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Published: April 18th 2006
The train to Bilbao should have taken less than an hour. But passing green little valleys scarred by the proliferation of high rise blocks and desolate industrial projects, it ended up being closer to four.I arrived hot, sweating and without the slightest idea of where I was staying
Construction projects were everywhere. I had set of along the riverbank in the hope of finding a tourist office, but so much of the pavement was dug up that I kept having to switch river banks. Bilbao is situated on a flood plain in the centre of a river valley so, unusually for a big city, green hills are always in view. Rather than offer an attractive escape from the urban reality though, partially hidden by a skyline of cranes and incomplete tower blocks though, the surrounding greenery seems to mock the current disorder.
The walk was longer than I had first thought and while my bag seems lighter these days it makes its presence felt after a 40 minute walk in the heat of the early afternoon. On arriving at the tourist office, I was informed that my accomodation was situated further out of town than I had realised. This
meant a Bus ride. The closest Bus stop was back at the train station I had just come from. Fortunately I am someone with patience; and now a permanently dented collar bone and dislocated thighs.
I was unavoidably staying at a HI youth hostel. After my experience in Bordeaux I had vowed to steer clear of them, but there was no other budget accomodation in Bilbao so I had no choice. Situated in the centre of two motorways the albergue Bilbao had all the disadvantages of a Business Hotel and none of the advantages. Because it was so far away from the town the only option was to eat and spend the evening at the hostel. The food served at the canteen was of the chips with pasta variety, but at least it was cheap. The entertainment options were limited. There was no bar, the common room had all the charm of a cardboard box and the T.V playing the Madrid/Barcelona game had poor reception. There was a Connect Four, but it was broken.
If any one wants to piss off an entire Spanish Taekwondo team, here are some tips. I had met a couple of welsh guys
who were staying in my room and one of them pointed the toilet out to me on the way down to dinner. I didn´t see a sign indicating gender, but its not entirley unheard of to have mixed toilets so it didn't strike me as unusual. While in a cubicle, doing my business, so to speak, I heard some running around and shouting. Strange; but probably just some kids messing around. Someone knocked on the cubicle door and said something in Spanish. I didn't understand, but again I thought it was kids so I left it. The knocking soon became more vigorous and the Spanish voices chattering outside the door became more numerous. As I had not the faintest clue what they were saying I fired back a few "no habla espanol"s and left it at that. This continued intermittently for a while and then suddenly stopped. Whatever the problem was, I figured it had resolved itself.
I was more than a bit surprised to discover, on exiting the toilet, 30 or 40 tracksuited teenage spaniards, and their keepers, staring at me with a mixture of shock and disgust. Apparently I was in the female toilet and this was
View from the hostel window
a problem. On the tiny panel where the silhouete of a Womanly stick figure had presumably once hung, some conscientious but uneven hand had scrawled a tiny "Chicas". In biro.
And this was meant to be sufficient information when it came to the momentary, but all important, decision of selecting a gender appropriate lavatory was it. I suppose maybe if I was paying more attention I may have noticed it was only girls showering in the next room. But the important point is that I shoudn´t have had to. I have become accustomed to looking for that little figure two thirds of a way up the door (although in Spain the elaborateness of the designs often makes distinction difficult). When I don´t see one I assume any pressence, Male or Female, is acceptable.
Something that I seem to have cultivated over the last few months is a quick temper. I was certain I was in the right, so I wasn´t going to stand there looking apologetic while a horde of Spanish teenagers in over-elaborate pyjamas accused me of being some sort of degenerate sex pest (probably). My Spanish stretches about as far as "La Cuenta, Por Favor", so
the case for the defence basically consisted of hand gestures, and attempting to scrawl and invisible female figure on the wall. This wasn´t really acceptable and only succeeded in angering some of the more macho members of the squad. Not a particualy cunning manouvre, but i wasn´t thinking. I started making some sort of hand/eye gesture which was supposed to translate as "I didn´t see". They didn´t understand and I don´t blame them, it wasn´t a very good gesture and could mean "Wanker" in Spanish for all I know. By now I was angry, I rushed into my room, grabbed some paper and a pen, and drew a shoddy stick women. Taping it to the toilet door seemed like a very good idea at the time, but it was actually kind of stupid. Some of the older kids, thinking I was mocking them. started to square up to me in that peculiar "strutting chicken" manner that I thought was exclusive to drunken British hooligans. At this point one of my Welsh friends, who had thus far been an amused onlooker, decided to intervene, suggesting I should probably leave it. He was right. I did. A few minutes later I spotted
a few of the "yoofs "hanging around the Male toilet. They were probably hoping to kneecap me or whatever one does in Taewkondo. But I had already gone in the Girls. Ha, Fucking Latin Machismo.
I was in Bilbao for only one reason and that was the Guggenhiem. To me, like the Eiffel tower, it is one of those "Wow" buildings. I first saw it while hiking along along the river bank with my massive bag in tow. For a few minutes I didn't care that I'd walked about 5km with the equivelent weight of a house strapped to my back and I didn't care that my pelvis would soon be retiring with a career threatening injury. It truly is astonishing. You see, the Guggenhiem is less of an art mueum and more of an enormous, many-tentacled, titanium and glass monster that just happens to hold a priceless art collection. While it wouldn't stand out as the end boss in a Japanese role playing game (I'm sure I have seen it in Final Fantasy 7), silhouted against the crumbling and half-finished Bilbao riverbank it certainly looks a bit special. My first thought was "HOW DOES THAT EVEN WORK". It
looks like it shouldn't. The whole structure seems as if one light gust of wind would send the whole thing crashing in on itself, titanium, glass, priceless art, tourists and all.
Someone clever and important has called the Guggenhiem "the most important building of our generation" and I'm not going to argue. Anyone who can make blocks of Titanium, Glass and Limestone, look like a quivering mass of Jelly deserves Kudos in my book.
The art collection it houses isn't actually all that, to be honest. Certainly not anything special compared to some of the museums I have been to in Paris and Madrid. Part of the problem is that because the whole building is such an utterly ridiculous shape there isn't really anywhere to hang art. But this hardly matters, because inside it's even more spectacular. Included in the rather steep entry charge is an audioguide (something I tend to avoid), and we are all treated to a pompous and lofty monologue by a respectable British chap on how the Guggenhiem is like a "modern day Cathedral", and how the grand central atrium "allows our souls to breath", or some similar bollocks. But in a way, it's all
true. Standing in the central area, one really does feel a sense of levity: plus, everything, the walls, the floor, the stone, is smooth. Unbelievably, supernaturally, laser-cut smooth. I didn't even realise it was possible for a rock to be that smooth. I spent ages, just running my hand back and forth along it.
Most of my time in Bilbao seemed to be spent trying to find things. I was there Sunday and Monday. Which, as I know by know, are the days everyone goes into hibernation in South-western europe. My first morning was mostly spent trying to find an Internet Cafe, only to discover two hours later that there was Internet access in the Subway Sandwhiches right opposite the toursist office. I spent almost an hour trying to find the train station. I mean how hard-to-find,should a train station be. Even if the actual station is not in sight, one just follows the track until the station is reached. Well, I did this, and found the station but not the door, which took be a further fifteen minutes to locate.
On my final afternoon, as seems to be par-for-the course, I had left it rather late to
catch my train aswell as get some food. I was hoping to just grab something from a local shop to eat on the train. But in Bilbao, when you want something, you can't have it. I spent a frantic ten minutes in the general vicinity of the train station looking for any open food shops. Surprise, there were none. I was resigned to my fate. In the train station, instead of useful shops, they had establisments like; a laundret, or a shop selling exclusively chess boards. I was eating in Burger King or the at the Peanut shop.
In Burger King, the guy behind the counter was either in some sort of collusion with the ticket office to make me miss my train, or was sarcastically mocking the whole fast-food concept. He spent five minutes chatting to his mate before taking my order; and then, when it was ready, my artificial chicken sandwhich lying forlonly in the chute, he did nothing. There was my Chicken Burger; there was me checking my digital watch every ten seconds; and there was him. Standing, doing nothing. When he eventually got his act together, he came to the conclusion that I wasn't in
a mad rush to catch the once-a-day,seven hour train to Madrid; and that I wanted to sit down and eat my "meal" in a nice leisurely fashion. When I motioned for a paper bag instead, rather then letting me stuff everything into it (which would have taken all of 5 seconds) he made a great show of deftly placing everything inside like he was the head waiter or something.
Running to the ticket barrier I realised I couldn't get through.My ticket was the wrong type and didn't fit. So I tried to catch the attention of a guard, who seemed to be quite deliberately not looking at me. He made some sort of gesture which I didn't understand so I tried to unsuccessfully to barge my way through the barrier. He was less than happy with this and after multiple hand signals and an incomprehensible Spanish tirade, I was made to understood that my train was not behind the barriers, but on the other side of the station. So after a short sprint,a slip and a baggage check I was on my train. Speeding away across the barren, warmly-lit Castillan plains.
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