Well, I guess as the title of the post suggests; I’m pregnant! Baby is due to arrive in October, and that means that most of the low-cost European airlines will allow me to travel through mid-August. So with that in mind, we spent a lot of time this spring thinking about where & what we wanted our ‘babymoon’ (last? big trip before baby is born). Did we want to chill at the beach? Stick with urban adventures? In the end we decided to do both in Spain. A few days up north in San Sebastian, followed by a few days in Madrid.
We flew trusty RyanAir to Madrid, and while we weren’t hit with fee to leave the country (like were in Latvia), the overall experience is a lot like taking the bus; boarding is always a hassle, other passengers are on edge. I just keep reminding myself that this was by far the cheapest ticket around and that means that I can spend my money on something fun. The other thing about RyanAir is that they keep their costs low by flying during cheaper time slots; so either early in the morning, or in our case later at night.
We arrived at Madrid Airport after 9pm, so I booked a hotel in the Barajas neighborhood next to the airport (Madrid Airport didn’t seem to have large hotel on the property like other major airports have). At 9pm the temperature was still 90s F, so that did make us apprehensive for the Madrid portion of our trip (I quickly double checked that our hotel had air conditioning).
We rented a car and drove to where we wanted to go. In general we found the roads to be incredibly well maintained and without much traffic. Toll roads are fairly common throughout Spain; however, in the north they are quite high. It cost about 22 euros to get from Burgos to Bilbao, which is only about an hour and a half of travel. So we’re talking New Jersey turnpike costs, but in all fairness the road is in much better condition than the New Jersey turnpike.
While we didn’t use them there are trains and buses from Madrid up north to both Bilbao and San Sebastian. Some routes may require transferring in Bilbao; and once you are up north there are local buses and trains that will take you to smaller towns. Before we decided to rent a car I determined that we’d still be able to visit everything we did without the car; but the car gave us more flexibility, and ultimately let us see more in a shorter amount of time as we weren’t tied to specific timetables.
What we did
We drove up and spent the afternoon in Bilbao. Bilbao is the largest city on Spain’s northern coast, and one the guidebook described as having an industrial past and a little gritty. Now maybe it was that we had great weather, but I didn’t really find that to be the case. I was expecting it to be like Baltimore. A small redeveloped city center, with surrounding neighborhoods being more mixed. The city is very well maintained, and not so big that it isn’t walkable (but there is a bus system). The residential areas outside the business and tourist center were clean with lots of parks and playgrounds. And very little graffiti compared to Paris or Rome.
The main attraction of the city is the Guggenheim museum along the riverfront. We spent most of our time in that area walking along the riverfront, before heading into the old city for lunch. We didn’t go into the museum, since the guidebooks said it didn’t have a very extensive collection, and at the time was promoting the work of Jeff Koons, whom Hubs is underwhelmed with. [I know, quite the art expert!] Therefore, we decided to put our 15 euros each towards lunch.
After lunch we drove to San Sebastian, which as a smaller and easier to drive in city compared to Bilbao, parking is even tighter. One of my requirements when booking the hotel was that it have air conditioning and I be able to reserve parking, which I’m glad I did!
Even though it was only a day and a half, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in San Sebastian, there were even times when we questioned why we had to go to Madrid. The city is very walkable, with two long sandy beaches in sheltered harbors. Since it is on the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic Ocean; the water may not be as warm as the Mediterranean, it is not colder that the mid-Atlantic on the East Coast of the US. We had plenty of time to walk around the city, chill on the beach, and even climbed to the top of Mont Urgull. Had we been there longer, we could have visited 19th century ‘amusement park’ atop the other hill at San Sebastian’s harbor entrance opposite Mont Urgull (come to think of it, that one had a funicular railway).
As a did research for our trip, but after we had booked our travel & accommodation, I came across the fact that it was the San Fermin festival in Pamplona. I didn’t pay much attention to it, but wondered if that drove up the hotel prices in San Sebastian while we were there. When I casually mentioned this to Hubs during one of our evening walks he immediately wanted to know what it would take to go. And in the end all it took was a six am start.
Pamplona is a little over an hour from San Sebastian and the running of the bulls takes place at eight am (much earlier than most things in Spain get started). It celebrates the cattle ranchers moving their bulls into the city for sale and slaughter, prior to other methods of transport becoming practical. Made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises; today the festival boasts to be one of Europe’s biggest parties (though Hubs assures me it’s got nothing on Oktoberfest).
It appeared that those ‘doing San Fermin right’ party through the night, watch the running of the bulls, grab breakfast, and then go to bed. As we arrived in the city, the partying certainly had died down and people were making their way to to their race locations. There are several underground parking garages in the city and it was quite easy to park at one of them. I’m assuming that the festival brings in a lot of money to the city, because it also brings in a lot of trash, along with the smell of urine (which I’m sure were in those ‘puddles’ of rain water I stepped in).
There are a couple of options to watch the running of the bulls. One is to buy tickets to a residents balcony that over looks the course. Those start around $100 per person, and usually include breakfast since you have to be at the apartments an hour before the running as road access closes. You can also watch from the barricades along the course; but from what I read in the guide books people started lining up at 6am and it is likely that you’ll get jostled as people try to get a glimpse of the bulls – something this pregnant lady wasn’t too interested in. So we chose to watch the running from the Plaza de Toros (bull fighting ring).
Tickets are about 10 euros and seating is general admission, so the earlier you get there the closer to ring you can sit. The running is shown on jumbo trons in the ring, and it ends with the runners and the bulls coming into the ring, and the bulls being taken down to the paddocks. What I didn’t realize is that after all that young bulls are brought out to run around in the crowd, just in case running with the adult bulls wasn’t risk enough. It may have been the pregnancy hormones, but that part of the festival left me more conflicted. I’m not opposed to bull fighting, but the chasing around of the young bulls seemed fun at first, but after a little while seemed unnecessary. Hubs was much more optimistic pointing out that no harm came to the young bulls and they probably considered it playing.
The bulls that run through the town in the morning are the ones killed in the bull fights in that evening. Tickets to the bullfights are controlled and the residents of the city are given first dibs on purchasing them. So if you’re interested in attending you’ll either have to purchase them through a third-party tour operator or scalp them from a resident that day (based on what I read it is perfectly legal). We didn’t go since it our schedule had us in Madrid that evening and we needed to return the rental car.
Eating & Drinking (*it’s just eating for me right now:)
Northern Spain has a slightly different version of tapas, known as pinchos/pintxos. So instead of a small plate of food you are served a piece of food, about 2 or 3 bites worth). In Spain it is still very common to for businesses and small shops to close from 2-4pm, for siesta; and restaurants to offer a three course meal. But it also seemed equally common to have a lunch of pintxos and a beer. Suppers out can also be equally large or just pintxos. Pintxos are generally on the bar top like a buffet, but the etiquette of getting them on your plate can vary. Some places you just serve yourself (occasionally when the signs say otherwise), and other places you request them from the car tender.
What Hubs and I discovered (after our first day) is that while all those meals look delicious; it is best (not surprisingly) to just have one main meal a day and make the other pintxos. We typically had a larger supper, with pintxos at lunch time between activities, or naps.
I hadn’t done much research about places to eat in Bilbao, ahead of time since we were only planning a few hours and I didn’t know what the drive would be like. And we did end up finding a good pintxos bar (that we really should have just stayed at) in the old city that unfortunately I can’t remember the name of. Our lunch meal was only so so, and we found that if you don’t have reservations by 3pm many of the places that look good are packed and the wait staff over taxed to be able to deal with my mediocre Spanish, and you just end up standing around like stray kitten. Restaurant prices are very reasonable in Bilbao, which is probably a function of it being a larger city with a working population compared to San Sebastian’s resort character with a lot of non-residents on holiday.
San Sebastian is considered by many to be Spain’s gastronomical capital, with several Michelin starred restaurants. Plus, not much to do besides the beach and eat. It is easy to walk through the old city and find many good pintxos restaurants for lunch or at dinner time. It did lead to a couple of awkward encounters since the etiquette of whether or not you help yourself to food, or ask the bartender, is unclear and occasionally contradicts signs that are posted.
The restaurant that I recommend in San Sebastian is La Fabrica, which I suggest making a reservation for unless you are there in the off-season.
Madrid has quite a good subway system and will take you all parts of the city that may interested you. The airport is connected to the city by both the subway and the train. The trains and buses can take you to several day trip options: El Escorial, Toledo, Segovia, Avila, etc.
If you take the metro to the airport, there is a service charge that you have to pay on your ticket. I assume it is to keep the transit fee between the metro and the train comparable, but I don’t actually know. However, what isn’t clear is that this service charge is applicable each way. So if you buy a multi-trip ticket at the airport and pay the surcharge; if you still have trips left on your ticket when you return to the airport, you will have to add the surcharge on to your ticket again you can exit the metro at the airport. It isn’t hard to do at the machines, but it is something to factor in to your travel time. Again, there are plenty of signs telling people about the surcharge in both English and Spanish; it is just unclear that it applies to each way.
What we did
It was quite warm; ok, it was hot, around 105 degrees. Between living in a country that rarely gets above 85 degrees for the past two years; and me being pregnant, the heat definitely slowed down our normal pace of sight-seeing. We definitely embraced the ‘siesta’ and sitting in shaded cafes for extended periods of time. Due to the heat we didn’t take any day trips that I mentioned above as possibilities; which means that two full days is plenty of time to see Madrid.
Our first day in Madrid was a Sunday, so after a lie in we spent the morning at the Rastro; Madrid’s famous flea market. Not to let anyone down, but it is pretty much like most other flea markets, just quite large. It spans the length between the La Latina and Puerta de Toledo metro stations.
Following that we continued our tour of the city by heading over to the Palacio Real and Catedral Almudena, before swinging by the Plaza Mayor. After some cafe time and a tapas lunch, we headed back to our hotel for a late siesta before dinner.
The next day was our last day in Madrid and we had a flight out around 9pm, which meant that we’d lose our afternoon siesta spot. Therefore, we didn’t check out until the last possible moment, which fortunately in Spain isn’t until noon. We spent the afternoon in the Retiro park; which in addition to lots a shade, houses to free art exhibitions from the Reina Sofia in two of its buildings.
Following a leisurely lunch we checked out the modern art at the Reina Sofia. The museum is most famous as the home of Picasso’s Guernica, but it also houses most of Spain’s Republican government exhibition to the 1937 World’s Fair that Guernica was part of.
Eating and Drinking
Madrid certainly has its share of tapas bars, even if it isn’t the moveable feast that San Sebastian is. What we did find at the tapas bars is that when you order a drink (whether or not it contains alcohol) you will get some sort of small snack.
We enjoyed our trip to Spain, though slightly preferred our time up North. Madrid’s heat did play a role, but we also enjoyed the relaxed pace and greenery that San Sebastian offered.