In this trip report, I’ll be describing my recent holiday in Northern Spain and Southern France. Here’s the breakdown of my travel: one day each in Bilbao, San Sebastian, Lourdes and Carcassonne, 3 days based in Avignon (day trips to Nimes, Pont du Gard, Arles, Les Baux de Provence and St. Remy de Provence), and finally 4 days in Nice (day trips to Antibes, Cannes and Monaco). I did not rent a car.
This was quite a busy schedule considering the short duration of the trip, which ran from January 11 to 22 of this year. Fodors Forums and a pile of library guidebooks were invaluable in my preparation. Although I was researching heavily in September and October of last year, family commitments meant that I couldn’t really book anything until mid-December. By that time though, I had a good idea of where I wanted to go and how to link it up. Now it’s time to give back to the Fodors community in the form of what will hopefully be a useful trip report. I took fairly detailed notes during my trip, intending to write this when I returned. Hope you enjoy it!
Now, on with the report…
Background: I am a 41 year old male, from southwestern Ontario, Canada. My job leaves me only 2 possible months to travel…January or February. In the past 4 years, I’ve taken 3 solo winter trips to Europe. My first ever solo trip took me to Spain in 2010. Then in 2011, Portugal and Barcelona. I posted trip reports for those. In February 2012 I went to Italy for 8 days. I never got around to reporting on that trip. During the research for those trips, a bunch of other interesting destinations popped up and eventually comprised a pretty lengthy wish-list of places. Now in 2014, I was able to link together many of these in a line stretching from Bilbao to Monaco.
After these 3 previous winter trips, I’ve come to realize a few things: lines are shorter (or non-existent) at museums, churches and TI’s, shorter opening hours (and daylight) require careful budgeting of time, and about a quarter of recommended hotels are simply closed during the winter months. I’m happy to say that all my accommodation choices worked out great, and I would recommend them to anyone.
Before I go further, a quick word about how I packed. Here’s what I brought for my 12 days: small notebook with pen, small backpack, Rick Steves France guidebook (which conveniently includes a section on Basque Spain; I cut the 900+ page book in half and took only the sections I needed), Frommers Provence guidebook (read it in advance but probably only pulled it out 3-4 times while in France), 2 tshirts, 2 pairs of cargo pants, 2 button-up shirts, 1 sweater, a lightweight packable downfill jacket, hat, toque, sunglasses, flannel sleep pants and sleep tshirt, socks and underwear, and 1 pair of shoes – my Nike Rongbuk ACG’s with Gore-Tex lining. Second trip to Europe for these beauties! I packed it all into my Samsonite rolling backpack (cabin-sized). Fourth European trip for this bag, and it’s held up remarkably well. Can’t say enough about the quality of this bag. Electronic gadgets included my unlocked Sony XPeria phone (ready to install a SIM card from any foreign country), Maxell noise-reducing headphones, and Nikon s8100 camera, with 3 memory cards and a backup battery.
Now, let’s go to Bilbao! If we can get out of Toronto first…
Day 1: Bilbao
First full day: Saturday January 11th. Actually, this should have been Day 2. But due to a closure at Toronto airport 3 days before my travel, the ripple effect caused me to depart 4 hours late…which caused me to miss my connection in Brussels by about an hour…which led to a wonderful 9 hour layover at Brussels Airport. Net result was that I landed in Bilbao at 10:30pm instead of 1:30pm. Off to a good start…
On arrival in Bilbao, I whizzed past the baggage carousel (I love the freedom of traveling light!) and briefly stopped at the tourist information counter to pick up a map, and confirm the location of the bus that runs from Bilbao airport into the city. It departs twice an hour, at :15 and :45 (Bizkaibus A3247). It’s located just outside the terminal. As you go outside, turn right and head to the end of the row of buses. The bus driver spoke English and kindly confirmed the stop for my hotel. Cost of ride was 1.40 (all costs are in Euros from here on.), and it took about 10-15 minutes. Couldn’t see much of the Guggenheim Museum in the darkness, but I did catch a quick glimpse. After months of anticipation, I was on the edge of my seat as the bus wound its way into downtown Bilbao and past the incredible titanium-plated structure. I was thrilled to finally get here! The driver indicated that this was the stop nearest my hotel. That’s definitely a tip for other travelers…ask and confirm directions and bus stops. You may think you have done airtight research, but it’s always best to check with the driver just in case. Trust me, your online or guidebook research will not always yield perfect results!
For my only night in Bilbao, I stayed at Hesperia Bilbao, just over the Zubizuri bridge on the Nervion River. Just a 2 minute walk from the tram stop which conveniently runs across town to the bus station. I strongly considered splurging on the Silken Gran Domine hotel across from the Guggenheim, but ultimately made my choice based on really strong reviews and the savings of over 30 euros (plus breakfast – more on that later). Cost was 61.50, booked in advance through the hotel website. (On check-in they offered me a riverview room for 15 euros more, which I declined). My room was very nicely decorated in light wood tones, the bed was very comfortable, and the modern bathroom was gorgeous, with generous toiletries included. This stands out as the best hotel on my trip.
Thankfully I awoke feeling quite refreshed after 1.5 days of travel and layovers and being awake for about 35 hours, minus about an hour of eye-resting on the plane. Not a touch of jetlag. Or maybe it was the adrenaline that got me going, knowing that I only had 1 day to see Bilbao, since tonight’s hotel in San Sebastian was already booked.
The day started with what I can only describe as the best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had. Bacon, eggs, sausages, 4 types of fresh juices, 5 types of milk, 6 cold meats, 4 cheeses, and 6 types of pastries – all in small sizes: mini-croissants, half-donuts, mini pains-au-chocolat. In addition, a little breakfast-tapas spread as well! And wine-poached pears! And 3 types of puddings. I really can’t say enough about it. Beautiful presentation as well. I could tell right away that I was in a region that takes its cuisine seriously! We’re off to a good start for a busy Saturday in Bilbao!
Leaving the hotel around 10 am, I walked across the Zubizuri bridge and followed the waterfront over to the Guggenheim Museum. Having only the 1 day, I decided to focus on this. I was determined not to rush my way through. Having read great things about Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes, I bought the “Artean Pass” on entry to the Guggenheim, for 11 euros, which included admission into both museums. Interestingly, the audioguide is not included if you purchase the Artean Pass. But if you only pay for Guggenheim admission, it is included. So I paid the extra 2 euros for the audioguide (which I recommend – there is also an app which I did not download). There was no lineup on arrival. I checked my backpack before entry (no cost).
I doubt that my words could do justice to the Guggenheim Bilbao. The building is truly the star of the show. It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My camera couldn’t keep up with all the angles, curves, titanium and glass that I saw. Truly an incredibly unique building, worthy of its popularity. I spent about 15 minutes out on the terrace, enjoying the art installations out there and the lively waterfront scene, filled with weekend pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers. The only thing missing was some sun to reflect off the titanium panels.
The art inside didn’t exactly rate as the greatest I’ve ever seen, nor did I expect that it would. But I took it all in, appreciated the creativity and modernity of it all, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. (A temporary exhibit featuring the works of Antoni Tapies, from Barcelona, was on at the time, but only until January 19. From February 14 to May 18, there is an exhibition of Ernesto Neto works.)
In total I spent 2 hours at the Guggenheim. On my way out, I ducked into the room just to the right of the cashier. It’s an excellent educational space called “Zero Espazioa”, which really does broaden one’s appreciation for what you have seen (or will see…I probably should have visited first, on arrival. I’d probably recommend that to a first-time visitor). Definitely worth a look. Free to enter even if you’re not going inside the Guggenheim.
After collecting my backpack, I headed outside for a visit to Jeff Koons’ flower-covered 12-metre West Highland Terrier nicknamed ‘Puppy’. Apparently the flowers are changed in the spring and fall. This dog was attracting lots of attention…definitely the most popular photo-op I encountered in the city. On this Saturday, during my walk around the outside of the museum and partway up the bridge, I noticed 2 couples getting their wedding photos taken around the museum. Great spot for these pictures!
My morning feast ensured that I was still satisfied at 1pm, so there was no need for lunch. Had there been, I likely would have visited the Guggenheim café, which I’d read great things about in my research. Next time perhaps! Leaving the museum, heading towards the towering Iberdrola building, I stepped into the TI. I told them I only had about 5 hours left in which to see the city and asked for their recommendations. They quickly offered some great ideas, certainly more than I would be able to see in my short time! I continued past the kiosk and made the short walk to the ‘Bellas Artes’ museum.
Fodors Spain guidebook describes the Fine Arts Museum as one of Spain’s top 5 museums - a mini-Prado. Having been to both museums now, I believe it’s a fitting description. I really enjoyed it. I declined the 1 euro audioguide and toured it for about 75 minutes. It was really quiet in there, with most rooms empty, save for the Gallery staff. All the better to immerse myself in the great collection of art dating back as far as the 13th Century. The gallery rooms were beautiful, with colour-coded walls for the different eras, black marble floors, high ceilings and rich, dark hardwood molding which extended about 18” from the floor.
Around 3:30 I left the museum and followed the crowd of thousands of Athletic Bilbao fans walking to their 4pm home game vs. Almeria at the San Mames Stadium, nicknamed “La Catedral”. I’m a big soccer fan, but I didn’t buy a ticket. Instead, I stood on a terrace near the stadium, from which myself and about 50 others could see about 10% of the pitch, including one of the goals. After chatting with a friendly local and catching about 20 minutes of the game, I walked about 5 minutes up to the “Termibus” station to confirm the time and location of the evening PESA bus to San Sebastian. I learned that there were hourly departures, and that they were expecting a busy night, so I was advised to purchase my ticket while I was there. Good call – when I returned for my 7pm departure, it was indeed very busy, and the bus was nearly full. Cost of the ticket was 11.50.
As it was nearing 5pm, I had to start heading back towards the hotel to collect my luggage. Huge groups of people were walking the streets. I didn’t find out until the day after, but that evening in Bilbao, between 110,000 and 130,000 people gathered in the largest demonstration in the history of the city! I’m quite fortunate that this didn’t affect me at all.
The main highlight of my walk from the Termibus station to my hotel was the “Alhondiga”, a multi-purpose cultural centre, opened in 2010, which takes up a city block. It is notable for its 43 massive, individually-decorated columns which hold up 3 buildings. Of course, another highlight was feeling the gorgeous sunshine and 14 degree Celsius temperatures! Sadly, my lost first day meant that I’d have no time to visit Casco Viejo, to ride the funicular up Mt. Artxanda, or to sample any pintxos in Bilbao.
At the hotel, I collected my luggage and crossed the river to the tram stop. After a 10 minute wait and a 10 minute ride (1.50 euros), I got off at Termibus in time to catch my 7pm bus to San Sebastian. In fact, I had 30 minutes to spare, so I popped into the bar across the street for a quick beer and bought some snacks at the convenience store. (Fantastic ‘Jamon’ flavoured chips!)
The bus ride was completely in the dark so I can’t comment on any of the scenery. I had debated whether to take the train, which Rick Steves describes as more scenic, but a longer trip…but that’s a moot point after sunset. My seat number was printed on my ticket. As stated, it was packed.
After a 70 minute trip, I arrived in San Sebastian at 8:10. After asking for directions to get my bearings, I started walking to my accommodation, Pension Nuevas Artes. This place was recommended in all the guidebooks I consulted – but under the name Pension Bellas Artes. Note the name change. Apparently it’s under new management now. What hasn’t changed is its fantastic location, about a 1 minute walk to the “Euskotren” station (which was where I needed to catch my early morning train to Hendaye in 2 days).
The pension occupies half a floor of a building. If you choose to stay here, I would suggest you have a cell phone handy. No one was tending the reception area, so I had to phone a temporary number posted on the outside entrance to the building. After about a 20 minute wait, a gentleman who spoke only Spanish came to let me in. He was very jovial, with a broad smile, and apologized for his tardiness – there was an F.C. Barcelona match on TV and he couldn’t let me in until the 1st half came to an end. As a Barcelona fan, how can I argue with that logic! Soccer trumps customer service! Gotta love the priorities (I’m not being sarcastic).
After check-in, I quickly made my way around the corner to the nearest bar (“Txkole”) to watch the 2nd half of the game and enjoy my first taste of San Sebastian pintxos. This wasn’t really a high-end establishment, just a classic, basic place with beer, various small ham and chorizo sandwiches on the bar, “Sidra”, no tourists, and a group of older local men out to catch the game over a glass of “tinto” while the ladies chatted busily in a booth at the back. Just what I had in mind! Cost for 2 small draft beers (“Cana” – with a ~ over the n), 1 Sidra, and 2 sandwiches was 7 euros. I left a 1 euro tip for the barman, not for especially great service, just because this was exactly the Spanish bar experience I was looking for. Low key, neighborhood place with the big game on TV and delicious ham sandwiches at hand.
I wandered about 50 yards down to the corner opposite the Euskotren station and went into my 2nd bar, called “Iruna”. This was more of a happening place. Younger crowd, MTV on the plasma screens, bigger food menu. I had 2 draft beers, 2 croquettes (1 ham and 1 cheese) and 1 puff pastry for 10 euros.
Now it was time to check out the heart of the pintxo scene: the old town. It took about 15 minutes to walk there. Along the way I walked through a bustling Saturday night bar scene near the Cathedral on Reyes Catolicos.
By time I arrived in the old town, my food had digested and I wasn’t really very hungry for more pintxos, so I just wandered the grid of streets and surveyed a few eating places for the next day. I did have a craving for something sweet though, so I dropped in at Café Artess. I’m so glad I found this place (although it’s easy to find – just opposite San Telmo Museum, beside the cinema). It’s a large café that features a great selection of cakes on the counter. I sat at the bar and had a Café Con Leche with the Tarte Chocolate for 3.60. DELICIOUS! Fantastic value too imo.
Final stop was a Guinness (3.50) at the Belfast Irish Pub. I found that it tasted a bit more like coffee than the Guinness we get here in Canada. Final tally for the night: 27 euros for 6 beers, 5 pintxos, 1 piece of cake and a coffee. And 1 happy traveler!
Before wrapping up this first part of the report, a few remarks about Pension Nuevas Artes. I stayed 2 nights, and paid 40 euros per night for a room with a double bed. Bathroom was basic, but clean, with private shower and wc. I never heard a peep outside my room; in fact, I never saw any other people coming or going. I suspect that I may have been the only person staying there. No one was ever sitting at the desk either. This made me a bit nervous for checkout – I left a note on the reception desk telling them I wanted to check out very early, and it sat there for several hours before anyone grabbed it. Overall I’d give the place the thumbs up, for cleanliness, price and proximity to the train station, but after making the 12-15 minute walk a number of times to and from the old town, I would probably seek out something a little closer to the beach or old town next time.
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Basque Spain to Lourdes to Carcassonne to Provence! 12 busy days solo