Travel is a Rollercoaster: Bilbao and Santander

My travel weekend started with a wake-up at 4:30, a bike ride to the train station, a bus to the airport, and a flight at 7:00. Luckily, I passed out on the flight. Upon landing, I took the bus and arrived at the center of Bilbao around 9:00 with an hour to kill before the Guggenheim opened at 10:00. Obviously, the first thing on my list of things to do was COFFEE. I wandered up and down a few streets in the city center until I found a Pastelería (Quick Spanish lesson: In Spain, every shop ends in “ría” and the beginning tells you what kind of shop it is. Librería = book store, Frutería = fruit shop, Panadería = bread shop, etc). The desserts looked amazing, but it was pretty early so I decided to go with a standard café con leche. The environment of the pastry shop was so nice and the desserts looked so amazing that I did end up going back the next day for dessert.


Since there is so much of the Guggenheim to admire from the outside, I decided to walk back a little early to wander around. It was here that I started to really appreciate the vast differences between the North and South of Spain. First of all, it was COLD. Well, comparatively much colder than Sevilla’s late October highs of mid-to-high 70s. Also, Bilbao is surrounded by mountains. No matter what direction from which I looked out of the city, I could see a mountain – which I loved. Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that Bilbao is in the País Vasco (Basque Country), which, although not a separate country, is a region of Spain with a very distinct culture and its own language, called “Basque” in English, “Vasco” in Spanish, and “Euskera” in, well, Euskera. Euskera is unlike any language I’ve ever seen or heard of. In fact, it’s unlike any language ever spoken, being one of the oldest languages in the world, even older than Spanish. Euskera is a mystery in that nobody knows it’s exact origin. I found that fascinating! While the language is pretty harsh to look at, listening to it is actually beautiful. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics to show you what Euskera looks like written, and a beautiful song by a Basque singer that my host in Santander showed me:

Lau teilatu gainian
ilargia erdian eta zu
goruntz begira,
zure keia eskuetan
putzara batekin… putz!
Neregana etorriko da
ta berriz izango gara
edozein herriko jaixetan.

If nothing else, please listen to the song! It’s so beautiful you will absolutely not regret it. It’s amazing how the language can look so ugly and sound so beautiful.

Anyway, as I was walking along the river around the Guggenheim, I had already decided I was in love with the city. In hindsight, I think it was mostly the excitement of being in a new place, because I literally could not keep the grin off my face. Nothing does that like travel. “Objectively”, though, Bilbao is beautiful. I loved having a break from the old Sevillian buildings to get a glimpse at some skyscrapers and modern architecture. However, the center of Bilbao is far from having a cold-metal industrial look. The river that winds through the city is full of parks along the bank, all having an impressive collection of sculptures. Seriously, this city is full of sculptures! A little after ten, I decided to go into the Guggenheim, which was…. less impressive than the outside. I think that each person’s experience will vary, but since the 2nd and 3rd floor are dedicated to temporary exhibits, I really think it depends on what time you go. It also depends on how much you like modern art (read: how much you are willing to accept that a sculpture of a chair with a pile of dirty clothes on it is “art”). However, I had absolutely no regrets. The architecture and sculptures of the Guggenheim were what made it a million percent worth it.

After the Guggenheim, I walked along the river a little bit, ate the sandwich my host mom made me, then headed to my hostel to find that I was the only one who had booked a bed in my six person room! What luck, I basically paid 15 Euros for a hotel room! After resting a little, I walked back along the river to the Casco Viejo, or old town of Bilbao, which dates to the 1300s. As I mentioned before, maybe being from Sevilla has desensitized me a little bit to old buildings, but I actually liked the industrial part of Bilbao better. After exploring the Casco Viejo, I wandered into a vegan shoe store to ask for dinner recommendations. The sole owner and employee was obviously extremely bored, and told me he could show me around a little if i came back at 8:30. In the mean time, I  walked to a park a little way up one of the mountains with an incredible view of Bilbao at night. At this time, a headache was starting to develop, but I tried to ignore it because I (stupidly) didn’t bring any advil.

At 8:30, I returned to the store and the owner took me on a little tour of the Casco Viejo and explained some of the monuments – churches, old fountains, street signs, etc. We ended up at a place with VEGGIE BURGERS! I missed those! However, the whole time my headache was building. As we sat down to eat, I found out this guy was pretty eccentric. Obviously I don’t consider veganism in and of itself eccentric, but this guy was also strongly against modern medicine (as I found out when I asked if he had ibuprofen), thinks 911 is a conspiracy theory, etc. I still think he was a pretty cool guy, but this whole time my headache had been getting worse and worse. Also, as I found out later, one of the symptoms of a migraine is difficulty processing speech, so as the night went on it became more and more difficult to speak and understand him, which I thought was just my Spanish getting worse but was actually a warning. So as I was feeling shittier and shittier I kept trying to be polite, which was getting more difficult as the night went on. I took the metro back to my hostel shortly after I managed to ditch the guy, and by the time I entered my room, I had a full blown migraine. Because of this, my Halloween included: Bed at 11:30, waking up every few hours in pain, the inner battle of deciding if getting up to vomit would make me feel better or worse, etc. Happy Halloween!

The next day I decided to take it a little bit easy because I was still headachy and all the pharmacies were closed due to a national holiday. I woke up a little later than I had planned, filled myself up on hostel breakfast, checked out and walked to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. As far as the artwork goes, this was way more my style. They had an impressive collection spanning from prehistory to modern art that appealed to me way more than the modern at at the Guggenheim. Since I had explored the Casco Viejo the day before, I decided to walk through the more modern city center. My bus was at 5:00, so I had plenty of time to wander. The combination of a slight drizzle and the national holiday made it so the streets were almost deserted, which was a little bizarre. I ended up at the Alhondiga – a really cool cultural space with three floors of library books, an exhibition area, a small store, a few cafes, and a gym. They also have film showings and community events. If I lived in Bilbao, I would definitely come here a lot. Every community should have this awesome of a space.  By this time, it was about time to find the bus station and hop on my bus to Santander.

Although they are in different autonomous communities, Santander and Bilbao are less than an hour and a half away from each other by bus. I arrived at Santander at 6:30. In Santander, I had my first experience with CouchSurfing! For those who are unfamiliar, it is a safe website where you can meet people from the areas you are traveling to and “surf” on their couch, i.e. Stay for free. While my budget appreciates that immensely, the point of the organization is to broaden horizons by allowing travelers to meet a wide variety of people, learn about the culture of the places they are visiting through the eyes of a local, and make a global network of friends. I met my host, Ibai, went to drop my stuff off and shower (woo!), and then went with Ibai to an Indian restaurant –  I had looked up vegetarian places and found it to be pretty much the only restaurant in Santander with a vegetarian menu. Also I missed Indian food. It was Ibai’s first time eating Indian food ever! I’m glad I could offer up some new experiences too. After, Ibai showed me the downtown area of Santander by night. The interesting thing about Santander is that it doesn’t have an old town because there was a terrible fire in the 1940s that burnt down almost everything. Because of this, almost every building in Santander is new. After this, I was pretty tired, so we went back to Ibai’s piso and I went to sleep pretty early.

Saturday, I really got to experience the advantages of Couchsurfing. Ibai showed me a small park by the beach. The views were AMAZING. The beach in Santander was so different than beaches in Florida, with cliffs and wild waves. It was absolutely breathtaking, and I don’t know that I would have even known this place existed without help from a local. After, we walked to the faro (lighthouse), back through a pueblo then down by the more touristy beachy areas of Santander to the peninsula de Magdalena. It was a beautiful park/wildlife space with small “zoo”- (penguins and seals) lots of beautiful trees, and the Palacio de la Magdalena – which used to be a summer home for the royal family. I wanted to go in, but they only open it to guided tours three times a day, and the next one wasn’t for another four hours. So, we walked down along the beach. I wanted to walk through the center of Santander more, but Ibai understandably didn’t, so he went home and I stayed in the center. The whole afternoon it was pouring and basically kept raining all day so I just wandered around, spent some time in a pastelería with free WIFI, went to the cathedral and a mercado. Walking around with blisters and wet feet in a storm isn’t exactly my idea of a perfect afternoon. However, overall I had a great time in Santander, although I’m happy I didn’t spend more time there. I could see going for a week with family during beach season but otherwise one day was good enough. That night I just took it easy, talking with my host, and went to bed pretty early again to make my flight in the morning.

Overall, I had a pretty great weekend! I got to see two drastically different cities, met some interesting people, and got to experience the ever-amazing joy (although with plenty of highs and lows) of travel. Check facebook for some pictures!


One thought on “Travel is a Rollercoaster: Bilbao and Santander

  1. Well, you have now gotten to museum that I still have not gotten to. I’m with you, I am not as interested in contemporary art, and I think that once you see a Gehry building (Bilbao Museum) they all look the same. None the less, it is great that you went. Did you know about the cave paintings in Santander? I think that they have some recreated versions in a museum there, since you cannot get in to see the real thing. That might have been interesting. You are certainly taking advantage of your time in Spain. How are your classes? Has art history gotten better–I hope so.
    Love, Aunt Jan

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