Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bilbao (Days 2-3)

The next day (a Monday,) I had planned to visit the Guggenheim. I made the mistake of not checking the schedule (my casual traveler mindset failed me) -- if you visit Bilbao, the museum is closed on Mondays. I ended up wandering around Old Town, which was far from disappointing. That did leave me with only a couple of hours to see the museum on Tuesday, between the museum's open and my early-afternoon flight, which was a mistake.

Old Town

Arriaga Theater

This kid playing keyboard in the square outside the church of Santos Juanes. Awesome.

There is a Basque museum in Bilbao, which I thought would be interesting to visit. It was, somewhat. The museum focused on industry and art of the Basque people -- fishing, smithing, pottery -- I don't know what I was expecting. I expected there to be not much English, but I read online that everything was also in English. That isn't quite the case, and I find dioramas and reproductions are only as interesting as the story they tell. At any rate, it was a fine way to spend a quiet and inexpensive couple hours.

Later, I had a delicious lunch at a vegetarian restaraunt, Jatetxe Berdea (also on my hosts' list of recommendations!) I'm pretty sure some of my food was at least re-heated in a microwave (I also eat at weird times when travelling alone, so I'm not mad) but it was a TON of food, yummy, and I think 11 euro for the "full meal" (soup, bread, entree, dessert, and a glass of wine.)


Another goal I had while in Bilbao was to visit the coast. I found Playa Gorrondaxte, Azkorri, mapped my trip on the metro, and headed out. 

The beach is maybe 2-3 miles walk from the Berango metro stop (some hills), but not bad. Much of the walk is through residential area, but there are also dirt trails that wind around alongside the road. I took the trail on a whim, and I started to get a little nervous after walking a few minutes through high greenery, unsure where I was going. I was relieved when the trail dumped me out on the same road, just farther along.

The beach, like the mountain vistas, was totally stunning. I spent some time just sitting and looking at it, walking up and down...

This guy started following me on the road back, getting closer, barking at intervals... I'm leaving your territory, dude, lay off. I yelled at him (one of those yells that don't come out how you expect, and startle even you) when he got a little too close.

This excursion was so much easier than the day before to the mountain. I attribute that to no buses -- just the metro. It was a longer ride (about 45 minutes from where I caught it) but there's a map right there on the wall with all the stops, so I knew when to start paying attention; it's a smoother and less twisty/turny ride, so easier to read and pass the time; and generally the stops are a lot more of a hub than bus stops, so getting oriented and regaining directions and bearings on foot is quick.

Guggenheim Bilbao

I set my alarm to get up in time to be at the museum just before it opened. I slept through it (of course) but made it just a few minutes after open. There was already a line, which dismayed me, but it shouldn't have -- the line moves really fast.

Before even entering the museum, there's a ton of sculpture and architecture to appreciate. The building itself is the obvious example, but the sculpture garden just outside and along the river and contemporary pedestrian bridges across it also shape the vibe of this little port town. You could be in the Old Town, with buildings dating back to the 1600s, then later that afternoon be in this very contemporary part of the city.

I really enjoyed The Matter of Time permanent installation; it's a huge work and a really unique and unusual way to experience art and form. There's a better picture at that link.

When I visited, there was a special Jeff Koons retrospective, with pieces from throughout his career. I love cheeky art, which he definitely makes. I took a ton of pictures, but the stainless steel balloon-looking sculptures stuck with me the most. So shiny. And the tulips especially -- such a big, colorful, shiny contrast to the cloudy grey sky outside.

I do wish I had more time at the museum. I was only left with about 2 hours, and plenty unseen (especially of the museum's permanent collection). Another "what would I do differently" moment: I packed very light, so in hindsight I could have brought all my luggage to check at the museum. That would have given me up to an extra hour or two if I had known to pack up and check out before. Live and learn.

I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed Bilbao. I have this dream to someday live abroad, even just for a couple years -- could see home in Bilbao or Toulouse. I loved Barcelona and Paris, but I felt small and temporary.

I caught my flight for Lisbon, and the last new city of the trip, early Tuesday afternoon.

Bilbao (Day 1)

Then I went to Bilbao, then I went to Lisbon, then I came home. The end.

I'm a slacker. But I have two more cities, and they were each my favorite yet! Have some time off this week, so maybe I can wrap it up before the new year (in 2 days...)


Travelling alone, in a foreign country, is kind of wonderful. I love to pick out just a couple things to do, map out my day, then see what else I find along the way. Knowing I would have limited time, and knowing I'd just have come off two weeks of fast-paced and regimented school and sightseeing, Bilbao sounded perfect. It's a smaller city with unique history, nestled between mountains and ocean. 

If you Google "Bilbao" one of the first things you'll find is probably its Guggenheim Museum. The museum is absolutely worth seeing, but the Basque region of Spain's culture and geography is also unique and wonderful.

I took a short flight from Barcelona (thank you, bonus miles!) and landed ready to take on day 1 (of 2.5) in Bilbao. I caught the bus to my AirBnB to get the key and meet my hosts. It was a beautiful day, and they suggested that if I wanted to spend some time outside I should enjoy it while I could -- it had been unseasonably wet and unpredictable, so there was no telling what was in store for the rest of my short time there.
My feline AirBnB host. This cat is hilarious.


My short list for Bilbao included: Guggenheim, mountains, beach. I live in a city that is built right up to and around mountains, so I did some research into where I could take a hike without taking a full day trip. I found Pagasarri. Pagasarri is a small mountain range, part of the Basque Mountains, sometimes referred to as "the lungs of Bilbao" but the translation/root words have something to do with a goddess.

I was determined to take public transit as far as I could, then walk to the trails from there. Public transit in a strange place -- in a foreign language -- is serious mental aerobics. Eat your heart out, Lumosity. I don't really speak enough Spanish, and, as with any unfamiliar public transit line, I really didn't know where I was going or when to really start looking out for my stop. I ended up following the blue dot on Google Maps to see when my stop was approaching (international data saves the day again.)

Despite technology, I got off a bit too early (see above, "no idea where I was going") and ended up walking maybe 2 miles more than necessary (uphill... to a mountain). Maybe I should have taken a cab... Even so it was nice to see a little more of the city and the region.

My short hike was totally breathtaking and worth it.
Not pictured: ominous storm clouds

Wish I knew what this is.

This picture was taken early in the hike, and shortly after, the mostly blue sky turned grey and ominous. A light rain gave way to heavier downpour and loud thunder cracks. I thought it best to turn back at that point, not knowing how bad it would get and thinking it unwise to be out alone on an unfamiliar mountain during a thunderstorm. It cleared up before I got back to the road (Pagasarri, you trickster) but not before my legs were wobbly and tired.

It was so different than where I had just come from (Barcelona, Catalunya), and from the (admittedly under-informed) image I have of, say Madrid or Sevilla. I also read in my limited research that the Basque Mountains are sometimes referred to as the "Spanish Alps" -- though this was merely a foothill compared to those, I can see it.

Somewhere on this map is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino del Norte passes near Bilbao on its route along Spain's northern coast, from San Sebastian to Santiago. If the few hours I spent out around Bilbao is any indication of the rest of the camino, that seems like not a bad way to spend a couple months...

Something else this picture shows is the "amnistia" graffiti, which I began to notice as somewhat pervasive throughout the early part of this jaunt. The Basque people identify as very different from the rest of Spain, tack on unhealed wounds from the Spanish Civil War, and while the Basque nationalist or separatist mindsets continue, there was violence from the extreme wing of the separatist movement (the ETA) from the 1960s up through the early 2000s. The "amnistia" is for ETA prisoners, for whom there is still apparently strong sentiment for release. For an outsider who has a lot to learn, but it was an eye-opener to a just-beneath-the-surface but essential element of the region. Once I saw the "amnistia," I saw it tucked in pockets throughout the city. 
I am still struck by how little I knew about this (still do) as, I think, an informed and globally-engaged adult. I guess not. A couple of (long-form) pieces on the history which I found very interesting. Both are admittedly written by an Brit and an American, respectively. It's history written by an "other," but I had a hard time finding alternatives written in English, rather than Spanish or Euskara (I'd welcome suggestions!)
And a news article about a 2,500-person demonstration, only about a month ago (in Spanish, so, full disclosure, I only about 75% read/understood)

"Pinxtos" which sounds like a dirty word in American Spanish.
I asked my hosts where they would suggest some authentic Basque food after my hike, and they suggested pinxtos at Cafe Iruna. From there, I guess that would be in Bilbao's more downtown/commercial district. Old Town is just a short walk across the river. I was content to finish the day reading in the small park across the street from the restaurant.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Montserrat (Barcelona side-trip)

Got a little sidetracked! To be honest, I began writing this post over a month ago, and I just started to go in a really surprising direction. I wasn't sure what to do with it, so I decided to put it aside for a bit... and it ended up there for longer than I expected.

Our first full day in Barcelona was a free day before classes started the next day. The options were one of those hop-on-hop-off bus tours, or... choose your own adventure. One of my travel buddies had the great suggestion of a day trip to the Santa Maria de Monserrat monastery, about an hour outside the city (by train.)

As much as, once I had to leave, I would have loved an extra day to explore Barcelona, I have no regrets spending this day away.


The story is that the Virgin Mary appeared to some sheepherder children, they fetched the adults, she appeared to the adults, and they built the monastery on that site.

Up and away...

To get to the city, which is somewhat touristed-out but still pretty awesome, you ride a death trap, dangling hundreds of yards (more appropriately, "metres") in the air from a cable of unknown age. I mean... It adds to the experience.
DOOOOOM! But not really.

You thought going up was terrifying?

The City

There are several holy sites in the city to visit, including the main monastery building and several more remote sites, as well as an expansive cafeteria and gift shop. Because this was a sort of last minute decision, we didn't do much research other than what we could pull up on the train and in the city. That would have been a good idea.

Very Barcelona Knight Templar
We had planned to see the Lady of Montserrat statue, which is one of the rare and more famous "black Madonnas" in Europe. The line was longer than we'd liked, so we skipped in favor of a trip to the the Santa Cova (or Holy Grotto), the cave where the vision is said to have appeared. It seemed the most reasonable to get to, and, besides, a cave? How awesome does that sound? It's only about a 20-30 minute walk, but it has some reasonably steep and strenuous spots. Tangent: I really need to get myself some bad-ass adventure babe sandals. This is the not the first time I have found myself sort-of-hiking in open-backed sandals while travelling (Exhibit A: Petra 2009. Not pictured: flip flops.) Flip flops not recommended.

The path to the cave

The view from the path to the cave
The views from this walk were just spectacular. No picture could compare.

In the Santa Cova, there are offerings to the Virgin: wedding and confirmation dresses, babies' onesies, written letters and prayers, little trinkets and jewelry...

I've decided that reflecting on Montserrat, and putting it into a blog post with some semblance of purpose has been complicated for a couple of reasons.

First, I am not a religious person, but I imagine the peace and wholeness that I feel in nature is similar to what others experience in a different context... A part of the universe in a way that is comparatively small yet also whole and significant. This kind of site was awesome, for me, to bask in the warmth of that shared human experience.

Second, and more unexpectedly perhaps, my grandmother used to love this stuff. When I was much younger and they were still pretty healthy, she and my grandfather used to go on trips all over to visit Catholic sites. It's been a tough year for my family (though back on the up!) but it's a site she'd be all about (the history of which begins with a vision of the Virgin Mary.) I couldn't help but reflect on the line of bad-ass women from which I descend. Girl power.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


"What was your FAVORITE place you visited?"

This is kind of a loaded question, and a difficult one to answer.
Paris is definitely a Life List item.
Toulouse is a perfect dose of French-ness, in a small enough package to get to know and grow fond of in a week.
Bilbao is breathtakingly beautiful and unique, and gave me some of the most vivid memories of the trip.
Lisbon may have taken the title, but I was there such a short time (roughly 2 days) that I felt like we never really had a chance...

As a total package, though, I think my time in Barcelona may have been my favorite.

The night before I arrived in Barcelona, FC Barcelona had won the UEFA Champions League. I admittedly had no idea how that works (still don't), but apparently it's a big deal.
FC Barcelona and smartphones win the day.
The energy in Barcelona the next night for the victory parade was awesome. The celebration was surprisingly quick but completely electric. This double-decker bus with the team, a couple crowd-control segments and a few of "hype" sort of segments (spirit team, a radio station, some people on stilts...), and that's it.

You gotta admit it's fun to cheer for a winning team. Maybe that's why I'm a Patriots fan... looking at you, Ravens/Colts, Roger Goodell and various haters. Burn. #freeTB

This wonderful city

From the rooftop pool at my hotel (seriously) to the (imported) beach just a short stroll from city center, Barcelona is "urban beautiful" in a way I never understood until now.

Casa Batllo and Sagrada Familia

A huge part of what makes Barcelona... well, Barcelona... is the architecture. There is such an wide range of breathtaking structures, with equally stop-you-in-your-tracks-gorgeous buildings of Gothic and Modern and just way cool buildings along the same street.

There are a handful of Antoni Gaudi works in and around Barcelona, and I visited two: Casa Batllo and Sagrada Familia. When you go to Barcelona, everyone raaaaves about the Sagrada Familia cathedral. It's a cool spot, so complex and intricate is its design that 100+ years after beginning construction, it is still unfinished, and it really is spectacular. Before visiting that landmark, I visited the Casa Batllo. Maybe it was the helpful audio guide on the Casa tour, maybe it was just that the house isn't on quite as grand a scale as the cathedral, maybe it was that I was a little hungover for my Sagrada visit, but I was able to appreciate the genius in the details of the Casa even more than the Sagrada. Both are unmissable. 

The one Gaudi landmark I missed, and I regret missing, is Park Guell. I just ran out of time. I'll just have to go back. 

To the sea...

Nothing like a sunset catamaran ride on the Mediterranean.

Around town

Wait, didn't you say this was a school trip?
Moritz Brewery. Go there.

Barcelona loves creativity.

Not pictured, but another favorite of the trip, is the Picasso Museum. It's literally all Picasso, and somewhat small, but the progression of the artist's development is amazing to see. It's not just watching the artist grow over a lifetime, it's like watching a movement evolve over the late-19th through early/mid-20th Century. I struggle to describe it; he was just that prolific. I can't even imagine how much he must have created that no one will ever see. The man must have done nothing but paint (and womanize.)

Casa Lolea

sangria, camembert+roasted garlic
Roquefort+honey+red pepper, patatas bravas
Delicious. I ate my weight in patatas bravas, and I have no regrets. Except that some of my clothes didn't fit when I came home. Whatever, breathing is overrated.

Lovely and quiet walk through the deserted streets of downtown Barcelona on my way to the airport bus. Where nightclubs stay open until sunrise, Sunday morning streets belong to travelers on their way to catch a flight. By the way, how cute is this tiny little street? So many of these.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Toulouse is an adorable little city, and the site of the first week of my study abroad.
Snoop Dogg feat. Dr. Dre: Eat Croissants Everyday.
(I mean, really it should be every (space) day, but I'm not here to tell anyone how to live his life.)

Capitole de Toulouse

Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse
St. Sernin was once the largest cathedral in France (until the Notre Dame), thus the most popular pilgrimage site in France. It is on El Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), and you can have your passport stamped in the church. I did not.

This river made for a perfect a.m. jogging setting. So wonderful. I will jog at home and close my eyes and pretend I'm here. But not for too long, because that's dangerous.

The Youths hang out on the banks of the Garrone around this point on Friday and Saturday night. We thought we'd live like the locals on Friday and join them. It was authentic, but nothing makes an adult in her late-20s feel older than being surrounded by 17-year-olds making merriment.

All the wine.

More of the wine.
Best. Meal. Ever.

This was food-induced euphoria. There was also a good deal of wine and an even greater deal of silliness. Everyone needs to experience, just once, being in a setting that is just way fancier than you or your behavior. As an adult. And to feel so embarrassed that you're having such a good time, but you're having too good a time to really let the weight of shame last long. Am I right?... You can't take me anywhere.

Visited a castle. Awesome.

Pro Tips and Rookie Mistakes

  1. Pro Tip: Drink all the wine. Just do it. The wine is amazing. The food is amazing. Drink all the wine. Gain all the pounds. It's fine.
  2. Pro Tip (bonus): I know I might be the minority here, but... Toulouse > Paris. Don't be mad. Paris is beautiful and romantic... and crowded and expensive. Toulouse is quaint and welcoming and reasonable. Paris obviously has an authentically and inimitably French culture vibe, but Toulouse oozes a much different, more laid-back French culture that I really loved.
  3. Rookie Mistake: I don't know, maybe I should have gotten my passport stamped at the church. I have so many empty pages. Now that the EU is all Shengened, I didn't get to fill up those pages like I could have 20 years ago.
  4. Rookie Mistake (bonus): Maybe I shouldn't have spent so much time at the English pub... No, that's ridiculous; I regret nothing.