El País Vasco: Bilbao & San Sebastián

Well yet another great trip to another great destination! Our goal for this voyage was centred more locally where we decided on “Destination España!”. This trip however, I was extremely fortunate to have my good buddy Martin join me as we headed off from Barcelona to the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián in the País Vasco region in Northern Spain.
Martin was in my spanish class during my first week in Barcelona and over the past two and half months, I have been lucky to have him as a wingman for the all to fun Barcelona nightlife, a beach volleyball match and as of now, a travel buddy! Him and I both are here to increase our fluency in spanish and with that, we naturally decided that we were only going to speak spanish between each other to avoid falling into the english norm that is so often present. So since I have known him, it is been an invaluable opportunity to constantly speak spanish and get to know a great friend at the same time!
We both decided a while back that we were interested in exploring around this incredible country and the we had to take advantage with our location here in Barcelona. We fortunately stumbled upon our “Mejor Amigo” (Best Friend) Ryanair who allowed us to fly from Barcelona to Bilbao for a whopping price of 12€ each way!
We explored around the city and then decided to take a quick day trip to the coastal city of San Sebastián before returning to Bilbao for a night out on the town!
Enjoy the photos, the stories and hopefully the incredible sights of this País Vasco Viaje!

Well it was Ryanair flight 7333 that got Martin and I up bright and early for our 6:00am meeting in Plaza España before heading off to Barcelona’s El Prat International Airport for our 7:45 am departure direct to Bilbao. As accustomed for the spanish, when we arrived at the gate there was already a massive line waiting for the pre-boarding to begin. Often with Ryanair’s first come first serve seating system, people begin lining up one hour before flight time just to ensure they have a good seat. However Martin and I decided to wait on the bank of chairs before boarding and fortunate enough, the Ryanair hostess opened up one of the blocked aisles just as we were entering and we got our own row! Although not incredible for Ryanair standards, it did us a bit of justice for the quick morning nap! Ryanair 7333 with a flight time of 1h10m took us direct from BCN–>BIO (Barcelona El Prat to Bilbao Airport) with an incredible landing over the lush green Pyrenee Mountain dominated region of El País Vasco!

Well we jumped on the Bizkaibus that took us from the modernly designed airport of Bilbao in the region of Loiu, Biscay 9km south to the city of Bilbao. However we quickly realized the immense difference between the locally spoken language Euskera (Basque) and pretty much every language on the globe. Euskera is known as one of the Pre-Indo-European languages that is considered a language isolate due to the Basque Region’s location in Northern Spain.

However, with our spanish we managed to work our way downtown following the river Nervión from the airport until our arrival in Bilbao.

We hopped off the bus at a stop on the Puente Euskalduna (Bridge of Euskalduna) where we were instantly stunned by the modern architecture of this bridge as well as the impeccably designed Guggenheim Museum just off to the right of the bridge. We were instantly gratified with our first sights of this modern city.

Stumbling through the morning commuters to get up north, we arrived at our Hostel Surf Backpackers, with its location along a small road with some small bars and restaurants. Upon checking in, we met Flor from Argentina who greeted us with open arms and her bubbly attitude and who gave us the low down on what to see and do in Bilbao!

Our morning began with a (aka:many, many) cups of coffee to get us through the sightseeing day ahead. We began by heading along the Rio Nervión to the west side of Bilbao where we encountered the famous “University of Deutso”. Then after crossing the river getting closer to ‘Casco Viejo’ we were stunned to see the world headquarters of BBVA ( Bank of Biscay) and the headquarters for Iberdrola with its 40 floor glass tower looming above the city.

We then made a quick visit to the highly recommended Museum of Fine Arts (Museo de Bellas Artes). Famous Columbian figurative artist Fernando Botero had his exposition on display. The most impressive piece of art was a 2m high black acrylic concave dish. With a reflective surface and its seemingly “depth insensitive” optical design, the closer you stand to the optical point, the more it feels like you are looking into a black abyss. So of course we spent a while there teasing our brains and getting in trouble for whistling and making great echo sounds in the museum!

We then settled down for an incredible lunch where Martin tried a great seafood dish with squid ink sauce. I as well had heard great reviews of this type of sauce, so I had to give it a try myself. At first, I was surprised when my “Pimientos Rellenos” (Stuffed Peppers) came covered in a sauce blacker then I have ever seen before. But with a mix of great cilantro and parsley spices and the incredibly tasting cheese within the peppers, I was delightfully surprised at how good the dish was!

The Funicular was our next stop as we headed up to the “Mirardor de Bilbao” the lookout of Bilbao. Upon the top of Mount Artxanda we were fortunate enough to get a stunning view of the surrounding Cantabrian Mountains along with the distant sea and airport in the background. With the sun’s rays peaking through the clouds, we had a great time just chilling at the top.

We topped off our day with a tour of the Guggenheim Museum where upon entering we met some…very nice… ladies from Madrid who were in town for a national gymnastics tournament! But after spending some time in the museum and realizing that we either to…ahem “sober”…to appreciate some of the “Extreme Modern Art” pieces, we just ended up having a great time making up our own stories of the artwork! I will remember the famous “Mälm Ikea Section”, the “Epilepsy Causing Word Screens”, the oddly scary “Electric Kitchen” and the “El Gato Encerrado” Metal Disk that we were wondering if we could escape from had the circumstances been necessary!

But it was off to the supermarket that evening for a quick dinner purchase before realizing that everyone (aka: las chicas) were not in the Hostel that night and were out and about. We however, had a great “makeshift” dinner in the Hostel before making our way just down the street to a local bar where we were in for a bit of a surprise. We walked in and saw a group of locals sitting and intently watching this unknown “Sport” that Martin and I had seen a version of earlier in the day. It resembled a Squash game along a massive court with only one wall on the left and along the front of the court. We later found out that the sport is called “Pelota Vasca” and it is quite a popular sport in the north of Spain. We began chatting with the locals and introduced ourselves in Spanish being content that they responded and continued to speak with us in Castellano instead of Euskera! However, neither Martin nor I could remember one of there names because of how different they were in the language of Euskera, all we know of the language is that there are a lot of “Z’s” “TX’s” and a whole bunch of letters in between! But we watched the doubles match  sharing a beer with them and then the singles match where the “Red Jersey” either older or champion holder played against the “Blue Jersey” player who was the younger or challenging player.

After an early night out, we headed back to the hostel for a good nights sleep…..which we then realized was not going to happen when there was 12 people in the same room coming in and out every hour of the night and then the electricity going on and off causing the emergency lights to go on and off throughout the evening! ¡Bienvenidos a España! A short sleep it was indeed!

A bright and early start it was for this adventure off to San Sebastián or Donostia in Euskera, however we began they day with an interesting start! With a completely whacko night in regards to our neighbours coming in and out at every single hour, then the lights flicking on and off due to power issues, we finally awoke to our alarm at 7:30 to where we then realized that there was no electricity at all! That I have to say was an interesting experience, we both had to use our flashlights on our phones to shower, eat and brush our teeth in the pitch black hostel before finally someone came down and reset the fuse box! But we managed the morning by getting ourselves to the bus station on time for our 1.5 hour bus ride to San Sebastián.

After a quick nap and a scenic bus ride on our way to San Sebastián we arrived in the centre along the Rio Urumea where we were fortunate enough to catch the morning rowers out and about practicing.

Then the touring began of this beautiful ocean side town. We began with a quick walk along the river to the “Boca” (mouth) of the ocean where we first saw the stunning views of ‘La Concha’ (The Shell Beach). After a quick tour around the beach, we were desperately in need of some caffeine, so we decided to settle down at a little café with a great view of Bahía de la Concha (Bay of the Shell).

Quick note: This is where the official “Dichos” began! Ones to remember: El Gato Encerrado, Un pájarito me dijo, Es ist etwas im Busch, Wer dem Pfennig nicht erht, its den Taler nich wert and many more over the course of the day! And somehow our day was filled with “Calcetines, Cinturones, cajones, palizas” and other seemingly easily forgettable words!

After the great start to the day and a stomach full of caffeine, we headed out to walk along the Paseo de la Concha ( the Beach Walkway). It was stunning to have such great weather for this day as we passed all the locals touring around the city. We ran into some incredible houses overlooking the ocean that we couldn’t even imagine how expensive they would be!

We then stopped off at the Miramar Palace which is a “Harvard Like” House (aka. Mansion) perched on the banks of San Sebastián overlooking the bay and the Island of Santa Clara. This building now houses the famous music school Musikene.

Then it was up the Funicular to get some views of the city from atop and to have a quick lunch. After touring through the amusement park, and watching Martin attempt to beat the “Kids Soccer Kick” game high score of 920, we made our way back down the mountain for our continuing tour.

We headed over to the east side of the bay where we relaxed to the sound and sights of the waves crashing against the sea barriers and providing incredible sights of the green and white water in the sea.

We then made our way over to the centre for some shopping. Martin was interested in buying an “American Filled” jacket from a high end store but…. he was advised otherwise by me! It was a quick snack, Empanadas and Bocadillos, and then we headed to the bus station to catch our bus back to Bilbao.

While waiting for the bus, it began “Lloviendo a Cántaros” (Raining cats and dogs) as the bus showed up a wee bit late. But Martin became friends with some lovely Spanish Grandmas that helped us pass the time!

A quick trip back and then the fun began for the evening!

We met a group of Erasmus students studying in Madrid from the UK and we had a great time chit chatting and sharing some wine at the Hostel. Turns out one of the girls had done an exchange in Banff of all places and the other had family in Calgary! Small world indeed!

After a bottle or two of wine, we finally convinced the girls to come out with us to Casco Viejo where the discos were! We stumbled around the town where we bar hopped first, meeting our friends from the local bar from the last evening, and then off for some Chupitos and Cuba Libres. We then made our way to a disco in the old town where we met a group of guys who we assume (aka. hoped) they were on there Bachelor party, because one was dressed quite interestingly for a night out in Bilbao! But we did meet the first Spaniard that was taller then both Martin and I, he seemed to take to us quite well and was always trying to introduce us to everyone in the club!

The night seemed to slip away like nothing because we found ourselves at 5:00am wandering the streets, singing, chanting but more like yelling great english soccer songs! Never will forget, “I want to go home” and Martin’s debut singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” in the middle of Bilbao where we was given the best “Self Clap” applause in appreciation of his work! JAJAJA, good times!

Then after some running, waiting, bridge crossing, story telling, sandwich eating, snack tasting, we realized that it actually was 6:30am and we had to get at least 3 hours before the alarm clock woke us up at 9:30am!

After a hiccup in the morning regarding Un Ladrón, we made our way to the airport unfortunately seeing all the locals preparing themselves for the days football match which we so eagerly wanted to attend. It was a quick Ryanair flight with our hangovers where we tested our geographical skills on our iPhones and then before we knew it we were landing in Barcelona.

An incredible trip overall, too many laughs to recall, too many memories to remember but I was happy to have a wingman along with me and can not wait for the next adventures to come!

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About JR Hammond

Hello everyone my name is JR Hammond and I am currently on an international exchange at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona Spain. I would have been entering my third year in the Rotman Commerce Program at the University of Toronto St. George campus but I decided to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to explore Europe. I will be living in Barcelona for the entire year and I will be posting and blogging about all the adventures that a student of my interests could have in this incredible city. I am a social and sporty person so my blogs will be vary from everything from volleyball, bars and parties, traveling, to as simple as which bakery sells the best bread! I hope you enjoy my adventures of the September 2012 to June 2013 school year!

4 thoughts on “El País Vasco: Bilbao & San Sebastián

  1. First all, let me just say that you’ve managed to capture your experiences and your trips in such a wonderful way. The limit does not exist of the jealousy that courses through me every time I read your posts or go through your images. This whole past semester, I had internal debate going on: Should I apply to do a year abroad in Spain or should I not? Your blog clinched the deal. ¡Sí! Yo quiero ir!

    What’s really eye-catching are the images. What camera have you used? They’ve turned out quite brilliantly.

    • Hey Sadia,

      Thanks a ton for the comment! Yes I have been very fortunate with the experiences that I have had not only in the incredible city of Barcelona but as well with the entire continent of Europe! Honestly, if you have any questions or anything regarding an exchange here in Spain please don’t hesitate to contact me and I would be more then willing to help. My first piece of advice, 100% you HAVE TO GO ON EXCHANGE! It is absolutely priceless what you learn about yourself and the world when you can live it as an exchange student abroad.

      I have a couple of more adventures about to be posted before then ending of this year and then many more to come for the New Year!

      I hope you continue enjoying!

      PS: My camera I purchased is the new Sony DSC-HX10V. However…it unfortunately went for a swim in the river the last hike I went on here and I have been disheartened to be using my other one until I can buy another in North America when I return for Christmas.

  2. Hi Jonathan!
    I am super interested in studying at UPF starting in semester and had a couple of questions for you. Your blog is amazing and it looks like you had an awesome time so far. I would really appreciate it if you could email me back. I have been looking for people who have been to UPF, although you are still there, and their thoughts about the experience so far. Hope to hear from you!

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