Wednesday, December 30, 2015

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.

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