Basque country by Euskotren

I woke up one morning with the desire to not engage my usual routine, and more than that I felt compelled to go to Bilbao. I had planned on doing this for a while as the Guggenheim modern art museum has a much vaunted reputation, even if the city it resides in is much noted for its unattractiveness. Being uncharacteristically decisive, I decided to bunk my classes for the day and head out westwards on an excursion.

Two reasons led me to choose Euskotren over an autobus to get to Bilbao. The first reason is that I feel more of a sense of adventure when I travel by train than by bus. I think this is because trains seem to be able to sneak around to the hidden side of the hills and trundle through farmland that isn’t likely to be found beside the highway. The other reason is that I was more familiar with catching the Euskotren than catching the bus. Okay, okay, I had never caught a bus out of Sn Sn before and had gotten up too late to have time to sort it out. In general however it makes more sense to catch the bus rather than the Euskotren for this trip because the tren takes two and a half hours to get to Bilbao from San Sebastian, whereas the bus I believe takes an hour or less.

The journey there was essentially enjoyable because the train was empty for the large part, the interior further widened and brightened by the clear morning sun. What’s more there was the unexpected diversion of the travel soundtrack. Leaving the station at Sn Sn I was more than a little concerned to hear the horrendously earnest group accordion session being piped through the car. 2 and a half hours… of this??? Just as I was working hard on developing a method to deny the existence of sound, the music changed to a pretty recorder piece in the style of traditional Irish music. This revealed the pattern of the sound system – every two stops or so the music would change, the playlist including The Flight of the Bumblebee, The Blue Danube, and The Phantom of the Opera. Always instrumental, almost always classical. Was the purpose to add a touch of class to the train ride?

This post is about the Basque country by tren though, so I’ll let go of the ears’ story. My view out of the window contained the following:

*Smashed up red bricks

*Broken down shanty barn house, hay and stone all a-crumble. Walls missing.

*Torn up pieces of material and the base of a broken pot. (In addition to your typical waste decorations of soft drink cans, snack packaging and worn bits of paper.)

*The aforementioned detritus medley strewn all throughout the overhanging branches of the trees that bordered and were succumbing to the river. They looked like weary and shellshocked soldiers who’d had their limbs bandaged up but were caught again by a surprise attack, leaving their bandages in tatters and their hope empty of drive.

*Flimsy fences, building materials awaiting use, a helpful information-giving sign lying impotent on the ground.

*Thick plastic, wet and dried and then wet and dried, folding awkwardly upon itself, looking like a heap of snake skin shed and now turning crunchy in the sun.

*Barrels, corrugated iron, broken up crates, pipes on the ground a breeding ground for algae.

*Many many scrappy trees even not by the river. Scrappy and yet fighting in vain against the climbers that were making monsters out of them.

*Another living ghost of a building – a hollowed out house with blown out windows sat right beside the train tracks and seemed to be greeting passengers with its deep rectangular eyes.

*The near-flat concrete rooftops of urban apartment blocks serving as a shallow holding bay for stagnant water.

Reading through these descriptions then, you can see that the impression the landscape and townships leave is much much less than stellar, and I wondered more than once why some of them even exist. Not that they shouldn’t have the right to, it’s more a question asking what more living in this town does beside nurture depression and cynicism? In most of the towns that we passed through, for every attractive apartment block there were screeds more state housing-type buildings, that ugly simplicity of the 60s and 70s. Unlike the modernism style of today where clean lines are prized for their contribution of simplicity and easiness for the eye, these buildings seem to cut into the air, into any view the eye can make, into every single dimension. They don’t harmonise, they just sit firm there in their off-pastel colours, reeking of indifference to life.

As for the overall sense of the scenery, I contrasted my train ride through the Pyrenees with this one. The colours that predominated there were a blur of bluey-brown-green-grey, dark and hushed, they swirled into one another to produce that special “land before time” feeling. Here the colours were more flat, less mystic, more army camouflage. What you see is what you get.

So why have I written this? Because I was quite surprised at the time, appalled especially by the rubbish parade carried out by the trees along great sections of the river. Also because I know I’ve raved about a number of things so far… but not everything is rave-worthy, and I’d rather give an honest account of my own experience. I was not sure whether to post this because I do feel a loyalty to Basque country. And I’m not saying it’s blanket ugly for all towns, the Euskotren takes a primarily inland route and Gipuzkoa is noted in particular for its cute coastal towns. But what I wonder is… why does everyone there just settle for this? Have the local authorities ever considered any sort of beautification programme? Grey days are difficult anyway without the daily reminder of how bleak civilisation can turn things. At least with some of the crap cleared away the area might emanate peace or restfulness rather than the sense of a land in decline, humanity without hope or desire to wish for something more.

It also made me wonder if there is some secret rule, agreement or decision that I haven’t heard of that states that the maintained, prettified face is for the calle, while the scabby behind is for the railway line. Maybe I am simply a snob and that the truth is that I would prefer to be in denial, for everything to be beautiful and to have a facade of prosperity even when the reality is of great socioeconomic inequality. But then that brings the question… must beauty belong to the rich? Is beauty really so completely dependent on costly materials and the most desirable situation in an area? On having a lot with which to make beautiful?? It would seem that way in so many towns and cities these days. Or is it that resources really are that scarce that there’s no money for painting over the colour of sick; and that it would take too much red-tape fighting to actually initiate change? What is going on here?

With regards to Euskotren itself however, I do think that it is an undeniably useful service and that it fulfils its purpose well. You won’t be disappointed if you use it for transport, not travel.

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One thought on “Basque country by Euskotren

  1. Must beauty belong to the rich? No, but I do think that it belongs to the happy. Poverty is depressing and depression drains the energy and craving for life and colour that creates gardens and other beautiful things. I don’t know if surrounding people with beauty would help the depression but I do know that embedding them in ugliness can’t be helpful!

    I work in an ugly place. On a good day, I see the little patches of colour and above all the green and the trees and know that I am making a contribution to the world by my very existence. On a bad day I see grey walls, rubbish, cracked glass and decay and feel that I must be worthless to stay in a place that no-one cares about.

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