros: Complete!

It was a greasy looking stand in the middle of nowhere – a playground in a suburb of Zaragoza. An unseasonably warm night was falling, and the fat man working there looked relaxed, his son bored. They were out of hot chocolate, but Lea and I were in a bit of a hurry anyway. We ordered one dozen churros, with sugar, and he squeezed the dough out fresh from a star-shaped nozzle into a vat of hot oil. A minute later we were headed towards the bus stop with a paper bag full of greasy, hot churros. The most American part of me was fantastically excited.

They were brilliant. They were crunchy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside without seeming undercooked, they were coated with the perfect amount of cinnamon and sugar, prickling my tongue just right, they were luxuriously greasy, but never crossed that line that makes me too aware of it, instead it was all one, beautiful product, impossible to tell where the pleasure coming off of one magical component ended and another began. Did I mention that they were hot? I ate the first three without coming up for air, and savoured my second half slowly as they started to cool in the night air. They were still amazing.

Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 12:25  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

Winter is Here

We had a wonderful fall – bright leaves and lots of sunny, warm days. Then things started going downhill – for the last week there’s been nothing but rain and lower temperatures every day. Now at last we’ve turned the corner – Winter is here!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Published in: on November 26, 2010 at 19:02  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On a beautiful mid-November Saturday, my friend Lea and I headed southeast to Zaragoza, the capital of Navarra’s neighbor state of Aragon. Many of our friends had gone a few weeks earlier during the Fiesta de Pilar, but Lea had a visitor at the time and I was in Madrid, so it was just the two of us this time. As with Bilbao, we hadn’t heard glowing reviews of Zaragoza before coming. First, I was told that there wasn’t much to do there other than walk around and shop. When I confronted them with what I’d found out online – that Zaragoza has several world heritage sites and an amazing cathedral, they sighed and said, “Well, other than those, there’s not much to do.” – I guess some people can never be satisfied.

The Arabic Palace

Our first stop on arrival was la Aljafaria – Arabic for the House of Jaffar (a bit funny for those who grew up watching Disney’s Aladdin.) The palace is more than a thousand years old and is perhaps the best example of Islamic architecture from the period of the independent kingdoms in Spain, and is the only such building outside of Andalucia in the far south of Spain. Although it was altered several times – from Arabic palace to the royal residence of Catholic kings to a military base and even a hospital, it preserves much of the intricate Muslim decoration I hadn’t hoped to find so far north. The building seems to be all graceful arches, impossibly complex stone carvings and the play of sun and shadows. In keeping with it’s multi-purpose past, today the Aljafaria is not only a popular tourist destination, it also houses Aragon’s regional parliament.

Next, we took a walk through the streets of Zaragoza, where the first Christmas decorations had already been put  up. We wandered in vague search of some Asian cuisine, but somehow found ourselves at a pintxos bar instead – apparently Zaragoza is almost as well known for this close cousin to tapas as Pamplona and the Basque Country. Between the two of us, we managed to consume a total of 16 different pintxos, most of them quite tasty, although perhaps a bit heavy on mashed potatoes.

The Two Cathedrals

After lunch we made for the epicenter of Zaragoza’s attractions, the Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. As Mary is considered the patron saint of Spain, as well as all Hispanic people, a reflecting pool and a fountain on the western side combine to form a mirror like map of the Americas from Mexico down to Argentina – this is the Fuente de Hispanidad, or the Fountain of Hispanic Identity. The rest of the plaza is mostly empty, with plenty of room for the striking shadows of the churches that surround it on three sides. Two of these are cathedrals – la Seo, and the famous Basilica.

The Basilica is a huge building that dominates the view of Zaragoza for kilometers along the river. It is built in the Arab-influenced Mudejar style and includes brightly coloured domes. Inside, the ceilings are covered with frescoes by Francisco Goya, and you can see the pillar and image of Mary that she was said to give to St. James during her only apparition prior to her death. Equally miraculous is the church’s survival through the Spanish civil war – three bombs were dropped on it, but none of them exploded, and the basilica stands to this day.

Afternoon Wanderings

With Zaragoza’s most mandatory sites out of the way, both Lea and I had something in the area that sparked our curiosity. Lea wanted to see the sight of the Expo 2008, which was hosted by Zaragoza, while I wanted to hop a bus to neighboring Utebo to see another element of the Mudejar World Heritage Site, a lovely tower. We headed to the Expo first, as the sun was sinking fast and we needed light to see the old water park. The site of the Expo is in some disrepair, and looks like it hasn’t been touched since the day the party ended. Still, I didn’t regret the leisurely walk along the banks of the river to get there. Zaragoza may be the fifth most populous city in Spain, but it still didn’t feel too metropolitan – we passed a group of men fishing under the shadow of the cathedral, for example, and the lawns around the Expo are now a sort of park, where a few families were walking or picnicking. A piece of interpretive art nearby played strange music from some underwater world – remixed whale calls and flowing water, and we spent half an hour listening to it while lying on our backs looking up at the late afternoon sky.

We had just enough time before our bus ride home to get over to Utebo to see my tower. It was as beautiful as I had imagined, and I was happy to get to see it. There wasn’t much else to do in Utebo, though, so it might not be worth the effort to everyone. On the way back through, we stopped at a greasy little stand where I had the best churros of my time in Spain so far – a sweet end to a lovely day.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 21:15  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Las Bibliotecas Publicas de Pamplona

Today I finally got a library card. I don’t know why I didn’t do so earlier – I wasn’t sure where the libraries were, I was afraid there would be some complicated proof-of-residency required… and I guess it just seemed too complicated to deal with.

It’s not. Civivox, the big building near my flat that often serves as a meeting place, is apparently a multi-purpose community center with, among other things, a pool and a library. All they needed was a look at my passport and a wallet sized photo, and I’m now free to check out books and dvds. If I’m not missing something, the library’s quite small compared to the ones I’m used to back home – but there are several within Pamplona that seem to have different collections, and the same library card is good at all of them.

They’re quite flexible about the wallet sized photo, by the way. I cut up a photo I had pinned  up in my closet to make one I thought would be far too small of my face – they took it without a comment. Better yet, I found (ex post facto) that you can apply online: http://www.navarra.es/AppsExt/opac/abnetcl.exe/O7054/ID005a0837?ACC=101

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 18:54  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Foz de Lumbier


The Plan

The Foz de Lumbier is a beautiful and distinctive canyon in the east of Navarra. Photos of its green waters, soaring cliffs, and hundreds of resident vultures tantalized me from every pamphlet and guide to the region. I wanted to go, but with my access to cars essentially non-existent, I wanted to see if there was a way to reach it by public transport. I could think of a few potential issues – 1.) Is the canyon within walking distance of a bus stop? 2.) Is the canyon easily walkable without a guide, map, or prior knowledge? 3.) Is there a bus to the nearest bus stop at a reasonable time? 4.) Is there a bus back from the nearest bus stop at a reasonable time? Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy guide to day-trips from Pamplona, but after a bit of Googling and guesswork, the answer to all the above seemed to be yes, and there was nothing for it but to try. I found my opportunity on a beautiful and unseasonably warm November Friday. I thought it could easily be my last chance, so even though my friends were tied up in class, I set off.

I went to the bus station after my morning classes and ordered potatoes with garlic sauce and a bottle of water. The whole package cost me less than four euros, and was lovingly packaged to go – a quick and easy alternative to packing a lunch for day-trips. With just this, my camera, and a basic plan, I caught the one o’clock bus to Liedena, to the slight surprise of the driver. On Google Maps I could see that the canyon itself was halfway between the small town of Lumbier and Liedena (smaller yet) – and it looked to me as if I could walk easily between them, following the river. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure it would work, as all online advice was written to reasonable people with cars, but I figured that if the path became impassable, I could always return to Liedena and take the bus back from there. To be safe, I had copied down the times of all the returns from both Liedena and Lumbier. If things went well, the walk would be about 8 km = 2 hours, and I had four between my arrival in Liedena, and my last chance of departure from Lumbier. I couldn’t find the exact location of the bus stops on Google, but I figured that Lumbier was a bigger town, and the stop would be more likely to be marked, or if not it would be easier to find someone to ask about it – by arriving in Liedena I would know immediately where that stop was in case of having to revert to plan B.

The Escape from Liedena

I got down at Liedena. I was glad I’d done the walk in this direction, as the official stop seemed to be the parking lot of an auto-body shop. An older woman got off with me and asked me twice if I was really going to Liedena – the first time I merely said ‘yes’ and smiled, the second time I explained that my plan was to walk to Lumbier. She brightened at this, understanding, and told me that it was a lovely walk and popular in the summer – and that right now the first bit was under construction for the new highway, but I could still pass through. I followed her into Liedena proper, which consisted of a few rows of houses, a little cafe, and a church up the road. She showed me the best spot to photograph the town was, so that I’d have a memory of her pueblo, and pointed out the path to Lumbier. I thanked her and set off.

The first part of my journey was through a field of mud – the ugly construction site the woman had warned me about. My original plan had been to try to follow the river, so that’s what I did… at least, until I ran into a rope and a sign prohibiting unauthorized access. Perhaps I wasn’t on the right path after all? Backtracking a little ways, I found a more suitable looking path, much less muddy, that still kept fairly close to the river. I really thought I’d figured it out this time, and was walking happily along a shady path with little farmhouses beside me, when the path suddenly came to an unceremonious end. Looking to the right, I saw for the first time an extremely nice looking path, well maintained and continuing on towards the canyon. This, I thought, must be the path – but I didn’t want to lose another half hour retracing my steps. Summoning up my courage, I cut across a tiny bit of land, dodging planters and sheds (the owner’s house was nowhere in site) and threw myself up the muddy hill on my hands and knees. Triumphantly I landed on what I hoped would be the actual path, and started for a third time on my way. After another kilometer or so, a little path broke away from mine and led into the mountains – here I found a sign at last, confirming that the path I was on led to the canyon. Finally!

The Devil’s Bridge

I followed this path for some time. As much as half of my total walk was on this side of the foz, and the woman in Liedena had told me to just walk until I got to the tunnel. It was a pleasant walk, through, once I had left all the mud and construction behind. The river ran beside and below me, and there were more leaves on the trees left than in Pamplona. Dozens of vultures were flying above me, but in the perfect fall air and sunshine they didn’t seem threatening or ominous at all. At last I reached the tunnel the lady had described, and a good sign post explaining my options. There was a very easy walk through the canyon, or a much longer round trip that also took me up into the mountains. To be on the safe side, I opted for the easy walk, since I didn’t know how well the mountain path would be marked or how long it would take. First, through, I was distracted by a smaller sign, just to the side of the tunnel entrance.

This sign said (in Spanish, Basque, and English): The Devil’s Bridge – 16th century – a bridge of great historical importance until its destruction during the War of Independence (1812). DANGER! Access to the bridge is highly dangerous (danger of falling). Proceed at your own risk.

The path was narrow and high, but wide enough, and one side was against the mountain, and the rocks beneath my feet were solid. I’m not sure I’d want to take the trip with a toddler or two in hand, but it was perfectly fine as long as I didn’t do anything stupid. Soon I was hiking almost directly above the blue river and a few ruined houses. The bridge itself was pretty thoroughly destroyed, and what is left isn’t fantastically interesting, but it’s a cool spot to go to nonetheless. On one side you can look down the river towards Liedena, and on the other you can -almost- see into the canyon itself. When the bridge was complete I’m sure the view from the middle was marvellous, but the way it is now it’s so tempting to try to lean just a bit further out and see the canyon open up – maybe this is the danger the sign warned about!


Enter the Foz

I worked my way back to the tunnel and entered. The reason there’s such a convenient path through the canyon is that the tunnels were once part of a railroad. The tunnel is long and slightly curved, but never so dark you can’t just make out where to walk. Before I knew it, I had reached the end, and I was in the canyon. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I followed a little path down to the water on my left, where I could look out back towards the Devil’s Bridge. A lone kayaker was practicing in the rapids here as I snapped a few pictures, enjoying the sense of calm and quiet.

The canyon itself was so short it only took me half an hour to cross, even taking dozens of photos. The afternoon light was hitting one wall of the canyon and making it shine brilliantly, while the other was in deep shadow and the water separating them seemed to glow faintly as it wound its way through, cutting every second a tiny, tiny bit deeper into the rock. I sat for a few minutes to take pictures of the vultures that flew overhead, and enjoyed the half company of a bunch of schoolchildren who marched through with their teachers, acting exactly like my class would have, at that age. The canyon path ended with another tunnel, a bit shorter than the first, and shortly behind me one of the schoolboys came running and hollering, throwing his bag up in the air. You could hear the voices of his teachers calling behind him, exasperated, but sounding more annoyed than worried.



There was a little picnic area on the Lumbier side of the Foz, and I stopped there to eat my little lunch and let the schoolchildren pass by me. They taunted a herd of sheep as they went by, and the sheep went running for the hills. I mean literally – I’ve never seen sheep move like these, running so fast that at times they seemed to have all four feet up in the air. As soon as the children left, they ran back towards the path just as quickly. The walk to Lumbier was nice again in the golden sunlight, as I passed old men tending old vineyards and several pairs of old women walking two by two for exercise. Before long I rounded a certain corner and could see Lumbier ahead of me, with its city walls and church up on the hill. I followed a sweet looking path towards the town, crossing a tiny patch of woods and a little river on a medieval bridge.

I was quite a bit ahead of schedule, so I headed for the Tourist Information Office/Foz Nature Interpretation Center, where I paid 1.20€ for entry to the center (the information office is free). I was the only one there, and the woman working the front desk had to run up the stairs to turn all the lights and sounds on for me. The center was small but nice, with a variety of different exhibits about the geology of the canyons, the resident vultures, and about nature in general. I suppose the grand majority of it was marketed for children, but I enjoyed the little models and illustrations and the translation of everything into Basque. I even got private showings of the two short movies about the area. On the third floor there was a strange ‘tunnel of sensations’ where you could go through, learn about living in peace with nature, and feel different objects from the forests and canyons to guess what they were. I would have loved that as a child!


Back to Pamplona

When I’d seen all there was to see in the center, and it was getting closer to time to catch the bus, I asked the woman where the bus stop was (it was very close and impossible to miss) and caught the bus back to Pamplona with no issues. All in all, my daytrip to Lumbier was a success. Other than a bit of confusion at the beginning due to the construction, things went easily and according to plan. Although visiting by car would be quicker and more efficient, I also got something special out of doing the trip this way. After all, it’s not only the destination that matters, but also the journey.

Published in: on November 16, 2010 at 23:03  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,