A Pyrenees Circuit

Let me start out with a warning and a kvetch: don't fly Iberia! While most airlines try to create an illusion of elegance in their treatment of cattle-class passengers, Iberia doesn't even bother with that. It has the most crowded seating arrangement, least legroom, and smallest overhead storage of any airline I have ever flown. Iberia may be a code share partner with American Airlines and British Airways in their OneWorld alliance, but it is definitely the poor cousin in the family.

Anyway, after a plane change in Madrid, we fly on to Bilbao, the new "hot" destination. I can't figure out why. Bilbao is home to the spectacular (on the outside) new Guggenheim Museum but not a whole lot more. It is a recently cleaned up aging industrial city with a few gracious buildings. The old quarter is kind of quaint, but there's a lot of competition in the European quaintness market. It's also the principal city of the Basque region, which is probably picturesque if you had a car to drive about the countryside. But we don't, and it's raining. The food is good, though.

You've seen pictures of the Guggenheim when it opened last year. It has a shiny titanium face and is all twisty. It's been acclaimed as one of the architectural marvels of the 20th Century. But, oh, the crap inside! You wouldn't believe it! That's gotta be the reason no pictures are allowed inside: no one will believe descriptions of how awful the "art" is and will have to go there and see for themselves:

• A gallery with one hundred 1 ft. square copper tiles in a 10x10 pattern in the middle of the floor. (that's the exhibit, not the floor!)

• Another one, this time with steel tiles.

• Rubber drive belts hung on a wall.

• Mud (but genuine river mud) smeared on a wall with poems written in it.

• Paintings consisting solely of a giant colored circle or square.

• The whiteout room, which is nothing but a room with curved walls and painted white floors, walls and ceilings (so that you can go in and simulate snow blindness).

• Wooden or steel platforms, indistinguishable from the construction debris outside.

There are guards everywhere. By now, they have probably snickered so much that they can snicker no more. Unlike real museums, many works are behind glass, but it's not like you're missing any detail. There are stand-behind-this-lines painted on the floors lest people get too close and deliberately or inadvertently disturb an "installation." One masterpiece consists solely of a large canvas painted black except for a small unpainted corner that is still white. The guards are vigilant lest a vandal with a magic marker complete the work. Ah, what do I know? I'm just a philistine!

The weather hadn't been that great, but we get some intermittent sunshine. We arrived at midday Friday. By Saturday morning at 11:00 we have seen it all and are ready to move on.

The weather is beautiful as we depart on the one hour bus ride to San Sebastian. The queen of the Basque seaside resorts, the town developed in Victorian times with the rise of a middle-class and the attendant concept of vacations. When we arrive, it is pouring rain. The town has a modest beach that will be packed all summer long. Even in October, the first several places to stay we try are full.

We arrive during siesta, which apparently is observed throughout Spain regardless of the season or climate. There's not a whole lot to do. There is a funicular to a hilltop overlook, which we did not do in the rain, and another prominent hill with ruined fortress which the English stormed during the Napoleonic wars. That doesn't look too appealing in the rain either.

San Sebastian is the gastronomic capital of the region; the French pour in over the nearby border for the food. Looking at all the signs about town (and in Bilbao), I can't help wondering whether the Basque version of alphabet soup is all k's and x's.

Sunday AM everything is closed except for the bars. Lots of bars. Them Basques must drink! But we don't, at least not in the morning. So we move on.

A 30-minute ride on a suburban train brings us to Hendaye in France. There are no formalities of any sort at the border. There really is no border evident. You just get off the train, note the dual language signs (Basque and French instead of Basque and Spanish) and walk across to the main line station. At the station I decide to go native so I order french fries. Then we catch the TGV to Bayonne.

Bayonne is attractive enough, and probably would be more so were it not still raining. There is a fortified chateau and a cathedral in the center of town, but it's Sunday afternoon and everything is closed. We hop on a local bus to Biarritz a few miles away.

Biarritz is a summer playground of the wealthy. There is a grand, old 5-star hotel, a couple of other good old buildings, lots of Miami-style condos, and many upscale chain stores. There is a nice but microscopically small beach. The postcards on sale show that in summer it's packed like sardines. Due to 30 mph wind and driving rain, today there is a dearth of topless maidens.

But this is France, so the food is good. In Bayonne I have my best meal of the trip. On the hotel TV, the big news is that the rain has caused major flooding in the Alps. Also, it turns out we are a day late for the real fun: the international bankers were having a meet and eat fest in Biarritz and the ever-reliable leftists were taking it to the street in protest. Many arrested.

On Monday morning we are back at the station. The French railways have nicely printed timetables and a big schedule board, but it seems only about a third of the listed trains actually run. Kind of like a Soviet restaurant menu.

Next stop is Bordeaux, a very gracious city. It's a big city reminiscent of Paris. Large 17th and 18th century public buildings, broad boulevards, monuments, with the modern stuff all consigned to the outskirts. It's in pretty good shape since they haven't had any wars here to mix things up. A very pleasant day. At least it's not raining.

Tuesday is Toulouse. It's "the pink city," not because of the large student population but because of the color of the bricks with which it was built. (No quarries nearby.) It's a mix of old and new. It's also the aerospace center. The airplane factories were first located here during WWI because it was the furthest point from Germany. I want to visit the Airbus plant but tour tickets have to be obtained several days in advance.

Something else about France: they're dog crazy. Even the bums have dogs. Our hotel posts its surcharges: children 35 francs, dogs 30 francs.

Continuing south, our morning stop is Carcassone, famed for its intact medieval fortress. It is a movie-set walled city on a hill overlooking the modern town. The fortress was abandoned in the 15th Century and restored in the last. It's now full of quaint shoppes, kind of how Disney would do it, but with fewer mouse ears. To see the chateau we have to take a tour, which reminds me why I hate tour groups and being stuck in one. Judging from all the idle facilities and the crowd capacity systems, the summer tourist crush in Carcassone must be a nightmare. The countryside is nice, mostly vineyards.

Wednesday afternoon is Perpignan, a thoroughly Catalonian, yet thoroughly French city. Another tourist mecca during the season. Its medieval core consists of a maze of tiny streets that have been modernized with upscale shops. Lots of palm trees remind us that we are in the south of France. It's also very close to the border.

On Thursday morning, we take the train to Barcelona. We are traveling without hotel reservations. According to the Turismo office in the main station, the city is booked up for an important conference. Undaunted, we stow our bags and set off in search of lodgings. Completo signs abound, but we hit a vacancy on our third try.

Barcelona is chock full of tourists. It must be horrific during the summer. The city is surprisingly attractive and interesting, with lots to do and see. It's got to be the living statue (people pretending to be statues in hopes of attracting coins from passersby) capital of Europe if not the world. Many of the ornate public buildings are left over from one exposition or another. The city is also known for its Art Noveau architecture, which is considered an expression of the Catalonian spirit. Both Dali and Picasso hail from the region.

Thanks to devolution, dialects are now the rage. During the Franco era they were banned. Now, Spanish comes second, if at all. And it's not "Spanish," it's Castillano, the dialect they speak in Madrid, which we know as "Spanish." In Barcelona, the street signs are in Catalan only. At least it's a romance language, unlike Basque, which is unrelated to any other language on earth. Linguists believe that Basque is a descendant of the language the Cro-Magnons spoke before the Indo-European invasion. So, it's like, "say something in caveman!"

Barcelona is also renowned as the pickpocket capital of Spain. Everywhere you go there are warnings against pickpockets. My encounter occurs when boarding a crowded subway car at the main train station with my baggage. A guy dives between my legs to retrieve a dropped cigarette lighter. When I recover my balance, I immediately feel for my wallet and find it gone. I shout out and a great commotion ensues. The observed perpetrator is casually strolling towards the stairs. I race after him and furiously begin frisking him. (I know, it was his accomplice who actually did the deed.) Suddenly, my wallet appears, having been tossed at me by the dip, who is already up the stairs. He probably discovered that it contained no credit cards and almost no money and decided to defuse the situation and save his partner. I pick up my wallet (with my money still inside it) and return to the train. The locals on the train are very solicitous and apologetic of the poor image the incident created for their city.

We spend a full day and a half in Barcelona. On Friday night we board the sleeper to Madrid. We arrive in the morning but it's still pitch black outside. Spain is on double daylight savings time, and its late schedule is in keeping with the schedule of the whole city. Breakfast places don't open until 9:00 in the morning and dinner starts about 10:00 p.m. You can forget about finding any food before 8:00 p.m., but at midnight the streets are still crowded.

Madrid is a dour, unexciting city. A number of large buildings, but not that much to do or see. By 5:00 on the first day I kind of feel like we have already seen Madrid. The Prado may be a great museum, but how many Velazquez and Goya paintings can you look at?

Sunday is our last day. We toy with the idea of going to Toledo, but decide instead to visit the Royal Palace, the park, and the rest of the museums. Note to travel planners: a second day in Madrid is completely optional.

Trip date: November 2000