From seeing to knowing, from tourist to traveler

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / January 13, 2002

Standing on the low stone bridge above the Urumea River, it is easy to forget the water comes from somewhere.

Grand buildings frame the river's banks. San Sebastian's white beaches fan out from the gentle meeting of river and sea. Cars, taxis, and buses shuttle locals in Donosti, as Basque speakers call their city, to banks and government offices and deliver tourists, by the thousands in summertime, to cod-filled restaurants and souvenir-filled side streets.

But turn away from this and follow the river back, along the curves hardened by concrete walls, past the suburban homes and beyond the paper mill.

Slowly, tourism becomes travel.

The Urumea runs smoothly, joined by the songs of birds and the smells of trees. At a straight point in the river, there is, next to a smaller bridge, a long stone building with a red tile roof.

On a mild morning last February, inside that building, in a kitchen with shining stainless steel counters and sturdy gas ranges, tomatoes and red peppers bubbled in hot olive oil. Isaac Salaberria, a 30-year-old chef with a baby's soft face, glazed tiny chunks of apple. His mother, Maria Luisa, pulled the string from green bean after green bean.

A few minutes later, Isaac's brother, Xabi, carried foie gras soup, served in a shot glass, to a table with cloth napkins in the room

just beyond the swinging door.

For three hours, Xabi returned, once with fillet of cod seasoned with a basil and garlic gelatin, later with an apple sorbet with a pistachio glaze, a creation that helped Isaac earn the title, in 1999, of Spain's best chef.

Isaac, smiling a tired smile, joined us at the table when this dessert was served. He kindly declined a glass of muscatel, made in the Basque province of Navarre, on the other side of the mountains.

"Everybody here is a real cook," Isaac said, talking about his restaurant and his region. "Everybody has an opinion about how to cook. Everybody is proud of that."

If Isaac had his way, he would talk only about the chopping of garlic, the blending of flavors. But early one morning a few weeks before, another cook, this one known only for preparing meals in a military cafeteria and serving neighborhood friends spicy cod dishes, was blown in half when he put his car into first gear.

Everybody knew the murder was the work of ETA, the Basque separatists who have tried for four decades to wrest control of this corner of northern Spain from the powers in Madrid. Isaac was one of only two professional chefs, in a country where chefs are hailed on the street and celebrated in the press, to condemn publicly the attack.

"ETA, they know themselves that this is not the way, to put pressure with fear," Isaac said. "If you put pressure with fear, it does not work. It is like when you cook and you put something in a pressure cooker, the pressure, pressure, pressure" - he raised his hands and squeezed the air - "is going to explode."

A tourist can loll on the beaches for weeks without ever seeing a Basque terrorist or hearing a car bomb. But something hangs in the air, especially farther up the Urumea. And when the touring turns to travel, and Isaac is talking, the travel can turn to understanding.

"Always, there has been this silence," Isaac said, his heavy hands resting in his lap. "If you don't take a position, someone will take it for you, because of fear."

Step by step

The traveler's understanding comes in stages.

There is that first, obvious realization, like the one that struck on a cold, March evening the year before last, when I climbed the wrong staircase in an old Soviet apartment building in Tbilisi, Georgia, a crossroads between East and West, Russia and the Middle East. My feet searched the darkness step after step, for five floors, then six.

"This is a broken-down place," I thought. And I was right.

Then an old professor mounted the steps behind me and cut the darkness with the strike of a match. He led the way up four more flights, onto the rooftop and into the starlit night, then down another staircase to the right apartment door. His hands fiddled with the key. Then he turned and, as the door swung open, said one English word: "magic!"

Climb another staircase in another hulking apartment block, this one in Tbilisi's north end, and the understanding goes deeper still. These stairs were also dark, but they led to a door that, a few nights later, was opened by Levan Lagidze. Levan had gray hair and soft blue eyes. His hands were cramped in a sort of arthritic lock.

Levan has used those hands for 20 years to put oil on canvas. The best have hung in museums and galleries in Moscow and Munich and Tbilisi, where I saw one small canvas of intense reds and browns and black. That brought me to Levan's doorstep.

He walked into a living room with a bright Art Deco sofa. Then he shuffled his slippered feet into a back room. He returned with paintings big and small. The first had dark tones, abstract shapes. The next had turquoise and yellow and bright red and green. Some were clearly landscapes; others could be anything at all.

"Do you like jazz?" Levan asked, turning around a giant canvas of browns and creams. "I was thinking of jazz."

Then the understanding locks in. Even here, in the city where the lights do not work, there is a normal, a way that people find to keep on.

Levan's wife put cheese bread and brandy on the table.

"To be both Rockefeller and van Gogh is not possible," Levan said. "You understand this, and you are not nervous."

Levan remembered when he could not even spend the currency of his art, having instead to paint portraits of Leonid Brezhnev and tributes to agriculture. He navigated the leaning paintings and tumbling bookshelves and talked about life between the failure of one system and the promise of another.

"I am very sad," Levan said. "Now, after 10 years, people have lost their motivation. Many clever people are tired. Corruption destroys quality."

Then he started talking about the future, and this is why, perhaps, in one of his darkest paintings, there is a small spot of white.

"In my imagined Georgia, when we will have a good life, education, talent, and performance are what will be important," he said. "When I see a person who would do well in this situation, working to change things here, I think `good.' "

The point of knowing

Beyond looking and listening, beyond understanding, the traveler can reach a step further: knowing.

I followed my wife last summer to Lucca, 99 churches and a million more secrets wrapped within Renaissance walls, just north of the Florence-Pisa tourist route. My wife sang in a performance of "Agrippina," an opera by Handel. I carried Poppea's lounge chair, cut Sangiovese vines at a winery in the hills, and looked for a cycling partner to explore the Alpi Apuane to the north.

"I am Tom. I have Cannondale," I said in timid Italian to the fit man with the closely shaved head.

He was standing behind the counter in Cicli Bizzarri, the bike shop next to the arch that leads to the modern world of street lights and supermarkets, then to the old, of mountain villages fed on olives and grapes.

The man, perhaps 40, smiled and fired back a question, or a comment.

"To go in bike!" I said, my voice rising to a low cheer.

The man turned to a friend and spoke his Italian to someone who could understand.

"To go in bike! To go in bike!" I kept on.

With the help of a kind older man who, though he did not speak English, spoke Italian more slowly, it was agreed: Saturday we would ride.

Six days later, there was Nicola, dressed in the red and yellow uniform of Cicli Bizzarri's local youth racing team. We pedaled through the arch, and I settled behind Nicola's back wheel.

On those early rides Nicola set a modest pace, pointing as we passed Puccini's parents' country house, slowing when I dropped behind. As my legs grew stronger and my Italian more useful, we sprinted along the tree-lined road toward the sea, then south to Pisa and its tower.

We climbed past one village, then another, to the wooded hamlet of Santa Anna. I understood the part about the Germans, but not about the massacre. Nicola stopped his bike, acted as though he were holding a machine gun and turned back and forth. He spit out a "rat-a-tat-tat." Ah. Five hundred people, I would learn later, killed on an August day in 1943.

Other times the legs would keep pumping, as they did on the 13-mile climb from the Ligurian Sea to a mountain pass.

"Tommaso! Il marmo di Michelangelo!" Nicola said, pointing over his shoulder.

I jerked my head and saw, across a deep valley, the quarry where much of the master's marble once sat.

Each ride began in front of Cicli Bizzarri.

"Have you been north of Pescia?" Nicola asked. "Have you climbed the road to Villa di Basilica?" Or simply, "Let's go."

As the rides grew longer, Nicola and I talked more, about the best focaccia at the bakery Giusti, or about Nicola's days playing soccer and how his knees could no longer keep up. We talked about Lance Armstrong and the Americans in the Tour de France. I told Nicola that not many people ride road bikes in the town where I grew up. I explained that, after three years living in four countries, I no longer knew where to go.

We stopped one afternoon at the country house of Ferdinando, Nicola's friend, and drank orange juice. Another day, 40 miles from Lucca, a passing truck slowed. The horn honked, a hand shot out the window with that familiar shout: "Nicola! Come stai?" Nicola smiled.

Often, when the roads grew steeper, I would pull alongside Nicola. During one long climb, Nicola faltered. I did not take the lead. On one of our last rides, Nicola asked if I was hungry. There was something very good and fresh, beyond the next village, he said. He said the word, but I did not understand.

"Frutta rossa," he explained. Then he smiled, pushed his finger into his cheek and turned his hand, a favored gesture when something - a view, an olive, a friend - is really good.

So we were off again, me four inches off Nicola's back wheel, up a road that climbed gently for one mile, then two, past the olives to a bend in the road and three plum trees, the fruit so warm and ripe it was dropping to the ground.

We got off our bikes and sat, spitting plum pits in the late afternoon sun. And I knew it was time to go home.

Tom Haines is the Globe's new travel writer. He can be reached at

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