A painted forest, a futuristic church, and other wonders of Spanish Basque country
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A painted forest, a futuristic church, and other wonders of Spanish Basque country

Basque Art Tour in Spain
A sculpture by Jorge Oteiza on the basilica façade at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Arantzazu, in Oñati, Spain. Kiko Alvarez/AlamyKiko Alvarez/Alamy

This part of northern Spain is globally renowned for its amazing cuisine, but a meandering drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian also reveals an astonishing array of captivating art, from prehistoric cave paintings to avant-garde sculpture.

I told myself not to feel guilty for starting off my trip a bit hungover. It had been three years since I'd been back to Spanish Basque country — where my father is from and where I've lived off and on — so when I arrived late in Bilbao I headed straight for dinner. It was already 11 o'clock, but the streets were filled with families and weekend partyers, and the bar tops were still lined with plates of pintxos. Naturally, I stayed out later than I'd planned.

Now I was shaking off a headache with a café con leche before heading out of the city. I hadn't come to see Jeff Koons's puppy-dog topiary or pieces by other international art stars at the Guggenheim, which put this part of Spain on the map 20 years ago. I was here to explore the region's own art traditions, which are lesser known but no less intriguing, from the area's earliest Neolithic works to the creations of modern Basque artists.

Day 1

The first stop on my art pilgrimage was actually a bar called Lezika in the town of Basondo, which is essentially a cluster of farmhouses amid pastures and pine forests. As it happens, it is run by my father's cousin Román. I arrived unannounced, but after I introduced myself to the older man behind the bar as Carmelo's son, I was welcomed with plates of chorizo, wedges of potato omelette, and a thick slice of cheesecake.

After we exchanged updates about births, marriages, and deaths on both sides of the Atlantic, I excused myself. I had come here to see the prehistoric paintings of the Santimamiñe caves, which are located beyond the bar's parking lot. The mouth of Santimamiñe, which because of its natural orientation captures a great deal of daylight, was discovered by a group of local schoolboys in 1916. When I was a kid in the 1980s, Román's brother-in-law had a key that he used to let me in. These days the locals are more cautious with the 14,000-year-old Neolithic artworks — only the first section is open to the public. The rest is an active archaeological site. My guide showed me where an ancient deer antler was being unearthed and where now-fossilized oyster shells had been tossed by the artists who'd painted these walls.

It was threatening to rain when I emerged, but that didn't deter me from visiting the nearby Oma Painted Forest, the brainchild of the Basque painter and sculptor Agustín Ibarrola. This living masterpiece connects art, nature, and the region's rich pagan history. It consists of bright blocks of color, animal figures, and mysterious eyes painted on dozens of scattered tree trunks. As you walk through the forest, you discover different shapes from new perspectives. There were only a few other visitors, which added to the otherworldly feel of the place.

Afterward, I drove an hour south to Oñati, a medieval town where some of the stone walls are spray-painted with nationalist slogans calling for Basque independence. I stopped at the first bar I saw and quickly realized that most of the patrons were speaking Basque instead of Spanish. I ordered a glass of wine, saying "eskerrik asko" instead of "gracias," and noticed that the pour seemed especially high. This seemed like as good a town as any to spend the night in.

Art in Spain's Basque Region
From left: The Oñati Valley, south of Bilbao; artist Agustín Ibarrola’s Oma Painted Forest; the Sanctuary of Arantzazu, outside the town of Oñati; From left: age fotostock/Alamy; Jesús I. Bravo Soler/Getty Images; age fotostock/Alamy

Day 2

The next morning I drove up the steep mountainside outside town to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Arantzazu, a church and Franciscan monastery. It was founded in 1468 after a small sculpture of the Virgin Mary was found nestled in the branches of a nearby hawthorn tree. The basilica was constructed in 1950 by several prominent Basque artists. It is the most avant-garde European church I've ever seen. "They say that Arantzazu was the first contemporary religious building," my guide informed me as we approached the entryway. What immediately caught my eye was an abstract, rough-hewn frieze of the apostles created by Jorge Oteiza, who is considered the father of modern Basque art. Next I passed through a set of oxidized-iron doors, carved by the sculptor Eduardo Chillida in the bold, elemental designs that are hallmark of the region's art.

Inside, the stained-glass windows bathed the massive wooden altar in blue and green light. But it was the crypt painted by the artist Néstor Basterretxea, which few visitors get to see, that I found the most intriguing. The room's panels depict scenes unusual for a sacred space: the Big Bang, nuclear war, and a 15-foot-tall Christ painted in bright red, his torso wide and strong, his crucified hands curled into tight fists.

That afternoon I headed to Pamplona — which identifies as Basque, though it is not technically part of the region — where I would stay the night. The city, which is famous for the running of the bulls and for being the setting of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, is close to the village of Alzuza, where there's a museum dedicated to Oteiza.

Jorge Oteiza Art in Spain
Empty Space, a sculpture by Jorge Oteiza on the Paseo Nuevo in San Sebastián. graficart.net/Alamy

Day 3

Designed by the architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, the Jorge Oteiza Museum is a surprising juxtaposition of old and new. Most of its exhibits are housed in a modern building that might as well be an Oteiza sculpture itself: a rectilinear space with wide windows that offer views of the valley below and allow light to enter at unexpected angles. The museum's director, Goyo Díaz Ereño, explained that the museum was situated to receive the most possible daylight, reminding me of the caves of Santimamiñe. As if to reinforce this prehistoric connection, Ereño told me that Oteiza had once said, "There are not many individual artists but rather just one, since the time of the cavemen." It took me a moment to understand the enigmatic line: what Oteiza was referring to, I think, is the deep sense of continuity within the Basque artistic tradition.

Next, I drove north to San Sebastián, my final stop, to meet Iñaki González, who had been my art-history professor when I'd studied in the city. I had asked him for a tour along the city's oceanfront to look at some of region's most important works, including Chillida's famous Comb of the Wind, three iron claws jutting out of the rocks. But González thought this was too obvious.

"How about this?" he suggested. "I can show you a few hidden works here in town, a Chillida and an ugly piece by Oteiza." Why not, I thought.

We headed to the Basilica of Santa María del Coro, an 18th-century Baroque church. I'd been before, but González led me into the dimly lit cathedral, where we stood beside the baptismal font. There, we saw a cross that Chillida had rendered in negative space by carving into a piece of alabaster. It was strikingly modern, almost glowing. González pointed to the ceiling, where a twisted metal sculpture hung amid 250-year-old sculptures of saints. "That one's by a disciple of Oteiza," he said.

The pieces seemed subversively secular and yet completely at home within the church's ornate realism. I was delighted. González was pleased.

When we arrived at the church of San Vincent, González gestured at a sculpture attached to the façade, a faceless, genderless re-creation of the iconic image of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus' dead body.

"Oteiza's Pietà," González said, rolling his eyes. "And in aluminum!"

For hours, we strolled through San Sebastián, González pointing out secret artworks. I was exhausted by the time we said goodbye, but the streets around me — streets where I'd spent so much time — seemed suddenly fresh and full of possibility. It was the Basque Country that I'd come to find, hidden in plain sight.

Road-Trip Cheat Sheet

Day One

Santimamiñe Caves: Guided tours of this site in Basondo are available by appointment. santimamine@bizkaia.net

Oma Painted Forest: Stroll Agustín Ibarrola's monument to Basque art and tradition outside Basondo on your own or book a guided tour. 34-94-465-1657.

Hotel Torre Zumeltzegi: This 13th-century stone tower in Oñati has spectacular views of the Basque mountains, beautiful rooms, and an excellent restaurant. doubles from $138.

Day Two

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Arantzazu: After visiting this futuristic church in Oñati, continue on to the Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park, which offers excellent hiking.

Hotel Maisonnave: Pamplona's Plaza del Castillo, where some of Hemingway's favorite bars remain in business, is a short walk from this well-kept boutique hotel. doubles from $105.

Day Three

Jorge Oteiza Museum: This bold concrete cube, set next to the artist's former workshop on a hillside overlooking Alzuza, offers the world's premier collection of his work.

Basílica de Santa María del Coro: Inside this Baroque church in San Sebastián are obscure works by several Modernist Basque artists. 46 Calle 31 de Agosto.

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