Bilbao

Bilbao & San Sebastián, Spain  – 10-12 May 2019

Up early this morning and met David down in the lobby before heading to the bus station for our trip to San Sebastián to meet up with my friends Michael and Justin visiting from NYC. I suspect I could have figured it out on my own – though probably with lots of agita and stress, so having David to get me there was fantastic

We arrived mostly without incident, despite missing the 11AM bus and having to take the noon instead. It was just more opportunity for us to yak (esp since someone who shall remain nameless but whose name rhymes with Gayvid slept for most of the ride).

Granted, by the time we arrived, I was very nervous about making it on-time to our lunch reservation at 1:30 – but we took a cab and arrived at the restaurant Justin had reserved for us at exactly 1:30! And yet, neither he nor Michael were anywhere to be seen… I was convinced we’d arrived at the wrong place and was having a mild panic attack – especially since my phone wasn’t working. Oh, I didn’t mention that I’d re-started my phone at the bus station in Bilbao, but didn’t remember my local SIM card PIN and was locked out of my phone? Yeah, that happened.

Luckily, David convinced the lady at the restaurant to grant us access to wifi and I called Justin – who advised they were already on “Spanish time” and were on their way to our (correct) location. Phew!

Lunch was lovely – the restaurant located next to the sea with views of both the ocean and the charming town of San Sebastian. Food was great, though as always, the talking was even better – and everyone was super impressed by my mind-reading trick that involved an illustration of a duck. Just ask Justin!

After lunch, we ambled about the town a bit – it was lovely despite the overcast weather. We ended up back at the apartment Justin and Michael had let – so nice! On the top floor right in the center with a lovely terrace where we had a bit of bubbly… This is really the fucking life.

Sadly, it was soon time to say our farewells to Michael and Justin. We caught our bus back to Bilbao, walked around a bit before dinner, then hung out for awhile at my hotel, talking about everything under the sun. Finally, it was 1AM – time to go out for drinks, which is still crazy to me, but is the custom here.

Had a few drinks at a couple of different bars. I got to meet lots of David’s friends (he seems to run into someone he knows every time we walk down the street) who were all so nice and welcoming to me, despite the language differences. I made it ‘til about 2:30AM before I had to call it a night and everyone else went out to go dancing until morning.

I was up at a relatively reasonable hour and spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Old Town. I also had my first pintxos! David had promised to teach me how the “system” works that evening, but I was on my own and hungry when I stumbled across Mercado Ribera – with an entire first floor dedicated to small shops selling all manner of pintxos. The place was pretty hectic, so I just ordered a few things from one stand (after observing the process from a bit of a distance) and managed to acquire a few skewers of olives and anchovies and a boccadillo with ham. Oh, and a glass of wine, obviously.

WELL! Everything was amazing. As much as I enjoy some fancy meals on occasions, the most delicious food often seems the simplest. All the ingredients were of superb quality and it was a perfect way to start the day – or start the afternoon, as the case may be.

David was supposed to meet me at 2:30PM, but apparently got a slow-ish start to his own day after the previous evening’s activities, so was running a little late. But I had no complaints wandering about on my own in Old Town. Probably the highlight of my walk was seeing a woman out walking her dog (there are so many dogs here! I loved it.). He looked Border Collie-ish and was not a tiny thing. He was standing on his hind legs, front paws around her waist, eyes beseeching while she repeatedly told him he had to get down – until she finally let out an exasperated sigh and picked him up and carried him. The doggo looked absolutely delighted with his victory. I suspect this is a regular occurrence between these two.

Once David arrived, we had a nice visit to the Bilbao Historic Museum. It’s great old building and provides a nice introduction to Bilbao and Basque history. The descriptions are all in Spanish and Basque, so I was very lucky to have my local interpreter along to assist. Among other things, I learned that a significant number of Basque shepherds emigrated to the western US to tend sheep.

Next up: more pintxos! David took me to Plaza Nueva in the center of the old city. The main square is surrounded by a dozen or more restaurants selling pintxos, with tables packed with diners in the center of the square. We tried three or four places and it was wonderful, as the photos make clear. And the prices! Generally, a couple of pintxos and a glass of wine runs less than 5 euros! I could get used to this quite easily, thank you.

Also, while I really thought everything we ate was delicious, I especially liked Gure-Toki, since they had most of the waiters were sexy AF. #fuego

Had a bit of a siesta later that evening before David took me to a groovy Asian-fusion place called Panda. I often feel like I’m “cheating” when I travel and eat anything other than local cuisine – which is a little ridiculous, I admit. It’s not like he took me to Applebee’s! And the food was great. Started off with gyoza and a couple of steamed buns stuffed with short rib char siu. We both got mains of stir-fried rice, mine spicy with vegetables, while David’s delicate palate went for a mild version with grilled veal. So good!

And some wine of course. There were a few rosados on the list and prices were 8 or 9 euros a glass, which seemed reasonable enough to me. Except that wasn’t the price per glass, it was for A BOTTLE! A FULL BOTTLE OF GOOD WINE IN A RESTAURANT FOR ABOUT TEN BUCKS! Coming from San Francisco, this was both shocking and delightful.

Made an early night of it (finishing dinner at about half-past midnight – which still feels crazy to me, but I also kind of love it) and I headed back to the hotel. I got packed and organized for the next leg of my trip.

David met me Sunday for a last lunch together, though we had a bit of time to hang out together beforehand and the strangest thing happened. We were sitting on a little floating platform on the river, next to a bridge. I asked David to take my photograph while I ran up to the bridge and posed leaning over the side. Then two local fellows approached me and one was very happy and dancing and grabbed me and spun me around, jumping up and down dancing and singing in Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying and tried to explain that I didn’t speak Spanish. It was all over in the blink of an eye.

As I walked back toward the stairs, I reached into my pocket and discovered my wallet was missing – though all my cash was still in my pocket (I don’t typically carry cash in my wallet). Before I could even react or comprehend what had happened, the guy who’d approached me yelled at me, “Hey, is this yours?” and was holding my wallet. He gave it back to me after checking my ID that was in there. Both my credit cards were still in there, along with all the other odds-and-ends. So, the story has a happy ending – I dodged a huge bullet! – though I’m pretty sure the “nice” guy who returned the wallet had actually picked my pocket. I’m guessing he wasn’t interested in credit cards, only cash, which he didn’t get. It was a very freaky experience – though again, I was so, so lucky I didn’t lose anything.

Anyway, I’ve switched to using my little money pouch that attaches to my belt and goes inside my pants. Better safe than sorry!

The remainder of the day was great. We revisited Plaza Nueva as planned and I ate more pintxos (and drank a bit of wine) before it was nearly time for me to make my way to the airport. I didn’t have an particular expectations about what Bilbao would be like, but I have to say I’m a little bit in love with this city – not least because it’s home to the wonderful David who showed me the best of his hometown. I can’t wait to come back!

Going to Spain!

San Francisco, USA & Bilbao, Spain – 7-9 May 2019

In a stroke of luck, I was able to change my original adequate-but-longish (and with the dreaded “mixed cabin”) flight to Bilbao to a much superior routing: SFO-MUC-BIO. And in Lufthansa first class! What a treat this was going to be.

Arrived without issue at SFO and hustled my way to the United Polaris lounge. It’s new and I’d read many good things about it – but let’s face it: “United lounge” is not a phrase that inspires either confidence or visions of luxe travel. I’m quite pleased to report that my doubts were misplaced. The lounge is spacious, very nicely designed with plenty of room to hang out along with a dining room, a buffet and a bar – and the staff could not have been friendlier. Honestly, it was kind of shocking – which speaks volumes about my expectations with anything United branded. I hope they manage to maintain the level of service over time. It’s really about as nice as any lounge I’ve visited overseas and is vastly superior to any other domestic lounge I’ve seen.

Soon enough it was time to board my A340 bound for Germany. The first class cabin consists of 2 rows seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. I was in 2K – which was great, as my original seat was in the middle, but at check in I was able to switch to the single window seat.

While the seats are not quite as private as the “suite” style seats on other airlines, it was perfectly comfortable and almost infinitely adjustable. Once airborne, there’s a partition on the aisle side of the seat that can be raised for privacy.

Service was friendly and on-point – though it seemed to me that the the German-speaking passengers received more attention. I imagine this could be that they are regulars up here in the pointy end of the plane rather than points junkies like me – this isn’t necessarily a complaint, but I did notice it. Anyway, I was mollified with the excellent rosé champagne that I was served while we were still on the ground and again once we were en route.

Dinner service started with caviar (with vodka, natch) and some lovely appetizers. I chose chicken for dinner – it was simple but very tasty, with a white wine sauce and some barley and wild rice. Dessert was an unmemorable apple tart – though I had a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue with it which was fantastic.

Changed into the PJs that were provided to first class passengers and the FA converted my seat into a bed and made it up for me while I changed. Once I settled in, with my eye mask and earplugs at the ready, she asked if I wanted to be awakened for breakfast or to sleep as long as possible. I chose sleep.

Next thing I knew, I was being gently awakened and advised we’d be landing in 15 minutes! Now, that is the perfect way to get from SF to Europe.

My layover in Munich was four hours – which frankly was perfect, given that I had access the first class lounge during my stay. I disembarked, followed the signs to the lounge. Upon entering, there is a dedicated immigration counter and my passport was stamped immediately and into the lounge I went!

WELL! It was quite roomy and sparsely populated with some nice views of the gates (though not the runway unfortunately). I took a shower in a large and well-appointed private bathroom, then settled into one of comfy chairs by the window, where one of the several very gracious attendants brought me a drink.

Next I had some dinner in the dining room. First, a beef filet from the a la carte menu, then a few selections from the buffet. It was all very, very good – as was the chardonnay I had with dinner.

As I was finishing dessert, the receptionist who checked me in approached me and said, “Mr. CompleteOutrage, I’m so sorry to tell you, but your flight to Bilbao has been delayed 45 minutes.” I indicated that having to spend another 45 minutes here was not a bad thing!

My only “disappointment” about my lounge visit in Munich is that I didn’t get to use their limousine service, since my ongoing flight was boarding in the same terminal as the lounge (literally right next to the lounge). Had my flight been at a different terminal, I would have been driven across the tarmac to my aircraft in a Mercedes sedan directly to the jetway. Maybe once I save up my points again, I’ll get a chance to try this…

Soon enough, it was time to board. My flight to Bilbao was in business class – which is not much to write home about on a regional flight. I didn’t get to board separately from the rest of the passengers and business class seats are identical to coach – but they leave the middle seats empty. Eh, it was fine – I had the first row to myself and flight was only two hours.

Arrived BIO and was eager to get to my hotel. Even in first class, I’d still be traveling for more than 18 hours. Sadly, we arrived at a remote stand, meaning the indignity of cramming into a bus for the trip to the terminal – but it went quickly enough and there were no delays getting through customs since I’d already done that in Munich.

My driver from Blacklane greeted me as I exited baggage claim. He was very friendly and a good driver – though I think it’s unlikely I’ll use this service again. It was on the pricey side – I think around US$70 – but I figured it was easier than dealing with a taxi in a new city when I arrived after midnight. The service I signed up for was dubbed “business class” and indicated I’d be traveling in a Mercedes E-class – but I was actually driven in a minivan. And while there’s nothing wrong with a van, I’m not sure I’d’ve been willing to pay $70 for that privilege… I guess once I’m home, I’ll have to put on my “I’d like to speak to a manager” wig and send Blacklane a strongly-worded email.

Whatever the case, I was at my hotel soon enough, checked in without any issues and then sent a message to my friend David. He and I met online five years ago (!) and have managed to stay in touch regularly. He’s Basque and a native of Bilbao. I was of course very excited to finally meet him IRL – not to mention how great it is to visit a new city and get insights from a local.

By the time, I got to bed it was well after 2AM local time – but still mid-afternoon back in SF. I did my best to sleep, but after remaining steadfastly awake, I decided an Ambien was in order once it got to be 4AM. I was hoping I’d manage to sleep ‘til 10AM or so…

Next thing I know, I’m hearing a knock on the door and friendly, “Hola!” – it was housekeeping and it was 1PM! I was shocked I’d slept so late, but honestly, it got me pretty close to being on local time, so it was a fine way to start my visit.

I’d not gotten to see much of my surroundings on the way in from the airport – and it turned out I’d chosen a wonderful location, with my hotel facing the Nervion River and the Guggenheim Museum located about 200 meters to my right. While I didn’t have any view from my room, it was a lovely walk to the museum.

The Guggenheim’s exterior is frankly just as spectacular as one imagines – though perhaps a bit smaller in person than I’d thought (but really, what isn’t..?). As for the interior? It’s… fine, I guess. It’s showing its age a bit, but more than that, there seems to be a lot of space dedicated to stairwells, elevators and other non-gallery functions.

The current exhibitions were Morandi, an Italian painter. While I enjoyed the work, the space wasn’t the greatest, especially the lighting. There was also a Jenny Holzer exhibit which I enjoyed very much. I like her work and the space dedicated to the show was used to great effect.

Next stop was Museo de Bellas Artes, which David had recommended to me. A much more old school setting and quite charming. The current show was the ABC’s of Bilbao, with each of the galleries dedicated to a single letter (Art, Bilbao, TBD). Yes, it was a little gimmicky – but i enjoyed it very much, as it provided a great cross-section of different media and subject matter.

Had a lovely amble back to the hotel – the charms of Bilbao grow on me with each moment – for a bit of lie-down before performing my elaborate and time-consuming beauty regimen before heading downstairs to meet David in the lobby.

And lo and behold, there he was! It was both strange and wonderful to meet this person in the flesh after knowing each other via the internets for so long. We headed out into a drizzly evening and walked to a local movie theater for a screening of Beast, a suspense thriller set on the island of Jersey. It was good – though he and I had different opinions on it (which seems pretty much how we react to every movie we’ve discussed, with one of us loving it and the other not so much – with exceptions though!).

After the movie, dinner at Mina, a one-star Michelin place I’d found online. It was a lovely little place, up a flight of rustic stairs to a stone-walled room but with a contemporary decor inside. A lovely place. The head waiter was a bit snooty – I guess we weren’t his kind of people – but the rest of the staff were very kind and explained everything we ate in English (for me) and Spanish (for David). The sommelier in particular was very knowledgeable and so friendly.

As for the food? It was pretty great! Though frankly, the conversation was even better. David and I talked each other’s ears off – though being Basque, he definitely had the advantage in the talking department (#notacomplaint). At any rate, photos of all the wonderful food and wine we had are below.

I still hadn’t fully adjusted to eating dinner at 10PM, so I went back to my hotel right after dinner, hoping for a good night’s sleep before our day trip. In one of life’s many wonderful coincidences, two of my dearest friends, Michael and Justin, just happened to be staying down the road in San Sebastian and David had kindly agreed to squire me there on the bus (#howthemightyhavefallen h/t Jean Parker). Looking forward to this next adventure!