Flying Longhorns Take Spain


To fully enjoy the riches of Catalonia and the Basque Country of northern Spain, the traveler needs stamina, curiosity, a hearty appetite for fine wines and gourmet foods, and a multilingual guide with friends in high places.

I realized this during a recent 10-day trip to this beautiful, autonomous corner of Spain. Initially, four items were on my “must-do” list. One, visit La Sagrada Familia, the magnificent cathedral created by Barcelona’s famously controversial architect Antoni Gaudi. Two, eat pintzos (Basque-style tapas) while strolling the soft sands along San Sebastian’s sea walk. Three, visit the newest Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. Four, eat in Pamplona where Ernest Hemingway dined and wrote part of The Sun Also Rises.

I accomplished this and a great deal more by booking a challenging study tour arranged by the Flying Longhorns, the 52-year-old travel arm of the Texas Exes. Thirty-three others had booked the same tour through the Exes.

We were a large, diverse group with different backgrounds and political leanings. But we had a sense of camaraderie thanks in large part to the patience and abiding sense of humor shown by Antonio Ruiz, our tour guide.

Street_DancingA native of Spain with a degree in linguistics, Ruiz escorted us to scores of famous landmarks as well as to bars, restaurants and concerts. When we encountered long lines Ruiz waved us past like a seasoned maître d. Four other accredited academics also talked to us about local lore and culture in the cities we visited.

The history of Catalonia and the Basque Country predates the formation of Spain as a unified country. Indeed, the medieval kingdoms of Navarre and Aragón helped to create Spain. But neither Catalonia nor the Basque Country has ever been an official nation. Despite this, they cling to their centuries-old culture, while occasionally threatening to secede.

The Spanish parliament granted autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country in 1979, but the debates go on even as these areas bask in their glory as some of Europe’s most popular tourist areas.

Our tour started in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and a bustling port city on the Mediterranean Sea. The second largest city in Spain, after Madrid, Barcelona is home to a famous opera house; a 100,000-seat football stadium; a 60,000-seat Olympic stadium; noted museums like the Picasso, Miró and Maritime, and the popular Las Ramblas boulevard that reaches from the heart of the city to the sea. Busy shops, cafes, markets, and street performers keep this stretch alive, day and night.

But nothing here attracts tourists like the works of Antoni Gaudi, the modernisme, or art nouveau, architect who was 100 years ahead of his time. These include his early lamp posts; the several houses he designed (and which locals boast inspired Star Wars creator George Lucas); the magnificent Parc Guell, and La Sagrada Familia, or the Sacred Family, the city’s number-one tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Construction on La Sagrada Familia started in 1832. Gaudi worked on it for 41 years and is buried in the crypt. But the magnificent cathedral is not finished. Six architects are still at work here. Completion is scheduled for 2026, on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. “But don’t bank on that,” one worker laughed.

From Barcelona we traveled by private bus to Zaragoza, San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Pamplona. Since billboards are limited on these roads, we could see clearly the green fields, poppies and wildflowers along the way. (Lady Bird Johnson would have loved this.)

La_Sagrada_FamiliaWe also hiked on city streets, rural routes, and mountainsides. Antonio equipped us with headphones, called “whispers,” to keep us informed—and in line.

We needed these in San Sebastian, the proud capital of the Basque Country which extends from the foothills of the Pyrenees into southern France. San Sebastian beckons tourists with a four-mile oceanfront promenade that wraps around the city’s beaches. You get a sweeping view of this from atop nearby Mounte Igeldo where—on a clear day—you can also see France.

Like Ruiz, our lecturer here, David Bumstead, emphasized that San Sebastian “is one of the safest cities in the world.” He alluded to the ETA, the violent separatist group that operated out of the Basque country of Spain and southern France for years. ETA translates in English to “Basque independence and security.”

“The ETA is no longer big,” Bumstead stressed. “It went too far, did some terrible things. But they have since become marginalized and have declared a permanent ceasefire.”

Bilbao was transformed from a dark industrial town, known for exporting steel and coal, into a clean and popular tourist site after the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997. Designed by Frank Gehry, the distinctive building is constructed of limestone, glass, and more than 30,000 thin titanium plates which change color dramatically as the weather changes. From some angles, it looks more like a sculpture than a building.

In sharp contrast, the principal attraction in Pamplona is the raucous, weeklong Festival of San Fermín, which opens with hundreds of bullfighting fans running through city streets to the bull ring, ahead of six frightened bulls. Held each year in July, it honors Saint Fermín, the city’s first bishop and patron saint who was beheaded in France in the third century.

“If you have anything bad to say about Hemingway, don’t say it here,” lecturer Guillem Genestar said. “If you have anything bad to say about France, go right ahead.” Our close-knit group of 34 had a four-course meal fit for a matador at Café Iruña, where photos of Hemingway still line the walls.

As I told you, this trip took stamina. But if I could do it in my 80s, so can you. It’s worth the effort. Catalonia and the Basque Country, combined, are no larger than New Hampshire, but the welcome you feel here is as big as Texas.

The group in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Leslie Cedar); street dancing in San Sebastian (Diane Reeves); La Sagrada Familia (Diane Reeves).


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