Sunday, June 17, 2012

Day 4 - Bilbao, Spain (San Sebastian)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Nancy, thank you for your kind comments on the blog. I appreciate it.

The Symphony docked on time at 8:00 am at the Getxo port on the Bay of Biscay. Today I will be the tour guide for another day and I am hoping my mother will be a willing participant again. Crystal is providing a shuttle service to Bilbao located about 20km south and a half hour drive away. The ship will be docked until 12:00 Midnight. I am glad we do not have to worry about missing the ship today.

Camera battery charged and euros in hand, we were ready to roll again at 9:00 am. I purchased bus tickets online a couple months ago for the trip to San Sebastian. The Alsa website worked great except it was hard to figure out how to do the payment. My credit card kept being declined. However, I finally noticed a Paypal link on the left side of the page and then the purchase was quite easy.


We arrived in Bilbao around 9:30 am. The bus to San Sebastian did not depart until 11:20 am so after arriving on the shuttle we had some time to admire the views of Bilbao from the riverfront.

Bilbao is the ninth largest city in Spain with a population of approx 351,000. It is the largest city in the Basque Country, an autonomous region across northern Spain and France.

The Basque have their own language called Euskera and all Basque are also fluent in Spanish. The ETA, who are Basque separatists, recently declared a truce and now the area is quite safe. Pamplona, where Hemingway famously lived and gained inspiration for his novels is also part of the Basque Country.

There are similarities between the southern Basque area of Spain and the northern Basque area of France. For instance, Basque women still rule the roost in both enclaves.

Bilbao is known for its "starchitecture" and Frank O. Gehry's design of the Guggenheim museum. It is locally referred to as "the Googen" and is quite impressive. When the Guggenheim opened in 1997 it is credited with revitalizing the city. Apparently in the years before the museum Bilbao only received 25,000 foreign visitors a year. In 2011 the number of foreign visitors to the Guggenheim alone was a staggering 954,000!

The Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Built with 32,000 sq meters of titanium sheeting from Michigan and at a cost of $100 million, the building has a prominent position along the Nervion river. There are nineteen galleries and 29,000 sq ft of exhibition space. Willem de Kooning, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Motherwell and Richard Serra are among the celebrated artists featured. There is currently a David Hockney exhibit, his first in Spain. The museum also has a collection of works by Spanish and Basque artists including Eduardo Chillida, Cristina Iglesias, Juan Munoz and Antonio Saura. Besides the bent and curving metal facade one of the building's surprising elements is the amount stairs required to enter from the side. Later we viewed an entrance on ground level in the front. You can see the stairs in the above photo to the right.

Side view of Guggenheim along the river

Facing the river from the Guggenheim
We ventured inside the museum through the gift shop for a quick look. We did not have time to tour the museum but needed assistance with locating a taxi. We were instructed to go outside and look for the "pu-pee" and then look across the street for the taxis. We must have had puzzled expressions because the instructions were repeated a second time. We retraced our steps down the long flight stairs outside and indeed found the Jeff Koons "pu-pee" -- covered in scaffolding. No wonder we did not notice it. It was a shame it was all covered up as I would have liked to have seen it. If you looked closely inside you could make out the form of a West Highland White Terrier. The flowering topiary sculpture is 43 feet high and has its own internal irrigation system.

The Puppy was created for an exhibit in Germany and was subsequently shipped to Sydney, Australia in 1995. It was purchased by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and installed for the Guggenheim's opening in Bilbao. Jeff Koons also has a tulip sculpture in front of the museum.

The Puppy in a stock photo without the scaffolding
We found a taxi driver and I showed him my Alsa bus tickets. He acknowledged that he understood our request and we were off to the western side of the city near the sports stadium. Our taxi was a Peugeot 3008 with a clear roof. It was great for our brief sightseeing tour of Bilbao as we headed out of town. My first car was a Peugeot so I felt a little nostalgic. On the way we passed some of the newer additions to the Bilbao landscape.

In February 2012 architect Cesar Pelli's Iberdrola Tower (Iberdrola Dorrea in Basque) was inaugurated by King Juan Carlos. With 40 floors it is the tallest building in the Basque country and the city of Bilbao. During our drive to the bus station we also passed the Alhondriga, a multipurpose building designed by Philip Starck. It has a cinema, shops, restaurant and showrooms. 
Iberdrola Tower by Cesar Pelli
View out the taxi roof "window" of Bilbao

Driving out of the Bilbao city center
We arrived at the bus station which is basically a roof without any walls. There are 2 sides where the buses pull in with numbered spots. Besides the Alsa bus there is the Pesa company buses and two others. It was a little confusing where to stand. I asked a few drivers what number the Alsa would pull into and we were told usually #8 so that is where we waited. We watched in anticipation as several other buses pulled away, including one to San Sebastian with a different company. About 5 minutes before the scheduled departure time our white and silver glistening Alsa Supra bus made her entrance. It was worth the wait. The "Supra" looks brand new and has leather seating with wifi, power port and movies. I was able to pre-select our seats during the ticket purchase just like most airlines. They even have a bus attendant who serves drinks and small snacks.

Our beautiful Supra bus
The Alsa Supra operates once or twice a day in each direction and was only about 1/3 full as it is twice the price of the regular bus. The ride was very comfortable and relaxing. We roared through the Basque countryside and through the mountains. Our ears were popping due to the change in altitude. It became very hazy and at one point you could see the ground but nothing else outside the window. We were apparently in the clouds. Now it really did feel like an airplane! During this time I decided to take advantage of the free wifi to check email and update my NYT, Bloomberg and weather apps.

The haze finally cleared and we could view the beautiful Basque countryside. We were very high up and at times could view the Pyrenees in the distance.

Basque Countryside
We arrived in San Sebastian to blue skies and temps in the high 70's. San Sebastian is a food Mecca and is famous for having several Michelin starred restaurants. I looked at Arzak, Akelerre and some others online but decided we would prefer to have some Pinxtos and spend more time enjoying San Sebastian and less time eating. Pinxtos are a Basque invention. They are similar to tapas but are one serving whereas tapas are larger and can be shared. The Basque are very proud of their Pinxtos tradition and will feel insulted if you refer or equate them with tapas. Several Pinxtos bars can be visited during an evening out with friends.

San Sebastian

Near Constitution Square. Many buildings are in the Belle Epoque style.

According to their tourism site, San Sebastian is considered a small town of 183,000 inhabitants. Started as a fishing village, invaded by Napoleon's troops and almost destroyed in 1813 by the Portuguese. It was ultimately chosen by Queen Isabel II as the Royal Family's summer residence. San Sebastian became a favorite destination for the well to do in the late 1800's. With majestic buildings, stellar food and a beautiful coast line that tradition continues to this day.

We took a taxi from the bus station to Parte Vieja (old part) which has buildings from the 1800's. There used to walls around the city but they were destroyed about two hundred years ago. Since the end of Franco's dictatorship many bars and restaurants have opened in this part of town.

Alley in Parte Vieja
We were dropped of in Constitution Square which has a shopping and a pedestrian area. We passed a stall selling fish which looked very fresh. The names appeared to be in Basque and not Spanish so I could not identify anything.

Outdoor Fish Market
After asking for directions about three different times, we finally made our way to a nondescript Pinxtos bar called Zeruko. The saying "don't judge a book by its cover" was appropriate in this case. The outside of the bar did not do justice to the plethora of gastronomic marvels displayed on the counter inside. They have cold Pinxtos on the bar that you point to and then they either place it in the little toaster oven behind the counter or prepare it in the back. They also have an extensive chalkboard menu which appeared to be in Basque and Spanish. I was too mesmerized by the Pinxtos before me to be bothered with the items written on the wall.


We spent some time studying the items on the counter as if we were about to take a final exam. The owners were very patient with our limited language ability and explained what some of the items were but did not speak much English. As we could not identify everything we just had to guess.

Good thing we came hungry!

The top one is cheese. Rest look very interesting.

Foie with a sweet pineapple filling

Sea Urchin on the left, Egg and beef on top and langostine on right

An amazing selection

The top one is baked brie, the green one is blood sausage with pistachio

It was a challenge to decide what items to try first. We started off with some "safe" choices and then became a little more adventurous. We each had eight different items including dessert. The owners somehow miraculously kept track of the number of items we selected.

Tin of sardines

Grilled shrimp and Foie Gras on toast with gold wafer

My favorite! Grilled artichoke and baked scallop.

Mushroom and custard. Ham and artichoke.

This was an egg but also mixed with other items.

These are two my mother had. Sea urchin and Foie biscuit.

Dessert. The egg is actually a very yummy mango!
We loved Zeruko! It was a lot of fun and the food was amazing.

We needed to walk off lunch so we did some window shopping and strolled along the shore. There is a hop on hop off bus but it has an irregular schedule. So we headed toward the beach. My mother was getting a little antsy so I had to minimize our exploration. Way down the street I could see the Buen Pastor Cathedral with its tapered spire inspired by medieval churches of Germany and France. However, she was not interested in walking there.

Buen Pastor Cathedral
We came across a little park with interesting foliage. The was a gentleman very enamored with one of the swans. He was feeding them bread. My mother took a rest on one of the park benches while I snapped some photos.

The tree on the left is from South Africa and does well with the salt air.

Gentleman feeding the swans

Plaque in the Park
The weather was just perfect for sightseeing. It was warm but not too hot. There was a haze in the distance which enveloped the surrounding mountains and scenery.

City Hall
The City Hall was formerly the Grand Casino of San Sebastian. It was inaugurated in 1897 and closed in 1924 due to the prohibition of gambling. It then became the City Hall. It is a very beautiful building.

We walked along the promenade and the beach. San Sebastian has three beaches: La Concha, Ondarreta and Zurriola. During the summer from June to September you can rent parasols, sunshades and tents. While there are a few people on the beach today it is too early in the season.

La Concha (Beach) through the haze
La Concha Promenade

La Concha
Great concentration!
Queen Maria Cristina and the Royal family decided to have an official summer residence in San Sebastian. Miramar Palace was built in 1887 by the same architect that designed palaces in Biarritz and St Jean de Luz. It was built of brick and sandstone block with a timber roof. We did not walk all the way done to see it but could still view it through the haze.

Miramar Palace
Apartment buildings with beach views

We had a little time for shopping but most of the stores were now closed. I decided to walk up to the La Perla Thalaso Sport which has a thalassotherapy pool circuit. My mother was not thrilled with the idea. However, as the shops were closed there were not many other options. The cost for both of us was 65 euros including the bathing caps (we brought our swimsuits). You can relax in the seawater pool or do the circuit which takes one hour. La Perla also has an outside cafe with a terrace and views of the bay.

We changed into our swimsuits, put our clothes in a locker and then attempted to enter the pool area. This required going through a shower placed in between the doorway leading to the pools. I thought we were supposed to throw our towels down a chute that would open. However, after walking through the shower partition, the glass on the other side did not open. With the help of another patron I realized that you throw the towel OVER the top. This nice lady helped me pull the towel from under the partition. It felt like a scene from "I Love Lucy" or perhaps  'The Simpson's" if Marge and Lisa went to the thalossotherapy spa. We succeeded in pulling the towel from underneath the glass. With the final tug I landed on my butt. It was quite funny.

We entered the first pool which was quite large and very warm. You are supposed to do a sort of obstacle course swimming down the rows. I made it down two of them. There is a sign indicating how long to stay in (10 minutes). There were jets which sort of created a current. It was fun to swim. My mother just enjoyed the jets.

The numbering system appeared to be off as the next pool was number 3 (six in total). We seemed to be progressing well until we needed to head downstairs to a glowing neon pool. This one turned out to be cold and had bicycles in it you could use. No thanks. We skipped this one but in order to get back had to exit through a double shower system. My mother bravely went first. She yelled back to me, "hot, hot and then cold, cold". We must have been quite the spectacle.

La Perla
We went back to the first pool and the hot tub which has a view of the beach. It was very relaxing. We stayed in for 30 about minutes. We then changed back into our clothes and kept our bathing caps as a souvenir.

My mother still was not won over by the thalassotherapy experience. She enjoyed it more in Rome, Budapest and Montecatini. However, I think it was a good choice today as the hot water and jets improved her circulation since she walked much better after leaving the spa.

Next I wanted to see the Maria Cristina hotel which I thought was nearby. I had a map and found out it was located just down the street, about a 7 minute walk. What seemed to be a recurring theme today occurred when we approached the hotel to find it closed and encased in scaffolding. Although initially disappointed, this is actually a good thing. I had previously read reviews of the hotel being in serious need of a refurbishment. Although I was not aware the hotel closed 8 months ago for renovations and would open again in July on its 100th anniversary. I am looking forward to coming back and hopefully staying overnight.

Maria Cristina Hotel under renovation

It was now time to start heading back to the bus station. We went to a cafe to have a beverage while they called us a taxi. The taxi got us to the bus station a little earlier than expected so we went next door to the Silken Amara hotel and had another drink. The San Sebastian bus station is even more basic than the one in Bilbao. There is no roof, just two sides for the buses to pull up. The hotel was nice, though nothing like the Maria Cristina.

The bus was due to depart at 6:55 pm and would arrive in Bilbao at 8:30 pm. The drive back is a little longer and will take 1 hour and 35 minutes. This bus is not the special "supra" one but I could still select the seats in advance and it was comfortable. The bus departed right on time and was quite full. There was a very rowdy group of people drinking beer and making lots of noise.

Heading back to Bilbao through the Basque Country
I tried to ignore the noise and focus on the views we had while descending to lower terrain. I started seeing signs for Santander which caused some concern. Santander is much further west than Bilbao. I wondered if we were on the right bus. Occasionally I would see signs for Bilbao but then that was followed by another sign for Santander. I didn't want to say anything to my mother and worry her.

At one point we made what seemed liked a detour to a little town. Apparently we had to pick up a woman who was standing by a desolate street corner. We made our way back to the main highway and soon after I noticed we could see the water which was a good sign.

Soon we were back at the Bilbao bus terminal right on time at 8:30 pm. I was greatly relieved we did not end up in Santander. We had considered a couple of places to eat in Bilbao but were were tired and although the ship would not depart until midnight, we didn't want to worry about getting back. We walked over to one of the taxis and spoke with the driver. In the Reflections newsletter it said a taxi from Bilbao to the port would cost 50 euros. We asked the driver how much the fare would be and he replied "viente dos". I knew that was 22 but wanted to make sure since I expected to hear a much higher number. I wrote 22 on a piece of paper and he circled it and said, "si". I don't know why the rate was less from the bus station as we were actually a little further from the port. Perhaps a taxi from the city center can charge a premium knowing you are going to a cruise ship?

It was great that it was still light out and even better when we reached the ship about 20 minutes later. The taxi fare turned out to be 24 euros but that is a long way from the 50 estimated by Crystal.

We went directly tour room and it felt great to be "home". I requested room service menus from Sajna and placed our order. I also thanked her for the extra duvet and the synthetic goose down style pillows I received yesterday. The bed is now very comfortable!

Our dinner order arrived about 30 minutes later. It was fun having dinner in bed while watching TV.

My appetizer was a bit of a mystery. It was supposed to be sliced chicken but was sort of odd. My main course of Ahi tuna was more medium than rare but still tasted very good. I loved the chocolate and cherry dessert. It was yummy.

The Symphony departed as scheduled for our next port of St. Jean de Luz, France. It is only a short 45 minute sail away. Guessing we could drift there if the currents cooperated at 1 knot.


  1. I have been enjoying your Blog and enjoyed the post about Bilbao bringing back memories from our visit in 2010. Great narrative and equally wonderful photos.


  2. Thank you for taking me back to these 2 fabulous places. We absolutely loved Bilbao and found the people so friendly. If you do get the chance to go back to San Sebastian and stay at the Maria Cristina you will not be sorry. We stayed there 3 years ago and while it did need some renovating it was still elegant and impressive. I can't imagine what it will be like after this massive renovation.

    Great entry - I have been waiting for this one and look forward to the rest! I know it's a ton of work to keep up with these blogs and so appreciate it.

    Regards ~

  3. Thank you for so many lovely photos. The food looks yummy. I admire you for traveling beyond the cruise itinerary. I found looking for the pu-pee very funny. I look forward to reading more of your adventures.