This time, I didn’t title my post with easily translatable Spanish, but with a few words in Basque, that translate to “Gracias, País Vasco” or “Thank you, Basque Country.” I could not have asked for a better place or better people to spend our first vacation (from our semester-long vacation…call it “vacaception”) with. Our original attempt to plan our trip for Semana Blanca was in vain, and kept changing from Barcelona to Florence to Nice to Bologna…until we finally asked our program director for advice, who suggested we go to Bilbao and San Sebastian. At that point, we were so frustrated with booking tickets that he could have suggested going to the US and we almost would have considered it.
Luckily, the US was not his suggestion and luckily we were willing to put up with an 11 hour bus ride to the northern-most part of Spain. We knew that we would spend the first part of the week in Bilbao, but feared going to San Sebastian because we had all seen horrible and literally deadly waves on the news. When we would ask a Spaniard, they told us how terrifying the weather was only before proceeding to tell us that we have nothing to worry about. While in our hostel in Bilbao, we asked the receptionist (probably the 9th person we had solicited advice from) if it was safe. She was the only one to clear up for that that the deaths were happening in Asturias, not in San Sebastian. Though San Sebastian had suffered some minor destruction of buildings, everyone’s lives were [mostly] intact.
Almost everyone says that the only reason to visit Bilbao is to see the Guggenheim Museum. (pictured above). Despite only seeing it from the outside, we were perfectly content with the rest of our trip there. The first morning, I did my absolute favorite thing to do while traveling. I got ready early so that I could sneak away for my very necessary coffee (yes, I have an addiction. Let’s not talk about that). I like wandering around a new town and peering in coffee shops and wading through the ones that are too crowded and too barren until I find the one that is just right. There, I can strike up a conversation with the barista and ask for their suggestions of the best things to do in town. The first day the barista, like many others, suggested a visit to Casco Viejo (the old quarters), and off we went.
The receptionist at the hostel showed us how to find Casco Viejo on the map, and suggested that if we keep following the river, we’ll know when we get there. So, we set off following the river. After some time, we came across a cute little area with a lot of voices radiating from it, so we decided to wander in. We all agreed that the restaurants here looked good, and promised to go back after we found Casco Viejo. After about an hour of walking towards what the receptionist promised was a 20 minute walk, we realized that maybe we had done something wrong. We couldn’t have gotten lost, as we followed the river the entire way, but the landscape looked like this, and there weren’t anymore neighborhoods in sight:
Immediately, we realized that that “cute little neighborhood” from earlier that morning was, indeed, the famous Casco Viejo and made our way back. Luckily, the mishap was worth it and allowed us to explore a greater part of the city.
Another suggestion by the barista was that we go to the Funicular de Artxanda for a beautiful view of the city. At 97 cents each way, it was a steal, though unfortunately the wind made it nearly impossible to capture any reasonable pictures.
The first day, we had found a flier for “Independance,” a night at a local club with top indie music hits. The club was good, but the best part was meeting our new friend from Bilbao, who will soon be moving to San Francisco with her boyfriend. I believe the conversation started with me warning her that there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom, and her recognizing my American accent and wondering where I was from. From there, she told me that she would also be in San Sebastian over the weekend and promised that we would meet up.
Our last day in Bilbao, unfortunately, was full of rain. This lead us to the mall, where we spent 6 hours shopping to hide from the rain until we realized that the mall also included a movie theater. We chose our now favorite movie, Frozen (El Reino del Hielo) in Spanish. We were all amazed that we were able to understand it, and decided that we will all have our children watch Disney movies in Spanish instead of English, so that they won’t have to wait so long to learn a second language.
San Sebastian has to be one of the best places I have ever visited. World famous for its cuisine and lovely beach, I would recommend a trip here to anyone. Though surely the beaches are nicer in the summer, they are also likely more crowded. While the water was a bit too cold for even our feet, however, that didn’t stop these die-hard swimmers:
Despite this woman’s confused temperature perception and/or tolerance, it was at least warm enough to walk along the beach and enjoy the sun. We came back to this beach, Playa de la Concha, almost every day and promised that we would return in 50 years to Cafe de la Concha:
Everything in San Sebastian was wonderful. We stayed at a wonderful pension, Pension Goiko, where we met wonderful travelers, cooked wonderful food (eggplant and spinach pasta, to be exact), and spent time with wonderful people.
As promised, our friend from Bilbao invited us out with her friends for pintxos and drinks, where they introduced us to the term “bote,” which is where every person contributes a small amount of money in order to buy larger plates of food instead of individual servings. They also introduced us to the term “sobre la marcha,” which essentially translates to “play it by ear,” which was exactly what we did. We would wander around, see something pretty, sit and stare at it for half an hour, and do it again. Like this:
Word to the wise: visit San Sebastian.
Off to France for lunch (on Valentine’s Day)
During our trip to San Sebastian, we realized just how close we were to France. One friend at the hostel told us that it would absolutely be doable as a day trip, so off we went…on Valentine’s Day. He suggested going to Biarritz, but when we arrived at the train station at the border, we were told that the next train didn’t leave for another two hours. Given that and the time it would take to get back to San Sebastian, we decided to explore Hendaye, the southern-most town in France. The border between Spain and France is so nonchalant however, that we had to ask multiple people “which way is the Spanish-French border?” Once we reached it, passports in hand, we realized that all we had to do to enter the new country was to cross a bridge. Once we passed the sign saying “Lapurdi,” which we later learned means “France” in Basque:
We realized we were in the right country when we asked for the train station in Spanish, and the first people we encountered did not speak any Spanish. (disclaimer: many people in Hendaye spoke Spanish, but this just happened perfectly). After wandering around France for a bit, we decided to try to find lunch and came across a small sandwich shop. After ordering, I pointed out that the man who worked there was pouring alcohol, which none of us had ordered, and we were the only customers at the time. It turned out that instead of ordering “jamon blanco,” he had only heard “blanc,” which is how the French order white wine. It turns out that our “mastery” of Spanish did us little good in France.
Being that we were, in fact, in France, we were determined to find crepes. We asked again and again for a creperia while we wandered around the town. Eventually, we came across a restaurant that had “crepes” in small print on their outdoor menu, and sat down with a lovely view of the train station. After our crepes (and approximately four hours in France), we decided to head home to San Sebastian for anothe