Art & Architecture in Bilbao.

Happy Halloween from Sunny Bilbao! Today was good. As hoped, things do look better after sleep and in the light of day. I spent most of today wandering around the Guggenheim Bilbao. It was about a ten minute meander from the hotel to the museum. I wandered along the river and realized how pedestrian-friendly this city is. The sidewalks are very wide, there are several plazas and pedestrian-only streets and bridges. It makes it very easy to get from place to place by foot, assuming you know the lay of the land. I haven’t found it easy to navigate Casco Viejo without a map. I think I did about three loops around the Cathedral of Santiago this evening while out exploring and trying to find my way back to the hotel.


Bilbao river and bridge

The pedestrian bridge over the Nervion River through Bilbao.



Pretty Bilbao, Spain.


But, the Guggenheim was cool. There was a new exhibit that opened yesterday called “Making Africa” that is focused on trying to show the “real” Africa: its art, technology, universities, fashion, etc. It was very good. There was also an exhibit on Alex Katz, who I’d heard of but never really knew much about. I really liked his landscapes and think maybe I’d like to get a print of one of his landscapes to hang in my apartment. But not here or now when I don’t think I can get it home safely. I’m just going to do my best to remember him. The last big exhibit is on its final day, I believe. It was on Jean-Michel Basquiat, the NYC artist. It was okay. I had definitely heard of him and it was cool to see some of his work. It’s less my style, though. I ate lunch at the museum and had my first taste of jamon. I had a jamon sandwich (jamon bocadillo) with cheese. It was very rich tasting cheese. Ham is not my favorite thing, but I knew before coming here that pig was most certainly on the menu for me for the entirety of the trip. I’m hoping to maybe discover a new way to make ham or pork that will totally change my views on it.


Guggenheim Bilbao


guggenheim inside

The interior of the Guggenheim Bilbao

I spent nearly all morning and afternoon wandering the exhibit halls and also wandering around outside the museum. The museum is the Frank Geary masterwork and is known throughout the world for its architecture. There are so many angles to the building and no end of ways to capture it photographically. I spent a lot of time just wandering around the building taking pictures. There are several art pieces outside the building to see as well as those located inside. There are several parks around the museum and there was live music and people just spending their day outside in the sun on the lawns.


bilbao dog

The blooming dog outside the Guggenheim Bilbao.



The big spider. I thought it was interesting that the little dachshund was not willing to go under the spider. Smart pup.



bilbao outdoor art

Some of the outdoor art at the Guggenheim Bilbao.


It was a really nice day for wandering. I’m hoping this weather will hold, but I believe I’m in for a cold and rainy walk through Galicia because November in Northern Spain is supposed to be quite wet. So, I’m trying to soak up the sun here in Bilbao! This is a really architecturally fascinating city. I know the Guggenheim is its showcase, but the apartment buildings and the train station and the churches are all really interesting to look at. If you have even a rudimentary interest in architecture, I hope you visit Bilbao sometime.

hisperia bilbao

One of the many interesting buildings in Bilbao.


bilbao apartments

A block of apartment buildings. All architecturally different and interesting.


I walked back after the museum to see the train station (which has a really pretty stained glass window in the main terminal area) and get my ticket to Ponferrada (where I’m going to begin the Camino) and also see if there were compatible power sockets to charge my phone. No power sockets, unfortunately. And not having a debit card creates difficulties in using the ticket kiosks to buy train tickets. I found a very bored ticket agent, though, who was able to let me pay for a ticket with the credit card. So, I’m ready for my next leg of the journey. I still have another full day here in Bilbao. I was going to try to take the metro up to the NE part of the city to see the coast, but the machines don’t take credit cards. I’ve decided instead to just spend tomorrow wandering around a big hilltop park I’ve found on a map and reading and exploring a bit.

The no cash thing is a problem. I’ve decided that there is very little else to do but to ask upfront if I can pay with a credit card. If not, I move on. It looks like I will miss out on some things. For instance, I was unable to buy some ice cream with the credit card. It just doesn’t cost enough to make it worthwhile for the shops to accept credit cards, I guess. I did find a grocery store and stocked up on snacks that I can take on the Camino and also that I can eat for breakfast here. I bought a loaf of fresh bread and a knife and some toothpaste and shampoo and some tupperware containers to carry my snacks in my pack. Not bad. I’m discovering that I will need to buy things when I can, rather than on whims as I’m wandering down the street.

But tonight, after being turned away from the ice cream shop, I was wandering around Casco Viejo and I saw my first yellow waymarker for the Camino de Santiago! I was excited. It was in the middle of the road and has the words in English and in Basque.

camino del norte yellow arrow


I’m ready to start walking, I think. Seeing this reminded me why I’m here and why I wanted to come to Spain.


Throwing off the bowlines.

Greetings from Spain! I have three weeks off work and have come to Spain to walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago using the ancient pilgrimage route Camino Frances (The French Way). It’s a 700 km route that begins just east of the Pyrenees in France. People cross the mountains into Spain and then walk all the way across the northern part of Spain to arrive in the city of Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage began over a thousand years ago when it was decided that the remains of the apostle St. James were buried below the cathedral in Santiago. The pilgrimage is known by several names: Camino de Santiago, The Way, The Way of Saint James, etc. There are many different ways to get to Santiago and the Camino Frances is just the most ancient way and the most popular. Over 200,000 people walk the Camino each year and it’s been a dream of mine to try to walk it for a while now. All things came together to make right now the best time for me to come and try to make it through the last 25% of the Camino Frances.

I’m traveling alone and am both wary and excited about traveling in a foreign country for so long by myself. I’ve traveled alone before, but usually within the United States or, when I did go abroad, I met up with a group at the destination and so I wasn’t really alone. It didn’t feel as huge a leap of faith as this feels right now, and I didn’t make the same financial blunder as I have done this time: I mistook my bank credit card for my debit card and am therefore here with two credit cards and no way to get cash. The ATMs in Spain don’t accept credit cards without a PIN (most countries, especially in Europe assign PINs to credit cards, but the US has not progressed to this point quite yet. I hear it’s coming, though.) Of course, my credit cards don’t have a PIN and even if I called to get/reset a PIN, the bank/credit card company will only mail it to my house, not let me set it over the phone or online. So, this entire vacation has quickly become more challenging than I had anticipated. I hope I can stay at hotels along the Camino and can eat at restaurants and pay with the credit cards. It will be a more expensive way to do this than I had planned, but this appears to be the way I will have to do it. It is all a leap of faith! Just getting on the plane and leaving Albuquerque was a leap of faith, but what are we here for except to try to take chances and see what happens?

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. — Mark Twain

With that in mind, I have begun my journey by taking a bus from Madrid to the Basque Country. I’ve arrived in Bilbao after flying in to Madrid and taking a bus up to this Northern coastal city. What I’ve seen so far has been pretty. The bus trip in the latter part, as we drove closer to Bilbao, was especially pretty with mountains and beautifully green hills. I arrived at the bus station in Bilbao and needed to figure out how to walk across the city to the neighborhood of Casco Viejo (Old Town), where I’m staying for a few days. Casco Viejo is convenient to the tourist sites and is the historical center of town. My hotel is very near the train station, an easy walk along the river toward the Guggenheim Bilbao, and there are lots of places to walk around in the neighborhood just to see the area. Just a good central location for a newcomer. Also, it lies on the Camino del Norte, the Northern Way toward Santiago de Compostela, so I was wondering about seeing pilgrims in Bilbao. I haven’t really seen anyone I could definitely say was a pilgrim yet. I appear very obviously to be one, I gather, because on the flight over I had a couple of people ask me where I was going. My treking pole and pack were clearly giving me away as a hiker. One airline stewardess was particularly interested in my trip because she wants to do the Camino someday. And when I got off the plane in Madrid, a man ran up to me as we were leaving the plane and said he saw me in Albuquerque and he knew I was going to do the Camino. He gave me advice and said that I should buy another treking pole and he demonstrated how to walk with the poles. He had done the Camino and used two poles and said he never had trouble with his knees. And he wished me a Buen Camino! My first pilgrim greeting within 10 minutes of being in Spain!


Flying over Western Spain.



One thing people will tell you about the Camino de Santiago is that there are angels on the Camino. I’ve found that there are already angels on my trip. I’ve met a couple of wonderful people who have helped me find my way, or put me at ease when I’ve had travel anxiety. One such person was a woman I met while waiting at a stoplight to cross the street near the Bilbao bus station. I just needed to know if I was heading the correct direction and I had a little sheet with google map directions, but they weren’t helpful. She made me laugh when she looked at the google map and rolled her eyes and said, “No. Goog-leh no good.” She didn’t speak much English, and I’m afraid my Spanish (what little I know) is of the Mexican variety, but we pressed on. One woman who was standing at the crosswalk told the lady that there was no way I was going to understand what she was telling me, but the wonderful lady defiantly told her that yes we would do this. We could communicate and she could help me. And, she did! She even walked with me for several blocks and told me that the location of my hotel was wonderful, but that my hotel itself was not. “Okay”, I thought, “I can handle a less-than-great hotel if it’s convenient…” So, off I went and found the hotel at a large intersection in Casco Viejo right near a huge pedestrian plaza and the river. Wonderful location.


The theater and train station in Bilbao from my hotel.


I checked in to my single room and took a shower to wash off the airplane, bus, and car grime and unpacked a bit and settled in to just relax. Unfortunately, the plug-ins in this hotel aren’t compatible with the international charger I have and my cell phone is dying rapidly. So, I’m losing my ability to communicate back home. On top of that, I’m exhausted and trying not to think too much about my financial blunder nor worry about what I was going to do about the no-cash scenario for three weeks.

…And then it began to rain in my little room in the convenient but not-so-good hotel I had chosen (Hotel Arenal, for those interested readers).


The leaky room.


The folks above me ran a shower or something and it all leaked down into my room near the entrance. So, after an inward whine, I packed all my stuff back up into my backpack and wearily headed down to reception to explain the problem and, after a bit, I’m now re-unpacked and settled into a bigger room! The hotel had no more single rooms available (although it doesn’t seem overly crowded here), so I’ve been put in a non-leaking double room. Which is much nicer! I have a little seating area now and two windows overlooking the plaza and the city. It’s nice. A good development brought on by an inconvenience. I’m try to look on the bright side of things considering (to re-cap) I have no cash, have lost communication with the U.S. until I can find a compatible power socket, and am trying to figure out how to do the Camino with only credit cards during the off-season. This is not how I hoped this trip would be starting. I’m really disappointed in myself about the credit card thing. I’m hoping I don’t get to feeling too downtrodden about this stuff and can take these mis-steps in stride. Maybe I’m just getting the awful stuff over with early and it will make the less terrible things easier to cope with later.

I think a decent night’s sleep will go a long way to curing some of this doubt about coming here and doubt about staying here as long as I had planned given the challenges I’ve created for myself. Things should look better in the light of day.