SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Char and Dave's Excellent Adventure, Parte Tres


January 08, 2010

Ketchikan, Alaska - There comes a time in every trip where you must "use the facilities."

And in Europe that always seems to be an adventure.

For example, folks are obviously really quick at using the bathroom in Spain and obviously really concerned about using two much electricity while using the bathroom, or WC (water closet) as they call it in English in Spain (and I always thought it was a "servicio.")

jpg A tile version of 'Guernica' in Guernica.

A tile version of 'Guernica' in Guernica.

jpg Trecking on the Camino de Santiago

Trecking on the Camino de Santiago

jpg  The bridge at Puenta La Reina

The bridge at Puenta La Reina

jpg San Sebastian from Monte Igueldo

San Sebastian from Monte Igueldo

I found this out when I was using the bathroom, ummm the WC, in a lovely little pastry shop not far from our hotel in San Sebastian.

Just about 15 seconds after I perched myself on the "throne" the bathroom light started to dim. In five seconds, the tiny stall was completely dark.

I felt along the wall, no button. I felt some more. Still no button. I continued to desperately fondle the tile wall on both sides of the stall. No button. It was very dark.

Although I wasn't anywhere near done with "my business" I was faced with a difficult choice. I could stay where I was and try to finish, or I could pull my pants back up, and open the door to let in enough light to see.

I reached along the wall for the toilet paper. It wasn't there either.

I had to go with option two.

So I pulled up my pants, more or less, and opened the door. Two women sitting at a nearby table smiled at me. Light flooded into the stall and I saw that the button was on the wall behind the potty. The toilet paper was on a shelf up above that.

I finished my business and got the heck out of there before the light dimmed again.

When people think of the "new" Europe, they think usually think that the most obvious sign of unification is the same currency, the Euro. No more francs, marks or pesetas. It's all the Euro. And now the prices are uniformly high. Crossing a border is no longer a bargain.

But I think that the major work of the European Union has really been to standardize the bathroom experience throughout the Continent.

When I last visited Europe in the mid 1990s, there was no standardization. As a result, you always had to guess how to operate the toilets (and don't get me started about those other contraptions that "shoot" water up at you if accidentally push their buttons).

In the old days, some places had toilets with a push button, in other places toilets had a pull button, some places you pulled a cord from the ceiling, still others there was a button on the floor. Some places had a little nob that you turned either left or right. There were even places where you - shockily - pulled a small handle. Like in America.

It was really confusing trying to figure things out, and that was with the lights on!

Anyway, Basque Spain has obviously rebelled against the heavy hand of the EU (all toilets must now have standard pull buttons on the tops of the tank, s'il vous plait!), by putting timers on the porcelain paperwork peruser ( solo quince segundos, por favor!).

Fortunately the toilet on our tour bus was not on a timer which was a good thing because the next day - day three of our trip - was pretty much spent on the bus. Instead of making hour long trips to Guernica and Bilbao on separate days as the schedule called for, William, le guide touristique, decided it would make more sense to do the both on the same day.

So we rumbled into Guernica a little before lunch and visited the Peace Museum, the original Basque legislative building and the famous Guernica oak tree.

Guernica is world famous because of its sad history as one of the first civilian targets to be destroyed by aerial bombardment. Actually, the "honor" of the first such destruction was in the nearby town of Durango, but when Picasso painted his famous "Guernica" the town of Guernica became a symbol of humanity's inhumanity to itself.

The bombing destroyed most of the downtown, the market area that was crowded with people shopping. At least several hundred people died from the bombs and the fires that destroyed the wooden shelters that had been built in anticipation of an attack from Franco's republican forces that were attempting to wrest the country from the duly elected government. The Basques were a particular target of Franco's because he wanted to wipe out groups like them and the Catalans who had somewhat separate identities from the rest of Spain.

Interestingly enough, the Basque Parliament and the centuries old Oak Tree were not destroyed because they were adjacent to the town's Cathedral. Franco convinced the German bombers to stay away from the Cathedral because the Catholic Church was supporting his cause against the semi-Socialist government.

But enough history! I get a headache just thinking about it!

The museum, the parliament and the Oak Tree were all very inviting visitor stops. It was also entertaining watching the clean up crew take care of the mountains of wine bottles and other debris left over from a day long Basque autonomy party that had been held downtown the previous day.

But, for Char and me, the highlight of Guernica was the restaurant, Jatetxe Zeharra, we ate lunch at. It was a spiffy little place full of locals and overseen by a wonderful Mother Hen of an owner who fussed over us like we were the Kings and Queens of the Basques. I had a paella to die for (and it was on the 10 Euro menu del dia)!

jpg A day late for the party

A day late for the party

jpg The famous Guggenheim

The famous Guggenheim

jpg Inglesia de Santa Maria

Inglesia de Santa Maria

After lunch, it was time to motor over to Bilbao to visit the famous Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao had essentially reinvented itself a decade and a half ago from a combination of the worst aspects of Detroit and Cleveland (empty factories/polluted river/plummeting population) into a community that was growing and now was the center of Spain's high tech world by doing something almost revolutionary.

The local government decided it would spend a boatload of cash (nearly $500 million) to tear down the old factories, clean up the river, build parks and other amenities and encourage the Guggenheim Foundation to locate a $100 million art museum on the cleaned up riverfront. The idea was not necessarily to draw in more businesses but to make Bilbao a more "liveable" city. A place Spaniards themselves would want to move to.

It worked. The museum now draws more than 1.5 million tourists a year, numerous high tech business have relocated to the town and the population has more than doubled and is approaching the 300,000 that it was before all the steel mills shut down 20 years ago.

The museum is a spectacular Frank Gehry design that is one of the iconographic buildings in the world. I wish I could say the modern "art" inside matched the outside. But - like much modern art - it was way too conceptual for me.

The piece de resistance was some 200 linear of feet of giant wavy pieces of steel (some weighing up to 40 tons) that had something to do with "time." They even had a rusty patina to make them seem even older. To be honest, I think the folks at Alaska Ship and Drydock could have put together a much more compelling piece of structural "art."

Lord knows what that "installation" cost. It wasn't even local Bilbao steel. It was German steel because a German company was sponsoring the exhibit. But, as usual, I digress.

Upstairs there were other great "concepts." One was a large display of business cards. It had something to with modern "identity." Another was a "snake" made entirely of Euros. Hard to believe folks got paid to come up with those ideas. But then I'm just not creative enough to see it, I guess. Fortunately there was a nice collection of post modern paintings upstairs (Warhol, Rauschenberg, de Koonig, Pollock, etc that at least had a passing relationship with what my luddite mind thinks of as art..

After visiting the museum we wandered around the old town of Bilbao and I scored a real nifty European style hat in a fun old hat shop. I skipped getting a traditional Basque beret because (a) they are big and flat and look like a pizza pan on your head and (b) red is just not my color.

We drove back to San Sebastian for late dinner (if you try to snag "dinner " before 10 pm, they look at you like you have three heads). We had had seen a chicken takeout place near the hotel and we went there. After a long day, we were just not up for more lukewarm tapas.

The next morning, he got on the bus and headed into the hills west of Pamplona. This was to be the "strenuous" day of the trip. A several hour walk along the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route across Spain to the reliquary that allegedly contains the bones of St. James.

In the Middle Ages, the Camino was the third great pilgrimage in Christendom, just after Rome and Jerusalem, and attracted thousands of pilgrims each year.

We were not going all the way to Santiago, but we were planning a lengthy walk to give us a flavor of the route that European pilgrims had been using for hundreds of years.

We started in the small, central casting village of Uterga. I visited the bathroom (25 second timer!) and got a T-shirt. Then we walked for about 90 minutes along fields and over hills to another small village (Obanos) where we had a snack and rested for a bit. It was sunny and in the mid 60s and, while we were not "tired" it did give us a sense of what it would like to spend weeks and possibly months (if you came from across Europe) on the trail. Ahead of us were some real "hikers" and they picked up the pace to put some distance between us. I guess our group's incessant American chatter as we hiked took the "contemplativeness" out of the pilgrims' hike.

We continued on until we got to the Iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate, a wonderful 12th Century gothic octagon that was built by the Templars. Inside the dark, spartan church you really got the sense of the pilgrims and the faith that it took to give up most of your worldly possessions and embark on a long pilgrimage of privation and other dangers (bandits frequently preyed on the pilgrims especially when the Camino was at its height in the 10th to the 13th centuries).

Oops, more history. Sorry about that!

We left the old church and went by bus to Puente La Reina (a small town or large village depending on your view) and enjoyed taking a million snapshots of its spectacular stone bridge.

After that it was a marvelous late lunch and tour at a five hundred year old family owned winery back in Obanos. The 30 somethingish winery owner was a combination of George Clooney and Antonio Banderas. The women on the tour loved it.

Then we went back to San Sebastian for the night, but not without a stop at Monte Igueldo where the fog had finally risen and we got an overview of San Sebastian. There was also funky old amusement park carved into the side of the mountain. Finally, something Liam would have liked on the trip! Of course it was cerrado when we visited. Liam would have been pretty cheesed off about that.

Char and I once again skipped the tapas and instead went a small deli near the hotel that was recommended by the Rick Steves guidebook. Not only was the food excellent, but we were helped in our choices by the counter guy, a transplanted surf bum from San Diego.

I had meatballs and a pasta dish. Char gorged herself on another salad and some vegetables, which we had already determined almost never show up in Basque dinners out. They eat lots of veggies at home, but not in restaurants. Go figure.

Before we left I made a pit stop in the deli bathroom.

The light went off in 13.5 seconds.

So much for standardization.


Related Columns:

Char and Dave's Excellent Adventure, Parte Dos By DAVE KIFFER - Don Quixote would have gone completely stark, screaming bonkers. - More...
Monday - December 07, 2009

Char and Dave's Excellent Adventure, Parte Uno By DAVE KIFFER - What we had was a failure to communicate. - More...
Monday PM - November 16, 2009


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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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