Natasha's Big Fat Northern Spain Road Trip
This blog post has been a long time coming! I finished my placement in Valencia at the end of May and whilst I had been back and forth between the U.K and Spain for various reasons, I had the month of June all to myself. In typical Tash style I decided that it would be a great idea to go travelling in a different part of Spain. To truly put myself to the test I wanted head to the Northern region of Spain, in order to say that I'd truly experienced all sides of Spain. Bilbao and San Sebastian were must-sees on my list- I also wanted to see Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela and Santander. Now this would be a huge feat for me to complete. It would’ve been impossible to see everything. After having weighed up the pros and cons, as well as readjusting my travel time from 12 days to 8 I decided that Bilbao, San Sebastian and Santander would make the cut.
These 8 days were some of the happiest I had during my time in Spain- although I was travelling alone, I was never truly alone, I hostel hopped, took buses and planes but this trip was truly unforgettable and I definitely needed the down time to recharge before heading to Paris for a summer of work! For the most part- I didn't really have a plan whilst travelling- I just decided to go with the flow, often stumbling on monuments and places of interests! I think that is part of the magic of travelling too.
Basking in Bilbao
The first stop on my trip was to Bilbao. I had never been to the Basque Country before but I had been told that it was almost criminal to not visit Bilbao if you're in the region. As soon as the plane landed (after the short 90 minute flight) I was awestruck buy the lushness of the green pastures and scenery. Of course Valencia is full of nature, but I'm used seeing palm trees and beaches- landing in Bilbao was like landing in a new country completely. Bilbao is both simultaneously industrial and full of nature. I have to admit, I didn't get the best impression because when I arrived the weather fluctuated from highs of 34 degrees to rainy days of 23 degrees. Despite being the North of Spain, it's still the North and from a Northern girl (I'm from Manchester) I wasn't prepared for the cold after having become accustomed to the scorching heat of Valencia. The first day I sat in the park with my bocadillo de tortilla and read my book- basking in the sun. For the first time in a long time, I was able to switch off, not worrying about lesson planning, Erasmus grants or general money worries.
City tour and lunch
I did a city tour with some of two people I met at my hostel. We thought it would be a tour of Bilbao in English- but surprise surprise it was completely in Spanish- we'd overslept and missed the English one earlier that morning. It was almost as if something was telling me that I needed to keep going with my Spanish- even though I was on holiday I was still going top learn. I have to admit; despite taking B2 Spanish classes for several months- I do find practical everyday Spanish difficult to understand due to changes in intonation, dialect and accents. Plus it didn't help that a lot of the names of the locations we were viewing were in the Basque language. Too add to this, Guy, a really funny Israeli that I'd met at the hostel, didn't speak a word of Spanish so myself and Regina had to try an translate the tour for him- it was a great learning exercise for the both of us! We saw lots of monuments that day walked around the Old Town- I really enjoyed the tour and afterwards both Regina, Guy and I decided to have lunch together at a small restaurant and we truly got the feel of Bilbao.
One thing that was on my list of must sees in Bilbao was the Guggenheim museum- it is architecturally stunning as well as housing a lot of amazing art. It's a contemporary building filled with a range of different exhibitions.
If you go to Bilbao you can't miss out on the amazing Pinxo's. Most of the time I was buying cheap food from Lidl to take back to my hostel (travel on a budget) but every now and then I would treat myself to some pinxo's. These are the Basque version of tapas (but say that to anyone form the Basque area!). They are usually a piece of bread with a topping (fish, meat, cheese) and a toothpick through the middle to hold up together. They are small, but be careful- they really do fill you up.
I had asked my friend Steph for some recommendations on things to do in Bilbao as she had already visited a few weeks earlier. She said that visiting the seaside town of Getxo would be cool if you wanted to get out of the city. I chose a rather mild day- perhaps not the best to go to the beach. But there were revellers there in bikinis and shorts, lapping up the transient waves of sunshine. It was nice to get out of the main city; breathe in some fresh sea air and to take some "me" time to journal and to people watch.
A dalliance in Donastia
I absolutely fell in love with Donastia- AKA San Sebastian. My friend Paige told me that it was her favourite place in Spain and I thought perhaps it was a little overhyped. She wasn’t wrong- sorry to have ever doubted you Paige. It truly was a beautiful city. My hostel wasn't the best located, it was a good 35 minute bus journey into town and I found that the communal space wasn't very clean. However the two guys who worked there were so lovely- always making an effort to talk to me and ask me how my day was. I even made friends with a group of Australian girls who were doing their own European girls trip!
San Sebastian as by far the best stops on the whole, trip- I was there for 3 days but I wish I could have stayed even longer! If you're an outdoorsy person and into nature, then this is definitely the city for you. The pinxto's are even better here and you can pair them with a really tasty sweet wine called Txakoli.
My top recommendations to do in San Sebastian are to:
1. Wander around the city taking your time to soak it in.
I walked along the beach and although it was a little too cold to o in on the first day I really felt happy to breathe in the fresh air and sit on a bench and journal.
I really got back into journaling on this trip; I have kept a year abroad diary that I’ve been sporadically keeping track of my travels. I’d fallen out the practise of it ever since the death of my granddad. It’s kind of like I lost my ability to convey my emotions in words. I was feeling so many things at the same time and I couldn’t filter it all. I was still in the wake of grieving during this trip- it had only been a month since his passing and spending a lot of time alone allowed me to really clear my head and process all of the life changes that were happening.
2. Chat to people in your hostel
I met so many people who were doing the Camino de Santiago, which is basically a huge hike across the north of Spain. I’d heard of it before but listening to everyone’s stories, all of the challenges that they’d overcome and the people and places they’d encountered invoked a type of wanderlust within me. I’m by no means a hiker, but I’d definitely consider doing the Camino in the future- anyone want to join me?
3. Go for lunch on your own
When I first started to solo travel, the idea of dining alone really freaked me out. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own space and being independent but there’s something a little intimidating about sitting in a bar or restaurant alone, watching families and couples. I had to flip this mind-set on its head and take it as an opportunity to really people watch and turn it into an exercise in which I needed to be comfortable with myself. I went to a really crowded bar- something that generated an extreme level of anxiety within me as soon as I stepped foot inside. The place was heaving with families and groups of tourist. I sidled up to bar and ordered ‘reveulto de patatas’ and a glass of txakoli. I stood awkwardly on my own until I saw another young guy, about the same age as me, doing the same thing as me. Whilst we didn’t strike up a conversation, we sympathetically smiled to one another, as a gesture of letting the other person know that we aren’t in this alone. Most evenings I ate dinner at the hostel but I did make the effort to sit and chat to other travellers. Like I said before, even though you’re solo travelling, you’re never really alone.
4. Venture up the viewpoints
Even though I’m not physically nor mentally prepared for a huge hike like the Camino de Santiago, there are still quite a few places where you can get your steps in. I embark on the great Monte Urgull- there are a lot of stairs so if you’re not the most active person I would say to take it easy. Nonetheless the views were amazing! The next day I had heard from one of the guys at the hostel that you can take the funicular up to Mount Igueldo- it had a breath-taking view of the whole of San Sebastian. I wasn’t going to pass that up- I took the cable car up and I was greeted with awe striking view of this extremely picturesque city.
5. Beach please! Soak up the sun
San Sebastian has amazing beaches- many are a surfers haven because of the waves- others are great for those who just want to top up their tan.
San Juan in Santander
My final stop on this 8-day adventure was in the town of Santander. If I’m being honest I wanted to go there because of the bank- by the way the town has a Santander branch every 100 metres, it definitely lives up to its name. I only had a couple of days here- Saturday evening to the Tuesday afternoon and to be honest perhaps that was a little too long for me. By the Monday evening I was craving the Valencia sunshine and seeing my friends before we all went our separate ways. The weather was definitely up to its old tricks again; sunny one day and overcast the net. Perhaps it was because I’d visited after San Sebastian, which had blown my mind- Santander couldn’t really compare.
However I met some really cool people at the hostel including two American girls who were part of triplet and another American who was training to be a teacher. We went to the beach on the Sunday night to celebrate San Juan- a festival celebrated on the Summer Solstice, which involves lots of bonfires. It apparently comes from Pagan traditions and it is celebrated across Spain. We saw a lot of students burning old schoolwork and we were encouraged to write down something that we wanted to overcome or forget on a piece of paper and then throw it into the fire. We saw people jumping over the fires- again health and safety rules went right out of the window! But this ritual allegedly cleanses and purifies people. We walked down to the beach with our beers and found a spot around the bonfire- at this point I was used to the lax safety regulations regarding fire in Spain due to Fallas. We were nose to nose with the fire and whilst I couldn’t help think about the damaging effects all of these fires must exacerbating for our planet- I let myself get swept up in the festivities. It was simultaneously weird but comforting to be taking part in this cultural experience that was so foreign to me, alongside a group of strangers. However we were all complicit in this shared experience and that was one of the best parts of this trip. Ad we watched the flames rise, I couldn’t help but think I was in exactly the right place at the exact right time for me. After the arduous months that had passed I was so happy to be feeling something over than sadness and overwhelmed.
It was simultaneously weird but comforting to be taking part in this cultural experience that was so foreign to me, alongside a group of strangers
I also did a lot of sightseeing in Santander- it was a smaller than I thought but I headed to a really cool Lighthouse and saw some stunning views. Being close to water really calms me down- when things are really busy I find that if I’m near water I seem to be able to recalibrate.
My trip to the North of Spain was one of the highlights of my year abroad. Not necessarily because of the places that I visited but because I was able to really tailor the trip to my needs- I needed a little break before I started my new summer internship. I definitely would visit San Sebastian again- there still so much of Spain that I want to see and this trip was definitely a taster of what’s to come in the future!