How do you find someone in a city you’ve never before visited with no source of communication? No telephone, no texting, no idea what will appear once you enter the city’s gates.
It seemed like a difficult task. Arriving from two different cities at different times, we chose Bilbao as our meeting point because it offers an international airport and close proximity to our true destination: Pamplona.
A map of city center pointed out various hot spots. Parks, cafes, bridges and museums. One of the names was familiar to both of us so we decided that would be our main point of reference.
The Guggenheim? Sure, we’d heard of that. But this must not be THE Guggenheim Museum. Not the world famous Guggenheim known for its “random” deconstructionism architecture: its titanium siding, its roller-coaster turns and spins. Why would THE Guggenheim be crafted in Bilbao, an otherwise quiet fishing town filled with parks and small-scale museums? Google didn’t help much. A search of ‘Guggenheim’ brought up multiple responses. In fact, the Guggenheim could be found in Italy, Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi. Even New York!
In our naivety we decided to keep it as our hot spot simply because it stood out on the map. Agreeing to meet outside the Guggenheim between 13:00 and 14:00. I’d wear a pink sweater and have my backpacking bag. We’d both sport our easily identifiable voluptuous hairstyles.
It worked flawlessly.
No cell phones, no snap chat. No Facebook or FaceTime.
Just a map and a plan.
Guess what else?
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum is THE Guggenheim Museum.
Its edges flow and glisten as does the river running alongside its multileveled frame. A piece of art whose exterior will always be second to none, even when compared to the masterpieces waiting within. Outside, a puppy stands guard all day and all night. Reaching a height of 43 feet, “Puppy” (doting the most creative of names) is covered in flowers of every color of the rainbow.
Nearby, a village sits riverside revealing the town’s artistic predilection with homes both old and new painted in various hues and perched along an escarpment spanning as far as the eye can see. Graffiti strewn walls become works of art as their images form a story of hope, peace and well being. On a crisp yet sunny day, it seems as if the entire town can be found in one of two locals: The central Doña Casilda Iturrizar park with its ivy covered walkways and a homing area for swans and peacock; Or alongside the riverbank moving in rapid motions via bicycle and rollerblades. Everywhere you look, people are outside enjoying the natural beauty weaving through their village.
We stayed in a city nearby called Portugalete. A train took us from one city center to another without falter. The real journey began once in Portugalete.
I operate on the idea of asking for directions if I have any doubt about where I’m going. Though I’d scoped out our neighborhood ahead of time and knew the general location of our posada, I failed to look up the specific directions from train station to final destination.
We stopped multiple times to ask for directions. Each time, someone pointed us ‘up and up’ – up the hill and North. We walked. And walked. And walked and walked and walked. Thankfully every time we asked for directions, we were pointed in the same general direction. We even came across two ladies living by the rule “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” – one seemed to know the exact location and approximate directions, the other apparently knew the approximate location and exact directions. Friends yet foes, they squabbled and quarreled until finally the more feisty of the two gave up and walked away with a ‘huff’.
Meekly smiling, we continued on our way and finally came upon a parade of musicians prancing along the cobblestone streets. There was a citywide celebration going on in the center of town, and they’d come to the more secluded hillside to areas to promote the event in old fashioned costumes and song.
The parade of ten men and women took us right to our posada. Setting down our bags, we tried to figure out how anyone could ever make a living out of running a budget inn so far into a quiet village’s residential area. Did all the guests really hike over the river and through the woods to get here? Tired feet sat propped on headboards while we rested a bit and laughed at the unexpected labyrinth we’d just conquered.
That night, our stomachs growling with hunger, we asked the front desk for directions back to the town’s main street. “Take a right, then a left. Walk down the hill”
That was it. No curves, side streets, parades, or quarreling women.
In disbelief, we followed his directions. They were incredibly credible. A right, a left, and a stroll down the hill led us directly to the center of town. There was even a moving walkway leading up the path to help citizens get from low to high ground with ease. How straightforward and simple it could’ve been. Yet had it been so easy, we wouldn’t have come across the characters that made our walk much more interesting.
Below, we came across even more characters at the town’s folkloric event. Children got to bounce in blow up castles, spin on whirling rides, and get bopped on the head by a man toting a broomstick and top hat. Music filled the air and families of various ages stopped as familiar songs played on. Moms, Dads, and little kids dressed in matching plaid shirts and neckties joined hands to get a wiggle in before moving on to the food stands. There was even a raffle in which winners could take their pick of prizes: fresh ham bones or stuffed animal. Fresh or furry, as you wish.
Grilled Sardines made the menu on nearly every restaurant we passed. A gaggle of men in striped overalls huddled around a grill as smoke billowed into the sky, carrying the scent of lightly charred fish and grilled tomatoes. We found a stand grilling up meats and fresh bread. The bread was made in front of us from a corn masa formed into thick patties. When filled with Spanish fixings, they became a crossbred pita/taco. I picked an a-typical selection of bacon ‘paco’ while Ben opted for chorizo. Simple and perfect for the environment. We’d found our own little Spanish carnival and got to celebrate as the locals did. The only things we were missing were those blue plaid shirts and cotton neckties to match.
The next morning, we rose early to catch a trip across the river in an unconventional manner. Plane, train and automobile had been done already to get us to Portugalete. What had not been done was sliding across a transporter bridge. In Portugalete, just beyond barbarous hills and ebullient neighbors stands a one-of-a-kind bridge built in 1893. At a 164 meters long, pedestrians, bicycles and automobiles can make their way across the Nervion River via a suspended car, similar to that found on a tram. The rides operate every eight minutes, and automatic doors will shut out pedestrians who arrive even two seconds too late. Case in point: Ben was two seconds early. I was two seconds late. He made it. I did not. Despite a quick Spanish spat with the operator on duty to reopen the doors and allow me to pass, eight minutes later we were reunited on the other side.
The trip itself is short and sweet, and sets each rider back a grand 0.35 euro if choosing to travel via suspended gondola. On the opposite side of the Nervion River, we found secluded beaches and fishermen aplenty. The day’s catch: Crabs a la sea stone. We watched as they fed and squirmed as they were captured. After a quick stop to observe both crabs and fishermen in their natural habitats, we returned back to Portugalete’s mainland, took the lazy person’s escalator up hill, and retrieved our belongings.
From Portugalete to Bilbao, we were content to travel Northern Spain via plane, train, bus, gondola and moving walkway. Once we landed in our seats on a bus toward Pamplona, we knew we were about to venture from Swan Lake to The Sun Also Rises in a few hours’ time.