I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m that person; the one who reads the last chapter of a book first, who scours the 'net for TV spoilers, who guesses (with startling accuracy) who the killer is, in episode 5 of a 12-part made-for-TV thriller.
I finally found a story I couldn’t cheat on. It’s the story of a group of women in my neighborhood, women acquainted largely by the sidewalks that unite our houses. At a party recently, I was raving about the trip I lead to Madrid and the Basque Provinces. Before the last bottle of wine was empty, six of them had decided spontaneously to take the trip together.
This trip, I thought, would be the stuff of Nora Ephron movies: seven accomplished and opinionated women, thrown together in close quarters for a week, one husband (mine) as driver and general bon vivant. Layer on the rigors (and stressors) of travel, and well, you get the picture. In fact, you might have seen it on your Instagram.
With this group, my gut told me the ending had already been written, the cliffhanger resolved, the last episode aired, the water cooler talk over. I didn’t need to read ahead: there would be no mystery, no secrets, no last minute surprise twists. After all, my guests were women I’d known for at least two decades. I “knew” them, and they “knew” each other (and me) through carpools, soccer games, off-key band and chorus recitals, graduations, divorces, deaths, remarriages and even grandchildren.
I thought I knew what to expect, but I knew nothing. To steal a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton via the Notorious B.I.G., “If you don’t know, now you know.”
Never underestimate the woman who lives inside the wife or mother or daughter next door. She loves to travel and has a lot to say. She'll taste just about anything. She's funny and smart and can tell stories that will curl your toes. She's curious and intrepid and swims in the chilly Bay of Biscay because she can. She's flexible and multi-lingual, charming and engaging. There's a lot more to her than the woman who drags her trash barrel to the curb on Wednesdays in her bathrobe or waves a sleepy hello at drop-off.
Madrid was our first stop. Four of us arrived a few days early, to eat more, walk more, and to stalk Flamenco shops like Menkes for shoes, fans and skirts. The full group met up at the beautiful Hotel Urso, a small, former 20th century palace in the chic Chueca neighborhood. We visited the Prado, followed by drinks and snacks at the glorious Madrid Ritz, a bastion of old world charm and service, plus a built in “spritz” from overhead misters that was very welcome on a 100° day. Other museum visits included the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and the Reina Sofia, home of Picasso’s masterwork, Guernica.
Our focus, though, returned to food, shopping and dance. We ate at La Trastienda at the incredible Mercado San Antón, marveling at a culture that has made a national pastime of “tapeando,” the late-afternoon practice of taking small bites bar-side with a glass of wine or beer. Spain is the epicenter of a food revolution. Meals at Vinoteca Moratín and Triciclo proved the transformative magic of culinary innovation is alive and well in the hands of Madrid's very capable chefs.
On our final night in Madrid, we tried our hands at cooking our own tapas, producing more than passable tortilla, patatas bravas, chorizo with figs in hard apple cider, and crema Catalana. We excelled at Sangria, the spicy, fruit-laden red wine drink fortified with sweet vermouth.
Full to the brim, and very happy from our success with the Sangria, we ambled across town in the twilight toward the famed Corral de la Morería, where we had front-row seats for a Flamenco show. Nothing can match the passion and intensity of seeing Flamenco live. The firey, heartfelt combination of cante (song), toque (playing of the guitar) and baile (dance) bring the gypsy culture to life. We danced, clapped and snapped our fingers all the way back to the hotel.
The next day, a little worse for the wear, we got an early start on a drive north to the Basque Provinces through the Rioja region. We couldn’t resist a stop at the famed Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal winery, and then it was on to San Sebastián, via a stop in Bilbao at the Guggenheim Museum.
Tucked quickly into our rooms at a lovely private villa-turned hotel and happy to be out of the car, we walked along the bays to Parte Vieja, the Old Part of this port city. Like most European cities, the streets were alive with families, walking together, and, because this is San Sebastián, pouring out into the streets from the countless tapas bars that line every thoroughfare.
One evening, our destination was Mugaritz, the three Michelin-star restaurant, helmed by superstar chef Andoni Luis Aduriz. More theatrical, prosaic dining experience than dinner, our 30-course meal was over the top. It’s one you should check off the bucket list, but for me, the neighborhood tapas bar holds more allure.
Finally, in the waning hours of our trip, we ventured across the border into French Basque Country, our destinations St. Jean de Luz and Biarritz. The carrot on the stick in front of us promised incredible linens and espadrilles. We got them, and so much more.
Unbeknownst to us, it was the feast day of St. Jean in the eponymous village. The streets were teeming with folks in berets and red bandanas tied nattily around their necks. Bands played, children sang and danced, everyone munching on macarons. Later, in Biarritz, we ambled aimlessly down the quay and were rewarded by a seaside lunch at Le Corsaire featuring the freshest fish prepared simply. Sated, we unashamedly did the musical equivalent of eavesdropping, stopping to listen to the round, deeply rich sounds of an all-men’s singing club. Finished with their meals, chairs pushed away from the table, they sang Basque folk songs in the waning light, accompanied by a guitar.
Their joy was contagious, their sound, seductive. If we had known the words, we would have joined in. Instead, we joined arms, and strolled away, down another shared sidewalk, 7 women who had known each for twenty years, now reacquainted by an intimacy only shared travel can create.