For those astute and international-conscious folk, you might know that the Basque country is known, or were known, worldwide as the home of ETA, a terrorist/separatist group in Spain that committed bombings and murders during the last few decades. The Basque country is also known to have one of world’s few isolated languages, having no known language ancestors or relatives making it stand out quite a bit on the street.
With all this in the back of my head, our contingent of 4 woke up early and headed to the train station with our eyes set on Bilbao, the largest city and cultural capital of Pais Vasco or Euskadi in the local tongue. From the onset, its impossible to miss how beautiful and natural the Basque country is. Honestly it makes Castille y Leon (the province Valladolid resides) look like Nebraska; meaning of course that it is very flat, deserted, and not surrounded by many natural beauties. On the train ride we saw picturesque rivers and streams over rolling green hills that transformed into lush mountains with small villages at their feet.
We arrived in Bilbao at about noon. We wandered around a bit and absorbed the city’s arquitectural atmosphere which is distinct mixture of French and Mediterranean influences making for astounding views along the Nervión River.
We eventually made our way to the center of town which conveniently houses several main landmarks. The first we came to was the “Zubi Zuri” walking bridge which was hands down the nicest walking bridge I’ve seen, trumping the Millennium in London. We walked across and were spit out in front of the Guggenheim Art Museum, a stunning work of from architect Frank Gehry who designed it to have a random overlapping structure which captures light. It is said to loosely resemble a ship and has been called the best architecturally designed building in the world.
In front of the museum is another iconic landmark known simply to the locals as “Puppy.” Puppy is a gigantic sitting dog that is covered in colorful flowers. It was designed by York, Pennsylvania native Jeff Koons which is very insightful and it was even thought to be part of a terrorist plot by ETA who wanted to dress as gardeners and plant explosives on it.
After walking around the museum we meandered around town walking the main circle which is the financial district and contains many lovely parks to walk through. Bilbao is the headquarters of BBVA the biggest bank in Spain and one of the biggest in the world. They currently sponsor the domestic soccer league here in Spain and have an enormous building smack dab in the middle of the city. I also took the opportunity to buy a pair of shorts which I had none of for my entire 4 month journey. Spring took quite a while to rear its head but she is finally here and in full force. Shorts were a necessity for all intensive purposes.
After center city, we made our way south to check out the neighborhood around San Mames, the stadium where the local club Athletic Bilbao plays. I was under the impression that the stadium was “visually stimulating.” However it turns out San Mames is one of the oldest stadiums in Spain and is set to be knocked down at the christening of the new stadium which I had originally seen amazing pictures of. Naturally the group of ladies I was with never let me hear the end of it but the neighborhood had quite a lot of gastronomical sights to offer which enticed them.
A word of warning for any Bilbao would-be travelers out there. The city has a different time for their siesta. While most of Spain, from my understanding, hibernates from 2-4:30, Bilbao takes their siesta later from what seemed like 4-6. So instead of getting a nice big Basque dinner which we heard so much about from our teachers, we settled for sandwiches in a cafe across the street from the stadium and I’m not even sure the patrons of the restaurant were pleased with our business. At any rate the stadium was also conveniently near the bus station which would take us to our ultimate destination for the weekend: the beautiful and world-renowned resort and beach town of San Sebastián. But it wouldn’t be so simple.
Though we had tickets in hand, it turned out that the day and exact time we were at the bus station corresponded with a huge local basketball game. Apparently the Basques love their basketball more than the typical Spaniard. The station was packed with fans and news crews capturing their hooliganish chants and songs while we nervously waited for a bus that was either late or hiding marvelously well. It turned out that it was in line waiting behind all the buses that were taking people home from the game but it was quite a scare as we had no plan to sleep in Bilbao that night. We made the hour’s journey to San Sebastián and that’s where I’ll leave you for a few days!