The topic of this post is, drum roll please...my northern Spain trip! I made the great journey of four cities in five days, and it sounds like a WTF! trip, but it was actually quite do-able, and I did not feel ridiculously tired from the journey.
So, where did I go, what did I do, how was it, you ask? It was awesome! I never knew how much I liked grass and and trees and all around greenery until I traveled up north. It was absolutely refreshing. The first city I visited was Bilbao. As the capital of the Basque region (País Vasco for you Spanish nerds) it is home of the weird and confusing language known as Euskara. Apparently, the language is as old, if not older, than Latin. It sounds nothing like Spanish, and is filled with X's and Z's, and is all around fun to read and scary to hear.
I decided to ball on a budget when I went up North, so my friend and I flew RyanAir. Now, if you've never heard of RyanAir picture the worst domestic airline in North America, change the language to Spanish, but then raise your eyebrows in shock at how surprisingly clean and non-death-trapy the plane is. RyanAir is notorious for their strict one carry-on rules. You can check luggage if you want, but their prices are outrageous for that, so most people only bring a carry-on. You must only have one carry-on, your purse must fit INSIDE your carry-on, your coat must fit INSIDE your carry-on or you must wear it, there is no drink or snack service, and I would hesitate to even take a blanket on-board in fear of being charged for that as well. But, besides the sneaky fees, Ryanair isn't all that bad if you follow all the fine print. My flight from Seville to Bilbao was slightly less than an hour, and it felt like twenty minutes because I passed out immediately once I was on the plane with 2 Chainz lulling me to sleep.
So, what's so awesome about Bilbao you ask? Well firstly, if you fly into the city, you must take a bus or taxi from the airport into the actual city, and that journey in and of itself is pretty awesome. After being in flat Seville for so long, being surrounded by a hilly, green landscape, with mountains in the distance felt wonderful. I felt like I was breathing in cleaner air, surrounded by all the freshness. As you drive along the highway, there isn't much to look at besides the mountains in the distance, and then you will enter a tunnel. The tunnel is nothing special, but when you exit you feel as though you've just been dropped into the beginning of Road to El Dorado because you just pop into this beautiful valley town. Immediately on your right side when you exit the tunnel is the massive Guggenheim museum, and you see the river that twists its way through the city. Bilbao is so cool because it feels large enough to be exciting but small enough to see some cool sites in a short period of time. I spent two days in Bilbao, and I feel like I hit the major sites. I saw the Guggenheim (which is awesome even if you're like me, and you like you're art like you like your men, real) and it's weirdly awesome sculptures and upside-down paintings and abstract works and walk-through exhibits. I went to a river-side market and took a tram up a hillside for some great views of the city. My traveling companion and I took an unintentional detour through the city and found a huge stadium/gymnasium and a park that was clearly for children, but since we were obviously still children at heart we played on the huge rubber jungle gym with no shame. I can't really say what the food was like in Bilbao, because I didn't really eat out there. My buddy and I kept it economical and split the bill for groceries each night because the hostel we stayed in had a small kitchenette we could use. So, all in all, Bilbao was nice. It was drizzly my entire stay there, but it kind of fit the whole weird, old-world language, Narnia-valley-town feel that it had going on.
My second city on my four city, five day adventure was San Sebastián. If you go anywhere up north, you must visit this bayside town. It is soooo pretty. The city is rather close to the French border and it feels like a whimsical mid-sized town with mountains on one side and beaches on the other. I only spent half a day there, which admittedly is not enough time, but I still got to view it a bit, and get a feel for the city. My travel buddy and I got SO lost at one point in this corkscrew of a town. Luckily we had six hours to kill, and only three hours (four if you count eating then recovering from a food-coma) worth of activities to do. We strolled along a water-side path, found a stairway to the beach, then walked into the old part of the town full of old churches, an old monastery, and lots of other old religiously-affiliated things. There were lots of pretty little gardens and walkways, and the beautiful contrast of standing on a beach with a mountain at my back was just awesome. I had one of the best meals I've had in Spain at this unassuming basement restaurant in the old part of town. One piece of advice I have for travelers, especially in somewhat big/popular European cities, is to get lost to find food. Don't eat where people wearing jean shorts and sun hats are eating. They are tourists and they are being cheated out of their money. Walk until you start to feel worried. Not "crap we just entered a crime scene" worried, but "wait, where are all the stores" worried. You will find the best restaurants in residential areas, away from the major streets and tourist traps. That's also where you will find the best prices. You're a sucker if you pay 20 euro per person for paella or any other traditional Spanish dish unless it comes served on edible gold leaf paper. The Spanish love good food at great prices, and they will serve it to non-Spaniards, you just gotta know where to look.
Like I said above, I didn't get to see any of the major sites in San Sebastián, partly because I didn't research what the major sites in the city were (yolo you know?) Instead, my bud and I just strutted around town, with the mindset that if it looks cool, let's go, well, look at it. Traveling like that is actually kind of fun. You can see some cool and unexpected things when you don't strap yourself to a schedule. For example, my bud and I had about two hours to kill so we took a walk by the river that cuts through the city and empties into the Bay of Biscay. He noticed this weird rickety-looking bridge that looked like it attached to a random building for no reason, so instead of being normal, schedule-oriented travelers, we thought hey, let's walk across it and see where it leads. And do you know where that bridge led to? An awesome botanical garden! Full of peacocks just roaming around and being rather ornery but pretty nonetheless. We saw cherry blossom trees in full bloom, a cellist just chillin' wit her instrument, and a cool bridge that looked like it would have fit perfectly in Lord of the Rings. So, what's the lesson to learn from this? Sometimes that scary, out-of-place looking bridge might actually lead to cool places. We explored the gardens for a bit then headed back to our bus. That night we gathered all our stuff and left our hostel and headed to our third city, Santander. (The pics below are of San Sebastián)
My third city was Santander, the capital of Cantabria. If you travel to Northern Spain, you must see Santander. It is nearly a tie with San Sebastián for beauty. Although, my opinion might be biased because it drizzled throughout my stay in both Bilbao and San Sebastián, but the weather was gorgeous on my last day in Santander.
Santander is another bayside town with mountains in the distance, only these mountains are snow-capped, so they are even more picturesque. I spent the majority of my time in Santander on the peninsula de la Magdalena that holds a zoo, a museum, and the old castle of Magdalena. There were seals and I think I saw a penguin and there were some boats and a huge castle. It was gorgeous and you could see water on either side of you. My hostel also happened to be situated right next to the water, so I had a nice view from there (although I do not recommend my hostel because their idea of breakfast was a free glass of orange juice and two slices of toast). My travel pal and I walked around the city, got lost 'til we found a Mexican restaurant with an owner from Mexico and I had the best margarita and meat and tortilla combination I've had in my life. Again I only got a day and half to see Santander, so I know, not enough to see a big capital city, but I hit the peninsula, which is like three sites in one, so, I get to say I was there.
My fourth city on my wild northern adventure was the medieval town of Santillana del Mar. It is about an hour and a half long bus ride from Santander, and if you have the time, it is worth the excursion, just check the bus schedule so you don't end up stranded there for three hours like I was!
My travel bud and I are both students that enjoy history, weird news, and artifacts. All three of these joys were combined in this small town. The city is famous for its medieval stone-cobbled streets and buildings and the pre-historic caves nestled into a hillside about a mile outside of the city. Las Cuevas de Altamira were the main reason we decided to make the journey. I love archaeology and anthropology and anything to do with history, culture, and artifacts so we made the trek to the museum that hosts an exact replica of the caves. The actual caves are not open to public viewing because apparently human breath is toxic and was ruining the cave, and also, a bunch of delinquent youths were graffiti-ing the Neolithic artwork in the cave. Who does that? I mean really?! Anyway, we went through the exhibit and interactive showcase, and it was pretty cool to see art and tools and clothing from a group of some of the first humans.
Besides the caves, the city really plays up the medieval vibe, and it is full of cool artisan shops like pottery makers, leather workers, wood carvers, and candy makers. There was also a rather creepy toy museum above the candy shop that was obviously just an attempt by the owners to trap people in their store long enough for them to buy more candy. There was a medieval torture museum in the center of town, but I didn't get to go inside because my travel bud wasn't feeling it and I wasn't about to enter a torture museum alone, in the middle of a medieval town, in rural northern Spain, as a black woman. As a precaution, if I'm traveling alone, or my travel buddy/buddies don't want to participate, I normally stay away from all haunted woods, torture museums, and plantations as a black woman, just to be safe.
We ate some really funky but good cheese and chilled out around town waiting for the next bus to bring us back to the 21st century. It was a fun journey, but you really don't need more than four hours there.
All in all, my Northern trip was awesome! I went during the first half of Semana Santa, which is Spain's version of Holy Week for any Catholics reading this post. I didn't want to be in Seville during the entire event because it is a rather solemn week and their tradition of dressing in pointy white hoods and sheets (the KKK stole their wardrobe from Spain, not the other way around) and walking down the streets with trumpet choirs and bleeding Jesus statues just isn't my kind of party. It is definitely something to see if you visit, but I don't recommend viewing it for seven whole days. So, if you find yourself uncomfortably close to a white hooded figure handing out candy and wondering if there is another place in Spain you could be better enjoying your time, go north!
That's all for now lovely people. As always, thank you for reading, and a new post will be coming soon!