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Sunday, June 3, 2018
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Bilbao, Guernica and Madrid
The Guggenheim, Bilbao The Guggenheim at night The famous huge floral puppy
At our next stop, Basque country’s Bilbao, the quality of our extended, four-day, self-navigated trip after the cruise only increased. Our final, overnight sojourn was Madrid before returning to New York.
The bus stop in Bordeaux, a barren parking lot with a few coach buses idling on the asphalt shocked us not just because we had just got off a luxury ship after a marvelous and pampered eight-day cruise. The trash cans attached to lamp poles overflowed and a few a hangers on or derelicts if I may, hung around aimlessly.
A Mercedes Benz van driven by a well-spoken, well-dressed Dutchman had brought us from the ship. Dragging and carrying their belongings in an assortment of luggage, a few of the bus passengers straggled along. We were all early and so could not get on the bus. The departure time was noon. The dump which was named the St Jean Stop only because it was across from the St. Jean train station was a stark contrast to the beautified parts of Bordeaux, credit for which went to Mayor Juppe. B said that we must alert Juppe about the “bus depot.”
Close to twelve, after we deposited our luggage in the belly of the bus under the seating area, the driver allowed us to board the bus; of course, not before stopping us from carrying any food in and instructing us to eat something before getting on the bus. So, we deposited our food bag also in the bus’s belly though the grub was meant for our bellies. Standing in that depressing parking lot, per the driver’s instruction, most of us “injected” some sustenance into our bodies. In our case, the two oranges I had brought from the ship.
Soon after the bus left, the driver announced that food was available for purchase. I wondered if this was the reason our food was not allowed on the bus. Nobody bought anything.
The bus traversed stunning mountainous landscape, beautiful country side--at times with a view of the Bay of Biscayne (wish the drive was more coastal)--and several towns like the famous Bayonne, St. Sebastian and others sporting beautiful homes and other architecture and I watched them all pass by on my Tablet’s map, too, using the bus’s free WI-FI.
Around 2:30 my stomach began to growl. I was hungry. My mind kept visualizing the snacks I that I had brought with me and had to put away. I did not know how I’d survive till 6:30 p.m. without any food. My fears were quenched soon as the bus pulled into a hotel parking lot. We were told that we had a 15-minute break. The moment the bus stopped we all got out and reached for our bags in the bus’s storage compartment. B and I had a couple of croissants and small Danishes and some nuts we had with us and water, of course.
Soon we re-boarded the bus and to my surprise we stopped again about a couple of hours before our final stop—Bilbao. At this pit stop was a restaurant with a store next to it that sold ice coffee and other snacks. We bought a box of local buttery, almond embedded, typically Spanish, made in Salamanca cookies called peronilla that tasted yummy. In Cuba I had discovered the dessert Turron which we looked for in Spain and found some at the airport.
Finally, we reached Bilbao before schedule and there was plenty of light still. The taxis were lined up along the curb side across from the bus terminus where we got off. The place where we stayed the next three nights was close by (when I book, usually, I check such details). A young driver took the address I handed to him and within minutes we were at our place which was very close to the river, stores, the famous Guggenheim Museum, the trams, the metro, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum and even the main Abando train station from where we were to catch the train to Madrid on the 24th.
Getting into the apartment turned out to be a bit of a challenge as the key code did not readily work. At first I panicked. I heard a male voice from the apartment next door and so I knocked. A pleasant young man stepped out and I explained to him my predicament. He spoke very little English and understood even less. At that point, it had not occurred to me to use translator app on my Tablet. It turned out that we had to input the digits in the code fairly fast. Anyway, ultimately we got into our place. It was not very inviting as it was just one long room but it had a large window and all other items and amenities that we needed. Across from our second floor pad was a large office building but luckily it was a weekend and we could keep the shades open.
An eyesore in many European and even South American countries is the ubiquitous dumpsters. In Bilbao one day, from our window I could see an old man with a pony tail lower half his body in a dumpster. My heart broke. In New York, I have seen the destitute look for food in dumpsters. The man spent quite a few minutes searching for whatever. Finally it turned out that he was looking for reading material. He rolled up a few magazines and such he found and deposited them into a bag.
By the time, we made it into the apartment, we were famished. I had taken some heat-and-eat, packaged food. First thing we did was eat. Next, we stepped out of the building and found a super market down the block where we got milk, eggs, some oranges, cherry tomatoes, cukes, beer and plain yogurt packs. We had brought our favorite cereal with us. Normally, for such short stays, we carry our favorite cereal from home as we usually have breakfast in the apartment.
Once we returned to our pad and put away the stuff, we planned our itinerary for the next two days. Guernica was much too important and so the next day I wanted to visit this place that epitomized the horrors of war immortalized by Picasso’s famous “eponymous” painting. After breakfast, we walked along the Rio de Bilbao whose banks sport the Guggenheim Museum, the San Mames Sports Stadium, the very tall Iberdrola Tower on one side and on the other, historic buildings converted to government offices and the Duesto University. Several modernistic bridges span the river, each a unique engineering feat. On our way to the other side of the river we were most impressed by a lioness atop a very tall building. Later research revealed it was a tiger. Probably, its sculptor Joaquín Lucarini had never visited a zoo. The building itself is called the tiger building.
The humongous, crisscrossing metal ribbons that was Guggenheim Museum dominated the landscape. Artist Jeff Koons's gargantuan flower puppy in front of it did not particularly appeal to me just like Mona Lisa's eyebrow- and eyelash-less, saccharine face doesn't. We located the tourist office in that plaza and killed a few minutes as the office opened only at 10.
Guggenheim too opened only at ten. Not many people were out and about yet though a man rolling down his carryon on the pavement set himself up under a lamp post and soon took out several marionettes and a karaoke from the luggage. Later that evening when we returned he was still at the same spot going at his entertainment.
In the office, when I shared my happiness that the attendant spoke English, not particularly exuding much happiness on his face, he brusquely responded, "Why not?" The subtext here seemed to be "well, some of you tourist morons don't speak my language so I am forced to speak yours." Another foursome tourist family standing near us, who spoke only Spanish was from another part of Spain itself.
The attendant gave us a printout containing the bus schedule and a map of Bilbao. He showed us how to get to the bus terminus which he told us was a 25-minjute walk. Along the way, we asked non-English speaking police for directions and a few minutes later, stumbled upon a couple of people standing around outside an office building who could probably tell we were tourists. One of them who spoke good English directed us further. Soon, we reached the terminus which turned out to be right outside the Abando Train Station.
The ride to the center of Guernica was 50 minutes long. After walking around, and getting lost trying to follow the signs to the Tourist Office, eventually, we reached the Tourismo. A pleasant, middle-aged woman with glasses who spoke good English gave us a map of Guernica, circled the “must-see” places--all within walking distance--and gave us the closing hours and opening hours for the various places. It was noon. We decided to visit the La Paz Museum (http://www.museodelapaz.org/) across the street as it closed at 2 p.m. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior’s quotes were aplenty. Amen to Gandhi’s “Peace is the Way.”
The famous painting The museum as a symbol of peace
It was a moving experience. A realistic sound-and-sight show inside a recreated living room of a house the day Guernica got bombed, which was April 26, 1937, took you back in time. At the end of the tour, even with the cry for peace in the museum and the reminders of mindless destruction, thinking of current the military presence and engagements around the world, what with the ever present threat of annihilation in this nuclear age--in some places, mad helmsmen running the show--it was hard to feel optimistic about peace ever winning completely.
Shots from the Park of the Peoples of Europe (Pueblos de Europa)
Next thing on our, to-do-list was finding some vegetarian food. Most places were bars that served the ubiquitous pintxos (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pincho). In the Basque country everything is written in both in the Basque language and Spanish. Thus the Spanish Pincho was the Basque pintxo. We could not find any vegetarian ones.
I was very hungry and was in the mood for ice cream (no, I am not pregnant). It was a hot day. Every other adult and child was walking around licking an ice cream cone. Most of the eating was outdoors. We found a place where the attendants at the bar were taking lunch orders at a furious pace and serving them at an equally furious pace. I spotted an ice cream case which I approached and helped myself to a nicely wrapped Nestle’s Almond-and-Chocolate cone ice cream. B had gone looking for some vegetarian lunch elsewhere. But soon, empty handed, he was standing right next to me. I decided to speak to a waitress about our special need. She said all we could have was Insalada. I wanted B to have something more substantial. I decided to use my translator on my Tablet and communicate my need to another waiter. He was very obliging. He took my Tablet into the kitchen, soon returned and said, “Si.” I was thrilled. B and I took our seats and waited in the glass enclosed eating area with sunlight streaming in from all sides including the ceiling. Soon our two sandwiches arrived made with toasted bread, cheese and tomato. I had not eaten such a delicious sandwich in my life. It was clearly made with a lot of care and even love, possibly, for it to taste so good.
After lunch, we moseyed over to the other recommended sights including a mosaic display of Picasso’s famous painting (see above) as we took in more of the history and facts about the tragedy of war that had visited on Guernica. I just could not leave the town without buying a miniature 2”x4” clay representation of the famous work.
The house I’d love to own
Other attractive buildings and sites in Guerncia
On our way back, we took in more of Bilbao’s sights. Near the Guggenheim, another street entertainment stood out. Three wolf faces atop three separate bundles indulged in all kinds of facial shenanigans. Obviously the bundles were humans in disguise. I was very impressed and amused by this act. We dropped some change in their donation tumbler. The wolf faces smiled and bowed their head in appreciation.
At night after dinner, we wanted to stroll along the river but it rained heavily accompanied by thunder and lightning. We decided to take in the nocturnal beauty the next night.
Guggenheim was on our list for the following day. We strolled along the river and once we got there, we learned from a young pleasant female attendant at the Tourismo that on Monday’s the museum was closed. The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum was recommended as an alternative. But we decided to visit Bilbao’s Old Town--Casco Viejo (http://www.bilbaoturismo.net/BilbaoTurismo/en/historia) in the morning. We took the tram from near the Guggenheim, within a few minutes crossed the river and were on the other side.
The riverfront view was stunning with the city’s old, majestic architecture hovering on one side beneath Mount Artxanda.
On the way, I noticed simple exercise fixtures right by the river side which impressed me greatly. When I mentioned to this my friend in a neighboring town, she said that such a thing was a presence right in her town by the marina. Sometimes, you have to go far to discover something what is right in your backyard.
Traversing the narrow labyrinthine streets with upper level apartments sporting hanging flower pots on their balconies was magical. The ground level housed stores with tastefully decorated store windows.
A recent addition to the landscape is the La Ribera Market (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercado_de_la_Ribera), Europe’s biggest covered market, a stone’s throw from the historic (15th century) church of San Anton on the right side of the River Nervion.
The Church & the Market La Ribera Market The Inside
We walked a lot, the best way to discover a place (Bilbao seems to have been built for walkers) and ultimately climbed over 300 steps known as Mallona Stairs with no idea as to what was at the top. Once we got there, we saw a huge cemetery, a guy at a kiosk selling lottery tickets, and a park overlooking the Nervion River and the old town. Stunning did not begin to describe the view. We noticed on the ground a plaque that announced this spot to be a stop for the pilgrims headed to the famous pilgrimage site Camino de Santiago. Also, at the top was Cathedral Santiago.
By the time we came back down it was around 1 p.m. Time for lunch. There were enough vegetarian options. B ordered a vegetarian burger, some fries and a beer. I ordered a salad and a diet coke. Talking of beer, I discovered Sol the Mexican brew in the supermarket on our first day shopping on the 21st and I think I am hooked. I am switching brands when I return to New York.
After lunch, we did some souvenir shopping for friends and then returned to the other side of the river by foot. On the way, made a quick stop at the famous Azkuna Zentrao (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azkuna_Zentroa)
A few shots of this site (AZ)
A few random shots
A florist window An entrance A building façade
In front of a store Satirical window displays (different professions) More
Eventually, we made it to the Fine Arts Museum after a good Espresso (B) and me again a Nestle Almond-and-Chocolate ice cream cone from a Chinese-owned store. In Bilbao, the Chinese seem to have a monopoly on these convenient stores.
There was a special display of a few works by Goya, the most prominent being his Blindfold Bluff.
The exhibit outside the museum
As we viewed the galleries, B and I commented that his wife’s brother Bayeu’s paintings were more evocative. Lo and behold, we later found out that in a competition that they entered when they were very young, Bayeu won, Goya got not a single vote! It was Bayeu who had helped Goya with his career in the court of Charles III. Apparently, Goya was very good at networking.
Rembrandt’s “Girl in the Window” seemed to beg me to take her home with me. If the place were not so heavily guarded I might have obliged. I couldn’t even a shoot a photo of her. The seemingly distracted guards are the ever so vigilant.
That night, after dinner we did take that night stroll. The whole landscape had a whole different look and character what with the stadium displaying bands of different colors, the Guggenheim lit up in muted lights and the rest of the river front looking as serene as a clear sky with nothing but a few stars and a waxing moon, and the river beneath, a mirror to all this glitter.
Night or day, Bilbao’s architecture is a photographer’s dream.
The next morning, we took a cab to Abando and for our 9:20 a.m. train to Madrid. Though nothing dramatic, but still something unpleasant happened before boarding the train but there was not enough time to do anything about it. Photos of the inside of the station.
As we travelled, the scenery outside was beautiful. Madrid which we reached around 2:30 p.m. was a total contrast to Bilbao. The Chamartin Station overflowed with people and all around it was ads galore and shops coming out of your ears. Outside was even busier with a sea of people and cabs and cars and buses. But, as everything was well organized, without too much hassle, we got a cab.
As I hit the urban concrete and glass of the big city Madrid, I wanted to return to Bilbao’s serene beauty. This was our second trip to Madrid and so we were not going to stress ourselves out. We wanted this leg of the trip to be totally free flowing. Our apartment in the northern part of the city, close to the station, again by design by moi, was located near the Plaza de Castilla Bus Terminus. Once we unpacked we went to the nearby store to get some milk and egg and fruit.
Then, after leaving the goods in the apartment, we went around the neighborhood which was lively and colorful with humongous travel billboards that promised paradise and many sidewalk flower shops.
The twin Kio towers of the Puerta de Europa (Gate of Europe; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gate_of_Europe) dominated the skyline. The center piece, the golden obelisk (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caja_Madrid_Obelisk) feels a little of place.
Cameras in hand, hats on our head, and a spring in our gait, we walked quite a bit. It was a lot of fun. I kept wanting to go to a park. The big ones were not close by but Madrid has many parks which I call the “lungs of a city” and we ended up in a small one where little boys were playing soccer. At one point, two boys argued but stopped just short of getting physical. I admired their restraint and wished that world leaders could have witnessed this. After videotaping the boys for a few seconds we resumed our walking. Nothing like walking to discover the nooks and corners of a place! The thrill of adventure is at its peak when you are feet touch the ground. The public art work in Madrid is something that gives you pause, too, to make you slow down just a tiny bit to appreciate one’s surroundings and connect with the larger world instead of feeling weighed down at all times by our never-ending preoccupations.
A restaurant window with jars of various legumes The back courtyard of our apartment
The weather was picture perfect. The weather gods had been extremely nice to us throughout the trip.
After dinner, we walked on the western side of the main boulevard, looking for ice cream. I decided to skip it as I had been binging on it in the past few days. B got the same Nestle cone I had become fond of. The Chinses woman in the store was not very friendly.
We came out and sat on a bench on the side walk and people watched to our hearts’ content. It was dusk. The play of light on the various buildings was beautiful. An old woman was bent over like a hook yet she walked like she was a spring chicken. An old couple was sitting on a bench each one enjoying an ice cream cone.
Many of the passersby seemed like office workers returning home or perhaps making a stop at a bar. We also mentally noted the various destinations of the buses. Nearby was the bus terminus.
Once we returned home, we had our dinner and went to sleep. Next day our flight was at 3:15 p.m. In the few hours available to us in the morning, we went on a discovery trip, again on foot. Discovered yet another park and from a hilly spot by the roadside took in an aerial view of a small part of Madrid. The bonus was on this hot day a snowcapped mountain range for a backdrop.
Snow-clad mountain top A lonely poppy in the park A view of Madrid from the top
We were at the airport by 12:30 and returned home safe a few minutes before schedule after being indulged in an over-the-top way in the business class. Temperature at Kennedy was in the 50’s but felt just fine. No place like home!