País Vasco (to San Francisco)

The last weekend of April, Maddie and I originally planned on heading to the island of Malta with a friend, but found out that the price of tickets had skyrocketed by the time we went to buy them. Still wanted to get out of town for the weekend, we instead bought a fight to Santander, a city on the border of Galicia and Basque Country (also known as País Vasco), two regions of northern Spain. We caught the first (read: eeearly) metro to the airport for our flight. After landing, we took a bus to the city and grabbed some coffee and pastries at a cafe before hopping on a bus to Bilbao.

We took the metro and checked into the hostel and dropped off our things before heading out. From the start, Bilbao gave us a conflicted, almost uneasy feel. It wasn’t that it felt unsafe or anything, there was just something a bit off about how the industrial buildings and wildness of the mountains all fit together. The closest we got to articulating it was that it had a somewhat sterile feel. We walked down the Gran Via until we came to a moderately busy restaurant called Le Globe or something like that. Hungry and happy to get out of the light rain, we sat down for a carafe of vino tint, red peppers stuffed with crabs in “American sauce,” curried vegetables with couscous, and pastel Vasco (Basque cake) – all pretty delish.

Amidst the drizzle, we walked to the famous Guggenheim museum. We were greeted by a large sculpture of a puppy, made of multicolored flowers, which stood guard to the sloping metal and sweeping glass that artistically came together to form the museum. Frank Gehry, the architect behind this design and many others, definitely blurred the boundaries between architectural design and art; we spent about as much time staring at the curvatures of the atrium as we did at any otherwise piece of art. Armed with audio guides and an otherwise empty itinerary, Maddie and I decided to avoid the now heavy rainfall and spend time fully appreciating all of the pieces there. It was great having the audio guides because we gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the works, especially because the museum features modern art, which can be very ambiguous in intent.

The first floor featured a small dark alcove with about ten black rectangular columns with red and blue LED lights that marqueed phrases about the struggles of someone with AIDS, in English, Spanish, and Basque. It also featured a series by Alex Katz, a Warhol, and several other definitive pop artists. One of the most unique pieces was a massive installation called “A Matter of Time,” which consisted of eight huge, free-standing, steel structures that the viewer could walk through and thus interact with. These were composed of torqued ellipses, torqued spirals, and sphere and toroid segments that sloped away and towards you as you walked, leading to a piece of art that drew you in and spit you out in a very personal, introspective way. Interestingly enough, the installation and the space were designed in tandem, so each was appropriate for the other.

The second floor featured an exhibition titled L’Arte en Guerra, about art influent by and produced as a result of World War II. Different rooms were dedicated to various circumstances and the art that resulted. Overall, the effect this achieved was stunning and the collection was a fascinating intersection of art and history. Didactic! By the time we made it to floor three, we’d been there over three hours and only had one more before the museum closed. Third floor, things got weird. Two rooms were full of George Baselitz’s upside down paintings of Lenin and Stalin about twenty different times with weird titles like “During the veteran summer, two creepy uncles are scaring Mike.” And this was the more normal of the two major exhibits upstairs. Cy Twombly may have a fun name to say, but his paintings were eyesores. (Google him and the results are way better than anything we saw.)

All art-ed out, we ventured out in the pouring rain and made our way to Casco Viejo, the old quarter. We were dripping wet by the time we ducked into Cafe Bilbao, a small but cheery restaurant, busy with locals who stood shoulder to shoulder, drinks in hand, chatting and grazing on pintxos in traditional Basque fashion. Pintxos are small, generally bread-based, tapas creations of all sorts of colors and ingredients and typically line the edges of the bar, ripe for picking by hungry bar-goers. Maddie and I broke the tradition of standing and grabbed a table along the wall and sat down with several beautiful pintxos and frosty beers. We then took the metro back to the hostel and spent the next few hours frustrated by an online fluid mechanics assignment that was only open for 24 hours. Gotta love school here. (Not.)

The next morning we had a quick breakfast at the hostel before catching a bus to San Sebastian. We instantly got a much warmer vibe from the city and kept remarking how “cute” it was (our friend Madeline, with a penchant for the adorable, would totally approve). We walked along the river to the hostel, which was conveniently located near the best restaurants in the city (I didn’t even plan that, hehe). As we went to check in, I realized I had booked beds for the night before – whoops – but luckily, they were able to accommodate us without any problem. We settled in and headed out for lunch, targeting a recommendation from Rahul and Maddie’s guidebook. Zeruko, as we later found out, was one of the trendier and more popular restaurants in the area. The pintxos here were incredibly gorgeous and we spent our first several minutes eye-nomming the delicious spread in front of us. It was tough to choose, but we finally ordered some wine and several rounds of food, nabbed a standing area near the bar and talked and ate for the next two hours.

Relaxed and full, we walked along the boardwalk, tracing the arc of the city’s famed beach “La Concha,” taking our time and just enjoying being there – new to us who typically race around trying to see everything we can. We watched a guy play a saw for a bit then walked to the opposite end of the beach and took the funicular to the top of the mountain there. Apparently, the “fun” in “funicular” comes from the weird carnival/amusement park at the top. Maddie and I grabbed two cups of cheap wine from one of the food stalls and sipped it on a bench, overlooking the postcard-perfect panorama of the beach and city. We lazily wandered back, walking into a church before grabbing coffee and this delicious marshmallow-like pastry, browsing a few shops, and heading back to the hostel for a bit. After the rough day of eating, sleeping, drinking, and repeating we had had, it was clear why we needed time to vegetate.

We finally coaxed ourselves into movement around 10 and headed out for dinner. Our first stop was Atari Gastroteca, full of jazz music, a classy atmosphere, and hunky bartenders. We got rioja wine and a few tapas before deciding to bar hop. Next stop: A Fuego Negro. The kitchen was closed, but we enjoyed a glass of the famed xakoli, sparkling white wine, in the grungy red and black restaurant while chatting with an old Basque chap with a massive beard. Last stop: La Cepa. Seeing as the kitchens were all closing (apparently dinner here is actually at normal times, unlike the rest of Spain) we sat down at a table and ordered some sirloin kebabs, chorizo, flan, and a bottle of wine, then spent the rest of the evening talking and chillaxin’.

The following day was Sunday, so even after we had breakfast and slowly wandered back into old town, most of the restaurants were closed. We tried sidra at our first restaurant of the day and I was not at all a fan of this olive-tasting cider. I enjoyed more the second restaurant we went to, which was positively adorable. On the way to the bus station, we picked up some chocolate and pastries and had a lovely, relaxing bus ride back to Santander. We checked into the hostel there, lazily made our way a few blocks from it to grab kebabs and churros con chocolate and saw pretty much none of Santander but were perfectly happy regardless. At the churro restaurant, one of the waitresses assumed we knew no Spanish because we couldn’t hear one thing she said and was incredibly patronizing to Maddie later on. We vented about this as we returned to the hostel and were glad to realize that one of our roommates was Mexican, thus a native Spanish speaker, and still had trouble understanding Spaniards at times. Validated and full of delicious noms, we slept wonderfully that night. We flew home without a hitch, a perfect and quiet way to end a relaxing weekend full of quality time with one of my favorite people in the world.

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