Speechless. That’s how I felt over the last couple days, during our group trip to San Sebastián and Bilbao, in el País Vasco in the north of Spain. I had heard how the north was supposed to be so green and rainy and more like Scotland than the mesa where Madrid is located, but I guess I wasn’t really prepared for the beauty I would behold. Now, I’m a sucker for green, trees and mountains (LOVE it! I needed a breather from the city!), then add the ocean, a beautiful beach, with Carlsbad-like weather and I was as good as gone (that would refer to San Sebastián, but I’ll get to that later).

The group in Burgos, outside the cathedral

We left Madrid early and headed up via Burgos, which boasts a beautiful cathedral and a REALLY old and still active monastery, el Monasterio de Las Huelgas. We toured the monastery, which at certain points transported me to Hogwarts, no doubt about that! The gothic architecture, mixed with the Muslim influence on the stone’s patterns, was truly a sight to see. With a quick lunch on the road, we made it to San Sebastián in the early evening. (I have to note that as we are entering the mountains and getting deeper into the north, we are all looking at each other, mouths open wide, in utter amazement at the beauty of our surroundings…I’m still in awe.)

A quick stop at the hotel, and we were all racing down to the beach to see if the pictures we’d seen were a true testament to the place—they were! I felt as if I had literally stepped into a picture from a magazine. La Bahía de la Concha was gorgeous, breathtaking and simple. It is a crescent-shaped beach, with a small island in the middle of the harbor, flanked by two small mountains.

After goggling for a while and taking lots of pictures, we headed around the crescent to get some pintxos. Pintxos are País Vasco’s version of tapas, the small snack-like food you are supposed to order/get with your drink. Along with the green and beauty, the north is known for its delicious food; and once again, it did not fail to live up to its reputation. Tania, the program coordinator, took us to the famous pintxos area, where we hopped from bar to bar sampling a pintxo at each. It was a blast! Just good company and great food.

I had the typical Spanish tortilla (egg and potato omelet-like thing), some awesome cheese balls, and, wait for it, a tiburon y gambas skewer—translation: shark and shrimp. Yep. Shark and shrimp. Let me explain. I thought, oh a shrimp skewer (I really wanted something other than bread, which is a staple in tapas and pintxos), I just had that in something abuela had made and it wasn’t so bad. Well as I started eating, I realized it was more than shrimp covered in some sort of coconut or something; it’s chicken, I thought (tasted just like it), finally! I proceeded to tell Tania that I had finally found some chicken in Spain (it’s not very common), when she laughed and said, “¡No, es tiburon!” By that time the skewer was licked clean, so I laughed too, and now I can say I ate shark!

Bahía de la Concha, San Sebastián

That night we got to talk with a couple of Tania’s friends who live in San Sebastián, and hear them talk in Vasco, as well as Spanish. País Vasco is home of another of Spain’s official languages – Vasco or Euskera (by the way, Euskera cannot be traced to any other ancient language, and let me tell you, it looks and sounds NOTHING like Spanish). The night ended and we were all exhausted, but ready for the next adventure.

The following morning I got up early and ran with one of the guys around the Concha Bay. It was like a dream, running in such a beautiful place, with weather like home, such a wonderful experience.  We departed from the hotel and got up a ways on one of the mountains for a panoramic view of the beach and San Sebastián before heading to our next stop. Once again the bus ride was more like an enchanted ride through one of those picture books you leave on your coffee table; the tree-covered mountains dotted with country houses and small pueblos are a sight I will never forget.

We soon arrived at las Bodegas Talai Berri, a winery. The Bodegas makes the typical wine of the region: txacolí. It is a light white wine, with a little bit of carbonation, which you are supposed to drink while it is still young (that’s when it is best). We toured the winery and learned about the process (all in Spanish, mind you, so were all the facts grasped? No, but more than would have been understood a month ago!), then we got to taste it, along with some pintxos. It was pretty good (I have not acquired a taste for wine yet, but pretty much everyone enjoyed it). Then it was off to Gernika to see the Casa de Juntas, an ancient, but still used, government-meeting place for País Vasco.

Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao

Next, we experienced a true Spanish lunch; appetizers, seafood salad, bean soup with a platter of meats, bacalao(cod) and dessert, and two and half hours later we rolled ourselves to the bus to head to Bilbao. The food was excellent, but after shrinking your stomach (as I said before their eating is very different from the US), try stuffing it all in! Oh man! It was like our professora kept saying—a gastronomic experience. That evening we arrived in Bilbao, the largest city in País Vasco, and home of the Guggenheim Museum. It is a beautiful city, as well, with the river running through it and a calm atmosphere. We spent the evening walking around and exploring, before all meeting up for pintxos again and an early bed time. The morning came and we visited the Guggenheim, which is fascinating but not really my type of art. Then, sadly, we began the trip back to Madrid, leaving the land of green and mountains to return to the urban hubbub of Madrid.

The trip was a whirlwind, but one of the highlights of my time abroad, so far. It was a wonderful break from the big city, and such a blessing to experience more of Spain! I still am speechless and in awe of the beauty of this world we get to live in.