I had two weeks annual leave left in work, it was March, what to do?
A few days were used on walks in North Wales and Wirral. The weather varied between warm and sunny to cold and wet – wet enough to end the life of my mobile phone.
The second week was spent in the Basque town of Bilbao.
I flew out on Sunday 12th March from Manchester airport.
We left on time, arriving at Bilbao airport just before 21:00. Once I’d picked up my luggage, it was a short walk to the bus stop. A small counter by the door sells the €1.45 * ticket in to the city centre.
Two buses run per hour from the airport, making three stops in the city before reaching the Termibus bus station. I got off at the second stop, Moyua Plaza, a large plaza/roundabout with flowers and a fountain in the middle and the ornate hotel Carlton to the outside.
It took less than ten minutes to walk from here to the Hotel Silken Indautxu. At check in I was told I’d be given a free upgrade to one of the rooms on the fifth floor rooms with a balcony.
Only hotel I’ve ever stayed in with no English language television stations – not a bad thing!
I unpacked then headed into town for a stroll before bed. Athletic Bilbao football club had played a game that evening and the town was full of football fans in scarves making their way from the ground, usually via a bar or two.
After wandering up and down numerous streets, I realised there aren’t many places to eat and the few that are around don’t serve main meals until around 20:30 or 21:00.
I ended up in the back room restaurant at Gu2 and certainly wasn’t disappointed with my first meal in Bilbao; sardines, local ham with bread, croquettes
The structure reminded me a lot of a proper Italian meal. The meat comes on its own, the croquettes are a separate course.
Despite the language difficulties, an enjoyable first meal in Bilbao!
Monday 6th March
After a late-ish start to the day, I wandered downstairs to breakfast. The food on offer was impressive. The tortilla (or Spanish omelette as we used to call them as kids!) was very good.
Leaving the hotel and heading up Gordoniz Kalea I came to Azkuna Zentroa. Once a wine warehouse, the designer Phillipe Stark helped transformed this huge area in to a place for exhibitions, concerts and conferences. It’s worth popping in just to look up at the huge glass ceiling, above which is a swimming pool.
From there, I went towards the Guggenheim via Moyua Plaza.
The museum is an impressive structure, lots of strange shapes and sweeping metal glittering in the sun light.
There are a couple of exhibits in the grounds of the Guggenheim, perhaps most famous being the large topiary dog by Jeff Koons. Another of his pieces, Tulips, a bouquet of reflective stainless-steel flowers is around the back of the building along with Tall Tree & The Eye; a large stack of mirrored steel balls and Maman and the giant spider on the waterfront.
I continued through Doña Casilda de Iturrizar Park and on to the impressive San Mamés Stadium, home to Athletic Bilbao football club. There is a large shop selling everything from football shirts to branded wines and crisps. Walking around the ground, I could peep through a mesh fence to see the pitch. Slightly bigger than Prenton Park where I go to watch my team!
I then headed in to town and this is where I realised Bilbao closes for a lot of the day! Shops open between 9am and 10am then close at around 1.30pm they then stay closed until around 5pm after which they stay open for another two and a half or three hours. This means for most of the day, I was wandering around town looking at closed shops.
Meal times are similar, if you want a proper evening meal, don’t start looking until around 8.30 or 9pm, then you may find the restaurant closing at around 10.30pm
The bars are open through out the day and I popped in to the cosy Singlar Bar Rather strange choice of music….Christmas jazz tunes! I soon learnt that in this part of the world, no one understands ‘Coke’, you have to ask for a Coca-Cola (light or zero)
Tuesday 7th March
The weather wasn’t too great this morning so took walk to Guggenheim. I must admit that I didn’t ‘get’ most modern art but the exhibits on ground floor are good and I did like the Tulips which I could get a closer view of.
Entry was €13, however for a little more you can get a ticket that also allows entry to Bilbao’s other art museum. The Museo de Bellas Artes is closed on Tuesday (Guggenheim closed on the Monday) but, given the weather forecast, that turned out to be a good thing!
Despite not being an art lover, I managed to spend quite a few hours in the Guggenheim, stopping for a very reasonably priced coffee.
It was raining when I left and headed in to the old town and, being mid afternoon, everything that wasn’t a bar was shut.
Wednesday 8th March
Today, I took a walk along the river past Guggenheim towards the hospital. As pleasant as this walk was initially, it soon became less than pleasant after the hospital. I turned back and headed to the Funicular de Artxandaup.
Only 95c each way but little there at the top. There are some good views across the city and over to the airport but there nothing else there, in fact on the whole the area looks rather run down.
After another wander around the old town, I headed to the bus station and used the machines (around the back of the building) to book a seat on the Santander bus tomorrow (€6.66 each way)
Thursday 9th March
Wandered down to the bust station to catch the 09.30 coach to Santander.
The bus station was rather disorganised, no indication as to which stand the bus would come in on. At least Santander was it’s final destination which made the correct bus easier to spot, I just had to look for the one run by the company I purchased the ticket for (ALSA)
The journey was pleasant enough in a comfortable bus with free wi-fi.
The bus station was in the centre of town, from there I wandered around the streets, stopping for a coffee in Cafetería Jardines de Pereda near the waterfront.
As usual, I wanted to get to the highest point of the town. Unfortunately however the free funicular to Mirador Rio de la Pila was closed for maintenance.
The walk to the funicular was interesting, taking escalators up the steep streets. At the funicular, however, it was up a staircase to the right.
Lunch consisted of some olives and a couple of tasty pintxo (the local version of tapas) at Mercado del Este
As per usual, everything except the bars were shut for most of my visit and I wandered back to the bus station to catch the 17:00 bus back.
Friday 10th March
Ohh sunny! The plan today was to get a day ticket to use the Metro train system and see a few more areas around Bilbao.
The Metro was well priced, clean and efficient and soon got me to Portugalete station near the coast. The main sight here is the UNESCO listed Vizcaya transporter bridge which links Portugalete with Las Arenas .
Taking a wander down along the waterfront, through the park, past the swimming pools, towards the industrial area, it was nice to have some warm sunny weather.
Returning through Plaza del Solar, I strolled around the (closed!) town.
At 2pm I got back on the train station to cross the river…..bad idea. I wondered what everyone did when everything else was closed…they ride the Metro! Commuters were squashed in the train like sardines.
In retrospect, I should have taken bridge over.
At the other side of the river I got off the train at Areeta. It’s a pleasant walk along the waterfront, passing the big, old houses towards the Real Club Marítimo.
Despite being March, some people braved the beach.
I went to Espigón Evaristo Churruca, a good place for views across the water.
Saturday 11th March
Walked to the bus station after breakfast to get the bus to San Sebastian.
The information screens only show the very different basque name for San Sebastian, Donostia.
Several buses arrived at the same time heading in the right direction. One was run by a different but company and there were two ALSA buses. One of the buses was unmarked, the other (which turned out to be my bus) was heading to Irun. It was both bus number 1 and bus number 2!
Once on the bus things didn’t improve much, it was in need of a clean and the recliner was stuck in the down position.
Once I arrived in San Sebastian, I took walk up hill to the castle and the Jesus statue – which has a phone mast strapped to the back!
I must say, this is one of the highlights of my holiday. I love castles, I love walking and I love a nice view. This ticked all of the boxes and had a few cannons added in to the mix.
Wandering back in to the Old Town things became more unpleasant. It was extremely busy. I passed a few stag parties and already there were a few people tottering around the streets rather the worse for wear (not English I hasten to add!)
Needless to say, despite being a Saturday, everything apart from the bars were closed for most of my visit. I stopped for a coffee and deeming a couple of sights a little too far away for a day trip, I headed back to the bus station.
Sunday 12th March
My last day and what horrible weather. Very, very wet and only degree warmer than Wirral
To get out of the rain I went to the Fine Arts Museum. Not really my thing but, it was out the rain and it was open!
To be fair, it was quite interesting, especially the ancient art works and sculptures. I was in the gallery for most of the morning through to early afternoon. I preferred it over the Guggenheim finding it less pretentious.
While looking in the gift shop, I discovered book about the Bilbao Invasion. These little pieces of alien art works are dotted around the city and in true Pokemon style, you’ve gotta catch ’em all!
I wish I’d discovered this sooner, may have occupied me while everything else was closed.
So, in conclusion….it may sound like I have a real downer on Bilbao. It isn’t a huge tourist place (at least out of season) and they still do things their own way, which is good. It’s a clean city and reasonably priced.
Is it somewhere for a weeks holiday? Personally I’d say no, especially as the day trips are very similar, old towns containing (usually) closed shops.
It’s definitely worth popping to see if you’re in the area and, if Tranmere ever get to play Athletic in a football match, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a ticket!