Pintxos & Sangria
With a night up our sleeves, we head to Bilboa. Since becoming home to the Guggenheim in 1997, Bilbao has undergone a rejuvenation and enjoyed a steady increase in tourism. It’s a city that has blended old and new well together.
Bilboa is a ‘good news’ story; in 1991, the Mayor of Bilbao; Jose Ortuondo, passionately lobbyed for the city to be selected as the home of the Guggenheim Museum. Salzburg, the more favoured contender, couldn’t get it’s act together and the Mayor convinced the Guggenheim foundation to select his city.
Well known American architect, Frank Gehry, selected the site and had a vision for developing the surrounding landscape as well. The building is striking, an art piece in itself; built of limestone, glass and titanium.
Guarding the entrance to the museum is Puppy, a stunning sculpture of flowers. Puppy, a West Highland Terrier, stands 12 metres tall. It’s host to around 60,000 plants, supported by an internal watering system.
On show is Yoko Ono’s ‘Half a wind’ exhibition, an interesting display of sound and vision, but we both enjoyed just walking through the building.
We’ve once again arrived without accommodation, so we follow our usual routine; find a cafe, order a glass of red and hit the internet. This stop also included a few pintxos (bite size snacks, generally with a tooth pick and on a piece of bread). We discover the city is hosting the world basketball championships and is pretty full. However, with perseverance (and another glass of red), we secured a hotel in the old quarter of the town.
Iturrienea B&B is only accessible on foot, located in Casco Viejo, the old quarter. With the car parked and bags in tow, we head down the charming cobblestoned streets to check in. It’s a gorgeous old building. The rooms are comfy and we have a little balcony onto the street. Our hosts are friendly and informative, we couldn’t have asked for more.
Some parts of the old city date back to the 1400’s. The Plaza Nueva comes to life at night with boisterous bars serving pintxos, our dinner consists of sampling a few at various bar’s. The plaza is buzzing with life, adults chatting and children playing games. The spanish are big on eating late and socialising.
In this part of Spain the food is all Pintxos, dinner is not about sitting down at a restaurant; its about bar hopping, sampling a few pintxos and moving onto the next. Anything from simple ham on a thinly sliced baguette to a scallop mornay is on offer. You generally pay about €2 a piece.
San Sebastian is renowned for its food and it didn’t disappoint. Its coastal location provides a dominance in seafood and one of our favourite finds was La Mejinnonera. You know it has to be good just from the crowds. No seats; everyone is standing. Once you find a spot to order it’s a limited menu of mussels and Calamari. Its quick, fresh and delicious.
Don has been on a mission to try all the local and/or national specialties and drink the local beer and wine. Churros being one of his favourite spanish delights, he is excited to find a street side van selling freshly cooked spanish donuts. Don, is in foodie heaven, sitting by the beach devouring his chocolate covered churros. All too sweet and sugary for me.
The beaches are crowded and the women predominately topless. I only make the comment from observation, as through Turkey, Greece and Croatia there was very little topless sunbaking, though you could always find a designated nudist area.
At midday the beach is vacated; the spanish like the french, love lunch and everyone packs up and heads off to eat and have a siesta, returning for the late afternoon; relaxing on the beach until the sun sets.
We have a frustrated love for the siesta tradition and in general, the work hours in Europe.
There is immense respect that much of this part of the world has not caved into spinning the wheel faster and faster. I could point out that this also coincides with deteriorating economic states for these countries and many others across Europe. But the question is – who has got it right?
Everyone stops for lunch; children go home from school and spend it with parents, or relatives. People stop and appreciate life, they know their neighbours, they sit and talk, chew the fat and solve the problems of the world together.
There is an overwhelming sense of family, community, companionship and love of life, no matter how simple it is. People greet each other, and us, in the streets. We’ve entered restaurants where the other patrons welcome you as you sit down. Leave the butcher, and the other customers bid you a good day as well.
Our frustration usually starts when we arrive somewhere between 12 to 2pm and want to gather some information and pick up a map of the area from the tourist office. No, it’s shut, everyone’s at lunch!
And try being a tourist on weekends. Retail shuts down from midday Saturday until Monday morning. Being a tourist on a weekend can be near impossible. We have also learnt to watch the fuel gauge. Petrol stations switch to ‘pay at pump’ mode on weekends and we discovered that this meant our credit cards are usually rejected. Having come close a few times we ensure we fill-up before the weekend.
But, the pace of life seems to tick just that little bit slower and I like it.