Bilbao, Spain

Posted on November 4, 2010

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I’d planned ahead to surprise my friend Sami from Bilbao, so booked the two hour flight from Amsterdam to Bilbao because I’d found it to be the cheapest way to get there.  The train was around €160, buses over twenty four hours and about the same price, yet flights were half the price at around €80 with Vueling.  I prefer train travel, but when it’s made so confusing with supplements, the high cost and a lack of uniformity the traveller is unwantingly forced into flying for budget constraints if nothing else – despite my lack of budgeting skills!  As you go further east of Europe, the cost reduces dramatically, especially so in the Balkans. The only downside of the cost of the flight was the 9:30 departure time – as previous work colleagues may or may not attest to, I’m not a morning person.  This trait hampers my delight in waking up at 6am – before anyone else – with the kitchen at my hostel locked so I can’t get to my Chocomel (chocolate milk I only ever see in the Netherlands) that I put in the fridge the night before to sustain me for my trip to Centraal Station and Schipol Airport.  I packed the night before in a moment of surprising clarity and sense, and so I drudged towards the station, the suits already in full flow in their breakfast meeting moods.  Paying for a ticket to and from the airport is perhaps the most pointless thing I’ve encountered – I ended up paying more because of a surcharge from buying the ticket from a human instead of a machine – none of the machines I found were accepting coins.  No one, it seemed, had bought a ticket on the train there because no one checks at either end or on the train to see if you bought one.  I’ll not say that you shouldn’t buy a ticket, but I won’t do so again.

Smooth check-in and flight, a €1.30 bus from Bilbao Airport to central Bilbao shows some fantastic views of the city as you come down the hills, entering next to the imposing Museo Guggenheim de Bilbao with the warm Spanish air already taking effect on me.  The bus finally docks in at San Mamés Station, right next to the San Mamés Metro Station, and I hop on towards my first Surfing experience on CouchSurfing.

Navigating the streets takes a little getting used to, but GPS comes to my assistance.. to a point.  Flats are prevalent in Spain, so it’s not unusual to have an address for someone, yet have ten different buzzers.  Thankfully, a slightly confused phonecall later and my host realises I’m outside and lets me in.  Pleasantries exchanged, we tuck into some maize bread, rice and spicy chicken, traditionally African according to my Congolese host Franck.  His flat is reminiscent of the typical home you’d find in the warmer Mediterranean countries (i.e. Italy and Spain) with brown tiled flooring to act as a cooling agent in the hot summers.  I was especially thankful for this when living in Cagliari, Sardinia for two years in my younger days, when the heat would have such an effect on the concrete patio slabs and sand on the beach that you’d be hopping around lest you feel your feet burning away, getting respite on the grass or indoors where the sun was shielded away.  Flats seem prevalent in the parts of Spain I visited, in the cities and towns at least, where space is a valuable quantity as it is in a lot of places.  Houses I only ever saw on the outskirts from passing by in trains.  We had a wander round his local area in Casco Viejo, the old town of Bilbao with some imposing churches and plentiful amounts of small bars.  These bars would idolise Spain for me; wherever I went, narrow but long bars would litter blocks with their small snacks, one or two draft beers and regular clientele.  A lot of older places take pride in what they are, sometimes with family or customer photos adorning the walls, football team flags and t-shirts framed proudly almost always with a relaxed atmosphere which the Spanish seemingly have instilled in them.  The more surprising element of bars and clubs in Spain is still being able to smoke in them, which was concluded when Franck bought a cigar and promptly filled the place with thick sweet-smelling smoke, reminding me of my father’s penchant for King Edward’s when they were almost as cheap as cigarettes out in Sardinia.  Later on we headed to the Guggenheim, a fairly short walk compared to my expectations from the map.  Some modern art, some traditional, but mainly felt like the museum itself was the art and had some large wooden exhibition on the ground floor that took all the space, leaving nothing spare for other installations.  Not particularly worth the €8 entry.  Below:  exterior of the Guggenheim with the bridge into Bilbao on the left; interior of the Guggenheim with some large wooden pieces you walk into and around which get confusing.

The only dark aspect I’d read about in guidebooks, blogs and from word of mouth about Spain was the thriving pick-pockets in Barcelona which put me on full guard in Bilbao, but my troubles were soon exhaled after walking around for a couple of hours in an attempt to suss the area out and find whatever bearings I could in the intertwining streets.  Not once did I feel out of place or under threat from thieves in Bilbao city or the residential areas or in Vitoria, a town about an hour from Bilbao.  In the city which never feels like one because of the lack of huge department stores – aside from El Corte Ingles – and foot traffic never particularly swarming, families, kids and the older generations don’t seem unwilling to walk around at any particular time or in any place, they’re very much in plain view when in the towns I’ve lived in, only in the smaller towns do you see so many from different generations intertwining.  Maybe it’s my skewed vision of England, but it warmed me.

After acclimatising myself to Casco Viejo’s bars, I made the trip up to see Sami, to whom I was a welcome surprise.  Her and her mother both took me in instantly and told me I was staying with them for the next week, no word either way would be taken.  I collected my backpack from Franck’s place after staying the two nights I said I would and bid my farewells, exchanging Facebook details as we left.  Then I spent the week walking around Bilbao, being fed constantly by my newly adopted madre (mother in Spanish), chatting in English and my broken attempts at Spanish and booking the bus down to Madrid for the weekend.  Sami remembered her friend Maria she hadn’t seen since she’d moved down to Madrid and quickly arranged our living arrangements for the weekend there.

Below: Franck and friends, just hanging around the bridge from Casco Viejo into Bilbao; a big floral cat/dog thing at the back of the Guggenheim, complete with curioius pose; a home away from home of sorts?  A ‘London’ kebab shop – I didn’t go inside.

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Posted in: Spain