John and Joan's Travels through France, Spain and Italy travel blog

We are now in Bilbao an hour's bus trip west of San Sebastian and the political capital of the semi-autonomous Basque provinces of Spain.

The trip here was straight forward apart from the minor hiccough of taxis being unable to come into the city centre at San Sebastian and transport us with goods and chattels to bus station at some distance away through the pouring rain. This was due to a marathon being run through the city. Amalia saved the day and arranged a cab to collect us a couple of blocks away and then made sure we got there by taking umbrella in hand, organizing other guests to greet new comers when they arrived and then plunging into rain and across city with us in tow to deliver us to the cab just pulling up as promised. This makes us sound like little babies but in fact we had no idea what was going on apart from the fact that Amalia had encountered some problem while ordering the cab as evidenced by the length and increasing speed, urgency and volume of her contributions on the phone. It wasn't until we encountered the runners in our dash across town that we quite understood what was going on. She is a wonder. We arrived with half hour to spare so we could stand and shiver in the freezing cold and wet semi-shelter of the bus station as planned!

The country we travelled through was steep and very green. Quite heavily forested in areas and on the ridges.

Bilbao itself is a city of about a million people about three quarters of whom live in the surrounding suburbs. In the nineteenth century and up until 1980s it relied on mining and heavy manufacturing. These industries proving unfeasible the economy has self-consciously transformed itself and is more service based but still seems to have some new manufacturing such as cars. From what I understand it has benefited in this transformation from being in the EU. It represents itself as a go ahead place and although its unemployment is high it is quite a bit lower than the the national average.

Physically too it has spruced itself up. The Guggenheim museum and surrounding area is a mix of ultra modern architecture with old buildings of city among open spaces planted with trees or annuals - begonias are the flower of choice. The Guggenheim area used to be a run down dock area. Apart from one stunning ultra modern and quite beautiful tower it is a low rise city. The architecture of the city is a real mix of bland twentieth century, the odd modernista, nineteenth century Spanish (don't know what you would call that style) and the odd grotesquerie. All is not spruced up by any means. There is the crumbly and shabby and the sense of what this city was all like before - or worse.

A quick word on food. Last night and night before we went to the homely cafe Urbietto in old town. Terracotta bowls along the bar with delicious looking concoctions. Squid in own ink, meat balls, mussels, tongue, trippa, rabbit. We lucked out with peppers stuffed with hake and langoustine in sauce (as menu says) and rabbit braised the first night. Second night not so good but okay, and we have a good bar right next door to hotel which serves lovely boccadillos (tiny rolls) with jamon for breakfast and excellent tortillas for lunch.

Yesterday we spent in the old area of town. We visited St James cathedral a simple and small Gothic church whose chapels and alters had ornate painted carved wood panels with images and curlicues in full Spanish splendor, often full of drama and emotion - in stark contrast to the simplicity of the church.

It seems that the local club the something Athletics are in the football finals next week so everywhere is decked out in red and white striped flags and paraphernalia. No option to barrack for another team here.

Today we hit the Guggenheim - all museums being closed yesterday. A good thing John decided on that extra night here!

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