Standing in a stranger’s tomato garden on a hot dry day and looking up at this tower was the most important moment I’ve ever experienced in all my travels. It was both an achievement in terms of exploration and discovery as well as a moment of deep connection to my own heritage.
This tower, located in the Basque town of Gordexola, is my family’s tower.
It dates all the back to the 14th century.
Standing in that garden, with goose-bumps on my arms and stars in my eyes, it felt like some kind of surreal dream.
Just as I wrote in my very first college paper, my family has deep roots in Bizkaia, more commonly known as Basque Country, in Northern Spain. The Basques, if you aren’t familiar with them, are one of the most ancient peoples of Europe. Their language, Euskara, is considered a language isolate. Meaning that it has no demonstrable ties to another language.
Naturally, I find this particular branch of my family tree quite fascinating. So given the opportunity to visit Spain late last summer, my husband and I set out on a road trip planned around a few specific places (and hikes, of course) to explore my roots.
Based on the advice of a several times removed cousin, the first place our feet touched Spanish soil was in the border town of Hondarribia. He wrote that if it was at all practical for him to move his family anywhere, he would move them to this coastal town.
Hondarribia was my first introduction the picturesque golden beaches of the Basque coastline, as well as the abundance of edible gardens kept by the people here. The yards of single family homes were consumed with edibles and in front of every apartment complex and even seemingly empty plots of the land – produce was growing fiercly. So almost immediately, I fell in love with Basque Country.
Our first base camp for our journey was San Sebastián. While I don’t have any known family ties here, it’s by far one of my favorite large cities I’ve ever visited. Even with a presence of plenty of foreign tourists and upscale shops – it’s a city that feels authentic. From the picnickers and readers atop Mount Urgull to the buskers playing inside a pedestrian tunnel, this is a city where you can feel at home.
Perhaps the most charming and unforgettable part of San Sebastián was the walk along the promenade. We purposely stayed away from Parte Vieja, the oldest part of the city – heavily recommended as the place to be by just about everything I read from guidebooks, to blogs, to the New York Times. I wanted a different experience and creating a daily routine of walking the rose stoned promenade offered just that. We never would have experienced some of our favorite moments of the trip had we listened to 90% of the recommendations out there.
While we could have taken a more direct route to our second base camp, we had previously learned that taking toll roads in this part of Europe results in missing some amazing discoveries along the way. So we took off, without a real map, because that’s just how we roll, along the Basque coastline.
Getaria & Zarautz
As we drove through the adorable beach towns of Getaria and Zarautz, I frantically scribbled down their names in order to remember to return some day. Further west, steep cliffs, eucalyptus groves, and rocky islands just of the coast filled our windows. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the parts of California I’m still in love with. I thought of Big Sur, Half Moon Bay, and the Mendocino coast - but the Basque coastline still has a special allure of its own.
Those comparisons really ended when we saw one rocky island topped with an improbably built hermatige with a winding man-made bridge connecting it to the main land. This particular island, Gaztelugatxeko, is the stuff of Pinterest legend. You know, those magical photographs that never lead to a source with an actual destination attached. Well, I can now tell you that this one is real and a close examination of satellite imagery of Google maps will at least somewhat help you get there.
With a final destination much further along and many wrong turns still left to make in our day, we eventually had to admit defeat and accept that we would not be able to make it all the way down to the hermatige on this visit.
Driving into Bilbo (Bilbao in Spanish), our second base camp in Basque Country, proved to be a challenging experience to say the least. We must have circled around the city at least three times until we finally caught a glimpse of the Guggenhiem Museum and navigated to our hotel based on its location. Unfortunately, all this driving meant we didn’t have a chance to do much exploration by foot with the exception of a short walk around the outside of the famous museum.
However, we never planned to come to Bilbo to explore the city. We based ourselves in the largest and primary industrial center of Basque Country because it was the closest major city to the towns on my list to explore. Guenes, Gordolexola, and Balmaseda were all under an hours drive – presuming again that we could find them without a road map. It was also close to a hike which would take us into a magical land filled with Basque folklore.
Parque Natural del Gorbeia
Using Bilbo as our base, we set out on a day trip to Parque Natural de Gorbeia to hike through Atxular's Eye into the Itxina Massif. It was one of the most memorable hikes I've ever taken with wild rock formations, never ending caves, and plenty of sheep. You can read more about that hike here.
Continuing our exploration of Basque Country, we drove further into the countryside to a town where a number of my distant relatives call home. Situated along Kadagua river, the city of Balmaseda was incredibly charming and deserved far more than the short lunch time stop over we were able to give it.
The most unexpected perk of our visit was getting to discover the ancient history of this city. As we wandered, without any sense of direction, around the pedestrian streets we stumbled upon some breathtaking historic architecture. Including a medieval bridge dating back to the 12th century and a 15th century gothic church.
Leaving Balmaseda, we must have gotten turned around and lost I don't even know how many times. Fortunately, those changes in direction led to some other fortuitous discoveries like this street sign bearing my family's name. I kept my eyes out for a town of the same name - something I've heard rumors about, but didn't have the time to investigate all the leads we came across since there were more important destinations to be found.
By some miracle of route finding, we made it to the town I most wanted to visit on our journey through Basque Country. After hours of Google searches, translating Spanish and Basque webpages, and lots of time staring at satellite imagery, I put together some directions to reach this most special location. Arriving in town and pulling on to a dusty dirt road, we meandered around making our way towards the tower. Eventually we happened upon an long forgotten interpretive sign confirming the towers identity. With my combination of 3 years of Spanish and 6 years of French I was able to decipher enough of the text to learn that my family's tower is one of the best preserved in the area.
Parking the car along what was probably the neighbor's driveway, we stepped out on the edge of small but lush plot of tomatoes and peppers. A kind eyed man stepped out of the field and my husband begun to explain to him why had stopped on the edge of his garden plot.
"Ella es un Ibargüen." My husband explained
"Ahh" said the man knowingly and welcomed us to walk further into the field to view the tower and take some photos.
To be honest, I really didn't want to leave. Being there, looking at this tower I had spent so long researching and finding my way towards - how could it be over so quickly? I thought of my mom, my aunt and uncle, and so wished we could have all been there together to experience such a connection with our heritage.
I hope some day, that might be possible.
Interested in learning more?
The Basque History of the World (argueably filled with opinion, but still a fun intro to Basque history and culture)