Bilbao + San Sebastian – Rest and recuperation and lots of sightseeing in the 2 biggest cities in the Basque Country

May 26th – 27th 2017 (Days 18 – 19) It was Holy Communion weekend in San Sebastian and many of the bakeries and cake shops had shop window displays featuring Holy Communion figurines. Most of the displays were very elaborate and a lot of work must have gone into making the lollipops, chocolate figurines and iced cakes shown above. Earlier, I had met up with my sister Karen in Bilbao after she had got a flight from Dublin on Thursday afternoon. Her return flight was due to leave Bilbao on Sunday afternoon, so we only had 2 full days to go sightseeing. So we spent Friday in Bilbao before getting the bus to San Sebastian on the Saturday. Myself and Karen had a lovely time exploring the 2 main cities in the Basque Country and our weekend could not have gone any better.


View of the docks in Bilbao from the hotel room. Karen had flown from Dublin on Thursday afternoon and got the airport bus to the Termine bus station near the San Mames stadium. Our hotel was only a km or so from the bus station so after meeting up, we went straight there. The hotel is a former hostel and looks like a tower block from the outside but inside it was lovely. We were upgraded to a 4 bed room having only booked a 2 bed. The room was on the 6th floor and the view of the Bilbao docks was spectacular.


Massive breakfast at the hotel. The next morning, we were treated to a huge breakfast. The room rate included breakfast and you could eat as much as you wanted. There was a big selection of buns, rolls, toasted bread and other snacks available. I also tried some cereal and yogurt as well as orange juice. The coffee was so nice I ended up taking 3 cups. The same meal in a restaurant would have cost at least a tenner but it was laid on at no extra cost by the hotel.


The new San Mames stadium, home to Athletic Bilbao. After breakfast, we set off to explore Bilbao. First stop was at the new San Mames stadium, where Athletic Bilbao play. The stadium only opened 3 years ago, and while it has a shop the club has still not completed work on their club museum. We had a look in the shop and while some items were reduced (last year’s football tops were down to €50 from €80), most items were still very dear. We only ended up buying a Europa League mug for €3 but the shop assistant wrapped it up beautifully as if it had cost €100.


Construction crews were busy getting the stadium ready for a Gun’s and Roses concert on Tuesday. Gun’s and Roses were due to play at Slane in Ireland on Saturday May 26th but here in Bilbao, their roadies were busy getting ready for the 2nd gig on the band’s European tour on Tuesday May 30th. You could see a huge crane inside the stadium which was busy erecting a stage. Security was lax but we almost certainly would have been stopped had we tried to enter the stadium.


Myself at the Guggenheim Museum. Of course, the number one attraction in Bilbao is the Guggenheim Museum. It is located about 2 km from the San Mames stadium and on the way, we filled our bottles with cold water from a pump in a small park beside the river. I had seen the Guggenheim Museum the day before but it was still extraordinary to go back. It doesn’t look that big from across the river but as you approach it, it really does tower above you.


Karen on the Santiago Calatrave footbridge in Bilbao. We then headed towards the old city of Bilbao crossing over the Calatrava footbridge. It was Santiago Calatrava who designed the Samuel Beckett bridge in Dublin and at this stage he has a bridge in almost every European city.


Camino flagstone near St Jame’s Church in Bilbao. The Church is open from 10 to 1 for pilgrims to get their Camino passports stamped. We misjudged the distance from the Guggenheim to the old city and it was 3 minutes to 1 when we arrived at the church. However, the gates were shut and their was no other way of accessing the church. In hindsight, we should have come here first and stopped at the Guggenheim on the way back to the hotel. I planned to try on Saturday or Sunday to get the stamp but we simply didn’t get the time. My passport has plenty of stamps from all the campsites I have stayed at on this Tour. But it would have been nice to get one from St James church in Bilbao to go with one from St James church in Dublin. Instead, I will leave a space in my pilgrim passport and if I ever return to Bilbao, I will get it stamped then.

Catching the bus to San Sebastian. On Saturday, after breakfast, we headed to the Terminebus station to catch the bus to San Sebastian. A day return ticket only costs €18 and the trip takes just over an hour. The bus had air conditioning and was mostly via motorway with only one stop in Zarautz.


Holy Communion in the Artzain Onaren Cathedral in San Sebastian. Just like in Dublin, there are loads of churches and cathedrals in San Sebastian. The first one we came across we went into as I wanted a stamp for my pilgrim’s passport. But instead of getting a stamp, we stumbled upon something much better, a Holy Communion service. The girls were all dressed in white and while most boys had suits on, 2 were dressed in sailor’s outfits. This is the traditional Holy Communion outfit in the Basque Country and it was an incredible sight to see the children and proud relatives looking on. We only stayed for 10 minutes, but getting to see a Holy Communion service in San Sebastian was one of the highlights of our week-end. What made it even more memorable was that it was totally by chance as there were no notices outside the cathedral.


Holy Communion icing figurines in a bakery in San Sebastian. These figurines are incredibly detailed and deserve to be on display in the Guggenheim. Girl’s communion dresses are similar to Ireland but the traditional boy’s communion outfit in the Basque Country is a sailor’s costume.


View of the La Concha beach in San Sebastian with Monte Urgul in the distance. I had passed through San Sebastian the previous Tuesday but it was still an incredible sight to see the beach again. Compared to Tuesday, there were more people on the beach but there were even more people walking up and down the promenade.


Don Quixote statue in San Sebastian. Some days on the Tour de Travoy, I feel a bit like Don Quixote and end up tilting at windmills. Perhaps for a future Tour de Travoy, I will follow in the footsteps of Don Quixote and write a bit more about Don and his journey as well as about Miguel Cervantes who wrote what is one of the first travel books to have been published.


3 musicians playing trumpets on the promenade. There were dozens of musicians and street performers on the promenade. These 3 musicians were playing Chiquitita by Abba on 2 trumpets and a clarinet. They were very good and played the notes perfectly and I ended up humming the tune all day.


Elaborate carousel opposite the town hall in San Sebastian. Last year on the Tour de Travoy, I came across a similar carousel in Honfleur that was over 100 years old. I would say this one is just as old and it was beautifully decorated with scences from around Spain.

Ice cream shop on Boulevard Zumardia. The Gelateria Boulevard ice cream shop was by far the busiest shop in San Sebastian. People were queuing around the block to get their ice cream fix. Prices were reasonable and the portions were huge. There were dozens of people sitting around the steps tucking into both cones and bowls of ice cream. Instead, we had a much healthier lunch of a baguette with banana slices.


View of the La Concha beach from the harbour. You can see from the photo above that the beach was mobbed. There was nobody surfing as there were no waves but we did spot some people in kayaks.

Basilica of Santa Maria. The door of the Santa Maria Basilica is the most elaborate I have ever seen. It is an incredible sight and the whole area was mobbed with tourists and no wonder as it is one of the finest sights I have ever come across.


Myself with Monte Igueldo in the background. 5 days earlier, I had cycled up this mountain on the way to Zarautz. It certainly is prettier to look at than to try and cycle up it.


Basque rowing teams in San Sebastian harbour. Rowing is huge in the Basque Country and 5 days earlier near Zarautz, I came across a crew out training as the cox urged the 12 man crew to go faster. Today, in San Sebastian, there were dozens of crews all getting their boats ready for the start of the rowing season in July. The mood was very relaxed and it was almost as if each crew was trying to psych out the other teams by going about their preparations as chilled out as possible and not display any signs of nerves.


There must have been at least 10 boats and over 100 rowers in the small harbour. In Ireland, if you had 10 teams in the one place at the one time no matter what sport, there would be a lot of slagging. But in San Sebastian, the teams were much more respectful of each other. Maybe because the season had yet to start, every one was afraid not to say too much in case they were made to eat their words when the racing got underway.

Myself and Karen at a trendy sea-food restaurant. There were a lot of sea-food restaurants beside the harbour and surprisingly, prices were reasonable. You could get a fillet steak for €15 for example. \but any sea-food dishes were much dearer and a lobster or crab lunch was €20 or more.


Rowing crews launching their boats. Each boat was painted a different colour which made for some great photos. Every 5 minutes or so, a crew would finish waxing and take to the water. Some crews would board the boats and then row at a gentle pace while others were more fired up and rowed out of the harbour almost at race pace.


Tapas in a bar near the Santa Maria Basilica in San Sebastian.  Around about 5, we left the harbour and headed back to Santa Maria basilica to find a bar and try catch the end of that day’s d’Italia stage Giro on TV. The first one we called into was showing the race so we ordered some tapas and 2 half pint glasses of San Miguel beer. The tapas on the left in the photo below was mostly potato and onion while the one on the right was like a soft roll with a tuna topping. The tapas come with small slices of dried bread and were very filling. Prices were very reasonable as each portion cost €1.50 and a half pint of San Miguel cost €2. A similar meal in Temple Bar in Dublin would have cost a lot more.


Nairo Quintana racing furiously trying defend his pink jersey.  It was the 20th stage of the Giro but it was the the first one I got to see live and what a finish. There were only 10 km left when we called into the bar and Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali were in a bunch of 5 riders trying to gain time on Tom Dumolin who was in another bunch about 30 secs behind them. The climb to the finish in Asiago was relatively gentle and no matter how much Nairo and Vincenzo attacked they could not gain any time. In fact, by the finish,  Tom Dumolin had reduced the gap to Nairo Quintana to little more than a few seconds. Dumolin would go on to beat both Quintana and Nibali in the time trial the following day at the Monza race track in Milan and become the first Dutchman to win the Giro in it’s 100th race.


Model of the San Vicente cathedral. On the way back to the bus station, we popped into the San Vicente cathedral. The altar is very elaborate and there were a number of huge statues in the alcoves. But my favorite sculpture is this small model of the cathedral which was on display in a glass case at the back of the cathedral.

Trying to pull off the ghetto look in San Sebastian. I think Karen beside the graffiti looks a lot more ghetto than me underneath a sign for the La Mafia restaurant. I have no idea what the graffiti says or if Mafia means the same in Spanish as it does in English but both locations made a good backdrop for some photos.


Charity canoe race in the Itsasadarra river beside the bus station. The first bus we tried to board back to Bilbao was sold out so we had to wait an hour for the next one. We didn’t mind as it was such a pleasant evening and we got to witness the preparations for a charity canoe race in the river beside the bus station.. The highlight of the preperations was when the DJ who was whipping of the crowd suddenly whipped off his clothes and somersaulted into the river. It all happened so fast I didn’t get a photo but it was a crazy stunt to witness as he must have dived at least 10 m into the water before then boarding one of the canoes.


San Sebastian bus station. The bus station at San Sebastian is built underground and relatively small but it is incredibly well laid out. The loading bays form a circle and there are lots of screens telling you what bus is going where. Our bus left San Sebastian on time and arrived in Bilbao around 8.45 in the evening. We had time to go for dinner at a Cafe et Te restaurant near the bus station before going back to the hotel. I ordered a Paella Valencia which is mostly rice and lumps of chicken while Karen just got a sandwich. The paella was delish and it was the lovely way to end what had been an incredible day in San Sebastian.


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