One of Israel's attractions is its closeness to Europe. Cyprus is 30 minutes by air, Greece less than two hours, and every other country no more than a domestic flight within the US.
In recent years, we've chosen places that tweak our cultural and historical interests.
My own views of historic cities are set against Jerusalem, and in seeing how other places take advantage of their histories or physical characteristics, and cope with whatever social issues are prominent.
Every city has a history. Few are in Jerusalem's league, but many emphaize something to make them attractive. Fall River hasn't much more than Lizzie Borden, but the ditty and opera make her story and house into something.
We chose Bilbao for this adventure, partly with an eye toward its architecture, and partly for its prominence in a region of Spain that isn't Spanish.
The Basques were in what is now northern Spain and western France before the French and Spaniards. Or at least the Basque language is more ancient than what the Romans brought to those countries, and developed into Spanish and French.
It's one of the European areas and nationalities that remain imperfectly absorbed into the prominent national cultures. Spain also has the Catalons, with their own language, centered in the southern city of Barcelona. Both have had their troubles with the central government, with Basque factions resorting to violence more than Catalons. Both national regions have achieved some degree of autonomy in recent years. Both also contributed to the forces against the Franco regime in the civil war of the late 1930s, with the Basque suffering memorialized by Pablo Picasso in his mural Guernica.
Now less than half of the population of Bilbao may be Basque speakers, due to immigration from other parts of Spain.
There never seems to have been a significant Jewish presence here. There is not the Juderia that appears in other cities of Spain, or the holes in old stone doorways suitable to the fastening of a mizzuzzah centuries ago. Bilbao also seems off the main path of Israeli tourists. We've come upon Hebrew speaking tourists in Maltese markets and Sicilian villages, but not on the streets of Bilbao.
A few days provides no opportunity for serious ethnography, or anything close to it. However, it's clear from reading that there are several differences when compared to the Jews. The Basques do not have a distinctive religion, but have long been part of Roman Catholicism. Some have drifted to Protestant sects, and perhaps more to secular disinterest in faith. In this trait, they resemble the Jews. The Basque homeland is not a magnate for religious tourism, while Jerusalem attracts the big three, and Haifa is a center for the Bahia.
Jerusalem has been my city for more than half my life. There are parts of it that I do not know well, and some that I do not know at all. There are neighborhoods I've been told to avoid, and a history from before my time that I enjoy hearing from Varda and the people she grew up with. I've read a lot about the 3,000 years of Jerusalem before any of my acquaintances came on the scene.
I may not get more than a slight taste of Bilbao. Nonetheless, there's plenty to look at and the wine's good. The food is okay, but it comes with Spain's handicap of lunch only available from 1 PM, and dinner from 8 PM. The geography is one of the big pluses of this city. It couldn't be any different from the low Judean mountains and the nearby desert that contribute to Jerusalem's attractions.
No politics are apparent to a tourist, but there is impressive architecture and a lovely setting It as charming a city as we have visited. Water, parks, and green mountains on all horizons. Boulevards lined with impressive buildings, with a flavor of Madrid, but without the bombast of what had been an imperial capital several centuries in the past. There is an &old city,& but it doesn't compare with our's back home.
The Guggenheim Museum is Bilbao's most prominent attraction, and requires the use of &bombast& not appropriate for other elements of the city. The building and its collections are striking and &interesting,& which is a word in the language of academics meaning something like &okay, but.& Madrid's Prado is not as impressive as a building, but its art is world class.
Aside from the upscale crowd in the Guggenheim, the fine buildings on the main streets, impressive bridges, and lots of healthy- and prosperous-looking young families in the parks on summer evenings, Bilbao has areas that appear less than thriving. As a whole, however, Spain's Basque area scores as an economic equal of Germany. And there are upscale suburban towns on the water that would be the envy of anywhere.
Villages within an hour by mass transportation are worth a visit. Wikipedia is as good and easier to use than any encyclopedia, and Wikitravel is its equivalent as a tourist guide.
No less impressive to my old eyes is a contrast with what had been one of Europe's most traditional societies. Having breakfast alongside us in the hotel dining room have been numerous professional looking young and not so young women, who appear like their male equivalents, getting ready for a day of high-tech, finance, or something else in an active economy.
All told, Bilbao provides a pleasant relief from the tiring intensity of Jerusalem. The Basques have been quiet, Middle Eastern refugees have not arrived in any apparent number, and we don't qualify for that label.
In this media age, there is no respite for those of us addicted to Israeli radio. We're never more than an hour away from the latest, but we're wise enough to make it more than an hour.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem