The holiday had disaster written all over it. Our wake up call at the Radisson hotel at Stansted airport failed to materialise, leaving us with less than an hour to get up, get dressed, check in and, um, check out the shops. Hiring a (bloody enormous) car at Bilbao airport, we got hopelessly lost on the way to our hotel, and I managed to bash in the wing mirror before we even got parked. And as for the beautiful beach we were promised – we didn't even know where it was.
But fortunately, these setbacks proved to be mere teething troubles. Our hotel, the Modus Vivendi, was charming, with delightful (and thankfully English speaking) staff to help us out; Sopelana, the small town where we were staying, was peaceful, friendly, filled with bars and not actually very far away from the beach at all.
Before I came here, my only brush with Basque nationalism had come via the news, and the terrorist activities of the separatist group ETA, and you'll find pro-separatist graffiti scrawled everywhere, in Basque and English, but never in Spanish.
Basque, a fearsomely obscure tongue littered with more extraneous 'k's and 'x's than the setlist of a 1980s LA glam band, is the national language of this green, fertile and extremely hilly land. Spiky as a cactus and impenetrable as a thicket hedge (and with its own font to match – I kid you not), the Basque language suits the narrow, twisting routes that snake perilously around the spectacular coastline and across the mountainous climes inland as well as it suits the Basque people, who are reserved, courteous, unfailingly kind and fiercely partisan.
As far removed from the Spain of paella and castanets, straw donkeys and goldfish bowls of booze as the wilds of Scotland's highlands are distanced from the slingbacks and fake tans of Essex, Basque country (or Euskadi, to give it its Basque name) is a diverse and fascinating land. We barely scratched the surface on our brief trip - we were, after all, here not for the sun, sea and sand, but for a dose of pure unadulterated METAL at Gernika's Metalway Festival. You can read my review of the weekend's excesses here, but before you do that, why not check out our photos of the beautiful Basque country?
Bilbao, Spain's fourth largest city, is primarily an industrial centre, but it's old town, or Casco Viejo is charming, all narrow, shady streets, quaint, leaning buildings and interesting shops. Its star attraction is the Guggenheim modern art museum - from the outside it's semi-spectacular - a huge conglomeration of gleaming silver tubes and planes, rearing up between the streets like some kind of alien spacecraft. And, standing guard, is the Guggenheim's mascot, a giant puppy several storeys high (left) made entirely of flowers. Cute!
Inside, however, the Guggenheim is not so great. Having waited an entire day for the massive queues to die down, we were kind of hoping to be dazzled, but were sadly disappointed. With not a single right angle in sight, the soaring ceilings, sloping walls and dizzying winding staircases all conspire to disorientate and unnerve you completely (if you've read The Haunting of Hill House, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about). The current special exhibition about the Aztecs is fascinating, but the awkward layout of the rooms means you have to traipse all over the museum to follow it, and end up seeing everything in the wrong order.
My advice would be to ditch the Guggenheim altogether, and check out the Museo de Bellas Artes instead - cool, tranquil and mercifully old fashioned, it boasts a lovely collection of European art from medieval times to the present day.
The Catedral of Santiago (left) lies along the famous pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella on the north west tip of Spain. The cockle shells, which you see carved on either side of the doorway, are the symbol of the pilgrimage.
Ian enjoys a rest in a peaceful square in Bilbao.The city has many elegant squares like this, lined with exotic palms and sprinkled with Art Deco style fountains.
Who would believe from this tranquil picture that the peaceful town of Gernika had just been invaded by the metal hordes? The symbolic birthplace of Basque autonomy, Gernika is home to the famous Gernikaka Arbola (Tree of Gernika), where Spanish kings have sworn to respect the rights of the Basque people since the 14th century. Ruthlessly bombed during the Spanish Civil War, it inspired one of Picasso's most famous pictures (famous if you know about that kind of thing, anyway) and now has a dedicated Peace Centre. And for one weekend in August, it's home to the Metalway Festival - hooray!
The Tree of Gernika (left).
Ian strikes a suitably metal pose in Gernika's lovely town square.
Just two metro stops away from Sopelana is the charming seaside town of Plentzia. Narrow streets, a busy little marina and port, a promenade just made for lazy evening strolls and a somewhat artificial looking, family-friendly beach - what more could you want? Um, a restaurant that opens before nine o'clock. Huh - Brits abroad!
Okay, so the only photo we appear to have taken in Sopelana is of this bizarre Angus Young statue. Perhaps this is not supposed to be a statue of Angus Young of AC/DC fame (there isn't any kind of label on it) but if not, who the hell else is it supposed to be? A small boy who saved the townsfolk of Sopelana from a terrible storm by waking them all up playing his electric geetar? I don't think so. So I'll leave you with this image, which I guess kind of sums up our holiday in Basque country. A peaceful town square with a heavy metal heart...