A Road Less Traveled Brings History to Life In the Basque Region

In this corner of France and Spain, skip the guide book and speedy highway; the locals are far more interesting

Any traveler who remembers how it felt to drag a suitcase up the last dozen steps in a train station thinks twice before packing books. But only twice. Some books you want to read, some you hope to read, and then there are guidebooks.

Guidebooks come in two styles: one with small print that talks about local lore and the obscure corners of churches; the other that tells you where to eat and sleep.

One tip for lightening the load: Pack the small print and travel in the off-season. Off-season removes layers of other observers from a mountain road or city square. It means that the hotels and restaurants that are open have room, and that the people you ask for advice on the street may know. Leave the other guide at home.

We chose St. Jean-de-Luz in the southwest corner of France as a starting point because we liked the name, and any town in sight of an ocean is off to a good start. Three locals out for a walk told us where to eat, and then they took us. ``You'll never find this on your own,'' they said.

They were right. Down a narrow street, no lit sign, no display of rows of drying-out shrimp and shellfish to draw unwary tourists. Inside, wooden benches, red-and-white checked curtains, a short menu (always a good sign), and wonderful smells. A small dog had his own seat at the table beside us.

``May I ask you how you found this place?'' asked the dog's owner. ``I live here and have eaten in this restaurant every night for years. But tourists don't know it.''

We thought he was commending our taste, but realized later he was concerned that his favorite restaurant had just appeared in some guidebook and would be swamped come July. (Restaurant Sabin Etxia, 5 Rue Mademoiselle-Etcheto. Ask for directions.)

The cook plotted our trip on the back of our rental-car map. ``So you want to see Basque country...,'' he began. The waitress and a friend in for a chat moved closer. All had suggestions.

In 10 minutes, the trip was planned. East into the countryside (``the only way to see Basques''), south over the mountains to Spain, northwest to San Sebastian, then follow the coast road through fishing villages and skip the highway. (``Be sure to take the highway,'' said the guide we left behind. ``The coast road takes too long.'')

WE were alone climbing cobbled streets toward the fortifications overlooking St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. Our Blue Guide said this town is ``rather too popular.'' Not in February.

The stone and shuttered 16th-century houses that lined our path had names, wonderful door knockers, and great dignity. The wedding pictures in the window of a photo studio included the whole town. Basque independence slogans, faded or scrubbed out, marked stone walls on both sides of the border - the only reminder of the violent clashes in France's past and Spain's present.

In Spanish Pamplona, a policewoman who found us driving the wrong way down a pedestrian walk gave us her map. The shops were closed, but the streets were jammed with people out walking and talking. We loved the animated conversations we could not understand.

In San Sebastian, even riot police with tear-gas launchers could not thin the crowds or dampen the intensity of this region's public life. As evening settled in, broken glass and knots of police marked the end of an antigovernment demonstration. Days earlier, Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez had denied charges that his government was involved in the assassination of Basque separatists in the early 1980s. Very young, masked police with helmets, shields, and tear-gas launchers moved quickly in and out of vans. They pointed rifles down crowded streets as chatting dinner crowds flowed around them.

``Just stay alert,'' said a woman officer, lowering her rifle. ``Keep your eyes open.''

The two tourists seemed the only ones concerned. ``It's not as bad as it's been here,'' one resident said. ``The police are all local now.''

The winding road out of the city led to fishing villages with hardy pasts. Basque fishermen on both sides of the border fished the banks of Newfoundland for centuries. A native of Guetaria captained the only ship to return of Ferdinand Magellan's first fleet. Somewhere along this twisting road with crashing waves and steep hillsides of sheep, we set our destination: Guernica.

A single line in Ian Robertson's 1993 Blue Guide to Spain sealed the choice: ``The town has been rebuilt since its devastation by German bombs on 26 April 1937 and is now of little interest.''

It seemed harsh. Surely a city with such an important role in the conscience of the world deserved more. Guernica inspired the Basque national anthem and was targeted by dictator Francisco Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War to undermine Basque morale. Our only image of the city was Pablo Picasso's painting ``Guernica'' - a picture of anguish.

In one sense, the guide was right. Present-day Guernica has few of the stones, wooden beams, and noble public spaces that marked the cities and towns around it. But it is all the more striking for their absence.

The image of Guernica we carried home was an image of what might have been - perhaps the strongest case against a war.

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