Spring Break in Spain, Part 1 – Bilbao

25 Feb

Part 1: Tenia mucha suerte en Bilbao. / I was very lucky in Bilbao.

My “Spring Break”–I use that term lightly–fell in the beginning of February this year. Our week of vacation went from February 7 to February 11. This meant that I taught only 5 weeks of class after Christmas break before my week off, then coming back from Spring Break I will teach 18 weeks straight with only one long weekend… ouch. (At least I have gotten through two of those, so only 16 to go.) It was mostly just unlucky that I had vacation so early. The Czech Republic has a different system for spring vacation than I’ve seen in the U.S. or Spain because not everyone has the same week off.  The country is split up into six groups and then each group has a different week of vacation. And the schedule rotates each year. So last year Karlovy Vary had the latest possible week of vacation in the middle of March. That meant with the rotation this year we had off the first week in the beginning of February.

I decided to take the week and go back to Spain to visit friends from last year. My itinerary for the trip went like this:
Bilbao, Feb 4 Friday – Sunday
Ourense,  Sunday – Tuesday
Santiago de Compostela, Tuesday
Huelva, Tuesday – Thursday
Sevilla, Thursday – Sunday Feb 11

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

The story of the first part of my trip in Bilbao actually starts back in December in Prague. On December 12 Wattsenglish had a Christmas lunch for the teachers so Jess and I went to Prague for the day to attend the lunch and visit the Prague Christmas markets. After we had eaten our lunch and wandered through the markets we decided to stop at a pub and have some beers with another teacher Lisa (who lives in a small town on the other side of Prague) before taking the bus back to KV.

By chance we ended up sitting next to two Spanish guys from Bilbao, Ivan and Richard. We started chatting with them (mostly in English because Ivan speaks really good English, and Richard knew a little… I will admit to being pathetic and only speaking a little Spanish with them) and they were super nice. They were in the middle of a European road trip in which they drove from Spain to Amsterdam, then to Berlin, then to Prague, then they were going on to Munich before returning to Bilbao.

Ivan and me out in Bilbao

I told them how I lived in Huelva last year and how I was planning to visit Spain in February. They invited me to come to Bilbao and offered to show me around the city and such. We exchanged contact information because we had also invited them to stop in KV on their way to Munich (which didn’t end up working out because of snow and our teaching schedules/their schedule for driving).

I sent Ivan a message on facebook in January when I was planning my trip to see if it was still cool if I popped in for a day or two to visit Bilabo. At first I didn’t hear back from him for a little while so I thought maybe it was one of those courteous invitations that wouldn’t actually materialize into a visit. But  he eventually responded (Ivan admits to being “a disaster” with his email and facebook, which I kind of admire because it means he’s doing other things that don’t involve sitting behind a computer).

Itzi (Ivan's girlfriend) and me

His response included an invitation to stay with him and his girlfriend at their flat in the old town section of Bilbao. I accepted their invitation, but as my trip grew closer I became a little anxious about staying with almost complete strangers who I had only spent 2 or 3 hours with in a bar one night. And Jess wasn’t coming with me so I’d be on my own with them. What if they turned out to be weird or awkward? I decided to just treat the experience as if I was couch surfing (for the uninitiated look at the website and this Wikipedia entry) and regardless if it turned out to be an uncomfortable two days, I would get to see a new city and meet some local people.

It turned out I had absolutely nothing to worry about. Ivan and Itzi (his girlfriend) picked me up from the airport and right from the start they were super nice (I suppose that’s obvious from the fact that they came to the airport to pick me up!) . That night they cooked dinner and Ivan’s brother Alex and some of their friends came over to eat.

the group out on Friday night - in the back L to R: Pitu, Javi, Alex. In the front: Ivan, me, Itzi

After dinner we went out to a shot bar in their neighborhood. They had the bartender play a joke on me that involved me being hit in the face with a rubber penis while I took a shot. It was actually really funny, Ivan has a video of it somewhere (a video that will never be posted on the blog, sorry). Within a few hours of being in Bilbao I felt like I had been friends with them for years. It was strange, in a really nice way of course. We went out to a few bars in Bilbao, it was a lot of fun even though we only stayed out until 3:30am (early by Spanish standards!!) so we could wake up in the morning to walk around the city.

Saturday morning we woke up a little later than planned, but had a really nice walk around the city. The weather was gorgeous, sunny and 60 degrees. Ivan and Itzi told me I was lucky because the weather in February is usually never like that.

Itzi and Ivan on the Zubizuri bridge

The good luck continued when we got the Guggenheim Museum. We had planned only to walk around the outside as the building itself is the biggest attraction. It is an amazing structure, so huge and different but really cool. When we got around to the entrance a woman approached us and asked if we were going inside. We said no, but then she offered us free tickets because they had some extra corporate passes that they weren’t going to use. And of course we couldn’t say no to that… so inside we went! For free! Toma!

From there we walked around the new part of the city a little bit before stopping in some bars for pinchos, northern Spain’s answer to tapas. The first one we got was a spicy grilled mushroom on a small piece of toast–mmmmm!! So delicious!

Sidenote – One crazy development that’s happened in Spain recently is that they outlawed smoking inside bars and restaurants. I was shocked. Seriously shocked. Last year when we would go to bars almost everyone was smoking.  The result is that everyone now crowds the sidewalks and patios outside of bars to smoke.

Anyways, after some afternoon pinchos and beers we went back to their flat and Ivan and Itzi prepared a large, yummy tortilla de patatas for lunch. I ate so well on this trip it was incredible.

Straight from lunch Ivan and I left to go to see Bilbao’s soccer team, Athletic Club, play a match versus Sporting Gijon, a team from Asturias. The parents of Ivan’s friend Pitu own a bar down the street from the stadium so we met up with his friends there for some beers before the game. Then the boys stopped in a store and bought some 6-packs to sneak into the game in their jacket pockets because the sale of alcohol is prohibited inside soccer stadiums.

me and Richard sitting outside the bar before the game

Again, I was super lucky and Ivan had an extra pass into the game that I was able to use. He and his friends are all members of the Athletic club, meaning they basically have season tickets for all the games. AND our seats were amazing! We were in the fifth row, about even with one of the 18-yard boxes. Having been to a few big matches recently in the US (AC Milan versus Chelsea in Baltimore in the summer of 2009 and USA versus Brazil in New Jersey this past summer) where my seats were wayyyy high up I appreciated sitting close for a change. The advantage to being up high is that you can see plays materialize and watch players making runs off the ball and such. But you miss out on the beauty of the small details, like how well the players control the ball and their amazingly fast footwork. But back to this game in particular…

The atmosphere was crazy! So much fun! I’m sure it helped a lot that Bilbao was dominating the game and went on to win 3-0. I took a few videos during the match, one of a penalty kick that Bilbao earned in the first half.  It’s a little bit dizzy-ing, apologies if watching it makes you feel sick. You can hear and see the craziness after they score:

I am now for sure a supporter of Athletic, although my top team is still Recreativo de Huelva. My other favorite Spanish team has been Barca (it’s typical in Spain that first you support your local team, then you chose between Madrid and Barcelona as your second team) but when they took on Athletic last weekend I streamed the game online and I actually found myself rooting more for Athletic. So I think it’s safe to say Athletic has become my second team, and since they are far better than Recre (Athletic is currently #5 in the first league, while Recre is sitting in the middle of the second league) it will be a bit more fun to follow them.

When the game was over we reconvened with everyone at the bar, then drank a little before Ivan and his friends had to leave to go a reunion dinner. Itzi, Alex (Ivan’s brother), and I went and got pizza then hung out at their flat. The plan was to meet up with the boys after their dinner was finished, but we all got so tired after eating and sitting around for a bit we opted to go to sleep instead of meet up with them. I had to be up fairly early in the morning to pack and catch my train to Ourense, my next destination.

Like my subtitle for this entry notes, I was so lucky in Bilbao. I had amazing hosts, people I now consider good friends that I hope to meet up with during future travels. I had amazing sunny and warm weather. We got free tickets into the Guggenheim Museum and I got to attend a match of the local team–and they won! I don’t think there is any way my trip to Spain could’ve started better. I could have gone back to Czech after just the weekend in Bilbao and been really satisfied… but luckily I didn’t have to. It was on to Galicia to visit my friend Julie…

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