Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Promised Land #1: Bilbao

We were coming up again on the city of dreams. Of hopes. Of showers, culture, an art museum, a half day of rest, the chance for internet, large supermarkets, SIM cards, and much more. To us, Bilbao was the Promised Land (#1, as it turned out. Santander, Lugo, and Santiago de Compostela would also be Promised Lands, but we wouldn't figure this out until much later).

A bit about Bilbao

Bilbao, home of the Athletic Bilbao soccer team, is the capital of the autonomous community of Viscay (also spelled Biscay or Vizcaya). It is an industrial center, a big city (population more than 350,000), an art center, and a religious center. The city is not situated on the coast, bur rather along a small river that runs near the old city. The Casco Viejo (old city) is a series of winding street with great tapas restaurants, situated right near the train station. 

From first glance it is an industrial city, but it definitely boasts lots of Basque pride. 

8/11/2013: Eskerika - Bilbao (~21km)

Starting in Eskerika, we only had to go about 21km to get to Bilbao - an easier day than we had been having so far. I got ahead of the others a short while after Zamudio. There was a huge uphill after we all stopped for a granola bar / lunch break. The panoramic view on top of the mountain overlooking Bilbao was breathtaking - it gave a little prize for the uphill climb just made. 


But it was blazing hot, so out came the sun gear! 


On the trail, I met some older Spanish men who I played leap-frog with up the mountain. The way into Bilbao was marked well enough until I went all the day downhill into the central square where there was a huge grocery store - the biggest one we'd seen so far, closed, of course, because it was Sunday and everything is closed on Sundays in Spain.  I followed the arrows until the center of town and the obviously-closed Pilgrim Information Booth, from where the arrows completely disappeared.

I had gotten a call from Leah about 45 minutes before that saying she had gotten off the trail, but was with some Spanish guys (I assume the same ones I had run into earlier) and they were taking a bus back to Bilbao. I had no way of calling Kayla (she still didn't have a phone by this point - they are hard to buy not in large cities), so I hunkered down at the place where the arrows stopped to read my book, eat the rest of my granola bars, and wait. 

When Kayla arrived about 45 minutes later, we walked to the river and sat on the steps of yet another church to wait for Leah. Apparently we were magically still on the Camino, because Casey, a friend we had met in San Sebastián, walked by, so he sat down with us and chatted. At this point I was famished because I had eaten too many granola bars that morning, so I was probably not in the happiest mood, but with trips like these you have to learn to take what you're given. Thankfully, Leah had both GoogleMaps and GPS on her phone, so she met us at the church 20 minutes later. At this point it was 6pm, and the albergue in Bilbao was another 3km away up a large hill (and far away from the center of town) so we followed Casey to the hostel he was staying at, the Bilbao Central Hostel

We got to the hostel and ended up sitting outside for a while (the buzzer didn't work and the guy at the desk wouldn't believe me when I called so we only got in when he realized he hadn't been seeing people come up in a while) with a crowd of 8+ people. 

Casey didn't have a reservation, but got one of the two remaining beds. He nicely asked the guy at reception for "las chicas gratis" ("the girls are free, right?") but got a laugh instead. There was no more space for the three of us, but the receptionist and I had a small discussion about the facts. We needed a place to sleep and we had sleeping bags so could definitely use a floor. He wanted more money and publicity for the hostel. Win-win! He let us into a room on the second floor that the hostel owned but didn't rent out. For 8 euros (instead of the 15 for the "normal" hostel approach) each, we got this "private room" with access to the showers, living room, computers, and laundry on the first floor. We could leave our stuff in there unattended, and all of us could simultaneously leave our phones to charge without worrying that they would be stolen. The catch was two-fold: the air mattresses in the room were the loudest air mattresses I'd ever slept on, and it was unclear about whether we were actually supposed to be on that second floor at all. His warnings about security cameras and not to touch anything might have meant nothing at all, but we followed his instructions to the letter. 

For dinner we wandered into the old city for some pinchos as an appetizer (essentially single-person portions of some kind of tapas, served on a small piece of bread) and then went to a restaurant to get wine and a piece of meat for dinner. Fed, showered, and relaxed, we went to bed on our squeaky air mattresses. 

8/12/2013: Bilbao - Portugalete (the short way, 15km)

Laundry and internet are luxuries, as we quickly realized, so we did laundry and internet in the morning at the hostel while we had the chance. On the way to the museum in the morning, we even passed by an outdoor gear store and walked in. Leah decided ultimately that she didn't need to carry both a towel AND an extra shirt, so she forewent buying a camp towel and continued to use her extra shirt for the rest of the trip. 

The one thing Leah and Kayla wanted to do in Bilbao was go to the Guggenheim. I had already been there last year, so I decided I'd rather have a calm walk and relax at the next albergue. 

The weird interesting thing about the Guggenheim in Bilbao is that it was designed by none other than Frank Gehry, designer of MIT's Stata Center. 

(photo taken from Wikipedia)

While Leah and Kayla were being cultured, I walked the "alternate route" to the next albergue in Portugalete and said goodbye to our First Promised Land. Through Bilbao itself, it is a 19km walk. This alternate is flat and 15 km. 

What our book doesn't say is that the green line trail leads you through the industrial wasteland that is the suburbs of Bilbao. And the arrows along the trail are as confused as you are:
(it is in fact pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction, while the sharpie is in fact correct)

The walk itself was terrible - I liked walking alone to just relax, think about puzzles, and get some exercise. But there was absolutely nothing to see, and I should have just taken a bus. The one redeeming thing about the walk was that you get to cross on foot the famous Biscay Bridge. 
The bridge, rather than being a traditional drawbridge or twisting bridge, looks in structure similar to the Tower of London bridge, with a high parapet above the water, but to get across there is a cable-car-like piece that almost swings back and forth. Cars, pedestrians, and bikes alike pile onto the bridge and are ferried across on this interesting structure. 

Right before the albergue, there was a nice local bakery where I couldn't resist the urge to buy a napolitana de chocolate (think chocolate croissant). And the real strange treat with Portugalete was the moving walkways - to get to the center of town you need to go up a hill, but why walk when there are moving walkways up?

When you know a bit of Spanish, you always translate

 The hospitaliero was an extremely friendly lady - she didn't speak much English, so asked me to translate for a number of people who had come in who did not speak Spanish. From her I learned that Portugal is gorgeous, and definitely worth going to at some point. There was a couple from France who had been section-walking the Camino for a number of years (this year ending in Santander). Mr. (actually, Dr. as it turned out) spoke French and a bit of English, and Mrs. was very good at charades - I was the go-between between them and the hospitaliero in my three words of French, good Spanish, and excellent English. It was going so well, in fact, that the Dr. and the Mrs. started speaking to me in French, forgetting that I couldn't really respond, let alone understand what they were saying. 

A time for rest

Getting to the albergue at 4pm instead of the usual 8pm was a welcome change - it's nice to get your walking out of the way early in the day and have an entire evening to relax and recuperate  I knew this would be a rare occurrence on the trip (especially since I most often wanted to push hard and press on), so I took advantage by going grocery shopping early, reading my book, having two meals, and just lounging in bed. Tomorrow would be a harder day, so I took the time to rest when I could. 

Promised Land and Industrial Wasteland, you were indeed what we were looking for.