54. Northern Spain, Feb. 2015

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Pictures: here

It’s been quite some time since I wrote my last blog and there’s a gap currently awaiting completion for our trips to Greece and Bulgaria last year.

However, we have recently come back from a 3 week reccie mission to northern Spain with the intention of finding an area we like to return to to teach there.

We spent about a week in each of the three major cities in north east Spain:


It rains a lot!

It rains a lot!

This seemed a reasonable place to start: cheapish flights from Stansted, I already knew one or two Spanish students from the area (who, unsurprisingly, told me it was a wonderful city!) and no problem finding a bank! We were quite surprised, however, to find that when we landed the area was in the grip of one of the worst winters on record. We had horizontal, biting sleet and the news reports showed cars stranded in the snow in the hills nearby. ‘We could have got this by staying at home’ we thought! It soon became apparent that everyone in this area carries an umbrella and when I next hear a foreign student stereotype the UK with phrases such as: “Yeah… the UK… it’s always raining, isn’t it?” I’ll direct them here with the message: “Well, you should visit this place”.

Having said that, we really enjoyed the city. It’s not particularly touristy and we found a splendid and cheap place to stay, the Estudios Aránzazu just off the main drag. All the bars in this area were really friendly and gave free tapas (‘pinchos’) with every drink. On the cold days, the bars supplied punters with a free cup of some kind of meaty broth which Helen said was rather nice.

One interesting idiosyncrasy of the area is the penchant for Vermouth. Every bar has bottles of the stuff, the full range. You probably thought there was Martini and that’s it. How wrong you are! We tried several varieties if only to see the ritual with which this drink is poured. Pieces of orange peel are ritualistically dabbed over the rim of the glass in a flamboyant manner by the server that reminds one of a strutting flamenco dancer. Ice and vermouth are then added followed by an olive and a cherry. Bizarrely, for this rain-soaked region, there is no decorative umbrella to finish off the ensemble! And, as with all drinks that you buy in situ, it tastes so much better than it ever did in Blighty! You’re probably aware of the useful way in which the Spanish language attaches the suffix ‘eria’ to the end of many words to indicate that this place is a purveyor of said objects. Places that sell churros (sweet, fried dough sticks that you dunk in hot chocolate) are called ‘Churrerias’. Well, yes, you guessed it, places that specialise in this tipple are called ‘Vermooterias’!

Food wise, the ubiquitous tortilla is everywhere and slices are usually available on bars. There is also a local sweet cake called Quesada Paisaje which was like a large egg custard – yummy!


Travelators on the steep paths

One other thing that struck me about Santander was its cleanliness. The place is immaculate: the pavements spotless, the beaches pristine – it could certainly give Austria a run for its money!

An interesting touch here (and in Bilbao) is the street travelator. The moving walkways that you sometimes see in airports are installed on some street pavements where there is a steep hill. What an excellent idea?!

A lovely walk around the periphery of the city rewarded us with a black redstart and a gorgeous little goldcrest. What could be better?


Two hours’ bus journey from Santander and we arrive in Bilbao. This city is somewhat dominated by the magnificent Guggenheim Museum. When you come in along the river, the first view of this imposing edifice takes your breath away – it’s unlike any building you’ve probably seen before.

Helen in the Guggenheim

Helen in the Guggenheim

Thousands of titanium panels adorn the exterior and merge with the limestone blocks and glass to create a shape that defies description. I don’t usually go all gooey about buildings but… The inside is a bit of a disappointment but then, we don’t get excited about museums. Still, it keeps you out of the rain!

Public transport is incredibly cheap and easy – we bought a single ‘Barik tarjeta’ card and put 50 Euros on it. It lasted us the week and we used it on trams, metro, buses and even had two days out on the local railway to the countryside to do some birding.

The Basque language (‘Euskara’) is more prominent here: although Castilian Spanish is the chief spoken language, most signs have Euskara first and the kids use it as the first language in the local schools. Sadly, this is likely to put us off returning to this area to teach: we’re desperately trying to improve our Spanish and the complication of an additional language just confuses us old farts!

Oscar and Maite, Bilbao, Feb. 2015

Oscar and Maite, in Bilbao, in a pub!

We met two of my old students from Leeds, Maite and Oscar, who were excellent tour guides for our first day in Bilbao. We were acquainted with many bars and witnessed yet another local ritual, the pouring of the region’s white wine, ‘Txakoli’ (pron.: ‘chakoli’) which is always done from the bottle into a glass but from a height – as far as the arms can stretch apart. Helen got excited when our hosts said we were going to try some txakoli as she thought she was going to get some hot chocolate!

Many years ago I read about the Spanish Civil War and the horrific bombing of the town of Guernica in 1937, and had always wanted to visit the place. At the behest of Franco and the Nationalist forces, the Nazi Luftwaffe was called in to carpet bomb the town during market day to bring it to its knees. It was seen as a gateway to Bilbao and the submission of the republican forces who had a stronghold in the area. The moment was commemorated by Picasso in a now famous painting in Madrid and a mural of the same is found in the town. It’s a stirring reminder of the stupidity of war. Our Barik tickets allowed us to get there and we could walk on to a rather delightful nature reserve with its resident celebrity stork.


Another couple of hours away on the bus and we arrive in San Sebastian with its picture-postcard ‘La concha’ bay and quaint old town. It’s more touristy here and consequently the pintxos are no longer free! It’s a lovely place but rather more expensive than where we’ve been. With its sister town of Biarritz just over the French border, this has become something of a trendy area for the wealthier classes; I’m still smarting over the 5 quid I paid for a pint of lager in Biarritz 20 years ago.

Readers of my previous blogs may remember one day when we visited Siracusa in Sicily and got 3 enormous Glen Grant malts and a bottle of water for 5 Euros. Well, in San Seb, we bought two normal size Glen Grants and paid 14 Euros for the pleasure. Bargain!

We walked along the seafront to the place where the sea meets the river in a maelstrom of conflicting forces. In an unusual moment of Schadenfreude I decided I wanted to get a shot of that big wave that crashes against the promenade wall drenching all those poor saps who happen to be standing there at the time. I never stood a chance. The big wave came and targeted exactly where we were standing. We couldn’t have got any wetter if we’d jumped into the sea. We sloshed back through the town to our hotel pretending to be oblivious to the strange looks and remarks we were getting. Never have I been gladder of that spare pair of strides.

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

Despite these gripes, the place is very pleasant. Our second day there, the weather was glorious and we went up the overlooking mountain on the funicular railway and spent a few hours on a bench, shirt-sleeved, peering over the stunning, bejewelled bay sprawling below us.

A delightful tradition in this town can be found every Sunday morning when a group of singers gather in the old town and perform, a capella, a repertoire of Euskara folk songs. Moving from street to street they attract a retinue of like-minded individuals, singing their hearts out. It was extraordinarily moving.

So, it’s back to Santander for an evening for some free pinchos and vermouth before our flight back to Blighty.

Yes, it was peeing it down all day!


March 2015