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Published: July 11th 2016
This futuristic building is Bilbao's number one sight.
After eight months in Latin America, I was now returning back to Europe, and back to the country that I left Europe from – Spain.
But naturally, I couldn’t leave Cuba without experiencing its frustrations one last time.
Before spending my last CUC$10, I ask the lady at the bureau de change if there was a minimum amount that I needed to change. She smiles, and says no.
So I then ask a stranger for five cents so I could buy an overpriced CUC$5.50 pizza (worth CUC$0.60 on the streets of Centro Habana
) and have a nice, round CUC$5 note left to exchange into Euros.
Going back to the bureau de change, she then tells me that I need a minimum of CUC$6 to change into Euros. I JUST F*CKING ASKED YOU IF I NEEDED A MINIMUM AMOUNT FOR F*CK’S SAKE.
I’m then left to spend my remaining CUC$5 on two chocolate bars at a shitty shop with a shitty selection, in a shitty airport full of shitty shops – for one last rip-off.
Adios Cuba, I’m glad to be leaving you.
I was hoping that Air Cubana wouldn’t be as austere as its country – unfortunately, it was.
The Bilbao City Hall with a sculpture by Jorge Oteiza out the front of it.
To start things off, there was an hour delay – no explanation, no apology. There was no ordered boarding or even a boarding announcement – just a queue-less scramble to get on board the plane. The plane was an old Russian one with probably the highest ceiling I’ve ever seen on the inside of a plane. Personalised entertainment system? Haha, keep wishing. The cabin was an absolute oven and it was only half-full – heaven knows what it would have been like with a full load – and my fan, which was located on the back of the seat in front of me, wasn’t working.
There were no reading lights, no seat belt signs and the safety video was turned off halfway through. No blankets, no pillows. To top it off, there was a screaming baby on board. I had nine hours of this ahead of me. NINE HOURS.
Thankfully the plane cooled down once we got some altitude and there was food! With this being a Cuban airline and with this being airline food, I was fearing the worst but thankfully it wasn’t that bad in the end – and the old lady next to me let this starving
New stadium that is home to the local football team, Athletic Bilbao.
backpacker have half of her meals to boot!
The plane delay meant that I had a tight squeeze to make my train to Bilbao once I landed in Madrid – but I managed to get across Madrid’s very efficient metro system just
in time. Damn you Cuba!
It was nice to be back in Spain again – I could understand the Spanish being spoken here! If Spanish people talk slowly, then I can understand everything. Pity they all talk fast then!
It was nice not being hassled by hustlers too. And to be somewhere modern where everything is orderly and everything works.
Like my train to Bilbao – that was fast. Not sure that I will be enjoying the relative luxury of train travel too often on this sortie around Europe though, given how expensive it is – I had to book this journey a month in advance to get the decent price of 20€.
Having gotten used to 30+ degree temperatures with stifling humidity and constant sweating, I did tell myself that I’d really like some cooler weather for a little bit – and Bilbao delivered with a (relatively) cool 17 degrees greeting me outside the train
Old Town Architecture
These beautiful apartments have obviously been renovated but still retain a look that is classic to the old town.
station. I actually had to put on a jacket for the first time in two months.
On first impressions, Bilbao seemed really handsome – classic architecture, a river setting, clean streets – and it felt exciting to be back in Europe again. The vibes emanating from the city were good too.
After checking into my hostel, I then stepped outside again to grab my first kebab in God knows how long, and noticed the sun sets incredibly late here! It wasn’t until about 10.30pm before it went down properly.
I spent my first morning here walking around Bilbao’s pretty Casco Viejo – and it really is pretty, with its classic Spanish apartments and facades. Again, probably because I’ve just been in Cuba, I noticed that everything here is so ordered and so well maintained.
The river walk is a pleasant stroll and culminates in the city’s showpiece – the shiny, steel, Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim.
Built in 1997 – and featuring in the Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies immediately after – the museum was the catalyst behind a rejuvenation of this formerly industrial city.
I somehow spent three hours inside it, checking out works by Louise Bourgeois, Pablo Picasso and
"A Matter Of Time"
Permanent display of this steel work by Richard Serra inside the Guggenheim.
Andy Warhol, among others. Trying to get full value for my 16€ (!) entrance fee no doubt.
The price did include an audio guide which was really helpful in explaining the symbolism and ideas behind some of the more puzzling exhibits. I’ve never really got abstract art but on reading and hearing others’ interpretations, I did actually understand some of the more seemingly meaningless works I was looking at.
But I would have never have reached those conclusions on my own. I’m not really an art person though I do now appreciate some, having been to a few art galleries on my travels and during my time living in London. Art is ultimately personal and subjective which makes it rather confusing for a lot of people.
When I think of all the different things that I have done on my travels – visiting art galleries included – I really appreciate the sheer variety of things one can do and experience on the road, be it hiking, snorkelling, watching a football match or visiting an art gallery. For me, this is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of travelling.
Clean and cultured, Bilbao is a real pleasure to walk around. The
One of the many pedestrian streets in the old town.
people seem friendly and laid back too. It has a nice vibe to it and is similar in feel to cities like Hamburg
– clean, well-maintained and not too big. Several times during my walk around the city, I thought “man, this would be a nice place to live”. Apart maybe, from the fickle weather (though it was fine and sunny during my stay here) and finding a job.
One of the things that drew me to visit Bilbao is the passion of the people. This is the Basque Country and the people here are proud to be Basque – although in truth, I ended up hearing more Spanish than I was expecting.
Given the history here, especially the violence of the independence movement in the 90s, I was half-expecting the locals to prefer speaking English to you instead of Spanish, but indeed we are still in Spain and Spanish seemed to be the most spoken language here despite Basque being the primary language, indicated by all the signage being in Basque first, and Spanish second.
The passion of the locals is perhaps not encapsulated more than through the city’s football club – Athletic Bilbao. With
Along with the Guggenheim, this modern bridge was opened in 1997 as a symbol of the rejuvenation of the city.
a famous and unique recruitment policy of only playing with players born in the Basque region, Athletic have done remarkably well with such a limited talent pool, given their relative success competing with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, who consistently buy up the best talent in the world.
It is probably this policy which forges a connection with the local community like no other. The atmosphere on match days here is supposed to be electric and second-to-none. It’s a shame I wasn’t able to come here for a match as originally planned but I’d be very keen to return one day!
The team has also recently moved into a new stadium that I decided to visit. There were no stadium tours at the time though and there wasn’t a museum either. I did get to see the inside of the stadium from the stadium’s bar however.
That evening was rather messy – but I don’t mean with alcohol. OK fine, maybe a little bit.
Having not had regular internet for so long, I had loads of stuff to sort out – getting my debit card to work again (the new one I got in Mexico
Sculpture made entirely out of flowers by Jeff Koon. It sits in front of the entrance to the Guggenheim.
already needs replacing thanks to my card details having already been somehow compromised according to HSBC!), getting my SIM card to work and sorting out somewhere to stay in Barcelona – my next destination. I also had laundry to do and having to do it yourself – this time luckily, with a machine
– was a pain in the arse given that I was meant to go out for some beer and pintxos
with Eliska, a Czech girl working at the hostel that I had got to know. The laundry was a little bit of a disaster as there were queues of people wanting to use the dryer which hadn’t dried my clothes properly, leaving me to decide what the hell to do with Eliska and I’s sodden clothes.
We decided to leave them on my bed and go out before everything closed, agreeing to sort them out when we got back.
For a Spanish city, Bilabo was pretty quiet in the evening, having got used to open-all-hours Barcelona when I was living there. I took a while to settle on a pintxos bar
but it was worth it.
The Basque Country has a reputation when it comes to gastronomy, with
Delicious Basque tapas.
its heady and experimental mix of strong flavours. Having been restricted to bland fare in Cuba for a month, the mixture of chorizo, peppers, blue cheese, omelettes and mushrooms was delicious. The sweet apricot conserve with camembert on toast was also scrumptious. It wasn’t my first time trying Basque tapas
, but it was no less enjoyable; all washed down with a glass of txokali
, Basque fizzy white wine.
Everything seemed to be positively exaggerated after Cuba, which you might’ve already picked up on in this blog entry – from the food, to the transport, to the modernity – everything that I lacked and missed while I was in Cuba.
We then bought a bottle of rioja to drink back at the hostel with the 37 Germans who were staying with us on a school trip. They were friendly though, unlike the majority of big groups who tend to stick to themselves a bit more.
I perhaps drank a bit more than I was expecting to /should have, but no matter – it was reasonably fun in the end as I introduced my version of uber-Scum to Germany and the Czech Republic.
Even though it had been a month since I had stayed in a
Historical Basque Objects At The Basque Museum
They look a bit Celtic/Viking don't you think?
proper hostel, finding a drunk Mexican guy in my bed had me over them already. But this one was actually pretty good; clean, modern and with all the mod-cons, it was a change from Cuba for sure and was about all you could have asked for from a hostel.
I had a late start on my last day in Bilbao but manage to get myself to the Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum) to learn a bit more about Basque culture.
It had some pretty impressive displays as it took you through time with a particular emphasis on how the locals made their living, from shepherding, to fishing, to iron and steel production. Looking at the art, crafts, clothes and tools of the early Basques, I noticed the designs were very close to that of Celtic and Viking culture.
There were also sections on Basque maritime history, the consulate that used to preside in Bilbao, and a massive 18m x 11m model of the Basque Country (“Vizkaia”).
There was only one way to finish off my visit to Bilbao – by eating more pintxos!
A Thursday night, the streets were now packed in contrast to the previous night with students
Guggenheim Bilbao From Afar
Complete view of Bilbao's Guggenheim.
completely blocking up one pedestrian street in the old town.
Choosing a different bar this time, the pintxos here were also better than the previous night.
I went a little seafood crazy this time, getting raw bacalao
(cod) toasted sandwiches, toasted buns filled with anchovies, and pickled herring and peppers. Yum.
And fairly cheap considering the amount and quality of the food – about 7€-10€ all up, including a drink.
Despite only being in Bilbao a couple of days, I think I am going to miss this place – this pretty, clean, well-run and eminently liveable place. But equally, I’m looking forward to more fun times in one of my favourite cities in the world; Barcelona! I’ve blogged from there before
so I won’t do it again – and I actually have no idea how long I’ll actually stay there! It could be three days, it could be three weeks – who knows. Time will tell when and from where you will hear from me next!
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