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Europe » Spain » Basque Country » Bilbao
July 9th 2008
Published: October 20th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

ValladolidValladolidValladolid

Perfect reflection of Spanish building
We headed out from Porto, Portugal on the morning of June 13th, made our way to the bus station, and bought a couple tickets to a place called Vigo, north and just across the border into Spain. With a couple snacks in hand, we boarded the bus shortly after, taking one last fond look at Porto. At the same time, we were excited to be returning to Spain, and a language that we could understand a bit better.

Our destination was San Sebastián, but we realized that arriving there in one day would be close to impossible. We decided to town hop, going from station to station and see how far we could get before spending the night. The ride was relaxing; we ate our pastries while gazing out the window, enjoying the countryside.

We crossed the border into Spain without a glitch, but minutes later, we suddenly felt a loud, grinding crunch as the bus came to a stop. We looked out the window and saw two cars below, smashed up against the side of the bus. We had been in an accident, and luckily a slow one. Thankfully, no one was hurt on the bus or in
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Not bad for a sculpture made of sand!
the cars.

We felt sorry for our driver, who seemed like a nice guy, and was really concerned that everyone was fine. There was a lot of high speed Spanish flying around, giving us instructions, but it was too fast for our ears. A young couple translated for us and we all set out walking with our luggage in tow, on our way to the bus station up the road. We had only walked about half way there before a new bus picked us up and dropped us at the station.

Our plan to continue on by bus was soon foiled as we heard the bad news about an erratic schedule. We got directions to the train station and sped off sweating to see what the schedules had to offer. Unfortunately, it wasn't much better and we finally admitted that we were definitely not seeing San Sebastián that evening. We bought tickets after some serious confusion at the ticket counter, and boarded a nice train that would take us to Zamora, six hours away.

The ride gave us a chance to relax, and for the first time we passed through a thickly forested landscape, a true wilderness.
Abando Railway Station, BilbaoAbando Railway Station, BilbaoAbando Railway Station, Bilbao

History in stained glass
There were the odd farmsteads with rustic old stone houses and curious looking sheep. The views were gorgeous and the land seemed very unpopulated. Arriving in Zamora, we caught a last second bus, and an hour later we were in Valladolid. It was approaching dusk and we decided to find a hotel for the night.

Valladolid seemed a nice place, with very few tourists. We made our way to the centre, buzzed at a hotel and a sketchy looking guy let us in to see a surprisingly cosy room, which we gladly took. We were exhausted, but still stepped out to a local pub for a quick bite before wandering the town.

We had the great timing to see the results of a sand castle competition, with entries from around the world. Everything from beautiful women, snowmen, castles, to a copy of the town hall, all carved in sand. After taking some photos, we returned to our room to head for bed, relieved to see the end of a long, crazy day.

Early the next morning we caught the train into Basque country, homeland of the Basque people and speakers of Euskara, a language of ancient and
Guggenheim Museum, BilbaoGuggenheim Museum, BilbaoGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Flowery puppy greets visitors from afar
unknown origins. They have a unique culture, and are believed to have descended from the early inhabitants of Western Europe. Our new destination was Bilbao, the largest city in Basque country.

We arrived at the Abando Railway Station in Bilbao a few hours later, admiring the massive stained glass window that greeted us there. Bilbao was a gorgeous city; we made our way to the Casco Viejo, the old town filled with beautiful old buildings, cafes, bars and a cathedral. We found a room, and set off to visit the famous Guggenheim museum.

It was hard to miss. As we approached we caught glimpses of the forty three foot high dog topiary, known locally as 'El Poop'. It is made of thousands of begonias and greets visitors to the unusual looking titanium, glass and limestone museum. Designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, it opened in 1997 to display a changing selection of modern art. We saw exhibits on Surrealism, lots of figures by Juan Muñoz, and many other strange but fascinating permanent displays. Later we walked around the outside of the building, checked out some great views from the many bridges and eventually headed off to bed.
Guggenheim Museum, BilbaoGuggenheim Museum, BilbaoGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Spider sculpture known as 'Maman'. That's one big mama!

We set off the next morning on a two hour bus trip to San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque). We had a fairly long hike into town, and we could already tell that we would enjoy our stay. We loved the old but well cared for look of the city, the great ambience, and the fact that people everywhere seemed to be enjoying themselves. We found a tidy, colourful little pension run by a friendly lady who spoke to us in Spanish that was easy for us to understand. And it had a kitchen so we could do a bit of eating away from restaurants to mix it up a little.

San Sebastián is known throughout Europe as having one of the most beautiful beaches around. Known as Playa de la Concha, it was full of happy sunbathers, some clothed and some with a bit less on. Sadly for us, the weather took a rather rainy turn, so we mostly strolled the promenade along the beach and watched the waves crashing in. Once, we had to sprint the whole way back as the rain came down in buckets, soaking through our clothes in minutes.

We also climbed a hill,
Monte Urgull, San SebastiánMonte Urgull, San SebastiánMonte Urgull, San Sebastián

Christine with Playa de la Concha behind
formerly an island, known as Monte Urgull. Waves crashed up against the sea walls protecting the road from the ocean at the base. We walked up steep, winding paths, passing cats and memorials on our way to the top. We reached the lower castle walls and entered the museum, the only way to the top. There we saw a huge statue of Jesus which overlooked San Sebastián and some gorgeous views. We watched a great video in the museum and learned a bit more history (or tried to) from a guy who worked there, chatting to us in Spanish.

On the far side of the beach is Monte Igueldo, another hill we hiked for it's amazing panoramic views of the city and coast. We skipped taking the funicular up, deciding instead to get some exercise by walking up the steep road full of blind corners and switchbacks. At the top there was a strangely empty amusement park, where we relaxed, taking in the roar of the ocean and the whipping winds.

On our last night in Spain, we went out for dinner at a little bar not far from where we were staying. We ended up chatting with
Monte Igueldo, San SebastiánMonte Igueldo, San SebastiánMonte Igueldo, San Sebastián

Fantastic view from the highest hill!
our friendly server, discussing Canada, Spain, languages, the Eurocup and whether Spain had a chance of winning. He thought that Spain was good, but that Italy or Germany had teams that would go all the way. After quite a few laughs, we said 'adios' and called it a night.

We loved being back in Spain, but were ready to continue on into France. We caught a train north, crossed into France once again and got off in the border town of Bayonne. After a sad attempt at buying a ticket in French, we were back on another train, hurtling off to our next stop, Bordeaux.

Arriving, we got off the train and straight on to a tram into town. We found a strange room which had a lobby in another hotel, so we were given a key to let ourselves into the building. Then we took off to explore the streets of Bordeaux. There were people in restaurants, out for a little wine and dine, hanging out near the river, shopping, and tourists getting excited about their upcoming wine tours.

Right away we felt drawn by the beauty of the Cathedrale St-Andre, a gorgeous Unesco World Heritage
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Andy posing pretty
cathedral decorated with leering stone gargoyles and bright stained glass. It was in the process of having some major cleaning and renovation work, and the newly cleaned stone gleamed next to the blackened dirty sections. We also checked out the Musée des Beaux-Arts, home to 16-20th century art masterpieces, and were happily impressed.

As Bordeaux is famous for it's wines, a wine tour sounded like a great idea, so we booked one at the tourist office. We were a bit confused, but managed to catch a bus the next morning to Saint-Émilion, an area known for it's red wines and historic town centre, less than an hour from Bordeaux. Our destination was the Château Ville Maurine, a small family owned winery, like most in the region. Arriving in this little town full of grapevines and people enjoying their slow paced lives, we made our way to the château.

Joined by a few others, we toured the château, led by a young guy who worked for the family. First we saw the brewing vats, made of stainless steel, then the oak barrels for aging, then descended into the limestone caves carved out beneath the château. There we were amazed
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Funky fountain
to see thousands of bottles dating from different years, all stacked and aging away, covered in dust and mildew. Andy joked with our guide, saying that the cave would be the perfect place to bring a date! At the end, we sampled several delicious wines, then made our way to town to get something to eat.

The town was very picturesque and relaxing; walking along the cobbled streets made for a great getaway. We had some delicious pizza, the best since we were in Naples, then made our way past the vineyards to the 'bus station', a bench on the side of the stone wall lined road. Not long after, we caught the bus, and were soon back in Bordeaux.

Early the next day we continued on to our next stop, Tours. We asked at a few hotels, but had no luck, everywhere we looked was full. We checked one more. Christine greeted the friendly gentleman in French, but he replied that they too were full. We continued chatting, struggling along with our French (actually he did most of the talking) and trying to piece it together. Christine explained that we were from Canada, and then suddenly, miraculously, he did have a room for us after all! We're not sure where he thought we were from, but were happy to have a place to rest our heads, especially after he explained how lucky we were to have a room. That evening was the night of a huge yearly music festival.

We ditched off our packs, then explored the beautiful city, stopping at the tourist office on the way to get some info on the many royal châteaux located nearby. After wandering a while we ate, noticing the craziness that was building around us. There was music of every kind, and live bands playing on every second block. Everything from jazz, blues, punk, folk, metal, rock, classical, and anything in between. Thousands of people gathered in the streets, drinking and eating from street vendors, enjoying the festivities, dancing in the streets and partying hard late into the night. We caught a bit of Brazilian dancing along the way, and eventually waded our way through the locals, tourists, drunks and hyper children. We were lucky to have found a room on a night like that. Not bad for not having reservations, as always.

The next morning we headed
Cathédrale Saint-André, BordeauxCathédrale Saint-André, BordeauxCathédrale Saint-André, Bordeaux

Dirty ceiling on the left side, newly restored on the right
off to our first château experience, taking the train to the well known Château de Chenonceau, about a half hour from Tours. The castle and estate were straight out of a fairy tale. The castle straddled the river, and featured moats, towers, turrets, beautifully landscaped gardens, a drawbridge and a hedge maze to get lost in.

Inside we toured the 16th century masterpiece, visiting the chapel, many royal bedrooms filled with amazing antiques and paintings, and the massive kitchen. But most impressive were the lush and colourful gardens that filled the large area to the left and right of the castle. We spent the day exploring, had lunch, wandered the paths in the woods and even tried to get lost in the maze but couldn't, we were just too tall (even Christine).

We returned to the train platform to buy tickets, but the change slot was busted and wouldn't accept Canadian credit cards. Hearing us speaking English, a young guy asked us if we needed help. We explained the problem, and he used his French credit card to get us tickets and we gave him the amount in cash. We were so grateful, and chatted with him, learning that he, David, was a Canadian living in Tours and teaching English. He was out with his grandparents Gus and Ruth, who were there visiting him.

We all crammed onto the next train, packed in like sardines, and they invited us to join them for dinner. We went to a very good restaurant near Place Plumereau, an area filled with great restaurants and cafes. We enjoyed a deliciously rich three course French meal, accompanied with a bottle of wine. We chatted about languages, teaching and travelling, and at the end of our meal, Ruth and Gus insisted on treating us all. We gratefully accepted, thanking them and letting them all know how good is was to share a meal with company. It's interesting how random meetings like that can happen while travelling.

We wanted to see one more château, and decided on the Château d'Amboise, an easy twenty minute train ride away. Set in the beautifully preserved town of Amboise, the château is nestled high up on a hill in a great setting, overlooking the river. As we arrived at the castle, it started to rain, so we hid out in the Gothic Chapelle St-Hubert, a tiny but
Saint-ÉmilionSaint-ÉmilionSaint-Émilion

Vineyard welcome party
superbly detailed chapel, filled with ornate carvings and glittering stained glass. It is also the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci, who arrived at the castle in 1516 at the invitation of King François I. He must have loved it, since he remained there until his death three years later, at age sixty-seven.

Once the rain slowed down, we crossed the lawn to the castle, admiring the magnificent views of Amboise and the southern bank of the Loire river. We entered the chateau, making our way through many royal rooms, past huge fireplaces, rich tapestries, ornate furnishings, and gorgeous views definitely fit for royalty. Eventually we ventured into the town for a bite to eat, before saying good-bye to this memorable town and scenery.

Our sightseeing completed, we now set our sights on Paris, where we would be visiting with our friends Heiner and Emilie, who we had met in Thailand about six months before. We were excited to be seeing them again, looking forward to reminiscing about our memories of Thailand and touring the sights of Paris.


Additional photos below
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Saint-ÉmilionSaint-Émilion
Saint-Émilion

Wine bottles aging in the dust!
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Saint-Émilion

Oak barrels filled with tasty aging wine
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Saint-Émilion

Just one of the hundreds of chateaux and vineyards
Saint-ÉmilionSaint-Émilion
Saint-Émilion

Historic and pretty town
Music Festival, ToursMusic Festival, Tours
Music Festival, Tours

Shake that booty!
Château de ChenonceauChâteau de Chenonceau
Château de Chenonceau

Fairytale castle
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Château de Chenonceau

Andy's terrified to be lost in the maze!
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Château de Chenonceau

Royal bedroom, talk about posh


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