They say the world keeps getting smaller with today’s technology, and how we are separated by only six other people. Outrageous, but that’s how it felt this last year. It started when I met some travellers who were tipped by a friend to make an unplanned detour to this part of the country. That spontaneous trip led to another and then a couple more. A year later, I found myself back in Spain for another summer of music festivals, heritage trails, food adventures, and beach escapades.
I spent the first two weeks in the northern region of Spain comprised of three provinces-Alava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa. Vitoria was my ‘homebase’ for the next ten days, with Lu, one of the group, who lived right in the old part. A charming, small city of about 220,000, Vitoria-Gasteiz is the political capital of Alava, as well as the entire Basque Country (Spanish side). While not as popular as industrial-artsy Bilbao, or beach town & pintxo haven San Sebastian, Vitoria exudes a laidback and low-key, sophisticated air. It has a well-preserved Old Town, also called the Medieval Quarter, with plazas, old buildings-turned-restaurants, cafes and terraces, tree lined walks, and many less known yet excellent pintxo bars. The annual Vitoria Jazz Festival held in July is well known in Spain, gathering renowned international jazz players as well as budding musicians.
Surrounded mostly by locals in the middle of the Old Quarter, I easily slipped into a relaxed
frame of mind, and an almost lazy pace. There were no metro stations to rush through, no tourist crowds to compete with, nor the usual vendors offering selfie-sticks, fedora hats and all kinds of trinkets. Almost everything was under ten minutes away, walking. Five, if on a bike. There was the neighborhood grocery at the next corner, Victofer’s Conservas Artesanas, where we got our supply of oranges and tomatoes, organic eggs and potxas (white beans). I met Sergio, the owner, who disappeared in the back room, and moments later, came back with three glasses of red wine! Who wouldn’t feel welcome!
At the local mercado, I met another shop-owner, Imanol behind his iced display of dorada,
rape (rah-pe), lumina (sea bass), some mussells, and langostinos (prawns). He had messaged Lu earlier that he had some fresh lumina. Ah, the advantages of living in a small town. We cooked the lubina, with some onions, garlic and olive oil, and had it for lunch, paired with Rioja red wine. If this was any indication to how I was going to be eating in Spain, I instantly knew how much of a gustatory trip this would be! Having a local host, and getting to meet other locals gave me instant access to homecooked meals! My favorites were the potxas, baked lubina in onions, and fresh tomatoes in olive oil, plus Manu’s lean & mean callos and Amaia’s tasty grilled bonito (tuna) with fried green peppers! If I had to pick my top 3 pintxos, they would be the gilda (a skewered guindilla pepper, anchovy and olive), tortilla de patatas (potato omelet), and rabas con pimiento verde (deep fried squid with green peppers). With any pintxo, a glass of txakoli was the way to go! In those dry, hot summer days in this part of Europe, a cold caña (small glass of beer, less than half a pint) was the perfect refreshment before a meal, during a meal or any time of the day! It came handy to learn the phrase ‘una caña, por favor’ at the start of the trip.
In the next several days, I saw Sergio and his sister a few more times, to re-stock our fruits, tomatoes, eggs and bread. Their grocery store on Cuchilleria St, was among the busy row of pintxo bars, cozy pubs, cafes, with all with tables out on the street, and some vintage clothing shops. Across the street was a patisserie, and beside it, a pharmacy. Inside the pastry shop, a charming old lady willingly picked her favorite cookies and chocolates for me while asking me where I was from. On the next street was a pizzeria where we had some caña’s, while waiting for the takeout. All these within a kilometer radius from the apartment. It was almost too easy.
Several streets in the Old Town such as Cuchilleria, Herreria, Zapateria, Pintoreria had been aptly named after the traditional crafts that were commonly practiced even until the 19th Century (cutters, smiths, shoemakers, and painters, respectively). It is told that these craftsmen used to work close to each other. I found some traditional craft and antique shops still thriving in some of these streets.
While Vitoria as a Historic Site was evident, and something I appreciated especially since I was staying in a century old heritage building right in the middle of the Old Quarter, it was also remarkable how the city had earned the title ‘European Green Capital’ in 2012. Among its green initiatives were promoting ‘green weekends’ as part of its sustainable tourism program; completing the Green Belt comprised of six large parks, and integrating the urban walks and the Old Town’s ecological routes; implementing a stronger flood prevention plan; involving the citizens and influencing their environmental habits such as promoting the use of bicycles and developing an automated bike rental system. This city was among the most pedestrian-friendly, and bike-friendly I had been to, along with cyclist-haven Amsterdam. More interesting is the fact that part of their Green Capital Program was to continue the restoration works of the Old Quarters, showing how heritage development and sustainable green urbanization can work side by side. The results were apparent, and motivating from a personal point of view.
I spent some afternoons walking, among school kids in summer camps, and jubilados (retirees) enjoying their warm summer days at the park. Using a friend’s cruiser, I leisurely biked to the Museo de Bellas Artes, and parked it beside a bench. When some friends and I went to watch the last night of the Jazz Festival, we all walked to the main theatre, and so did hundreds of other festivalgoers. We also walked to the Teatro Principal to watch the Basque Youth Orchestra perform some nights later. In the Old Town’s streets and in most parts of Vitoria, it was just more convenient to bike or walk your way around, than drive a car. The whole time, I was imagining how this could be replicated in my hometown Dumaguete.