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Basque Country Trip Report - Bayonne, San Sebastian, Vitoria, and Bilbao - May 2017

I was in the Basque country from May 12 through 22, 2017. I'll start with the logistics to help others plan, and then get to the trip itself.

First, my itinerary:

May 11, Thursday: Fly JFK to Madrid on Iberia
May 12, Friday: Fly Madrid to Biarritz on Iberia (don't worry - same ticket); overnight in Bayonne, France
May 13, Saturday: Day trips to St. Jean de Luz and Biarritz; overnight in Bayonne
May 14, Sunday: See Bayonne; overnight Bayonne
May 15, Monday: Train from Bayonne to San Sebastián, Spain; overnight in San Sebastián
May 16, Tuesday: Day trip to Hondarribia; overnight in San Sebastián
May 17, Wednesday: Day trip to Getaria: overnight in San Sebastián
May 18, Thursday: Bus to Vitoria-Gasteiz; overnight in Vitoria
May 19, Friday: Bus to Bilbao; overnight in Bilbao
May 20, Saturday: See Bilbao; overnight in Bilbao
May 21, Sunday: See Bilbao and Portugalete; overnight in Bilbao
May 22, Monday: Fly Bilbao to Madrid and Madrid to JFK on Iberia

Flights were a bit tricky. I initially thought of going in reverse order, but it turns out museums are a big part of seeing Bilbao and Vitoria, and starting in Bilbao would put me in these cities on a Monday when the museums are closed. I considered flying to San Sebastián rather than Bayonne because it would have saved me about $150, but I didn't want the extra hassle and exhaustion of taking a long bus or train ride after two flights. So, I paid $788 (including extra fees for seat selection - $33 each way) on Iberia for the flights above (all on one ticket, of course).

The plane from Madrid to Biarritz was VERY small (still a jet). So small, that anything larger than a personal item had to be gate checked. They gave us tags in the waiting area, and as we walked on the tarmac to board the plane, there was a rack to put the bags. They were all waiting there when we deplaned an hour later. But I mention this as a reminder to always have the most valuable items ready to be pulled out of any luggage, so even if you have to check a bag unexpectedly, you can keep things like medications in carry on.

A note: Lonely Planet France (at least in the 2009 edition I was using) called my arrival airport Bayonne-Anglet-Biarritz (BAB). However, when searching for flights, you won't find it under either that name or those initials; it doesn't even show up as the Bayonne airport. It's the Biarritz airport, code BIQ.

My accommodations were quite a variety: an apartment hotel, a small pension, an inexpensive medium sized hotel, and a relatively fancy large hotel (fancy for me, that is).

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Hotel in Bayonne:

I stayed three nights at the Temporesidence Appartements Cathedrale: I found this on TripAdvisor using an interesting trick. TripAdvisor divides listing for each city into "Hotels," "Bed and Breakfasts," and "Specialty Lodging." What gets put in each category is a bit random; looking at the Specialty Lodging for Bayonne, this place turned up as number 1. It looked good, and what cinched the deal was that since it's an apartments targeted at business travelers, for my weekend stay they had a special "pay for 2 nights and stay for 3" rate. I paid €152 for 3 nights.

The room was a studio apartment with a single, roughly queen sized bed. The kitchen was equipped with dishwasher, two burner cooktop, fridge, microwave, toaster, coffeemaker, and various utensils and cooking implements. There is no maid service included (it's an extra fee). The room was a bit plain, but quite serviceable, and the bathroom was fine. There is an elevator. My room (410) was on the fourth floor overlooking a small park; I was worried about noise, but even though I was there over a weekend, it was quiet. Wi-Fi speeds I measured were download 6 Mbps, upload 3 mbps, and the Wi-Fi was reliable. The location is very good, in the heart of Grand Bayonne, a few minutes walk from the rivers and various stores, restaurants, supermarkets, etc. Although the reception is only staffed at certain times, all staff I interacted with spoke English. I'd certainly stay here again.

Coming in from the airport I took a taxi to the apartment; it cost about Є20. Leaving, I walked to the train station (about 15 minutes).

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Hotel in San Sebastián:

I stayed three nights at the Pension Edorta: I found this in Rick's Spain book. I was given the largest room (number 6, called Alde Zaharra over the door) even though I was traveling alone. The room is quite pretty (the pictures on the website are accurate). The location is right in the heart of the old town, and although a taxi could not come to the door, it came less than a half-block away. All staff I interacted with spoke English. Wi-Fi speeds I measured were downloads 4.5 mbps and uploads 0.45 mbps, but the Wi-Fi was erratic (sometimes dropping out for a minute or so before returning).

The biggest problem I had here was the noise. My room faced the back, so I didn't get street noise (potentially a big problem in San Sebastián), but there's another issue. There are signs everywhere in the pension to be quiet after 10, and I quickly learned why; the walls and ceilings transmit a larger than normal amount of sound. You hear lots of creaks, movements, TVs, etc. I'm used to a fair amount of ambient noise when sleeping from living in New York, but someone who isn't would not have been happy. I paid €90 per night, and feel this was high for what I got. I paid €57 a night in Madrid at the Hostal Acapulco, and that's in a big city; I resented having to spend so much more money, in a much smaller city, for a larger but not really better room. I know rates in San Sebastián are high, though. So, as you see I have mixed feelings; I don't know if I'd stay here again, or look for something cheaper.

Side note: although the hotel's website says its street is called Calle Puerto, and this is indeed the Spanish name and so is used in speech, the street signs are only in Basque, and the street name in Basque is Portu Kalea. That's the street name used on Google Maps, too.

Coming in from the Amara EuskoTren station, I took a taxi (about €8); this was definitely the way to go, as it would have been a long walk with luggage. Going to the main bus station, I wanted to take a taxi, but it was raining and one wouldn't have come in time, so I walked (about 15 minutes).

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Hotel in Vitoria-Gasteiz:

As I posted in this thread, I had trouble finding a hotel here. Rick doesn't cover the city, and many of the places that got good TripAdvisor reviews are well outside the center. I ended up at the Hotel Desiderio, and am VERY glad I did!

The location is great, in the old town; the Artium (modern art museum) is a one minute walk in one direction, and the Bibat (combined museums of playing cards and of archeology) is about a five minute walk in another. A taxi stand right in front of the Artium made returning to the bus station easy. And the price is a steal: €35 per night for single occupancy of a double, for a room that was as large (if not as pretty) as the one at Pension Edorta. I did get a bit of street noise, but not too late (my room 107 faced Nueva Fuera Kalea). Some of the desk staff spoke English, some did not.

The only potential problem is the shower - a stall shower, on the small side and with curtains instead of doors. If you don't like having the shower curtain touching you while you're showering, stay somewhere else. Another potential issue is that the floors are very slippery (they're some kind of laminate, like what Ikea bookshelves are made of). Even in bare feet I was slipping a bit, and socks were downright treacherous. On the plus side, there were lots of outlets. Wi-Fi speeds I measured were downloads 3.6 mbps and uploads 0.01 mbps, and the Wi-Fi was reliable.

If you're telling the hotel's name to a cab driver, note it's pronounced Deh-zih-DEHR-ee-oh. I said Deh-zih-deh-REE-oh, and the driver literally had no idea what I was saying! Of course, I always have my hotel info in writing and handy to show drivers, so I got where I wanted to go. I'd DEFINITELY stay here again!

I took a taxi both ways to and from the bus station (about €7-8). Unless you really fancy a long walk, followed by getting lost in Vitoria's Old Town, and possibly involving steps and sharp inclines, a taxi is absolutely the way to go. Upon leaving, I asked the desk person to call a taxi, but she said I could save some money by walking one block to the Artium's taxi stand; this worked well.

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Hotel in Bilbao:

I had great difficulty finding a hotel in Bilbao (details in my thread above about Vitoria hotels); even a month before my stay, lots of places were sold out, and others had only suites and such left (at astronomical prices). I never found the definitive reason, although it may have been the Triathlon that weekend. Then another poster recommended the Hotel Abando, saying they stayed there on their Rick Steves Basque Country tour.

Well, Rick (or his researchers) found a real keeper - the Abando was great! It's a very nice hotel (much "posher" than my other stays on this trip - it's the only one I could recommend without hesitation to someone who's used to more US style polish). For me, its location is perfect. It's in the new town, across the river from the old town and a few blocks from the main tourist office. Furthermore, it's close to a tram stop, a metro stop, and the Renfe train station, so you can get anywhere in the center with a short ride or a 10-20 minute walk. Nearby are all kinds of stores and restaurants.

The room itself was interesting, in that for once my single room was designed as a single, rather than a double split in half (long and really narrow - all you solo travelers know what I mean). So it was quite well laid out, except for only having minimal space for clothing storage. Wi-Fi speeds I measured were really fast (74 mbps download and 11 mbps upload), and the signal was reliable, although "certain websites" were blocked (since this is a family forum I can't mention which kind, but I think you can all figure it out). There's a minibar fridge which isn't too filled, so I was able to chill my own water and soda without having to remove the hotel's items.

My only negative was that instead of a blanket and a top sheet, there was a duvet. I know some love these, but I was BROILING under that duvet, and I don't like sleeping with nothing over me. I actually considered taking the duvet out of its cover and just sleeping under the cover, but I knew the maid would just try to put it back in again, and I didn't think it was fair to make so much work for her! One night I slept with the window open; fortunately, it's not a noisy block (my room faced a government building, so on evenings and weekends the street is pretty quiet).

My room was €268 total for three nights, with the breakdown as follows:

May 19: €89
May 20: €98
May 21: €81

I'd stay here again anytime, and would actually look to book this hotel as my first choice for Bilbao (even though it wasn't my first choice initially). I had thought I wanted to stay in the old town, but I actually preferred the vibe of this location.

I walked here from the bus station (15 or 20 minutes), because it was a nice day and the route is very straighforward. Leaving, I walked about 10 minutes to Plaza Moyua to get the airport bus. This is a regular city bus, so it's a steal at €1.40 for full fare; I had a Barik transit card, so I paid even less.

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Transit between cities:

From Bayonne to San Sebastián, I had a choice of direct buses, or trains with a connection. The buses are run by several companies, each with one or two per day; however, the times were not ideal for me, so I took the trains. For anyone else interested, acraven's trick for bus-finding worked well; you start with Rome2Rio, then look at the website of each bus company you find on there to confirm details. Buses from Bayonne to San Sebastián are run by four companies:


Some of these buses leave from the depot next to the train station; others leave from a bus plaza in the western end of Grand Bayonne. Some stop at both; check carefully so you don't miss your departure.

For the train, you take an SNCF train from Bayonne to Hendaye (about an hour), then walk a half-block to the Euskotren and take that to San Sebastián. The Euskotren runs twice an hour (at least at the time of day when I took it) and takes about a half hour. Both the bus and the train options are cheap. My trains were €7.90 for SNCF and €2.45 for Euskotren. Note that Euskotren has no storage space for luggage; mine fit on the floor around me as the train wasn't too crowded, but for those with bigger luggage, you may prefer the bus, where it would be stored underneath. SNCF: Euskotren: (the Hendaia-Lasarte line)

For San Sebastián to Vitoria (also called Vitoria-Gasteiz), a woman in the satellite tourist office right across from the San Sebastián train station helped me sort my options. I was going to take the train, but she said the bus was fine and less expensive. She looked, and again several bus companies did this route; however, the Alsa bus was far cheaper than the others and no less nice (she said). It was only €7 (others were €10-12, and train was a few euros more), and it certainly was nice. You get an assigned seat, and each seatback has an airplane style AVOD (audio video on demand - movies, games, etc) with a USB charger; there's also one full electrical outlet for each seat pair! There's even Wi-Fi (look for the inconspicuous sign right behind the driver for the network and code). My bus was going to Madrid, but luggage for Vitoria was put on one side and for Madrid on the other, so it didn't take long to get out at Vitoria's new and modern station. The trip was 75 minutes (much of it on highways).

From Vitoria to Bilbao, there are again several bus companies (no train option), but La Union buses ran every half hour, so I did that since I wouldn't need to plan in advance. These buses don't have assigned seats, and there is no seatback entertainment or electric outlets. My bus was quite full, although there were no standees. But again it took the highway and took only an hour; the fare was €6.30.

All of my transit worked out fine; don't fear Spanish buses! They're nothing like Greyhound in the US; since the Spanish train network is a bit thin and their high speed train network is very sparse, buses fill in the gaps, and everyone takes them (not just the "wrong element" we stereotypically associate with buses in the US).

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Weather: I had been following weather before I went, and many of my days were forecast to have thunderstorms or rain. The temperatures were forecast all over the map, from 80 by day to 55 at night. I was prepared with short and long sleeves, a cotton sweater, a coat with a liner and gloves and a scarf, and an umbrella. By the end of the trip, I had used it all. Most of my days were sunny and warm (the first few saw the short sleeves get a lot of use!), but for Vitoria I had a lot of rain; then it stopped raining and turned cold. Luckily, that was my only day with heavy rain or cold. Perhaps it's because Vitoria is inland, while my other destinations were on the coast, that it had more dramatic weather. I certainly had excellent weather overall, in a region famous for its lousy weather most of the year. The Rain In Spain does NOT stay mainly in the plain - it's right in this region.

One related item no one warned me about, but which I feel is important to warn others. I have Transitions lenses, which are "automatic sunglasses"; they darken in UV light. Well, on my first full day, they quickly turned pitch black - I joked that they looked like they had been COOKED. I then realized that this meant my skin was getting the same treatment, and unlike my eyes which the glasses were protecting, I had neglected to put on sunscreen. Sure enough, I got a sunburn. Every day after, I made sure to put on sunscreen before getting dressed. And every day, my glasses darkened the same astonishing amount. When one goes to Australia or certain other places, one gets warned about the need for sun protection. No one gives you these warnings for the Basque country, but they sure should!! Bring sunglasses and sunscreen, or suffer the consequences.

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As for the trip itself, I inadvertently booked a trip I didn't want. I didn't realize that seeing the Basque country is much like going to, say, wine country; the towns themselves are small and don't have a lot of "sights," but the point of the trip is driving from small town to small town, dipping in to enjoy the scenery, the shops (particularly linens, chocolates, and specialty foods), the fancy restaurants, and the beaches. Unfortunately, I didn't have a car; I don't drive, so I would never have planned this kind of trip; I'm not a beach person at all; and if I did want to go to these small towns and had a car to connect them, I would never want to do it alone. Looking around a small pretty town is fun with others; when I'm alone, it's good for about an hour, and then I need to move on. Similarly, it's not my style to even contemplate spending €100 for lunch and triple or more for dinner, and if I were ever to do it, I wouldn’t be alone.

I should have paid more attention when the Pre-Tour Information for the Rick Steves Basque Country Tour says that "If you arrive a day or two early, note that we'll be visiting all of Bayonne's major sights as a group." This is despite the fact that the tour spends all of a half day - yes, just a half day - seeing Bayonne. Well, this is not an exaggeration. It indeed only takes a short time to see Bayonne, as it's a town of about 40,000 people. That's not my definition of a "city." Don't get me wrong - it's a nice place, but I "exhausted" it much quicker than I thought I would. So, even though I was extremely jetlagged on my arrival day, I found that I saw lots of it just walking around my first day.

My second day I went to St. Jean de Luz; again, it's pretty (although not quite as nice as Rick seemed to find it), but a half day was plenty for me. So, I spent the other half day in Biarritz. I liked it a bit better than Rick did (we all know how allergic he is to visible displays of money). It's one thing to read about how Biarritz features a mix of fancy shopping and surfers, but it's another to see a surf shop right next to a Hermes store! More typical were stores I hadn't heard of, but featuring stuff I could never afford, like the one that listed its locations as "Paris - Monte Carlo - Biarritz" and was showing a €4200 suitcase in the window (I didn't go in, so I can only imagine what was too expensive to put in the window!).

I was able to go into the Russian Orthodox church, but not the nearby synagogue; I only found out about it because of the Jewish Star on my tourist map, and don't know anything else about it, except that its plaque says it was founded in 1904. Although Rick sneers at the idea, I actually wanted to see the History Museum in Biarritz; however, it had a fermeture exceptionelle (special closing) that day. I missed the tourist train around town (short hours since it wasn't officially "the season" yet).

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So, I had spent my first Friday seeing Bayonne and my Saturday seeing St. Jean de Luz and Biarritz. What was I going to do on Sunday, with no car, no desire to go to the beach, and many stores closed (although I'm not a shopper, I didn't even have the option to browse). Another problem was that I was there before the official start of the season, which is June 1. It's weird to be in a place, in MAY (not February or something), with good weather, where things are still on low season or shoulder season hours. That means more things are closed or not running on Sunday. It was a bit depressing, and I've learned I would not want to go to other highly seasonal places out of season (again, I don't usually go to seasonal places, like islands or beach towns, at all).

I spent Sunday morning at the Basque Museum in Bayonne. It was OK, but not as good as the Museum of Alsatian Life in Strasbourg, with which it had a lot of similarities (apparently, traditional rural lifestyles in Europe are similar from place to place). The one in Strasbourg has much better English documentation, as well as some films of things like barrel making. The other major museum in Bayonne is closed for a multi-year renovation (expected opening is something like 2019). I then walked around some parts of Bayonne I had missed before. I tried to go to the Botanic Garden, but it's closed on Sundays (even in high season - I told you Bayonne was a small town masquerading as a city). Well, it turned out that I still needed to recover from my jet lag, so I had several naps that day, which fixed the problem of what to do!

I know this all sounds negative. Again, had I known what to expect, I would have been less unhappy, and I also would have planned the trip differently (I would have cut my time in the area short by one day, or even elected to skip right to the Spanish Basque country). By the time this part of my trip was over, I had realized the "wine country" analogy, so I was able to alter both my sightseeing and my expectations; the rest of the trip then got better.

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Next was San Sebastián. While it's bigger than Bayonne, and does actually feel like a city, it's still not large, and has few "turnstile attractions." Again, I should have paid more attention when Rick says in his Spain book, "San Sebastián's sights can be exhausted in a few hours, but it's a great place to be on vacation for a full lazy day (or longer)." It IS quite lovely, and I enjoyed my walk along the beach road and view from the Monte Igueldo funicular. I took the bus tour around town as well as walked, and enjoyed all three major central sections - the old town, the newer "downtown" (kind of like the Eixample in Barcelona without some of the flourishes), and the beaches.

The next day, I went to Hondarribia via bus E21, which takes the highway; other buses are locals and take much longer (follow the direction in Rick's book). This was a very pretty town, both the upper and lower sections. Again, it doesn't take long to "see," but was very nice.

The next day I spent the morning in the San Sebastián Aquarium. Only half of this is a standard aquarium with live fish; the rest is about seafaring and fishing (including whaling) among the Basque through their history, including fearsome whale and shark jaws. Again, fine but nothing earthshaking. In the afternoon, I took the bus from San Sebastián to Getaria. This is one of many small towns with beaches between San Sebastián and Bilbao. I went for just one thing: the Balenciaga Museum.

For the younger readers: in the 1950's, Cristobal Balenciaga was a major fashion designer, as famous as Chanel or Dior. For instance, he's cited in the song "Drop That Name," from the 1956 musical Bells Are Ringing:

Had a Dior I wore, then tore,
Got fitted for
A new Balenciaga.

Unlike those others designers, however, he never handed his business over to anyone else, but closed it and retired. So, although there have been attempts to revive it, it never had the continued fame of the others. The bad news is that most of the museum was inaccessible due to installation of a new exhibit; the good news is that instead of €10, it was free. The 20 minute movie about his life and work was very interesting, as was the one room of his actual dresses.

If you want to visit the museum, take the UK10 or UK11 Lurraldebus from San Sebastián (the stop is along Avenida Libertad, number 34, a few blocks south of The Boulevard). After a few stops in San Sebastián, it gets on the highway; it then makes several stops in the beach town of Zarautz, before its one stop in Getaria. Getting off the bus, keep walking in the same direction one more block, then cross the street and take the escalators up to the museum. The bus back to San Sebastián leaves from the same side of the street as the escalators (although the escalators only go up; you have to walk down).

Again, I had a better time in San Sebastián than in Bayonne, because it was larger, it was prettier, and I accepted the fact that I'd have to move around and get to multiple places to stay stimulated. The half-days in Hondarribia and Getaria really helped.

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My next day was Vitoria-Gasteiz (also called just Vitoria). This is not covered in Rick's book; I first heard of it from postings on this Forum, and looking at guidebooks it sounded intriguing. I'm very glad I went, and could even have had an extra day. Note that it is indeed spelled Vitoria without a "c."

My Vitoria day had more extreme highs and lows that the rest of the trip. It started with buckets of rain in San Sebastián, meaning I couldn't get a cab and had to walk to the bus station (15 minutes). It was also raining for the first part of my time in Vitoria. So, I can't tell you if the old section of town is attractive or not, because I saw it through the rain. And, the taxi driver was not the only one who had trouble understanding my attempts at Castilian; I was much better understood in other places I went on this trip. I wonder if this is because Vitoria seemed to have no English speaking tourists, or indeed tourists at all.

Vitoria is the capital of the Spanish Basque region (the Basque parliament is here). It's also a major university town, and has seven major museums. However, they all close from 2 to 4 PM. I know to Spaniards this seems perfectly normal, but it was very annoying to me, with only one day in town and trying to make the most of it - in the rain. All but one reopen from 4 to 6:30 PM; the modern art museum reopens from 5 to 8 PM instead. And all seven are closed on Monday. If you're in Vitoria on a Monday in the rain, I hope you brought a good book.

I started with the Bibat, which combines two formerly separate museums of archeology and playing cards, and is free. The archeology museum looked very good, but as there was no English language documentation (Basque and Castilian only), I couldn't be sure. Annoyingly, there was an English audioguide for both collections, but even though the desk attendant spoke good English, he didn't tell me about this. Only when I had traipsed through much of the museum and noted the audioguide symbols did I realize I should traipse back to the desk and ask (it's a LONG way through the conjoined buildings). Sure enough, the audioguide is free. It only covers a few of the many artifacts in the archeology section, however.

The museum of playing cards is in Vitoria because there is a major playing card manufacturer there, and the son of the founder collected them. This kind of thing is right up my alley, and here, the audioguide covered each room. There's a deck owned by the Visconti-Sforza family (aristocrats from Milan) made of parchment and gold leaf, a Kamasutra deck from India, a Tarot deck from Barcelona with both Hebrew and Spanish on it, cards with full musical scores of songs, and other goodies. I also learned that the current four suits we're used to are of French origin, and other countries had other suits (like bells and acorns). However, this museum still couldn't compare with one exhibit in the analogous museum of matchboxes in Tomar, Portugal. Seeing a Nazi matchbox, with the logo "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer" is hard to top - even with a Kamasutra card deck.

After lunch, I then went to the Museum of Fine Arts (Bellas Artes). Wow wow wow! This was sensational, and as a bonus I had it almost all to myself. This is my favorite kind of museum - filled with works by artists I've never heard of or seen before, yet that are wonderful. And as a further bonus, it was free too. I spent a lot of time here, basically seeing the whole thing twice, and taking pictures of my many favorites.

Another bonus was that by the time I came out of the museum, the rain had stopped. I walked back through some of the "downtown," which was quite pretty. I then went to the Artium - the modern art museum. I liked three of the four exhibits, and it was certainly worth the €5 admission.

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My last stop was Bilbao. This is a much larger city than any of the other places I went. Furthermore, it has a history similar to the places I went on my last trip in the UK - Glasgow, Manchester, and Liverpool (trip report here: Like them, it was very industrial, then had a period of decline, particularly after a flood in 1983, when the water reached about 10 feet above the street level in the old city. However, much like those British cities I visited on my last trip, it's turned around. In Bilbao's case, there's one specific catalyst - the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry. It single-handedly put Bilbao on the tourist map, and now the city has only traces of its former toughness.

So, I unintentionally ended up in a place like the ones I went to and liked on my last trip, and I hadn't even realized that that was what I was looking for when I planned this trip. It was certainly my favorite place on this trip, and the only one besides Vitoria I think of going back to.

I spent much of my first day at the Guggenheim. Part of that was wanting to get my money's worth from the admission, and part is that I couldn't go back another day (admission is only for one day). As everyone says, the building itself overshadows the exhibits, but that doesn't mean the exhibits themselves aren't interesting. They keep changing; when I went, a lot of space was devoted to Abstract Expressionism. As for the building itself, it is much more impressive when inside than from the outside; the way the spaces interact with each other is constantly surprising (and more than a bit disorienting). It was also interesting to learn from the audioguide that the use of limestone vs. titanium is not random. Limestone is used for the outsides of the exhibit rooms that are regular, and titanium for those that are irregular. By the way, Gehry did a very similar building, at least from the outside, a few years earlier for a Minneapolis art museum; I don't know what the inside looks like. Since the Guggenheim, he's used that "titanium in a blender" style for more buildings, like the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The next day I walked around the old quarter, which was the most interesting of all the old quarters I saw on this trip. There are actually interesting stores, with very few chain stores, and there's even one specializing in US foods, called Tuinkis (if you know how to pronounce Spanish, it comes out as "Twinkies," and yes they carry them, along with Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, and all kinds of other unhealthy stuff). I then took a very good walking tour of the newer city center, complete with whisper headsets (really great on a busy street, since the guide didn't have to shout to be heard by everyone). Since it was Saturday and stores close in Bilbao on Sunday (even the big department store El Corte Ingles, which is open in Madrid and Barcelona on Sundays, is closed here), I decided to do some shopping for CD's and DVD's. No DVD's, but I did buy a few CD's, so I have my souvenirs.

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My last day, I took a walking tour of the old quarter, largely because it was led by the same guide as the walk the day before. However, the walk wasn't as good (it was only €4.50, so I can't complain). I then went across the center of town for a special exhibit called Memory Regained. Imprints on the history of the United States, which "gives an insight into the little known contribution made by the Spanish royal family to the development of the United States of America." However, it turns out I should have made a reservation in advance, as it was fully booked.

So, I quickly pivoted to plan B - the Museum of Artistic Reproductions (ironically, right near where my walking tour ended, so after my trip across the town center I then had to double back). This is a fascinating museum that nobody goes to (there was only one other visitor I saw when I was there). It consists of plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman statues. Sounds dry, but wait till you see the lineup. They have lots of great and famous pieces from all over - the Louvre (both the Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo), the Vatican Museums, The Pergamon Museum, and more. And these aren't "copies" made by amateur sculptors and therefore inferior (like the copy of the David that's outdoors in Florence and therefore free; it looks nothing like the real thing you have to make advance reservations and pay to see). These are plaster casts of the originals, so they look exactly like the real thing. I was agog through all three small floors, and spent almost an hour gaping at masterpiece after masterpiece. Then as a finale, I realized it was actually housed in a former church. All for 3 euros, too! Even the tourist office was cool about this museum, but I loved it.

Next on the agenda was the Puente Colgante at Portugalete, a half hour north of the center. This means "transporter bridge," and it was the first one in the world and one of the few still operating. If you don't know what a transporter bridge is, it's easier to show than to describe. Fortunately, the opening sequence of the movie The Young Girls of Rochefort takes place on one. So, if you haven't seen the movie, watch this clip. You may, if you wish, ignore the dancing - just pay attention to the bridge.

You see, it's a bit of the roadway that is suspended from a great height above the river, and moves across it. This means that boats can go under the high part unimpeded, but there need not be a very long approach as would be needed with a high span of a regular bridge. The director of Young Girls of Rochefort, Jacques Demy, was a bit obsessed with these bridges (there had been one in Nantes where he grew up, but it was dismantled in the late 1950's), and put them in several of his films one way or another (in a movie set in Nantes, he recreated it in the background of the credits with special effects). Rochefort's transporter bridge still runs, but I'm not likely to get there, so this one near Bilbao was a must-do, especially when I learned it was the first one ever. For €0.40, you can take the transporter across; for €10, you take an elevator up to the top level, walk across while listening to an audioguide all about the bridge, and then take an elevator back down to take the transporter back across. Needless to say, I did the whole shebang. I don't recommend it for anyone with any issues with heights; for those people stick to the transporter part, which is only a bit above the river (remember, the same height as the surface roads on either side).

By the way, I was amused to see the signs in three languages (Basque Castilian English) on the transporter saying Do Not Smoke and Stay In The Car. So, you can't recreate the movie's opening scene yourself - at least in Bilbao - without getting in trouble.

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By the time I returned to central Bilbao it was late and I was tired. But there was one more must do, and I was afraid if I took a nap I'd miss it. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts. This has stuff from the 1300's to the 1970's, and while none of it is absolute first rank, it's quite good. Many of the artists whose very best stuff is in the Prado have their second best stuff here; second best Zurburan and Murillo is still high quality. By the end and the modern section, I just whipped through, too tired to enjoy it properly. It was still a good end to the sightseeing part of the trip.

So I came to my last meal. I haven't mentioned food, and that's because it was disappointing to lousy (alas, not too strong a word). The Basque country is famous for its food, in various ways - very expensive multi-starred Michelin places, molecular gastronomy and other "innovations," and casual bar food (what are called tapas elsewhere are called pintxos here, and are a VERY big deal). I planned to have pintxos a lot, but it turns out it's a lot of stress. Rick Steves gives details of how to do it right; to make a long story short, if you don't follow such exacting directions (knowing how to order the right thing at the right place, then move on), you get mediocre to OK food. At least, I did. No wonder I went for pizza, burgers, and Italian food at times. My prior Spain trips left me unconverted to the high international reputation of Spanish food, and Basque food (the kind you don't pay hundreds of euros for) did not do anything to change that.

However, when I went to Ribera Market in the old town, I found that in addition to lots and lots of stalls selling fish and meat (and some with produce), there was a section with some pintxo bars. I went to one for breakfast and it was good and cheap, their selection of other items looked good too, and I liked the vibe. It's similar to the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid - sort of a Spanish version of a food court. So, I went back there for my last dinner (the rest of the market is closed on Sundays, but the bars remain open). Not only was it tasty and creative, as pintxos are supposed to be, but it was cheap (each pintxo was €2 or under, as opposed to the €3-4.50 that is typical in San Sebastián). I didn't have to fight crowds, figure out how to say what I wanted in Spanish (and not even standard Spanish, but special food words), or play with a guidebook and a map between bites, then use Google Maps just to find my next bit of my meal. If I had known it was this easy, I'd simply have had every Bilbao meal here. Note to others, though; even this won't work if you don't like things like baby eels, mussels, clams, octopus, mayonnaise, and all sorts of other ingredients, many hidden and a surprise (especially the cheeses). Baby eels (gulas) are delicious, by the way, and I had pintxos featuring them as much as possible.

One last Bilbao surprise: the Bilbao subway has a unique and creative feature. When the train is approaching, the lighting on your platform gets brighter. I don't mean indicator lights at the edge, like in Washington, DC; I mean the whole ambient lighting scheme, as if someone turned one another set of lamps in a room. Even if you're buried in your newspaper, phone, etc, you know the train's coming - genius.

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Arriving at JFK, I got another pleasant surprise. I used the Mobile Passport app for the first time. Even having to ask which line to use, and having to retrieve my passport twice (I didn't realize that for both the passport control step and the customs step, you need to show your passport as well as the app), I was out in a few minutes! I'm definitely sold - at least, until more people start using it, and the lines get longer.

A few other notes: I found a fair amount of English, and I think someone could definitely visit this region without much French or Spanish (assuming no one knows Basque). However, many of the menus were not in English.

I used the same suitcase combo as on my last trip (a Desley Hyperlite 21 inch two wheeled bag as my carry on, and Rick's Euro Flight Bag as my personal item). In these I packed 3 pairs of pants, 6 pairs of underwear, 6 pairs of socks, 6 long sleeved shirts, 3 short sleeved shirts, 1 cotton sweater, my phone charger and 2 plug adapters, a Bluetooth keyboard, mini French dictionary and phrasebook, mini Spanish dictionary and phrasebook, a piece of my Rick Steves Spain book, photocopies of my Lonely Planet France book, toiletry kit, and 3-1-1 bag. Of course, I was also wearing one outfit on the plane (pants, shirt, underwear, socks) and I carried my jacket with liner, scarf, and gloves. All of this worked very well; I used all my clothes without either bringing unused items or forgetting necessary ones (unlike my last trip, where I could have used more short sleeved shirts!).

I did laundry once, in San Sebastián, using the drop off and pick up service at 5 à Sec in the Bretxa Market, which I found in Rick's book. I forget the exact price, but it was about €15.

Next trip is Switzerland in September 2017. I just booked everything for that trip today, and then realized I never finished this report from the prior trip, so I finally posted it!

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Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed report. I am just starting to think about a trip to Barcelona and northern Spain and this will be very helpful in deciding where to go.

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809 posts

Wow! What a great trip report. I especially appreciate your analysis of what made the trip work or not work for you – you remind me how important it is to think about that aspect, in addition to the more practical details. And great point about checking ahead of time to make sure the things you want to see (or anything at all) are open on the days you're going to be in a specific location.

I don't know that I will ever find myself in that area, though I have been interested in Rick's Basque country tour. If I ever decide to take the plunge this will be an immense help. Thank you!

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2553 posts

I'm surprised you didn't take to the food. - I don't know about doing it right - just point and eat!

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14163 posts

Terrific report! Thanks so much for taking the time to write it up and post. I love your analysis of what aspects of this trip worked for you and what didn't.

I had never heard of that kind of bridge before. Glad for the warning as I will avoid those like the plague!

I am sure you can find traditional Basque food in NY but there is actually a sizeable (compared to the relatively small population in general) Basque presence in Southern Idaho and an area of Northern NV if you are ever in the area. Not the gourmet type Basque stuff but Mama's home cooking, lol.

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Hi Harold, and thanks for the time and effort involved in posting such a detailed and very frank Trip Report. It's not often that we see reports so rich in detail and so candid about things that did not meet expectations.

I was concerned about your words: "I inadvertently booked a trip I didn't want. I didn't realize that seeing the Basque country is much like going to, say, wine country; the towns themselves are small and don't have a lot of "sights," but the point of the trip is driving from small town to small town..." I wonder, do you now recognize how this mis-match of your expectations and experiences occurred? Was it inadequate research, or poor information available, or maybe just depending on that old friend Rosy Scenario? Could you have planned your trip more appropriately and had a better experience?

I have read many enthusiastic comments about the Basque Country and about the RS Tour of that area, and have been considering taking that tour, maybe in 2018. It would be my 10th RS tour, so you can see I like them, usually with extra days traveling on my own before and/or after the tour. One advantage, of many, of RS tours is that they often plan considerable time and make various stops outside of the towns where they spend the night, allowing for more of the "exploring" that you mention.

Do you think you would have had a richer experience as part of a good tour, especially as a solo traveler, not so likely to rent a car?

Thanks, Larry

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I think it was several factors. One, as I indicated, was that I simply didn't know to treat the area as a largely rural and small town destination with minimal big city attractions (other than Bilbao, and to a degree Vitoria). Had I fully understood that, I would have gone somewhere else, or done things differently.

I truly wasn't aware that Bayonne was so small; since it's called a "city," to me that means a place that takes more than a day to see, and where the Botanic Gardens are open on Sundays. Similarly, I didn't fully appreciate that there really is little to "do" in San Sebastián other than seeing the beach (admittedly gorgeous), walking around the Old Town, walking around the new town, and going up the in-town mountains for the views (again, strikingly lovely). In both of these places, "hanging out" is the main activity. Again, I assumed their being billed as cities meant there were other things going on - I was wrong (somewhat, in the case of San Sebastián; spectacularly, in the case of Bayonne). As I said, hanging out wasn't what I wanted from the trip, and wasn't what I was expecting to find. Someone who understood what the places did and did not have to offer would have done better, as would someone looking for these as attributes rather than negatives.

I know I keep complaining about city size, but again, it's expectations that were the real problem. When I went to Muerren in Switzerland, I knew, going in, that the appeal of the place is the Alps, not the town itself (all of 400 people!). I spent four nights there and had a fantastic time, and am going back (albeit to the slightly larger Lauterbrunnen) in a few months - can't wait!

For this trip, my pre-trip research (usually quite assiduous) didn't fully work. If someone had explained to me that Bayonne feels nearly as small as, say, Carcassonne, France (I have no idea how they actually compare in population), I'd have had a much better idea of what to expect, and what to plan - one night and move on. (That worked very well for Carcassonne, and would have worked fine for Bayonne). I'm as quick as anyone else to criticize itineraries that are too fast-moving, but I've learned that it indeed possible to be too slow!

To your second question, I've never taken an escorted group tour, from Rick Steves or any one else, so it's hard to answer directly what that will be like. But two things will make it better than my experience. First, it does indeed keep more on the move and see more places, including places hard to get to without a car. For instance, after a quick visit to Bayonne, you're off to St. Jean Pied de Port and Pamplona and some of the Camino de Santiago, none of which I got to. Second, you'll be with others, meaning that walking around pretty areas will be much more interesting. I emphasized that in my report, that had I not been alone, the first part of the trip would have been much better. I almost always travel alone, so I have no problem with it in general, but as I said, these places were very easily "exhausted" when alone. When you're with others, it's much more fun to wander through a town just because it's pretty, even if it's not very "stimulating." Hondarribia and San Sebastián, in particular, struck me as places that I'd want to revisit with others, but don't need or want to revisit if alone. And with a guide, maybe you'll even get better food than I did (I certainly hope so!).

I hope all this helps you decide whether you want to visit or not - that's why I put such detail in my report (that, and the fact that it was easy, as much of it was copied from e-mails I sent home during the trip, so I didn't have to reconstruct it later).

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606 posts

Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed and helpful report! Rick's Basque Country tour is looking more and more interesting to me.

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440 posts

Great report, Bilbao is on my list of places to visit and after reading your report it has been boosted up a few places.

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9776 posts

Very interesting, Harold, and I love Larry's inquiry about that old friend Rosy Scenario! You're very generous, as others have mentioned, to discuss so candidly what worked and didn't work for you on this trip.

I have that same fear of San Sebastian -- that it's going to take too much work and knowledge to get the really good food, and I hate feeling like a tourist and being taken advantage of (although of course as we've discussed here many times, there's nothing wrong with being a tourist, and we all are tourists sometimes!).

Anyway I'm sorry your trip wasn't what you had hoped it would be but I'm glad you had some enjoyment.

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980 posts

Thanks for a great trip report, Harold. This area is on my long list. If I do go there, your candid observations will be valuable.

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Thanks for the extensive review. Planning our trip to Spain next year and will allot more time to Bilbao, less to San Sebastian (until I can go with Anthony Bourdain!).