From Bilbao to Santillana del Mar

On Monday, May 6th, we travel from Bilbao to Santillana del Mar, along the coast.


From Bilbao along the Ría Bilbao to the sea

Our GPS takes us to the modern and well-kept residential area with apartment buildings on the right hand side of the Ría Bilboa. Soon, we reach Portugalete.

Ursula talks about crossing the Ría using a puente colgante with a cabin. I am a little worried: I see our Audi hang above the river. But then it is easy: The puente colgante is a ferry boat that works like the four Rhine ferries in Basel (a wooden boat is attached to a rope). This ferry is larger (for cars) and attached to a metallic rope that glides along an iron beam, the design of one of Eiffel’s pupils. The guard tells me strictly that I am not allowed to leave the car…

After having crossed the Ría, we continue north to Santurtzi, located at the sea. We park our car in a narrow parking house.

The sun makes the port sparkle, and in the background, I can see the Puente Colgante that we had used half an hour ago.

We continue crossing mountains and ugly beach resorts with beautiful sand beaches, until we reach Laredo. It is another old city center with another sandy beach and many more ugly apartment houses.

I am hungry. Heavy traffic here and not one single free parking lot. Finally, we find one single free slot right in front of a pintxo bar. We have some tapas, drink some water, and as we want to leave… we find our car locked behind two cars parked on my side. One driver sits in his car and leaves. The second driver is nowhere. Ursula contends that now it is possible to get out. I am not convinced. Maneuvering on to the sidewalk around a tree and a hydrant and with the help of Ursula, of two more men and one women showing to me, how close I am to all that, I finally get out – but I am not really amused. “Land und Leute” or “country and people”, Ursula says, shrugging her shoulder. Hmm. I am not against “Land und Leute”, but to my opinion, there are limits…

We take the motor way and, one hour later, we arrive in La Casona de los Güelitos in Santillana del Mar. I do feel at home in this quiet old country house that has been tastefully renovated.

The sun shines and after a short siesta we decide to visit the mountains south of Santillana. Ursula has selected Bárcena Mayor that is said to be a typical Cantabrian mountain village. Driving through smooth, green hills with pastures, we reach a large parking area. A signboard promises restaurants, shops, hotels and guest houses. We get to a well-kept pretty village with thriving flowers all over, but it is empty. Not one shop open, not one restaurant open, everything dead. Pretty, but empty on this Monday.

We leave this place and continue uphill, uphill, uphill. A gorgeous panorama here. Smooth hills, green pastures with cattle – cows of all colours, goat and sheep.

After the Puerto de Palombera on 1250 above sea level, we reach a high plateau with the Alto Campo and the Pico Tres Mares behind us. The rivers that emerge here go either to the Atlantic in the north, to the Atlantic in the west or to the Mediterranean (hence tres mares). Signs point to the source of the Ebro. We find it, blue-green, in a lush forest.

It is a pozo (well) that emerges from the karst ground. The water comes from the creek El Hijar that originates at the sides of the Pico Tres Mares, disappears and appears again here, near Fontibre. The water is blue-green, due to the plaster, clay and limestone that the water picks up underground before emerging. This is one of several wells of the Ebro, there are more that have the label “source of the Ebro”.

What starts here as a small creek, flows through Spain – 910 km – ending in the Ebro Delta with its abundant bird life and rice fields (photo taken in November 2018).

We return to our Casa de Güelitos to have dinner in the small restaurant. I have three kinds of cheese from Cantabria, a solomillo and a glass of Rioja tinto.

We sleep well in our quiet guest house. In the morning, I can hear a cock crow.

Bilbao on the Ría de Bilbao and between mountains

On Saturday/Sunday, May 4th/5th 2019 we are in Bilbao.

Bilbao stretches out along the Ría de Bilbao. The Ría de Bilbao is the mouth of the river Nervión. Bilbao lies 14km away from the sea. The surrounding mountains do leave little space for Bilbao. About 400’000 inhabitants live densely, with 8000 persons per square meter, as my Dumont says. The inhabitants of Bilbao call their city “el bocho” or “eye of a needle”.

The city center is split between the old and the new town, the old town on the right-hand side of the Ría, the new town on the left side.


The old town on the right-hand side of the Ría

Near the water are the roofs of the small old town with the Cathedral Santiago seen from the Artxanda hill.

Elevators are used to overcome the height differences from the old center. A guard takes 45 cents per person. The button for the elevator is labelled “llamada” and I understand, you have to call (llamar) the guard to take you up and down.

The elevators built in concrete are scattered around the city center.

The heart of the old town is the Plaza Nueva with its arcades and the many, many bars and restaurants.

In the Cathedral de Santiago, it is the cloister that I like most, with the lemon trees.

The old town is small and full of bars and restaurants, pintxos are on display everywhere.


The new town on the left-hand side of the bay

This is the new town with its modern appearance, also seen from the Artxanda hill.

I had always imagined the famous Guggenheim Museum to stand close to the sea. But this “heap” of Titan stands inland on the banks of the Ría Bilbao.

The streets are ample in the new town. The lifeline is the Gran Via named after the founder of Bilbao, Don Diego Lopez de Haro.

There are great shops here such as Rosa Clara’s wedding dresses.

The style of the buildings is either promoterism (also called wilhelminian, second half of the 19th century)…

… or they are art nouveau (built in the early 20th century).

Then there are modern buildings, many of them built be renowned architects. One example is the Office Tower of Iberdola.

Another example is the Congress Center. The – also modern – red brick posh five star hotel Melia is mirroring in the windows.


The Guggenheim Museum marks Bilbao´s revival in the 90’s

THE highlight, the Guggenheim Museum, has been designed by the Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry and was inaugurated in 1997.

On three levels, the museum shows modern art.

On the second floor, we find the temporary exhibition of Jenny Holzer. Using words, she captures violence on plates, benches and in video installations – haunting. Another exhibition are the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi, put into relation with classical paintings of Jean Siméon Chardin (I like the boys playing with cards), El Greco or Zurbarán.

Outside on the terrace, the colourful balloons make great mirrors.

It is said that Bilbao benefited from the “Guggenheim impact” which initiated the revival of the city in the 90’s, after the decline of the steel, metal and shipbuilding industry.


Bridges are also the footprints of great architects

Some great architects also left footprints building bridges that cross the Ría Bilboa.

The White Bridge (Zubizuri) designed by Calatrava is playful with the strings and the transparent glass floor. It is said that Calatrava was not very pleased to see his glass floor being covered with a carpet, for the benefit of the pedestrians. Well, glass is slippery…

The Puente de Euskalduna has been designed by Frank O. Gehry. He was kind with the pedestrians: They walk under a roof. His bridge swings over the bay.


History of Bilbao

We visit the ethnological museum to learn more about the history of Bilbao. Around 1300, Don Diego Lopez de Haro transformed the fishing village into a city. After 1500, it was the center of wool and fabric trade with Flanders, later in addition for whaling.

In the 19th century, it was the mining, steel, metal and ship building industry that made Bilbao rich, and I discover, they also had porcelain production.

After the decline of the steel, metal and shipbuilding industry in 1990, Bilbao was able to win Frank O. Gehry to build the Guggenheim Museum. This set the base to motivate more renowned architects to build for Bilbao… and, as a consequence, the number of overnight stays doubled.


I felt at home in Bilbao

I felt at home in Bilbao, as this lively city with its modern appearance reminds me of my mother town Berlin, though Bilbao is much smaller and more manageable.

Our hotel NH Collection Villa de Bilbao was located near the Plaza del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. From the fitness room on the seventh floor, I could see the statue of Jesús.

Yes, I will keep the memory of Bilbao in my heart.

Source: Mario Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont 2017

Getaria – center of Txakoli and fashion

On May 3rd, we drive from Hondarribia to Bilbao. We stop in Getaria. It is a small town perched on a rock.

The gothic church San Salvador is from the 14th century. Inside you have to walk uphill to reach the choir – on the rock, it was not possible to build a church with a flat floor. This is the view of the windows.

Getaria is the center of Txakoli wine growing.

Txakoli is the grape of the Basque Country. I buy a bottle in a small shop.

The shop also sells tins with seafood or other regional products – this is an old tradition here.

Two important men are from Getaria, the first Born in the 16th century, the second in the 19th century. The first is Juan Sebastián Elcano who joined Magellan on his first round the world tour in 1515. It was him who completed the tour, after Magellan had died on the Philippine islands. The second man is Cristobál Balenciaga, the famous fashion designer from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. His work is on display in a modern building in Getaria. I am impressed. His creations are straightforward and look wearable to me. He makes the material flow. He started with waisted lines – all close to the body.

More and more his creations became less waisted. In the sixties, he designed straight dresses (white dress) or “remodelled” the body (black dress).

After the museum, we continue our way along the wild coast, just amazing.

Then the road takes us into the mountains and we cross one industrial village after the next. I start to understand that the Basques are industrious.

We arrive in Bilbao and look forward to discovering this lively city.


Discovering San Sebastián stretching along La Concha

On Thursday, 2nd of May 2019, we visit San Sebastián, called Donostia by the Basques. 


Driving along the coast via Jaizkibel to San Sebastián

From Hondarribia we drive along the coast and cross the mountain Jaizkibel. Our first stop is at the chapel Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Inside there are a black Madonna and boat models; yes, the Basque country needs support for their fishing boats.

From here, we see the Bidasoa’s river mouth with Hondarribia (Spain), Hendaye (France) and the Pyrenées in the background. 

On the Jaizkibel at point 455m, we find these Latxe sheep with their long, thick hair.

I ask myself, how these sheep full of wool handle rain. Do they get all wet? No, Ursula tells me, the Lanolin, or adeps lanae, protects them from the rain.

The Latxe sheep are typical of the Basque Country and give the milk for the cheese called Idiazabal.

From the Jaizkibel, we can see San Sebastián in the haze. The brooms are yellow.

A fire must have burnt these bushes.


San Sebastián – the old town with narrow streets and neoclassial houses

San Sebastián was devastated by a fire in the early 19th century. The old city was then rebuilt along the old street lines, in neoclassical style.

We stop in one of the many tapas bars to eat some pintxos, as tapas are called in the Basque Country.

We stroll through the narrow streets. I wonder, why the windows (and balconies) at the Plaza de la Constitución have numbers. My Dumont tells me, that the Plaza was used for bullfights and the spectators watched them from the numbered balconies (Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont Hamburg 2017).

In the baroque Iglesia de Santa Maria from the 18th century we find two statues of San Sebastián (or Done Sebastian, a name that the Basques shortened to Donostia). This is the traditional wooden sculpture…

… and here is the modern version of San Sebastián (he died from arrows).


San Sebastián – the bay La Concha between two hills

We continue to the famous bay called “La Concha”. It IS beautiful. I can understand why people select the sandy beach here to recover and swim. In the background, there is the Monte Igueldo.

Along the Rio Urumea, we find houses from the area of promotorism (late 19th century) and Art Nouveau (after 1900).

Also the ostentatious Puente Maria Christina was built around 1900.

Not far from here, we find the Jardín Bótanico. It is a cosy coffee bar with a lush garden. We wrap off our visit of San Sebastián, with a cup of coffee and a carrot cake.


Driving back to Hondarribia through green mountains

To drive back to Hondarribia, we select a road through the steep and green Basque mountains. The sea is far away, north of us.

Our GPS gets lost, leads us uphill and uphill, until we end up in this dead end street.

We turn back, find the main road again and finish the day in the restaurant Abarka with an excellent rodaballo or turbot and a glass of Txakoli, the wine from the Basque Country.


Hondarribia, the Basque gem on the Spanish side

On April 30th 2019, we drive from Donzenac in France to Hondarribia in the Basque country and settle in the B&B Bista Eder above the city.

Bista Eder means great view in Basque. And indeed, from this lush garden, we have a marvellous view of the Bidasoa river, the Txingudi bay and Hendaye in France. The city center is about half an hour’s foot walk away from our B&B. Escalators lead down to the quarters of the fishermen, where we find half timbered houses and many tapas bars and restaurants.

The old fortified city center is located on a rocky hill. The city has been documented since 1150. The former castle accomplished by Charles V is now the Parador with a coffee bar, but otherwise closed for non-guests. The Plaza de Armas is surrounded by typical Basque houses.

Many of these houses are half-timbered with vertical beams.

Some also have brick structures…

… and some have the brick structures that remind me of the houses in Bergerac in the Périgord.

The church Santa Maria de la Asunción from the 16th century can be seen from the narrow streets.

We return to the fishermen area La Marina and have a wonderful dinner with fish and gambas in the La Zeria. It is a tiny restaurant in a tiny house, built like a chalet. This is the cosy dining room.

We return to our B&B using the stairs and escalators and sleep well (though it is a little chilly in our room). On 1st of May, we enjoy the beautiful sunrise with the view of the bay and the river Bidasoa.

Well – red sky in the morning, fishermen’s warning – this means that the weather may not be as sunny all week as it has been today.