Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Thomas Monk Affair

Simply known as the Thomas Monk Affair, it was billed to be a trip of a lifetime.  The official reason for the trip was a wedding, but most everyone that went blew their two weeks vacation on it.  Danny G, Riki, and I stayed in Basque country for our duration, but people traveled to France, Lisbon, Barcelona and so on.  

Things started off hot in Bilbao.  We arrived late Saturday night, and after thirty plus hours of being awake we went straight out to the Pintxos bars, where everyone else was well ahead of us.  We partied on wine, tapas and good company well into the night.  It was a great introduction to the way of the Basques.  Ask Ellie for details.

The Basques are a mysterious and proud people, and I'll admit I've never heard much about them before this trip.  Their culture and language are considered the oldest in the world (unrelated to any of the Indo European languages), and no one is really sure of where they came from, or when.  In any event, they've been here a while.  They are technically a part of Spain (and France), but Basque law rules first and foremost.  As you can imagine, this has caused quite the controversy throughout history.  The good news is that Iceland just abolished a 400 year old law allowing Basques to be killed on sight.  Good news!

Pound for pound, the Basque country has the best food I've ever eaten.  It's just so good, so fresh, and so simple.  The concept of Pintxos (tapas) is brilliant, and the Basques have perfected them.  In America you'd have to have a heat lamp and a sneeze guard protecting them at all times, defeating the entire purpose.  

Anthony Bourdain once said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "In a perfect world I would have been born right here in San Sebastian, son of a famous chef."  That pretty much sums it up.  It's simply the best food in the world, and it all seems so effortless.  Almost everything was cooked with olive oil and sea salt, that's it.   It was the best and simplest of everything.

In short, this trip could not have been more perfect.  In fact, I'm struggling to find one thing I didn't love about it.

(Sorry, you're probably going to get a little tired of all the food pics, but I couldn't help myself.  I've never eaten better anywhere in the world.  I could only compare it with home.)

The next morning we would head off to our house in San Sebastian.  Our car's GPS, which we named "Flo", clearly hadn't been updated in the better part of a decade.  We would have almost been better off navigating by the stars.  Anyway, we made it there, but this would not be our last problems from her.  It's a good thing we had a phone that worked.

San Sebastian was perfect.  Often times when I travel I feel like I'm getting the typical tourist sheep tour.  You must see this and you must do that.  The catch is that some of it is really worth doing,  but you must endure a heard of fellow fanny packin' travelers.  I get so jealous of Anthony Bourdain, who travels the world and gets a real behind the scenes look of every city, getting locals to show him their favorite places.  That is what this trip felt like.  We had own very own tour guide, the Spanish speaking Curtis, who also lived in the region for over a year.  We had the local hook up on everything.  I felt like Bourdain himself.  

Also, there wasn't really anything touristy to do in San Sebastian.  The attraction of the place is the thriving Basque culture.  It's simply an awesome way of life.  Eat, drink, be merry.  

The best squid I've ever had.  

The big cities in Europe pride themselves on being green, and the Basque Country is one of the finest examples.  In fact, Vitoria, where we spent all day Tuesday, was just voted the greenest city in Europe, or something  like that.  Both cities were by far the cleanest I've seen in was hard to find litter.  I think that's something we should strive for in America, but what am I saying. 

After a bit of a late start. we spent the day exploring the Basque wine country and eating amazing food.  I cannot speak highly enough of the food we ate on this trip.  It was brilliant...there wasn't a single thing was wasn't fresh and delicious.  Simple things like olive oil and salt just exploded in your mouth, and I'm forever spoiled by the simple combination of potatoes, eggs and cheese, simply called tortilla in Basque country.  And everything was so cheap inexpensive!  Take me back!

Thanks to Curtis we also toured a coffee roasting plant, one of the largest in Europe.

San Sebastian has more Michelin star restaurants than any other city on the face of the earth, and almost as many as all the U.S. combined.  Etxebarri was an experience that I never thought I would get to enjoy.  Anthony Bourdain said he wanted to die here, and that's good enough for me.  It was 15 courses of the most perfect food that I've ever put into my mouth.  It was the best and freshest of everything.  The skill is in the way it's cooked.  Etxebarri is known for inventing their cooking methods and getting the best flavor out of everything.  They don't rely on the latest and craziest gastronomical molecular's just 'simple' cooking at its very best.  

It was truly the experience of a lifetime.  Thank you Curtis and Danny G!  We ate like kings.  We will be back one day!

A true testament to the place- Riki not only ate the anchovies, but loved the anchovies.

This Red Tuna Belly was maybe the best thing I've ever eaten.  It just dissolved like butter.

This flan gave Riki goosebumps.  Literally.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 9th century monastery with a helluva view. 

The cider is stronger than you think.

This is Bar Nestor, where the only thing on the "menu" is tomatoes, peppers, and steak.  If you visit San Sebastian without going here, you a are sad, sad human being.  So simple, so perfect.

I'll let these wedding pictures speak for themselves.  I was not the official photographer, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to document this wonderful occasion.  It was for the record books.  The views from the reception were the best I've ever seen.  I think I've said that way too much in this post already.   


So long krewe!  The next day everyone went their own way.  We got up and explored San Sebastian, climbing high to see Jesus and get sweeping views of the city.  And of course, one last meal and Bar Nestor was completely necessary.  We would then make our way to Bilbao, where of course Flo almost got us killed (again) in a creepy looking industrial park.  

We spent our last two nights in Bilbao, a city that really inspired me.  For the most part, Europe does an outstanding job of mixing the new with the old, and Bilbao is a great example of this.  What was once industrial wasteland is now one of the finest parts of the city, thanks to a huge revitalization campaign and of course, the Guggenheim.

Bilbao is a great success story, and it reminded me a lot of New Orleans.  Oddly enough, New Orleans is the only city in the world that doesn't take advantage of their riverfront property.  All along the Mississippi are abandoned wharfs and abandoned buildings...rotting land just waiting to be developed.  And I'm not talking about building high end luxury condo buildings, I'm talking about parks and public places.  Europe has mastered the public space, and our politicians and city planners could learn something from it.

Anyway, New Orleans needs a project like the Guggenheim.  We already have the world class WWII Museum, but I want a Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry.  The architecture of the building was fascinating.  It is worth the entry just to see the building alone.  Gehry was hired to build a world class museum in an area that was an industrial wasteland, and it was a smashing success.  C'mon New Orleans...imagine a building like this on the Mississippi, between the abandoned Market Street power plant and Mardi Gras world.  Am I right?

Ironically, the NYT just did a 36 hour travel guide on Bilbao, which was published the day we came home.  They must have heard we were there.  Check it out here.

All in all it was the trip of a lifetime.  Pound for pound it was the best 10 days I've ever spent in Europe, and that's saying something.  There was nothing that was even close to sub par.  I want to give a huge shout out to my dad for everything.  This caliber of trip would not have been possible without him, and he deserves all the credit.  So thanks Pops, until the next one!

The only camera I brought with me on this trip was my Fuji X100S.  The idea of lugging around a camera bag with a bunch of lens did not appeal to me in the least.  I wanted one camera, and that is the beauty of the Fuji X100 series.  I love traveling with this camera.   

All of these were shot in JPEG with very minimal editing, hence why I always recommend Fuji when someone asks me what camera they should buy.  The JPEGs are simply awesome.  Shooting RAW with this camera is overkill for me, it just adds a ton of work for the same outcome.  If you are in the market, look at Fuji first.