Warning : This is a  L O N G post, make a cup of tea!

Those nerves crept in again as I left France and set off driving into Spain alone. There was something about leaving my adopted country, with all that was safe and familiar, that gave me a slight sense of trepidation.

As I left the Pyrenean foothills of Hendaye the landscape changed. To my left the stony Pyrenees grew gradually taller, though never white-capped or as majestic as the Alps. I knew that the sea was close on my right but I rarely saw it through the trees and greenery.

I had decided to journey across the north coast of Spain because I heard that it is spectacularly beautiful. It is called La Costa Verde because of its lush vegetation caused by the high rainfall level. But as I drove further into Spain across the north coast towards my first planned stop I became more and more disconcerted.

The road passed high above unpleasant mountain towns where high-rise blocks surrounded steam-spewing factories, and as the time came to near my destination the towns and villages looked run down and dilapidated   A sense of foreboding set in. It all looked very remote and downtrodden.  I was later to learn that the Basque area is in fact the most industrialised region of Spain as well as one of great natural beauty.

And then, at the very last moment I turned off the road towards my destination and there I was, in the Biosphere of Urdaibai, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and before me spread the most exquisite wide beach and rolling waves. I was in the tiny fishing town of Mundaka and my comfortable self-catering accommodation was right next to the beach, only possible on my budget as I was travelling out of season.

Mundaka Beach upon my arrival

Mundaka Beach upon my arrival

Once again I received the lesson I need to properly learn about fearing the worse and letting negativity enter my thoughts unnecessarily. I was in a delightful spot.

Chalet Txorrokopunta - location location.

Chalet Txorrokopunta – location location.

My beach was inland as Mundaka sits on a wide estuary where the River Oka meets the Atlantic. The beach faced the headland on the other side of the estuary whilst Mundaka’s port faces the open, choppy sea of the Bay of Biscay.

Looking inland down the estuary

Looking inland down the estuary

Looking out to sea from the estuary

Looking out to sea from the estuary

Mundaka is so small that it does not have a supermarket, post office, or tourist shops, which is a great part of its charm. I did not find a restaurant for a few days. There is one small corner shop that opens for basic supplies for a couple of hours every afternoon, where I purchased enough supplies for a few days and paid around 5 euros. Behind the port the town is a maze of narrow alleyways where I found you can easily lose your sense of direction, and the houses have a feature that I will see all along the north coast – upper floors with wooden frames encasing windows protruding from the building.

Encased upper balconies, a Spanish feature

Encased upper balconies, a Spanish feature

Though so small this is a popular summer resort when the population of less than 2,000 apparently doubles. Where everyone parks I have no idea as I saw only two small public carparks, one right outside my flat where I am convinced I would not have been able to park in summer.

The port

The port

The harbour bar

The harbour bar

Mundaka DOES have a friendly harbour bar selling bocadillos and tapas, the most beautiful wide estuary and beach, a little port with bobbing fishing boats, an atmospheric hermitage on its headland, and something very, very special …

Surfers come from far and wide to ride Mundaka’s famous “Left Wave”.  This wave is formed by the mathematically perfect combination of rough sea swells meeting exiting river water which creates a wide sandbank of ideal dimensions to produce one of the longest “left-handers” in the world. There was a sign by the beach explaining the intricacies of this natural phenomenon but I could not understand it.   Basically the wild Atlantic sea slams into the left side of the bay and creates a much-desired tube wave which surfers ride through like a tunnel.

So esteemed is the Left Wave that world championships are held in little Mundaka, which at such times attracts as many as ten thousand people to watch. Where do they stay?

There were still some surfers around and I watched them riding this wave horizontally across the bay rather than surfing vertically towards the beach as they do elsewhere. Although conditions were not quite right to create the complete conical tube effect whilst I was there, the fabled wave was tall and the rides looked thrilling all the same.

I spent a lot of time on this beach during my stay as I continued to be blessed with warm late autumn sunshine.

Mundaka beach and rug

I continued to absorb the lesson I had started to learn in Hendaye – that having solitary moments in silence is enriching. Without the distraction of chatter and attention to others you really notice and appreciate the things around you so much more. And time, your heartrate, your mind all slow down. You become more involved and interested in the present.   I became fascinated by the tiny black crab population on the rocks at low tide, and how the oyster shells artistically splayed out on the rocks looked like flowers, even like a painting. Some people may think I was stir crazy but I know I was learning the gift of silence.

Oysters 2

I noticed the prettiness of the rivulets in the sand, and how Spanish people like to exercise along the beaches by marching promptly from one end to the other, touching a rock at each end as they finish that lap. What a great way to keep fit. But mostly I felt a childish pleasure at being so free of responsibility in a gorgeous spot.

The graceful rivulets

The graceful rivulets

The Hermitage of St Catherine on Mundaka's headland

The Hermitage of St Catherine on Mundaka’s headland

The window of my flat looked out over the beach and I was able to enjoy it at different times of the day. Misty mornings and sunrise. And one night a full moon beamed like a landing light across the water and beach.

The view from my window

The view from my window

Mundaka’s strong sense of community is visible and tangible as people gather to talk while children play. There were brief moments when I felt embraced by this community and had a hint of the warm sense of security belonging to it must create.

One such time was when I damaged my car and people rushed to help or sympathise without inhibitions or reserve. Suddenly women were kicking mud off my wheels and a beefy chap was underneath the car straining his hardest to pull out a dent. Alain, a hotel receptionist, left his post, helped me to move the car to a safe place then called Jakobe, a young mechanic, who came round after he had finished work and performed magic to ensure the car was roadworthy.

Another day I took the slow local train to Bilbao (3 euros) and whilst waiting at the tiny station three ladies took a deep and sincere interest in my wellbeing. Somehow we communicated and they urged me NOT to go to the Guggenheim Museum but to the Museo de Bellas Artes instead. Once again I felt instantly befriended. How strong the ties must be if you live here and have done so for some time.

I liked Bilbao, there is a lovely walk along the Nervion river from the Guggenheim Museum to the old town area. I smiled at the old town being such a tourist attraction, its streets and encased upper balconies were seen as historic, but they were just like Mundaka’s contemporary backroads.

Bilbao Old Town

Bilbao Old Town

The stylish Guggenhiem building is of course a work of art in itself. The architect, Frank Gehry, insisted that he never took his pencil off the page when he designed its dramatic golden curves.

Guggenheim ext 2

Inside there is a vast space, its glass walls making the interior atrium full of light. My audio guide made much of the problems Gehry had with the weight of the building and how he had to use state of the art computer programming to design the tiled columns that hold the structure up. I smiled when I thought of my Master Builder of Bourges, propping up the vast cathedral with his columns and vaulted arches without the aid of computers or modern technology.

The Atrium 1

The Guggenheim Museum Atrium

"State of the art" column supporting the structure

“State of the art” column supporting the structure

They do an excellent job at the Guggenheim explaining the historical significance of the modern artworks and the “installations” they house, and I can appreciate intellectually how the featured artists broke the bounds of classical art to explore new territory, but my eyes and soul failed to appreciate a large orange canvas, or the famous one with blue splodges made by a naked model rolling around on it to the artist’s instructions.

One “installation” is actually invisible because the artist contended that it was enough for an artist to conceive an idea, he or she did not have to execute the work for it to be art. I felt I should have listened to the ladies at the Mundaka train station. I also thought my oyster shells really did make better works of art.

Resting visitors

Resting visitors

For me the best installation by far was a film exhibit, “The Visitors” where nine cameras had simultaneously filmed individual musicians performing the same song in different rooms. It was captivating.   To be fair to the Guggenheim one entire floor was closed for refurbishment when I visited so perhaps I missed the best bits.

I spent another absorbing and joyful morning at the wonderful Urdaibai Bird Centre, a scientific facility and meteorological unit. You don’t walk around this reserve, there is instead an indoor viewing deck facing the estuary’s marshland which is equipped with binoculars and telescopes connected to large screens.

Urdaibai deck

The Urdaibai Centre viewing deck

Out of season this tourist attraction was quiet and calm. This meant that I got the duty expert guide’s full and undivided attention as he helped me to spot the migrating birds.

Urdaibai marsh

Urdaibai marsh

I spent a very long time watching the magnificent visiting Osprey and Marsh Harrier, just conveniently sitting on tall dead trees, or actually flying over the water to fish. Such regal and handsome creatures.


A screenshot of the majestic Osprey

This is a very attractive centre. As well as the viewing deck there are excellent presentations, film media, and explanations of their scientific research and conservation projects. (They loose weather balloons into the sky every day to measure the atmospheric pressure, and the balloons explode as they reach a critical pressure point in the stratosphere. I never knew that.) I learnt a lot about migration patterns, different flight habits, and the effect of the weather on the birds making their annual journeys. Did you know that swallows can detect a storm coming from a long way away and seek shelter on the ground before it hits? The Urdaibai biosphere is right on one of the migration pathways, the East Atlantic Flyway, so many birds pass through as summer ends in Europe. With the migratory birds and the residents one can see up to 200 species there.    If you want to try your luck at bird watching via their webcam on :  Urdaibai Centre Live Webcam

Quite near Mundaka is the famous town of Guernica – also called Gernika, its Basque name, which I shall honour the town by using.

Official Spanish name Guernica, Basque name Gernika.

Official Spanish name Guernica, Basque name Gernika.

The town is famous for the saddest of reasons, the tragedy that unfolded here on the 26th April 1937 when the town was razed to the ground by the German Luftwaffe who were supporting the right wing dictator General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The warplanes bombed little Gernika for three hours, three hours, dropping 1,300 kilos of explosives, whilst Italian fighter planes circled strafing anyone who managed to escape the inferno.

Gernika was assaulted because it is the seat of the historical Basque parliament, The General Assembly of Bizkaia (Biscay), which was on the side of the Republicans during the civil war. It was moreover the only town standing between Franco and the city of Bilbao, an important target. It is also famous because Pablo Picasso, enraged and distressed by the appalling war crime, immediately started work on his masterpiece “Guernica”, which like it or not, became an international symbol of the horror of war and a call for peace. Picasso said the painting could only be displayed in Spain once the country was free from tyranny, so it was housed in New York until 1981 when it was moved to Madrid and visited by an astonishing number of people in its first year. It is currently on display in the Ana Sofia Museum in Madrid and I have seen it there. Now, having visited Gernika I can truly appreciate its deep meaning.     You can see the painting here :  “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

Despite the horror of events at Gernika there is an extraordinary and moving story to be told about it. Since the Middle Ages this town has been the centre of administration for the Basque Country, Euskal Herria, meetings originally being held sitting beneath an oak tree until a parliamentary Assembly House was constructed beside it in 1826. This tree became so symbolically important that when it eventually died in 1564, a seedling was planted which had been cut from the original oak. 247 years later this was repeated, and so on, so that the trees that have grown there over the centuries have been of one continuous line. The Gernika Oak Tree is thus a symbol of Basque identity and independence. When the Luftwaffe bombed the town in 1939 the oak tree beside the assembly rooms had been there since 1860.

Here is where truth is stranger than fiction. At the end of the three hours of shelling the town of Gernika was demolished, over 70% of buildings destroyed, its population decimated, but somehow and quite remarkably when the bombardment had finished the Gernika Oak Tree and Assembly House were left standing amidst the ruins.

Gernika’s Oak thus became an even more powerful symbol of Basque freedom, immortalised in poetry and music the world over.

Gernika 2

Gernika symbol

I climbed the Gernika streets up to the Assembly House. In the parkland surrounding the building stands the ancient dead “Old Tree” dating from around 1700.

"The Old Tree"

“The Old Tree”

I was moved gazing on the Old Tree but when I entered the government building I was stunned. There is an outer room to the Assembly where a stained glass window covers the entire ceiling. This room is so beautiful you have to just sit and take it all in. The huge glass ceiling was hand crafted in Bilbao and has an enormous bright green Gernika Oak painted in its centre, below it are the old Tribune and representations of the Basque industries of fishing, farming and mining. Around the outer border are emblems of all the places that belong to the district of Bizkaia. It is flawless and dramatic to stand beneath.

The stained glass ceiling

The stained glass ceiling

Along with its other works of art and historic exhibits it is a spectacular room.

The stained glass room 1

Assembly House2

I entered the Assembly Room, a small circular chamber with red seats for the political representatives and numerous large portraits in the gallery above – then walked outside. There was the latest Gernika Oak, a young sapling, planted in 2005, standing where the Gernika Oak Trees have always stood. It has a long way to go to reach its full grown majesty, but a sense of optimism surrounds it – that here still stands a tree with this ancient heritage.

The Tribune and new Gernika Oak planted in 2005

The Tribune and new Gernika Oak planted in 2005

As I left the parliament street signs told me that I was on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.

El Camino

I thought I had left the path behind at Hendaye knowing that it headed through Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port into Spain and then inland through Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. But here I was, still on one of the chemin routes, though now it was “El Camino de Santiago”. I learned that pilgrims also took my coastal route, called Los Caminos del Norte, especially if landing in a Spanish port or when the path through Leon became treacherous as the invading Muslims encroached further north. I was surprised to find that the pilgrims had stopped at all the exact same places I had already planned to stay along the north coast. I even discovered that the old library building in Mundaka had once been an ancient hospital for pilgrims.   I was still meant to be on this path.

It’s funny how small Mundaka is and yet how much there is to say about it.

And so on I went on my Journey …..

I bade farewell to the Basque country.  My next stop was to be Santillana del Mar in the region of Cantabria.

– + –

Bilbao camino 1

Bilbao camino 2

  1. vacicfam says:

    “Mostly I felt a childish pleasure at being so free of responsibility in a gorgeous spot”. You seem to have cracked it, then!

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