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By Bruce Sach

Published March 20, 2007

Traveling through Spain or Las Españas, it’s intriguing and a little comforting to realize as you practice your Spanish that many of the residents are also using a non-native tongue. This is especially true in Basque country and Galicia.

Located in that Spanish nook above Portugal, Galicia was never conquered by the Moors and historically is a province of Portugal, so the Galician language is more akin to Portuguese than Spanish. In fact, the debate rages on: Is Galician a dialect of Portuguese or Portuguese a dialect of Galician? For centuries, Galicians were to Spanish Latin America what the Irish were to North America. They left a beautiful, but unprosperous Celtic homeland in droves, so much so that in cities like Buenos Aires the ‘Spanish’ immigrant was usually a Galician. Not surprisingly, Argentine president Raúl Alfonsín is of Galician background, as is another well-known Latin American leader—Fidel Castro. And Franco, the man responsible for 40 years of Fascist rule in Spain was, you guessed it, a Galician.

So close to the sea, the Galician capitol of Santiago de Compostela is seafood central. Do not leave without trying octopus (pulpo), monkfish (rape), grilled sea seabass (lubina a la plancha) and Coquille St. Jacques (vieras). Other unusual Galician food items include pig ears, wild trout, ham shoulder, calf cheek and the popular almond tarta de Santiago. Four Galician wines that rarely leave Spain (but should) are the alberiño, godello, mencia and treixadura.

Outside terraces (in countless plazas) are de rigueur, where pealing church bells compete with buskers and bagpipe players in a pleasant cacophony of sounds. To experience where the locals eat, head to the lower part of town. Prices are better and so is the food.

Directly on the main Plaza Obradoiro is the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. It is considered to be the world’s oldest hotel. Commissioned by Isabel la Católica and Ferdinand el Católico, the hostel was meant to be a hospice for pilgrims. You can eat in a basement tavern or in the main dining room, the former morgue.

Unfortunately, due to its superb location, the Hostal can be a touch noisy. Just down the road is the deathly quiet San Francisco Hotel Monumento. A former monastery, it has been turned into an outstanding boutique hotel that really recreates the contemplative ambience of a monastery although the interior is très chic.

To the east along Spain’s North Coast, Bilbao is the capital of Spain’s Basque Country. Now pulling itself slowly out of severe economic doldrums, the city features The Guggenheim Museum, which is touted as the most important building of the 20th century, is a major attraction that brings in visitors aplenty. The titanium curves and shapes of the Frank Gehry behemoth are seductive when viewed from inside or out. The Guggenheim’s huge, rounded spaces are perfect homes for pieces like Snake by Richard Serra. Modern masters like Picasso, Mondrian and Kandinsky are also well represented, as are proponents of such major movements as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art as well as Conceptual and Minimalist art.

The ultra-chic and surprisingly affordable Hotel Miró, located on the estuary of this former container port, makes an excellent place to stay. From your window, you can admire the Guggenheim and its popular mascot, the flower-sculpted Puppy by Jeff Koons. The hotel’s library is full of books on design and art, with a breakfast dining room and bar that could easily be featured in a design manual.

Like many Spanish cities and towns, the relation between art, design and everyday life is omnipresent. The citizenry is extremely proud of its designer subway system, a project by Sir Norman Foster. The subway stations (affectionately known as fosteritos) fit perfectly with the Guggenheim. They are to Bilbao what the Art Nouveau Metro stations are to Paris. Their shapes are evocative of inclined<

  Travel notes
Where to Stay

Hotel Miró
77 Alameda Mazarredo
Ph 34 902 11 77 77 or Toll free 866 376 7831

Santiago de Compostela:
Hostal dos Reis Católicos
1 Plaza do Obradoiro
Ph 34 981 58 22 00

San Francisco Hotel Monumento
3 Campillo San Francisco
Ph 34 981 581 634

Where to Eat

In Santiago de Compostela:
Casa de Xantar O Dezaseis
16 Rua de San Pedro
Ph 34 981 564 880

Café Casino
35 Rua del Vilar
Ph 34 981 57 75 03

In Bilbao:

3 Plaza del Museo
Ph 34 94 424 92 07

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