Basque Relief

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2003

As we crossed the border from southwest France into Spain, we were looking for signs of trouble.

We had just spent several days of the easy life on the picturesque French coast of Basque Country -- from Biarritz to Saint-Jean-de-Luz -- and now, as we crossed the border to San Sebastian, Spain, we suspiciously eyed everyone with a beret.

Our concerns had begun weeks earlier, as friends from Dallas were preparing to join us in France for this trip. They had typed the words "San Sebastian" and "climate" into their Internet search engine to figure out what clothing to pack. What appeared was a news story about the "climate of fear" in San Sebastian following political assassinations by Basque separatist extremists.

Although Basque separatists haven't been active in France for decades, San Sebastian, just across the border on the Atlantic coast, is teeming with trouble -- at least according to CNN. What's more, the State Department lists Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) as one of 33 Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

But the most shocking aspect of this crossing is how the cow and sheep pastures by the sea in France immediately give way at the border to factories and high-rise housing blocks in Spain. But the blight disappears as our group -- our two friends, my wife and our 8-year-old son -- enters San Sebastian, a lively, elegant city of palaces, centuries-old mansions, modern condos and a fishing port. San Sebastian ("Donostia" in the Basque language) sits between coastal mountains on a long crest of sandy beaches that face the bay and the rocky islet of Santa Clara. All day and most of the night, it seemed the entire population showed up on the spacious pedestrian walk along the bay, dotted with cafes and spas.

This was our second surprise in San Sebastian: the sheer number of people out everywhere on this Saturday afternoon -- from soccer leagues and sunbathers on the beach to couples holding hands and packs of parents pushing strollers on the paseo.

Our first destination was San Sebastian's old town, where our plan was to dive into some tapas to sate our mid-afternoon hunger. Surely, if there were food (and unrest) to be found, it would be abundant in the ancient narrow streets of faded yellow buildings and plazas dating back to the 13th century.

By the time we arrived it was nearly 3 p.m., and waiters simply shook their heads when we inquired about a table for five. Our stomachs went into full growl as we saw pinchos, brochetas, raciones and tarteletas stacked high on tapas bars. The problem was that people were wedged four deep in front of them. "Climate of fear," we griped aloud, beginning to feel lightheaded. Our only fear at this point was the thought of fighting our way to lunch.

Finally we found a spot at a restaurant and tapas bar in the center of the old town and enjoyed a lunch of seafood delicacies, including fresh clams and perfectly grilled calamari. We then toured the old city, stopping in at the 17th-century Church of Santa Maria del Coro, then walking through the Museo de San Telmo, which featured grand-scale 1930s murals of Basque traditions. In the Plaza de la Constitucion, formerly the old bullring, children played soccer, set off flying balloons, jumped rope and ran around until late into the night. We sat in a cafe and took in the scene. When a balloon burst, echoing like the sound of a gunshot, no one flinched.

Above the plaza, I noticed what appeared to be crudely made political banners written in Basque. I turned to a family sitting next to us and asked what the banners said. The old woman in the group eyed me suspiciously. In broken English, her daughter answered matter-of-factly that the posters were demanding amnesty for Basque separatist prisoners.

Impeccably dressed elderly couples walked arm in arm, and the packs of roving youths seemed interested in each other and no one else. The bars and discos were preparing for a busy night. A pair of gray-haired women set up a table in the street to sell T-shirts for a Basque political prisoners' defense fund. They seemed to be doing a brisk business, but we sensed no fear. We shifted our attention to what turned out to be a mission impossible: trying to get a dinner reservation in the chic quarter on the western edge of the bay.

La Dolce Bargains

San Sebastian marked the midpoint of our week-long feast for the senses in the French Basque Country (with a day in Spain) -- from the rugged but elegantly appointed coast of Biarritz to the lush rolling mountainsides of the back country. We live on France's Cote d'Azur, where friends who hail from Pays Basque often recount the delights of the other South of France, the one by the Atlantic. The people are friendly, the scenery magnificent, and the cuisine rich and delectable, we were told. What's more, tourists and crime aren't as abundant, and the cost of traveling is much lower than on the chicer and more developed Mediterranean coast.

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