The Basque Country: Bilbao and San Sebastián

This sums up our bus trips pretty well.

This sums up our bus trips pretty well.

One of the few places in Spain that our program didn’t have the chance to bring us was the Basque Country. Since we had a few days between exams, Hyunjin, Ben, Christy, and I decided to take a two day trip to get a taste of the region. We left early on Thursday morning, and got back late Friday night. Because we only had to pay for one night in a hostel and took buses, it was a very cheap trip. I never ceased to be impressed by how good public transportation is in Europe, even though 5-6 hour long bus rides can get pretty tiring, especially when your batteries die.

We decided to spend roughly a day in two of the most important cities in the autonomous community, Bilbao and San Sebastian. Most people only know about País Vasco because of the former separatist terrorist organization, ETA, that killed many people over its 50 year history while fighting for independence and the unification of the Basque regions in Spain and France. The organization has since disbanded, however, and the region has much more to offer. The separatism actually shows one of the reasons the area is so special: because of its mountainous location, the region actually grew separately from much of Spain. It has a distinct culture with its own sports like rock lifting and pelota, which is similar to racquetball or squash but involves a rock and the players’ bare hands. They were also one of the first regions to industrialize in Spain, one of the country’s major ports, well-known for their love of gastronomy, and the home to one of the most unique languages in all of Europe, without any relatives.

Ironically enough, we had seen the movie Ocho apellidos vascos the day before we left for the trip. Movies are cheaper on Wednesdays and only cost 3,90 €, so we decided to take advantage of the good deal. Eight Basque surnames has been one of the most popular films in Spain ever and is still open despite having a release date of March 14. It’s a Spanish comedy film that follows an Andalusian man from Sevilla who follows a Basque woman to Euskadi and has to pretend he’s Basque to impress her father. Though we didn’t get all of the jokes, we’ve heard it’s very accurate in its depictions of andaluz and vasco stereotypes. We actually saw quite a few of them confirmed, such as the fashion worn typically by young Basque men such as earrings and dark clothes!

After our long bus ride and 07:00 departure, we finally arrived in Bilbao at around noon. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country and a large port due to its ría, or estuary, which lies at the meeting point of a few different rivers. The most important thing to see in the city is the Guggenheim Museum, so we headed their first after getting our bearings. The building itself is one of the most famous pieces of contemporary architecture, especially because it was one of the few times when both the public and critics agreed on something. We weren’t sure if we were going to go inside the museum too, but I’m really glad we did. Though it doesn’t have any really famous pieces, it’s a very cool museum and the temporary exhibitions that we saw were big on participation, letting you walk through them or touch them. There were also some interesting exhibitions by Yoko Ono and even some cool paintings in the permanent collections. We spent two hours in there and then headed outside to eat our packed lunch in the nice weather.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

We got the typical picture of the exterior of the museum and then set off on our own little walking tour of the city towards the Casco Viejo. These Siete Calles are the seven old streets that represent the medieval Old Town of Bilbao. They were a little underwhelming, I guess because we’ve already seen quite a few examples of narrow streets like Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and this one has become a fairly built up shopping area. We did get to see the Church of San Antón from the outside and go inside Bilbao’s Catedral de Santiago, before taking a break at a bar to try some pinxos, which are the Basque’s version of tapas that the region is known for. Again, they didn’t seem to be that different from Madrid’s bar food, so we were a little let down, but it was good to try them nevertheless. They did seem to have more seafood because of how close we were to the coast. Also, to be fair, part of what the Basque are known for is the restaurant cuisine, which we poor college students didn’t have the chance to try, and the closed gastronomical societies called txoko, which are like book clubs but for food where the male members cook together and experiment with new flavors and ingredients.

After grabbing some ice cream and walking down the Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro, we hopped back on the bus at 20:40 for our hour long bus ride to San Sebastián, where we’d be sleeping that night. Even though Bilbao didn’t seem crazy different from other places we had been, it definitely has its own unique feel and people, and the city is definitely very beautiful with much more focus on contemporary architecture than Madrid. The people have their own style of clothes, with earrings for the young and lots of berets for the older men, and a knack for using “eso es” much more than we’ve heard in Madrid.

San Sebastián, or Donostia as it’s also known in Basque, is a huge beach town and one of the most famous tourist destinations within Spain. It also has tons of French travelers because it’s only around 20 km from the French border. We stayed near the Old Town, so we explored a little bit that night after grabbing some pinxos for dinner. It was cool to be walking around all the bars in that area at night, especially since the churches and old architecture were preserved. The next day, we walked around the three main beaches in the city, including the Beach of La Concha, one of the most famous urban beaches in Europe. Its name comes from the fact that it looks like a shell, or concha, when viewed from above because of how the long beach wraps around the inlet created by the Igueldo and Urgull mountains. We took the historic funicular line to the top of the Igueldo Mountain, where we got the view that the beach town is famous for.

Bay of La Concha and San Sebastián from Monte Igueldo

La Concha and San Sebastián from Monte Igueldo

After we came back from the mountain, we were surprised with some beautiful sun. The weather in Bilbao had been nice, but the morning in San Sebastián was overcast with some small drizzling. We decided to take advantage of the nice sunny weather and warm temperatures and spend the most of that day on La Concha Beach, after we had an awesome lunch of junk beach bar food, complete with a burger that had a fried egg on it. We wandered throughout San Sebastián for what was left of the day and eventually made our way back to the bus station.

All in all, it was a pretty good trip for our last one in Spain. Some long bus rides, but that just reminded us that even though Madrid is very centrally located in the middle of the Spain, it’s pretty far from everything in the middle of Castilla. I had good company though and I’m definitely glad we got a chance to experience the Basque Country. 🙂 It was one of the few places that we didn’t have a chance to go to that we felt we really needed to experience, and we definitely got to see a lot of it, even though we only had two days.

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About Casey Brown

Student at American University in Washington, DC, studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. News addict. Traveler. Linguaphile. Volunteer. Techie. Movie lover. Networker. Learner. Casey.
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