San Sebastian and Bilbao

PANO_20120926_090814Despite loving Barcelona and the ambience and fireworks, Spain finally arrived for me when I reached the North coast. Of course I am not saying Barcelona is unauthentic. Its just you have to look harder to find it even when you stay in El Born, a district examplifing the diversity of Barcelona’s population. Away from the tourists, shops selling tat and generic food, we found bars ringing with the Spanish love of conversation, tapas served on the bar, small beers and courtesy. It was totally Spanish.

Everyone advises you to go to San Sebastian and I took advice from the Catalan boys as well as Dougal. Arriving at 5am on the nightbus way before hostel check-in time, we decided to go to the beach to watch the sunrise. Life is slower on the north coast. The sun didn’t appear properly until 8am but we had coffee, croissants and conversation to keep us occupied. I’ve always loved sun rise. Sadly many people associate it with the beginning of a day filled with work, stress, traffic and mundanity.

But after living in many cultures where bed time co-incides with the rising of the sun, its given me a sense of freedom. I still never forget my first night and morning in Japan, drinking tequila and eating cheese toasties with a Kiwi girl at 8am until we wandered home triumphant as the men and women in suits dashed to work. We felt like heroes.

San Sebastian was buzzing that day with anger and anticipation. Before the film festival could kick off in the evening, the city had to negotiate a general strike, demonstrations and shut downs, the longest part naturally being lunch. Penelope Cruz popped in for dinner (next table), the coke machine also sold protein mixs and dildos and the beach guys were so friendly. I hung out with Gab, Renzo and Karim for drinks in the evening.

IMG_20120927_190249Bilbao starts auspiciously  The area around the bus station is ugly. Really ugly. But after finding the hostel we went off to find the Guggenheim Museum, the old town and some tapas. I’ve never really ‘got’ tapas, mostly because like sushi in London, it tends to be overpriced and simple, leaving you feeling ripped off and more importantly hungry. But the north coast really does do tapas well. Bars were covered in trays of tapas, piled high with cheese, seafood, meat and lashings of sauce. Add the wine per order and we were onto a good day 🙂 !

The north coast also has a reputation of having the nicest people in Spain. Sat in lush green vallies and blue skies ahead, I think I just found my new favourite place in Spain.

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Feste de la Mercee

Barcelona is a city for all seasons. In winter, its warm, In summer there is the beach to cool off at. Autumn and spring merely add to the seasonal blend. Catalunya is on a personal crusade right now for independence. Turn out at rallies now number the millions as it pushes for political autonomy. Its been the richest area of Spain for a while (with the largest debt) despite its economic wings being ironically clipped by the on-going economic crisis in Europe. But its cultural identity and independence is displayed from the countless flags hanging from balcony, the widespread use of the language, the football club producing their own players and festivals proudly extolling the Catalanism.

We were in Barcelona for the Festes de la Mercee, a religious festival involving street parades, fireworks and more artistic cultural events than you can throw a ham at. The city comes to a stop. Stages are set up, streets closed off. Music lights up the city in day and night. Ilo didn’t know too much about all of this and her Spanish is, ummm, modest so I got to practice my language again and tried to organise everything from free accommodation (muchas gracias Nacho and Riccardo) to understanding the labyrinthine  old town and the scale of the festival.

We did other things too. We went to the beach (her idea), drank a lot of wine (mutual idea), ate huge burgers (my idea), bought a magnet (her idea), went to some cool bars (my idea), ate paella (her idea), had free accommodation (my idea), drank wine in the street (her idea), saw The Kooks free (mutual idea), got lost (my idea) and sulked (her idea).

The highlight of the weekend and maybe of all my times in Barcelona was the Sunday night Diablo firework night, a street parade initiation ceremony for the youth of Barcelona. Teams of drummers are accompany by Catherine wheel carrying demons who charge down the street. The idea is to dance in the sparks until it gives out its final bang. The other idea is to arrive dressed appropriately usually meaning hoodies, plastic glasses and long sleeves. I had a t-shirt, jeans and beanie. Ilo had glasses, no sleeves and shorts. Nevertheless after a bit of encouragement she joined me under the fireworks, hiding under me until the bang and we could flee. The noise, energy and excitement was amazing. Such fun. Later we drank in the street, watched a human pyramid family perform next to us, saw a light show and rumba concert and ate some street noodles at 2am. It was a good day.

Now I’m on to San Sebastian, the jewel of Spanish cities, recommended by everyone who’s been. Follow that with Bilbao, Naples, Venice and Bologna before Jan and I’s crazy plan comes into action. For now i can still hear my ears ringing from the drums and fireworks. Awesome time.