After visiting Matavenero, in the mountains of Leon, Sarah, Scarlett and I descended from the mountains and headed east along Spain’s high speed motorways. We’d had a short but intense experience visiting the eco-village, and had learnt a great deal, but as a journalistic assignment I felt like it had been a failure.
I had recorded some sounds of the hike into the mountain, and the discovery of the eco-village, but once we got there I was reluctant to start interviewing people. I wanted to get to know the place first, to gain people’s trust, and to think about who might make for the most interesting characters to speak to, before I got out my recording kit.
This more patient approach is certainly the way I believed that I should be approaching a more involved documentary style radio piece. But, of course, to do this you have to be prepared to stay on location for a lot longer, and at least for weeks. We had a fairly packed schedule, including a paid assignment for an American radio station back in the Basque country, so after only a few days we decided to move on. I decided that I should visit some other communities, and then have a think about which one I felt would be the best to tell the story I was try to tell.
So, we headed east, towards the Basque country. I had lived here with my brother for three months back in 2002, whilst recovering from a serious back injury, and I had come to love the place, the food, and above all, the friendliness of the people. Over time I’ve come to realise that in part it is the differences that I like about the Basque country – it feels both like a part of Spain, and entirely different from it at the same time, with it’s own particular cuisine, wine, culture, language, and customs.
The people look quite different, and are famously (and infamously) independent. The Basque Country is one of Spain’s many autonomous regions.
We headed for San Sebastián, a beautiful, elegant city that curls itself around a crescent beach nicknamed La Concha, the shell, to visit a family I had become friends with when I was here last. San Sebastián is one of the world’s great food capitals, and its bars are laden with delicious dishes and tasty morsels called pinchos – the Basque equivalent of tapas – which are wolfed down between glasses of beer or wine.
During my stay, I was also invited to a sociedad gastronómica, another splendid Basque culinary institution. These cooking and dining clubs see friends renting out a bar or restaurant, and gather together to cook a great feast with each other.
Whilst cooking in Spanish homes is still largely the preserve of females, these culinary clubs are almost solely the domain of men, and whilst some clubs (like the one I visited) allow women to come along as guests, they are not allowed to cook. I have to say, this did not seem to bother the girls who were there.
In common with other parts of Spain, the Basque people have a commitment to sharing food, drink and celebrations that I feel puts us to shame. They party long and hard, but also do it all with a style that I admire immensely, rarely seeming all that drunk or out of control. I was looked after wonderfully on that night, and found it quite impossible to buy myself or anyone else a drink – as a guest, they simply would not allow it.
Yet great as the people here are at celebrations and partying, and warm as the days on the curved sand of La Concha are, there was a distinctly chill wind in the conversation one night on the beach after a picnic with friends. The conversation had turned to politics and the economic situation in the country, and the tone was not so much bleak as fatalistic. My friend, an architect, who had an urbane and pretty comfortable life in this well-off city, spoke with certainty about how the cuts were going to lead to violence. The Spanish state, he said, was expecting and gearing up for violent confrontation with protesters once cuts to Government spending bit even deeper, and even more people took to the streets. No where in Spain, it seems, not even wealthy San Sebastián, was free from the fear that was gripping the country.
After San Sebastián, we headed to Pamplona in Navarra to visit a friend who had, until recently, lived in Edinburgh for ten years. He’d returned to Spain at a difficult time – he, like many young people, was struggling to find work.
An experienced mountaineer, he’d initially picked up some work in a team that would climb wind turbines and clean them. This sounds like an exciting job, but the reality was quite different. Working in teams of three, it would take eight to ten hours to clean the inside and outside of one turbine, and the work left him covered in dirt and oil from machinery. They would earn a meagre eighty euros a day for this difficult and unpleasant work.
A qualified social worker, he’d later managed to get some work in his field back in Pamplona – but only short-term contract. So, when I met up with him, he was already thinking of returning to the UK or moving to France, as so many other young unemployed Spaniards are now doing.
We had become friends in Scotland partly through a shared interested in the mountains, and we used his time off well, visiting some of his favourite hiking spots in the mountains. It was remarkable how similar some of the landscape was to the Highlands – although the site of a nimble shephard, an archetypal Basque image, chasing his flock on foot up and down steep slopes was not something you’d catch in Scotland.
And then it was time to get back on the trail of our eco-villages, with a visit to a community in the mountains that is well know to people interested in pueblos abandonados – Lakabe.