(You can read Part 1 HERE!)
We awoke on Friday morning to brilliant blue skies. The Basque Country was in the throws of a heat wave and it was set to continue. Our first port of call in an action packed day was a visit to the EiTB offices where we would meet my contact there, Igor Lansorena, and be shown around. My blog has been hosted by EiTB for over two years now and it was fabulous to see where the organisation operates and how everything works, as well as to meet the person with whom I’ve exchanged so many emails over the months! As well as all the offices, we had a look at the news studios, so familiar from ETB Sat. Here I am, pulling my best Serious News Reader Face:
Up until the evening, cycling filled the agenda, for this was the day the Vuelta a Espana returned to the Basque Country for the first time in 33 years. It was a special day on so very many levels and even now, looking back, I can hardly believe we experienced what we did; Euskaltel Euskadi’s Igor Anton, from Galdakao, just a few kilometres outside Bilbao, broke away on his own roads in front of friends and family to win on the Gran Via amidst scenes of collective and uproarious joy. The sight of the small and somehow vulnerable figure, celebrating as he rode through a sea of orange and ikurriñas was both beautiful and moving, something we felt highly privileged to have witnessed. I won’t go into too much more detail here, as I wrote about it on the cycling blog Podium Café; take a look at that for more outpourings of my Euskaltel love! This historic win would have been quite enough to make our day one to remember, but there was still pelota to come…
After the cycling, we walked back to the EiTB offices to meet Igor (Lansorena rather than Anton, who was presumably still beaming in the midst of a packed press room at this point) who was going to drive us to Lezama for the evening’s televised matches. It certainly felt surreal to be attending rather than watching back at home in the usual Friday evening slot. Lezama is a short drive from Bilbao and is known mainly for being home of the Athletic Bilbao training grounds, but football is not the only sport to be practised here and we arrived in plenty time at the small and slightly provincial feeling fronton. This fixture had a decidedly local feel to it; players were jogging around in the car park and we stepped straight from the outside virtually onto the playing area to take out seats. I came to love the immediacy of pelota, the fact that such great athletes are so close and so accessible. We were in Lezama not as ‘public’ but as guests of EiTB, and the first moment of the evening to make me grin from ear to ear was an introduction to Xabier Euzkitze, pelota presenter and commentator whose voice I knew so well. It felt like a great honour and I was so touched when he told me he knew about this blog. I truly felt welcome and at home in a foreign land.
There were two games on the menu for the evening. The first was between Apezetxea and Larrinaga, and Jaunarena and Merino, the former pairing winning 22-19. I don’t remember all that much about the game itself, but I certainly recall the moment not far into it when I saw a man approaching from my left with a video camera and a microphone. Now, I know they like to interview members of the crowd at matches, but they usually pick upon former players, people from the empresas and the like. Now it seemed the target was me and my jaw nearly hit the floor. I suppose I can understand why an English girl watching pelota in Lezama is considered out of the ordinary, especially when she runs a blog on it! I had no time to think of what to say so I’m sure I didn’t sound at all erudite, but I don’t think I said anything too unfortunate. Once again I was overwhelmingly flattered and excited, and couldn’t stop grinning. Amusingly, when we got back to Bilbao later that night, my friend turned on the TV while I was in the bathroom and hollered through the door at me that I was on it. Out I rushed to see my face on the screen and hear my very English accent ringing around the room. I’ve maybe used the word ‘surreal’ too many times, but please can I use it again here?!
In the second match, Retegi Bi and Zubieta beat Titin III and Zabaleta 22-13. We had seen Zabaleta accidentally injure Aritz Lasa the night before, and tonight it was his turn to do himself a mischief, landing literally at my feet on his right shoulder before leaving the fronton for treatment. Thankfully for him, he was able to return, but could not prevent Retegi and Zubieta from taking a classy win.
On Saturday, we went to Oier Zearra’s farewell match in his home town of Galdakao. I won’t write about that as I did a separate post on it, which you can read here. I felt it really deserved its own piece.
Sunday was our final full day in the Basque Country and for the first time, we left Bizkaia. The day’s matches, televised by ETB, were in Hondarribia which nestles up against the French border, across the estuary from Hendaye. We left Bilbao in the morning on the bus to San Sebastian, along with legions of people wearing the bottle green supporters’ garments of Kaiku, for today it was the famous Bandera de la Concha, one of the greatest of the traditional summer rowing competitions which are held up and down the Basque coast each. When we arrived in San Sebastian we realised swiftly just how big this day was in the local calendar. Kaiku’s fans were joined by those of all the other boats, including many for the eventually victorious Urdaibai, creating a colourful and good natured throng. We failed to see much at all of the actual competition save a boat or two in the distance, but merely being there was a fabulous experience.
However, we couldn’t while away the day in San Sebastian, beautiful and vibrant though it was, for we had to catch another bus to Hondarribia. We got there intentionally early in order to have a look around the old town, and we found yet another Basque gem, full of cobbled streets and gorgeous traditional houses, overlooking the water in one direction and the mountains in the other. Hondarribia, seemingly like almost everywhere else, was in the midst of its fiesta and food and drink was flowing in its pintxo bars.
In advance of the 5pm start time, we made the short walk to the fronton, which is on the edge of the town centre, outside its old protective walls. Hondarribia’s fronton was the largest one we had been to and it was almost full. It felt far more like a big sporting event than the other, rather cosier feeling evenings in smaller frontons had. We sat further from the frontis this time, in order to get the defenders’ perspective and gain an understanding for the vast distance they are required to hit. In the first match of the evening, Zabaleta put his bad week behind him, teaming up with Gorka to beat Idoate and Cecilio 22-19.
The feature match once again included my favourite Zubieta, this time playing with Xala with whom he won the Pairs Championship in 2010. We were very excited to see this Rolls Royce of a couple in action, but they failed to fire with Xala especially off colour, losing to Irujo and Pascual 22-13. This was a small disappointment, both to me and to the middle aged woman on my right who was either Zubieta’s mother or was madly in love with him. Much to our amusement, his every strike of the ball was met with a whispered ‘aupa Aitor!’ from the terribly tense sweaty palmed fan, and his every error with a shriek of dismay.
When the last point came to an end, hands had been shaken and the players had retreated out of sight, I felt suddenly empty and rather sad. It was over. We hung around the fronton like lost souls, wandering onto the playing area to take in every vista, to commit everything to memory. We were just about to leave when Zubieta, still in kit, came jogging past. With pure reflex action, I somehow managed to ask him for a photograph in some bizarre mixture of Spanish, English and a little Basque. He apologised for having to run straight to a TV interview but came over when he was finished and happily posed for me. I have little clue what he said, but he was delightful. Milesker Aitor! Zabaleta also smiled for the camera. And so, that really was it. The next morning we were back in England, a little numb and a little sad, but brimming over with wonderful memories, of people, places and sporting action as well as a greater appreciation for the culture, the rhythms and the soul of Euskadi and its wonderful sport of pelota. I will be back, and soon.
All photos are mine