Pandemic travel: San Sebastian and Bilbao

The 1pm flight was delayed by thirty minutes. No bother – the flight would still arrive at a respectable hour. The landscape as we descended  looked verdant and Irish. I overheard a woman behind me commenting as we landed ‘Is this Cork?’

Our first few nights were to be spent in San Sebastian – the culinary capital of Spain, located twenty kilometres from the French border. The journey took about 90 minutes. The scenery we had witnessed from the bus was the same we had witnessed from the air. Apparently this Atlantic part of Spain is the wettest part of Spain. That explained it.

Tourist train San Sebastian

After checking in to my pension in the old town, we reconvened and took an evening stroll down to LaConcha – the circular beach for which the city is renowned. San Sebastian has three beaches and is surrounded by hills. The old town is located beside La Concha. After our beachfront constitutional we repaired to a pintxo café for a meal. A pintxo is a small snack – the Basque equivalent of tapas. It was delicious and only disturbed slightly by the sight of a middle-aged, drunken man shouting abuse at a ten year old boy in his company. It was disturbing.

View of La Concha from Monte Igueldo

The following morning varied between cloud and rain. How glum. Never mind. We are resourceful people – we took the opportunity to board the local San Sebastian City Tour train which kept us dry and gave us a quick overview of the sights and sites of the city. The town been an exclusive beach resort since the 19th century when the royal family chose it as a holiday destination. To this day the city of 400,000 people remains popular with Spanish people, but avoids the industrial scale tourism of the Canaries or the Costa Del Sol. After disembarking the red train, we walked the perimeter of the peninsula on which the old town was built. The temperature has risen and the sun had broken through, offering temperatures of thirty degrees. I went to a pintxo café in the old town for lunch where I encountered a lovely sight. The bar was packed full of sprightly, local 80-somethings guzzling wine and laughing. I needed to cool down, so walked to the San Telmo Museum where I received a brief history of Basque Society in the permanent collection and an exhibition of the works of famed Basque sculptors Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida focusing on their work between 1948 and 1969 under the Franco regime.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Coro, San Sebastian

Later that afternoon we visited the Funicular Monte Igueldo at the peak of the mountain overlooking the coast. The sun-streaked views were breath taking. That evening while enjoying a beer on an outdoor terrace, we encountered the angry drunk we’d seen the evening before. Again he was accompanied by the 10 year old. This time however the child was also accompanied by another man – who I assumed was his father owing to their close physical resemblance. This man was far calmer. The two were waiting for the drunk, outside the bar. Eventually they all departed. A very curious scenario there.

View from Monte Igueldo, San Sebastian

Saturday morning we made our way to the bus station to catch our chariot to Bilbao. I was surprised to encounter Aquaman in the basement café – looking bearded, long haired, Basquish and mountainous while drinking a café con leche. He was disguised in a bus driver’s uniform. I wondered what he was doing in San Sebastian. Saving the world for capitalism perhaps?

It was a scorching 34 degrees on arrival in Bilbao. We took the metro to the old town, where our hotels were within minutes of each other. I was disturbed to see that a fellow hotel guest had the Wifi handle of ‘El Prostata de Satan’, while simultaneously being pleased that I understood what it meant. Wandering around the old town that evening, it was buzzing – to be expected on Saturday night in Spain. There was a live band playing patriotic Basquish songs on the Plaza Nueva which were quite stirring, despite my lack of comprehension. Upon return to hotel I watched Ukraine soar to victory at the Eurovision. Spain acquitted itself well, reaching third place.

Evening in Bilbao

The following day was equally scorching. We walked along the river to reach the spectacular structure of the Guggenheim Museum. This modern art museum was completed in the mid-1990s and is credited with single-handedly transforming Bilbao from a city perceived to be dull, northern and industrial, into a major tourist destination. It’s actually more impressive from the exterior. The exhibitions within are almost overwhelmed by the grandeur of the building. I recognised the Oveida and Chillida pieces before reading the notes – I recognised them from San Sebastian. The Jeff Koons flower puppy outside is a beautiful creation. We walled back to the Plaza Nueva in the old town where we fine-dined outdoors on a glorious, shared dish of seabass and tomato salad.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

After a brief siesta, I took the metro to the Funicular Arangoiti for what I thought would be spectacular views over the city. This was my error. While the views were impressive, this was not the funicular mentioned in the tourist guides – this one served to transport people from the Deusto metro stop, to the suburbs on top of one of the seven mountains surrounding Bilbao. I had chosen it, as it was closest to my hotel and I’d just hoped for the best. That evening was our final night – we partook of some liquid refreshment – again in the bustling Plaza Nueva.

Spider, Guggenheim Museum

Monday morning saw us depart on another city bus tour – probably at the wrong point in the holiday as we had very little time left to explore. For our final excursion we ascended the Funicular de Artxanda which I had failed to reach the previous evening. As expected the views were stunning.

View over Bilbao

As we boarded the airport bus at Moyua (€3 per ticket – cash only, no bankcards) I reflected on the trip. Both Bilbao and San Sebastian are fascinating places. I would like to revisit both but particularly Bilbao. As a city of one million residents, our two day adventure wasn’t long enough. One day this will be remedied.

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