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Trip Report: Two sisters visit Bilbao and San Sebastian

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May 14th, 2011, 01:46 PM
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Trip Report: Two sisters visit Bilbao and San Sebastian

I returned yesterday from a fabulous, tasty and relaxing trip to Bilbao and San Sebastian made with my trusty travel companion, my sister K. My notes aren’t great so I want to report while everything is still somewhat fresh, but I’m still a little googly from the jet-lag so I’ll apologize in advance if I start to ramble or mess up details.

We had visited Spain once before – a fondly remembered trip to Barcelona and Madrid in the late 90s. We had originally planned to re-visit one of these cities, but after poking around Fodors and other sites and re-reading the Sun Also Rises, San Sebastian started to creep onto the radar. We found reasonable flights to Bilbao, and the itinerary was set: four nights in San Sebastian book-ended by two nights in Bilbao.

Planning for this trip was different than most of our others, which have almost always been to larger cities. I felt a little odd to be without my usual list of museums and sites and opening times. My list this time read more like "sidra, hake, rioja, foie"... things to taste instead of things to do. It felt good.

The weather Gods were truly smiling on us. I knew when we booked a trip to this region in early May that we ran a pretty high risk of rainy days and chilly nights, and when checking the forecasts in the days before the trip, it looked like that was to be the case. Instead, we had five and a half days of bright sunshine and temperatures bordering on hot, plus one overcast day on our planned Guggenheim Day. The rain jackets and umbrellas never left our bags. It was perfect.

Our travel also went perfectly. I was worried about any stepped-up security at JFK and the time that would be required. The lines there were crazy long, but they were fairly fast moving and efficient, and our Lufthansa flights were comfortable and punctual. We breezed through a connection in Munich and arrived in the small Bilbao airport on time, tired, but excited to be back in Spain.
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May 14th, 2011, 01:53 PM
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Bilbao
We loved Bilbao, and I’m thankful for all of MikelG’s posts and his blog, which convinced me to do at least an overnight there, while most of my other pre-trip reading recommended the city as only a day trip with focus on the Guggenheim. Our arrival and departing flights were from Bilbao, so we choose to stay there the first and last nights.

For our first night, we stayed at the Hotel Conde Duque, just down (up?) the river from the Guggenheim, arriving around noon. It was cloudy and looked like it might rain, so we decided to take a little rest before heading out. We awoke a few hours later to clearing skies, feeling refreshed and ready to start exploring.

Our first stop was the funicular to the top of Mt. Artxanda. It was a Saturday afternoon, and there were many people at the top enjoying what was now a sunny and lovely afternoon. We had originally intended to have lunch at one of the restaurants here, but were not yet hungry so moved on after taking in the views and a little stroll.

Getting around Bilbao could not be easier. We walked a lot, but also made use of the tram that loops around the city. On this first day, we took it to the Euskalduna station close to one end of the Gran Via, and made our way back towards our hotel by way of this main artery through the Ensanche and Abando neighborhoods. The city was bustling, with lots of people out window shopping and strolling. As it got closer to 6PM, the many bars and cafes started to fill up, so we decided it was time for a cocktail and maybe try our first pintxo.

Our first stop was the bar Lekeitio on Calle Diputación. We merely did pintxo recon here (the tortilla here looked good and seemed popular, but we did not opt to try it), checking out the scene (all men, glued to the Bilbao Atletico game on the TV) and trying to get an idea as to how this whole pintxo thing worked. We then moved on to Vino del Ensanche, where we could not resist trying our first pintxo -- a wonderfully mouth-watering piece of ham on toast with a light tomato spread. Awesome. We returned for another of these on our last day.

It was a great start to a wonderful evening. For the rest of the night, we sampled some of the many bars along Diputación and then Ledesma. It was a great scene – the pedestrian streets were jam-packed with friends and families standing outside, chatting and enjoying pintxos and drinks and lots of kids running about. It felt like a big street party. We had fun trying to talk with some locals using our high school Spanish and their limited English (which was thankfully better than our Spanish). They perked up when they heard K lived in NY -- ‘Jersey Shore!’ ‘Housewives!’ I live near Philadelphia and was dubbed ‘queso’ … as in cream cheese. Sigh.

The next morning, we were off to San Sebastian for the first four nights, but were very glad we would get to have another night in Bilbao.
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May 14th, 2011, 02:08 PM
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I'm hoping to go back to Spain next year and am wondering where to go for a couple of days. Your description of Bilbao sounds tempting.

How did you like your hotel?

I'm enjoying your trip report.
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May 14th, 2011, 02:52 PM
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Hi Peg,
I've been enjoying your trip report, as well. Sounds like you had a great time.

I liked the Conde Duque (it's a Best Western). It wasn't fancy, but it was comfortable, clean and the location was terrific -- a short walk to the tram stop across the river and an easy walk to the Guggenheim. The walk down the Gran Via seemed fairly long, though I can't say that for sure b/c we did not take a direct route. I would stay there again. For our second night, we stayed in the Casco Viejo. I don't think I'd recommend that one. It was ok, but it was really noisy.
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May 14th, 2011, 04:39 PM
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After a Café con Leche at a café near our hotel, we hopped on the tram and made our way to the bus terminal and the bus to San Sebastian, where we spent our next four nights.

We stayed at Hotel Arrizul in the Gros neighborhood, a short walk across the river to the Parte Viejo, directly across from the Kursaal Center (a very modern structure that houses a few restaurants and hosts the annual film festival. Kinda ugly) and the Zurriola beach. We loved this hotel. It was pretty inexpensive and very basic, but the room was clean, the location was convenient and all of the staff we encountered was friendly and helpful.

This part of the trip was really about relaxing. To be sure this was accomplished, I wrote it on our itinerary: San Sebastian – relax. So relax we did. And ate. As has been well-documented, there is no shortage of top-notch eateries in San Sebastian. Our budget did not allow for any Michelin stars, but we did not feel deprived. The only ‘issue’ we had was that we kept filling up on pintxos and didn’t manage many proper sit-down meals, but this did not trouble us because we were so enjoying the nightly txikiteo, when friends gather and socialize at the bars before dinner.

We quickly found that we mostly preferred the hot pintxos ordered from the blackboard. I’m reluctant to write too much about food as there are so many thorough and strong food-writers on this site, but I can’t resist sharing so I’ll just list some of our favorites we tried:

Bar Bergara: the Txalupa with langostinos was wonderful, a little puffed pastry with shrimp (or lobster?) sprinkled with onion and cheese. I also had something with anchovies here. I have a big smiley next to it in my notes, so must have been good! The presentation of the pintxos on the bar here was really pretty and colorful, with brightly colored flowers sprinkled throughout.

Hidalgo 56: we tried the Volcano – a cup formed with a mixture of black pudding, nuts and raisins with a beautiful orange egg yolk sitting in the center. When you break the yolk, it releases a little smoke and spills out like the lava of a volcano. Fortunately it was served with bread to sop it up… messy goodness.

Fuego Negro: I loved the foie with apple here, and the presentation was great – the foie was packed in an anchovy-like tin, placed on a wooden cutting board with pieces of toast, all wrapped in a red and white checked cloth. This was a winner in the taste and presentation categories.

Urtxori: this was another popular spot for men watching soccer. There were only a few cold pintxos on the bar, so we were really surprised to find some creatively presented hot pintxos here. I had a fabulous bacalao with honey and pine nuts (my winner in the category of favorite pintxo, salted cod), and K had a pudding of foie with foie bon bons. Creative and tasty.

Zaruko: this place had no end to beautiful pintxos laid out on the bar. They were truly art. We opted for something called the Hoguera (bonfire, I think) – a piece of bacalao served with a little piece of puffed pastry and a beaker tube of lemon sauce over a smoking coal so you can cook/assemble it yourself. It was really tasty, and we would have stayed here to try a few more except that it was uncomfortably crowded… and now smoky from our hogueras.

La Cepa: we both tried the gambilla, which I THINK was some sort of loin with béchamel served on a stick. This was definitely the winner for the category of meat on a stick.

Atari: we liked the atmosphere and went here twice. K really enjoyed her bull’s tail with mashed potatoes and onion.

I’m sure when K reads this she’ll remind me of others we loved, but these are the ones that really stood out to me. The variety and creativity of the pintxos in SanSe was amazing, and a fun way to try lots of different things. Just thinking about them is making me want to start looking for airfares.

Important: do not schedule a cholesterol test too soon after a visit to San Sebastian, especially if you are a fan of foie, cheese, or things fried. Results will not be good.

Our only miss would have been at the bar Senra in Gros. We stopped here on the first night and accidentally ordered three large sandwiches, thinking they would be the smaller sized. We should have realized our error from our server’s expression of horror, but… they were tasty. The second night, we tried to order a hot pintxo from the blackboard, but the barman kept trying to force us to order off the English menu and sit at a table for waitress service. I’ll chalk it up to a communication issue, but we both left feeling like he was trying to take advantage and force a more expensive order. But maybe he was just trying to be helpful. Regardless, we still had a nice glass of wine here.

We did manage two sit down meals: the first at El Lagar in Gros. We really liked the atmosphere of this place. We sat at a little table near the bar, which stayed pretty lively even though it was Monday night. We hadn’t had a proper vegetable in days, so we started with a generous salad, which naturally included a huge piece of nut-crusted goat cheese. I had a really nice bacalao served in a sauce of peppers and tomatoes, and K had a monkfish with mussels. Simple and good.

Our second meal was the tasting menu at Bodegon Alejandro, a restaurant in the Parte Viejo I found recommended here and on Chowhound. We both enjoyed this, but it was also the first time on a trip full of eating that we felt uncomfortably full. I think the Basques are onto something by spreading the pleasure with little bites throughout the day.
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May 14th, 2011, 05:21 PM
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OH! I forgot one entry in the 'I can't believe I tried that' category. The winner here is kalimotxo, a drink of Coke and red wine on ice. We don't normally drink soda at all, let alone mixed with wine, but this was oddly refreshing on a hot day. I don't think I'll make it a habit, though.
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May 15th, 2011, 12:08 AM
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BTW, Kalimotxo was invented in Getxo, where I live, some 30 years ago, when during our "fiestas" a large quantity of wine was found to be in bad condition...so they mixed it with Coke to be able to sell it...a real hit!

I´m so glad you liked Bilbao...San Sebastian takes all the merit, while Bilbao remains almost ignored except for the Guggenheim...and it´s truly a city to enjoy. Thanks!!
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May 15th, 2011, 03:27 AM
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Hi MikelG, we really did enjoy it, and we would have missed out on a lot of it had we done it as a day trip. Thank you for all of your helpful suggestions!
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May 15th, 2011, 12:08 PM
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France Day: Bayonne and St Jean de Luz
Our busiest day of the trip was France day. On this day, we rose early to take the bus to Bayonne. The bus left SanSe at 9 and arrived near the TI in Bayonne at about 10:30. The drive there was lovely, hugging some beautiful coastline during much of it. In Bayonne, we grabbed a map at the TI and made our way to the Musee Basque, stopping at the Cathedral Saint Marie along the way.

We enjoyed the Musee Basque very much, especially the furniture from a traditional Basque house, and the third floor which featured an array of equipment and balls from the game Pelota and video of a very interesting and challenging (we tried) Basque dance. Nothing in the museum was in English – only Basque, French and Castellano, but it was still interesting and worthwhile.

We then had a very ho-hum lunch at one of the many restaurants along the river near the museum. Bayonne was a pretty town and much larger than I expected. I’m glad we went to the museum, but we were ready to leave after lunch and make our way to our next stop in France, St Jean de Luz.

We took the train to St Jean de Luz, about 20 minutes away, picked up a map at the TI, and began exploring. The TI map led up past the town’s main sites – the Eglise St Jean Baptiste, where Louis-XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain, and Maison Louis-XIV, where they stayed.

This was the hottest day of the week and we were getting a bit tired, but we liked this town a lot. We checked out the beach area, which was very beautiful. We also did some chocolate shopping along the main shopping street, Rue Gambetta.

After we secured some chocolate anchovies and were shopped out, we decided to wait for our train at one of the cafes at the pretty square by the Maison Louis-XIV, and try a glass of Izarra, a fluorescent green herbal liqueur. It was really strong and not my favorite drink ever, but it was fun to try and it was nice to relax on the lively square and people watch.

We much preferred St Jean de Luz to Bayonne, but were excited to get back to SanSe for Txikiteo time. We took the train to Hendaye, and from there a light-rail type of train (reminded us of the PATH train between NY and NJ) to SanSe. That train was really slow, but it gave us plenty of time to debate what excursion we should make the following day.
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May 16th, 2011, 04:18 AM
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Hondarribia
We debated an excursion to either Getaria or Hondarribia, and chose Hondarribia, which turned out to be a highlight of our trip. The TI in SanSe helped us figure out which bus to take, and off we went to the bus stop at the Plaza Guipozkoa, another pretty SanSe square. It was another beautiful day, and after a forty minute or so ride we got off the bus and headed directly to the waterfront to look across the water and wave at Hendaye, France, just across the bay. It was stunningly pretty here, with lots of boats peppering the water and mountains in the background. There was no sandy beach that we could see (sunbathers were lying on the seawall), but I saw signs for Playa so there must be one somewhere nearby.

We then headed into town and wandered around a bit, doing some window shopping while taking loads of pics of the beautiful homes and shops in the Basque style with pointed roofs and colorful shutters that line the main street. We also scouted a place for lunch, finally settling on a little bar on the main street that had outside tables with umbrellas available. We had two delicious and simple raciones of anchovies and octopus. The octopus was really tasty, lightly seasoned with what I think may have been paprika – it definitely had a little kick. The anchovies were also simply prepared with lots of oil and garlic. We washed it down with a bottle of the sidra, perfectly poured by K just like the barmen in SanSe did it, from high above the glass to allow it to aerate. She hardly poured any in my purse.

After our leisurely lunch, we wandered around a little more, and found ourselves walking through a residential neighborhood (some HUGE houses here) into the upper part of town. The streets were curvy and we didn’t have a map, so I was starting to get worried about getting lost when we stumbled upon a series of escalators that led back down to the main street. We poked around a bit more and then headed back to the bus stop and SanSe.

I had read in the NY Times that Hondarribia has a dining and pintxo scene that rivals that of San Sebastian. I don’t know if that’s true, but restaurants and bars were certainly plentiful and there were divine smells coming from some of them. If I am every lucky enough to return to this area, I would consider staying here for a few days. We really liked it a lot and it was picture-postcard pretty.
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May 16th, 2011, 04:59 AM
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wine/coke? chocolate/anchovies? Not to mention pronouncing some of the words. Sounds like a wonderful trip.
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May 16th, 2011, 05:16 AM
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Well, the chocolate anchovies were just made to look like anchovies and did not contain actual fish -- thank goodness!
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May 16th, 2011, 09:17 AM
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jmct...great report! I feel like I am reliving my trip last year to San Sebastian! I have experienced many of the places you did.

I LOVED the ham at Vino del Ensanche in Bilbao, it was quite possibily the best ham I have ever had. And I also "experienced" a glass of Izarra in St. Jean de Luz, not sure if I ever want a second glass, but it was fun to give it a try!
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May 16th, 2011, 09:21 AM
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Thanks!
We talked about that ham all week. So good.
The izarra did make for some really cool pictures!
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May 17th, 2011, 03:53 AM
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Bilbao redux
After a lovely four days in San Sebastian, we were sad to leave but excited to return to Bilbao. For the first time all week, we awoke to clouds and drizzle. We packed up, said goodbye to the Hotel Arrizul, and made our way to the Plaza Amara (I guess it’s a bus station, in that you can buy bus tickets there and the buses arrive and depart from here, but there's no real station) and the bus back to Bilbao.

This time, we stayed at the Hotel Jardine, in the old part of town, the Casco Viejo. The hotel was ok but a little dingy. Our room overlooked the street and was quite noisy, even with the windows closed. The location was great, but I was glad we only had one night there.

After spending the previous days in the clean and bustling streets of SanSe, the narrow streets of the Casco Viejo in Bilbao seemed a little rougher around the edges and darker, especially during mid-afternoon when the shops were shut. Later, though, this would change. These streets around the hotel would explode to life, with the bars overflowing with txikiteo-ers having a good time.

But that’s for later. After a light lunch (more vegetables!) in one of the restaurants in the Plaza Nueva, we were off to the days’ main attraction, the Guggenheim. We took the tram to the museum, and then walked around the outside a bit taking pics of the building and the Jeff Koons puppy sculpture in front. The building really is amazing to see.

I’ve often read that the collection here is disappointing, especially as compared to the building itself, but we enjoyed our visit. K had already seen the special exhibition (Chaos and Classicism) at the Guggenheim in NY, but she was a good sport and toured it again with me, finding that she enjoyed it even more with the free audio guide included at the Bilbao Gugg. Crowds were light so we had many of the rooms to ourselves.

We spent a few hours here before making our way back to the hotel by way of Vino del Ensanche for one last taste of that amazing ham. Still delicious. After a little rest, we headed back out for our final txikiteo. Now the streets of the Casco Viejo were pulsating. The pintxos we saw on the bars here overall were visually not as exciting as compared to some of the ones we had in SanSe, but the ones we tried were still quite tasty.

This area definitely seemed to skew younger than the Ensanche neighborhood we had explored on our first night. There were a lot more Converse, Ramones tees and mullets (yes, the mullet seems to be popular among Bilbao youth) than we noticed during our first night, and many fewer families with little kids, perhaps because this was a Thursday night and our first night was Saturday. It was still lots of fun though, and we had a great last night enjoying Bilbao.

Sad to say goodbye, we were up bright and early the next morning for our flight to Madrid and on to Newark. I feel so lucky to have visited this area of Spain. The people were nice, travel was easy, the food and drink were exceptional and it was all pretty stress free and relaxing. I can’t wait to go back.
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May 17th, 2011, 04:26 AM
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Our first experience with Spain was pretty much the same Basque region - but we had more time there. You would also enjoy Vitoria-Gastiez, Pamplona and Lekeitio on a return trip!
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May 17th, 2011, 05:27 AM
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Great report...thanks for sharing!
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May 17th, 2011, 06:13 AM
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Thanks LCI!

Uh oh,we really wanted to go to Pamplona, but there just wasn't enough time. I definitely want to return to go there, as well as Vitoria-Gastiez, Lekeitio, Getaria and Guernica.
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May 17th, 2011, 10:31 AM
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Very enjoyable. Sounds like you and your sister travel well together!
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May 17th, 2011, 02:46 PM
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Thanks for posting this. We were in the Basque country last September so it was interesting to see that it can be done without a car. Made me want to go right back!
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