Last time out on the blog we were in Italy, following my adventures to Pisa and Firenze in February 2015. Three months later, rather tragically, I still had no travel plans! I was beginning to get itchy feet and knew I needed a trip ASAP!
I asked at work if I could take next week off and after agreeing time off I was quickly planning a last minute trip away! For how close it was there was no need for a countdown but there was a need for a destination! Where should I go?
After compiling a list of various destinations across Europe naturally I ended up somewhere that wasn’t even on the list – Bilbao! Why? I don’t really know. Cheap flights and a reasonably priced hotel (with an outdoor pool) was enough to tempt me so I figured why not?
I finally had my destination and before I knew it I was preparing to head to a city I knew very little about in the North of Spain. I was excited, I had a minuscule amount of knowledge of Bilbao but it was a relatively unknown place for me. I was a little worried at how rusty my Spanish was but I was excited to visit a new region of Spain – the Basque country!
Oh no! The Basque country! I was worried my Spanish was bad and it suddenly dawned on me that they might not even speak Spanish. Whilst internationally this might be considered Spain, locally they considered themselves proud Basque citizens first and foremost. I don’t know any Basque!
I struggled by. I wanted to speak Spanish as much as possible throughout the trip but I was more dependent on my English than I would have liked. That’s not to say I spoke solely English, I was focused on learning German at the time and “Dankeschon” and “Bitte” were phrases I regularly used throughout my trip.
“Shit, wrong language, I meant Gracias” I would think to myself but it was always too late, it had slipped out and I was left cursing my stupid brain every single time. My brain appeared to only have two configurations – English and non-English with the latter determined to default to German irrespective of it being of absolutely no use to me here!
Anyway back to my trip. I’d arrived and was ready for three nights in the Basque country! I say I’d arrived but I have no idea how, I’m usually good at remembering the little details but my first memory of this trip was stood in the centre of Bilbao. How I’d got there? A mystery!
Nevertheless I’d got here somehow and the first task of my afternoon was to find my hotel. I had a vague idea of the direction my hotel was in so I figured I’d try my luck finding it on foot. I suppose how you measure the success of that hunt is purely based on your perspective – did I find my hotel? No. However I found myself exploring parts of the city I probably wouldn’t have otherwise seen so in that respect I have no regrets. It was a sunny afternoon so it wasn’t a bad thing that I had no idea where I was going.
Although eventually I had to admit defeat and hopped in a taxi to my hotel, which was a little further away than I’d anticipated. After checking in and dropping off my things I went to get dinner. I ordered a beer and was quickly disappointed to find the waitress sit a minuscule beer in front of me. It was a common theme throughout my stay as it appeared a pint-sized beer just isn’t a thing in Bilbao.
As if that wasn’t disappointing enough, I then had the longest wait for my dinner. If you have to wait for a table or you can see it’s particularly busy you accept you might have a bit of a wait. However I’d ordered pretty quickly and similarly the place was dead so how it took the best part of an hour for my food to arrive was beyond me – has the chef gone for a siesta mid-preparation? Feed me, damnit!
After dinner I decided I’d have a little wander close to my hotel and then the rain hit! Excuse me Spain, I didn’t come here for this! I ducked in to a bar full of locals which was decorated in red and white (the colours of the local football team, Athletic Bilbao) and enjoyed the atmosphere with another mini-beer. I soon called it an early-ish night and chilled back at my hotel for a little while, keen to get exploring properly in the morning.
I didn’t really have any plans for my time in Bilbao, with the exception of the Guggenheim museum it isn’t really a touristy city. If you want a trip full of sights and attractions then this probably isn’t the place for you but if you want an insight in to Basque / Spanish culture then it’s probably a place you’ll enjoy.
As I walked through the streets the following morning I quickly realised I was surrounded by locals. Kids were playing games together, there were bars and coffee shops occupied by people chatting away, the streets were littered with people doing their shopping and it felt a very homely place. I looked up and the streets were decorated with more red and white banners, I wasn’t sure if this was a regular occurrence in Bilbao or whether it was just a timely display of colour ahead of the upcoming Copa del Rey (Spanish cup final) that Athletic Bilbao were participating in, whatever the reason I was fond of it.
Despite another downpour I was enjoying the architecture, street art and scenery the city had to offer. Eventually I arrived at the Guggenheim museum and figured I’d pay a visit given it was so highly rated – it’s one of Spain’s (sorry!) most visited museums so I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.
Honestly, I was left a little underwhelmed. It’s quite similar to London’s Tate museum, another I wasn’t particularly fond of and I’d be hard-pushed to genuinely recommend it. Parts of it were enjoyable but overall it just wasn’t for me. The irony also wasn’t lost on me that my two favourite pieces of art had been OUTSIDE of the museum which further questioned whether I’d actually had value for money. However if you’re a fan of the Tate you’ll quite possibly enjoy Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum too.
Following on from the Guggenheim I took a funicular ride up to one of Bilbao’s best vantage points for the views over the city. It wasn’t particularly crowded (no tourists remember) but one pale white guy caught my eye as, like myself, he stuck out like a sore thumb. “You’re English” I thought to myself and pondered if it was right to make such a snap judgment of some stranger.
I didn’t realise how high up we’d actually be going, even some of Bilbao’s tallest buildings looked tiny from here as I admired the view. Moments later I was being approached by a familiar voice – it was English – something I hadn’t heard for a while.
As I turned to see where it had come from I was greeted by my pasty friend from the funicular ride. “I WAS RIGHT!”
He was traveling around Spain solo and asked if I could take a photo, which gave me the opportunity to ask him of the same afterwards. A couple of photos later we went our separate ways, I took in more of the views before eventually making my way back in to the heart of Bilbao and finding a place for some food.
With the two touristy things to do in Bilbao out of the way I didn’t really do much else over the next couple of days. My last trip had been to Florence, which is still Italy of course but from the thousands of Spurs fans to the massive presence of American students that occupy the city you could be forgiven for forgetting you were in Italy at times.
In Bilbao there was no mistake and with nothing that I was desperate to do I just indulged in Bilbao’s authenticity. I was content people watching in pretty squares and little tapas bars, it was a great way to pass the time for the rest of my stay.
My only other intention had been to take a day-trip to nearby San Sebastian but, combined with the poor weather, I ended up on the wrong train and took it as a sign that it wasn’t meant to be. Abandoning my journey at a random station I retreated back to Bilbao and decided San Sebastian would have to be a city I returned to in the future.
My final morning in Bilbao came around and I made the most of a little lay in before leaving the hotel, checking out a little bitter that I’d had no opportunity to use the pool because of the weather. Sidenote, I swear I’m cursed as every time my hotel has a pool it goes wasted!
Anyway, I wandered back in to the centre of the city to have one last look around and enjoy my final few hours in Bilbao. I stumbled upon some square with a bit of life to it with locals all doing their own thing and soaking up a rare morning of sunshine with many sat at tables in the sun. I popped in to this little bar which was largely full of old men, it looked like this was a regular meet-up for them over some tapas and a couple of drinks. My thinking was much the same as I grabbed some lunch, a couple of beers and spent my final couple of hours in Bilbao just people-watching.
Eventually it was time to go, I hopped in a taxi to the airport and was soon sitting admiring the scenic airport views whilst reflecting on my trip. I don’t know if I could ever call Bilbao a must visit or even a place I’ll return to but there was something homely about Bilbao that left me leaving with fond impressions of the city.
It might not attract the same numbers that Barcelona or Madrid do but this region of Spain has its own charm and keeps me inspired to make a return to the Basque country.
Thanks again for the memories Bilbao and who knows, maybe like Köln, I’ll find myself returning to you some day!
All the best!