The 8:00 to Bilbao
The original “plan” was to leave Madrid and head south for Seville. (I was thinking I might need a haircut and beard trim by then, anyway.) Then, from out of nowhere, the phrase “Basque Separatists” popped into my head. After a couple days in a restive Catalonia, I was in the mood to be among some more troublemakers in the Basque capital of Bilbao.
The rains had settled in over Madrid in the last days of my visit. Usually, when you're on vacation or traveling, you don't want rain. “We were in __, and it rained the whole time,” is a common lament of the disappointed traveler. Apparently not me.
I remember only one day of rain the whole two weeks of my French trip. Realizing that was probably a one-off, I made sure I had water resistant footwear, umbrella and a poncho for this one. So far I remember only two days, I think, when I left my room without the umbrella. And so far, I haven't minded it at all.
I'm wondering if that might not be another hidden advantage of solo travel: There's no one along to complain to or with. So you simply grab the umbrella or poncho and head out.
I had a nice five-hour ride to Bilbao. Four hours is ideal, five is fine, but six hours (Paris to Barcelona, for instance) seems to be the upper limit of comfort, even for first class. At one point we passed an abandoned train stop named “Torquemada.”
As we neared Bilbao, the topography became mountainous and snow-capped. I was suddenly struck by my impulsive decision to head north rather than south. I'd packed for temperatures in the mid-forties and up. If the temps were running in the thirties, I'd be making a trip to a second-hand store or a flea market.
But it was actually on the warm side and dry, when we pulled into Bilbao’s Abando station. My hotel, actually a studio apartment in a university dorm, was a ten minute walk from the station, and GPS took me there in one try. (Good street signage and only two turns, both lefts.) It was too early to check in, so I dropped Claude in the storage room, and followed the desk clerk’s directions to a square in the old city full of cafes and restaurants.
While Spanish speaking, the Basques have their own unique language. It is considered a language “isolate,” meaning it has no root or derivative of any other language. When you add an American trying to speak his few Spanish words to a Basque, the result apparently, is its own language “isolate.” (In Madrid, the gas ran out in the apartment. I used my language app to convey the issue to the manager, and he used his to convey his response back to me: “The lord is coming to see that it is over.” (No need to get apocalyptic over changing out a gas tank.)
In a friendly looking cafe, I threw myself on the mercy of the waitress, and anxiously awaited whatever it was I had agreed to eat. In the meantime, I ordered wine, and she brought the whole bottle. I like these Basques a lot already.
The salad with fresh tuna was fine. While I love shellfish, I'm not so much for fish, and that is what arrived on my table. No mind, the wine was flowing, and it mattered less and less what I was eating as I went along. I also made friends with the server’s two-year old son, using my language app to tell her what a cute little boy she had.
Sporting a slightly silly but fully satiated grin, I wobbled out of the restaurant and back to my apartment, the last dry (in a manner of speaking) walk I was to have. As I write this, I've been in Bilbao for four days. And the rain hasn’t let up yet.
But I found a bakery that had the best baguettes outside Paris. (My working principle is, if you pass a bakery where the line extends into the street, get in it.) I walked home with the loaf still warm in my hand, and I stopped by the desk to extend my stay an extra three days.