Hellooooooooo Europe

Spain’s a ridiculously diverse country.  I feel I can say that completely unqualified given the travelling I’ve done over the past weekend.  From the famous-beach filled south to the desert landscapes of central Spain to the lush green, snow-capped, Lord-of-The-Rings-worthy scenery of the North, this weekend has made me realize, amongst other things, that Spain has way more to capitalize on in terms of tourism than just the Costa del Sol.

 

What really blew me away this weekend, however, was my travel destination itself.  If, living back at home, a friend had suggested to me to take a weekend trip to Bilbao, I wouldn’t have necessarily ruled it out instantaneously but I would have definitely looked into other potential travel suggestions for the aforementioned theoretical weekend.  Now, having been to Bilbao, if a friend suggested to me to take a weekend trip there, I’d have the Ryanair flights booked quicker than you could tell me “Be careful of the hidden charges”.

 

As Hughie, my host and tour guide for the weekend, put it, it’s by far one of the most European cities in Spain.  One look at the photo below and you’ll see it’s just like any European cosmopolitan hot spot.

 

Bilbao city view

 

When compared to Madrid, Bilbao has a greater flair for architecture (case and point: the Guggenheim), international-franchise-filled Temples to Consumerism (a.k.a. shopping malls), multi screen cinemas and an intangible air about the people that puts them far more into the European category than the Spanish category.  Perhaps it’s all the result of the Basque desire for independence that’s resulted in them distancing themselves from Spanish traditions even if that does mean they become more generically European.  Enough about the political malark though…

 

 

Thursday night

 

Hughie, accompanied by the lovely Sarah, picked me up from the bus station shortly after my arrival and brought me back to chez Hughie.  After the guided tour of the apartment I was left in a somewhat jaw-to-floor manner.  Never had I seen such a nicely-furnished, 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom, Erasmus-student-hosting Spanish apartment before this day.  The rent, however, offered some explanation as to how one could attain such high standards of accommodation. At 60% higher than what I pay in Granada my jaw now needed to be surgically removed from the floor.

 

 

Friday

 

After a successful Thursday night in one of Bilbao’s less-than-formidable clubs (in Hughie’s opinion – I on the other hand thoroughly enjoyed the generously sized drinks), Friday morning played host to a familiar friend, Mr. Hangover.  Having spent most of the day in a minimally moving state, I was recharged and refreshed ready to greet Niamh when she arrived that evening.  After giving her a chance to settle in, the three of us embarked on a walk by the river where we recounted our trials and tribulations and made various validations of the phrase that now ought to be trademarked, “Erasmus is SOOOO hard”.

 

Having worked up a healthy appetite and after numerous enthusiastic reviews from Hughie, we set our sights on a nearby Chinese/Japanese restaurant, now accompanied once again by Sarah.  Excited as I was about the “amazing prawns” that Hughie sung the praises of, there was one word that pushed me over the edge.  That word was buffet.  Kid in a candy store would have been an understatement.  I stood surrounded by prawns and crab, chicken and duck, rice and noodles, sushi and spring rolls, thick batters and thin batters, fried and steamed, sauce-drenched and dry, and most impressively, raw and cooked.  At the back of the room, a large gap in the wall opened into a cooking area, wherein two chefs seemed to be breathing a mixture of flames and steam.  After taking a selection of whatever fish, meat or vegetables you desired from the abundant counter in front of them, you handed your plate to one of the chefs, choosing from a selection of 6 sauces, and within mere moments a stir fry custom designed to your individual taste lay before you.  In spite of my appetite beforehand, which I was convinced would not be satisfied before the 6th plate, I admitted defeat moments before finishing off the 3rd.

 

Satisfied and sated, we returned to Hughie’s house for the 2008 Anglo-parlante Spanish Charades championships.  Hughie and Sarah were battling it out against Niamh and me.  Hands were flying; words were suppressed and ridiculous guesses were made in order to guess such titles as “That 70’s Show”, “The Fugitive”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Entourage”.  Niamh and I were declared the outright winners and, in pure celebratory fashion, rejoiced our victory by a good night’s sleep.

 

 

Saturday

 

Another day and, thanks to the light blocking shutter-blinds, another ridiculous lie-in.  Driven by hunger to leave the house and after making a credit card booking to plan the night ahead, we set out for feeds in the nearby shopping centre before a cultural stop-off in the Guggenheim.  As stunning inside as it is outside, the gallery hosts some stunning pieces which I would have loved to have photographed for the blog but strict no photography rules render this impossible.

 

With the time having just passed 8 o’clock and still having not had the chance to print out the aforementioned credit card booked tickets, stress levels were peaking.  Furthermore, panic was not aided by my uncertainty as to whether the gig was starting at 9 or 10.  Finding an internet café in the nick of time, the tickets were printed and a low nutrient packed Burger King dinner was consumed before we zipped home to speedily get ready for the Yelle-tastic night that lay ahead.

 

Having taken the metro to the stop we were told, we got off only to be greeted by Sandyford Industrial Estate’s deformed younger brother who’s kept locked in the basement.  This place looked creepy.  In the sense of “I’ve walked onto the set of a slasher movie” creepy.  Empty, quiet streets.  Huge factories with smashed out windows.  Shadows appearing from every angle thanks to the occasionally flickering yellow street lamps.

Yelle needs a blog post of her own and that will follow soon.

 

 

Sunday

 

Thank god we didn’t have big plans for Sunday because once again half the day was spent sleeping thanks to the shutters.  The running order of Sunday’s events could be summarized to food, walk, food, cinema, food; with Zubiarte playing host to all of the aforementioned food stops.

 

After our first bite to eat, we made our way to the centre to check out if there was anywhere open to do a spot of Christmas shopping.  It being Sunday and it being Spain, however means:

Having witnessed the Christmas lights and festiveness of the city, we returned to Zubiarte for a quick bite before hitting up the cinema.  As is always the way at Christmas time, kids’ movies rule the roost that is the cinema timetable.  Within our limited choices, we all agreed on Bolt, Disney’s new CGI endeavour.  Being the land of the dubbed movie, it’s always easier to go for the movie with the simple plot than to leave yourself head-scratching.  That said, I did enjoy the digital presentation of Max Payne that I went along to a couple of weeks back but given tiredness levels and the choices available, Disney was the sensible option in this instance.

 

Sadly it lacked the punch of most Disney Pixar movies and with an overall more serious tone, comic relief being provided almost exclusively by the hamster in a ball, this won’t be held in the same prestige as classics such as “Toy Story”, “Finding Nemo” or “The Incredibles”.  Basic “exactly what it says on the tin” entertainment nevertheless.

 

Returning back to the apartment after another McDonald’s stop off, the night was still young so we decided to watch another movie.  Choosing from the selection I had on the laptop, we went for “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, a dark, gritty, British revenge story about a man avenging his brother’s death.  Although a bit slow to really get moving, it gradually becomes more and more tense, pulling in the viewer only to abruptly end in a manner that may have intended to be full of mystery but comes across as rushed and unfinished, strongly exemplified by the introduction of an underdeveloped, almost superfluous, character in the closing minutes of the film.

 

Tiredness caught up on us again and the prospect of an 8am start was all the motivation I needed to get some sleep at that point.

 

 

Monday

 

The alarm rang and after a quick shower and a speedy job of packing my things up I set off on my journey back down South.  Accompanied by Niamh and Hughie to the bus station, I bid my farewells before getting on board the Bilbao to Madrid “supra” bus.  Given that that means nothing to the majority of you who are reading this, I should clarify why this is so special.  When booking my trip, I had 2 options for the return journey – one where I left at 8:30am, had a half hour to transfer in Madrid and arrive into Granada at around 8:30pm or pay an additional €13, get a “supra” bus to Madrid from Bilbao, have an hour and a half to transfer and arrive into Granada at the same time.  Given I was already paying at least €80 on the journey and few buses I’ve taken in my time here have arrived in exactly on schedule, I thought it more sensible to go for the second option.

 

I’m converted.  THIS is how travel should be.  I was greeted onto the bus by a woman who I would soon discover would be the on-board travel attendant as opposed to the usual greeting of a grumpy bus driver bitching at me for booking my tickets online and not having a physical copy of my ticket as he puffs on a cigarette.  With single seat rows running behind the driver’s side and pairs of seats running on the opposite side, all with ample leg room, I made my way down to seat number 23, a seat I made sure to secure on the online booking when I discovered that beneath lay a plug socket to charge your laptop during the journey.  Moments after I had sat myself down, the travel attendant made 2 trips up and down the aisle; once in order to dispense a free set of earphones to each passenger to enjoy the in-journey movies that would be shown on the TV panels around the bus and again to give out coffee-flavoured hard candy.  Soon after, I noticed a sign to my right bearing the phrase “ESTE AUTOCAR DISPONE DE SISTEMA WIFI PARA CONEXION GRATUIRA A INTERNET” which for the Anglophones means “This bus has free Wi-Fi to connect to the internet”.  Whilst this promise held true for the first half hour of the journey before packing in and the familiar “Server not found” page appeared, my opinion was not marred once the announcement came over the speakers that breakfast was about to be served.  Consisting of a pastry and a wide choice of beverages I was satisfied my stomach grumbling had been silenced and sat back to get writing over the next 3 hours of the journey.

 

It was around noon that another announcement came over the speakers stating that lunch was about to be served.  Lunch?  As in a second meal?  They could not be serious.  OK Trans-Atlantic flight it makes sense to dish up a second serving before landing but a 4 hour bus journey?  Screw it!  I’m not gonna complain!  This time each passenger was given a ham and cheese bread roll, drink of their choice and a chocolate truffle.  Cordon bleu it may not have been but it was easily as good as anything you would’ve got from a roadside stop off without adding a minute to the journey time.

A very mature weekend…….

Last Friday (October 10th) I made the journey from Granada up to Salamanca. Niamh had generously invited myself and Hughie to crash at her place for the weekend while we party it up in the frog obsessed city (more on that later).

This is what my journey looked like (you may have to zoom out to see the full route):

Doesn’t look too bad but given that Spain is OVER 6 TIMES THE SIZE OF IRELAND it kinda puts things in perspective.

Food was quite a big thing over the weekend given that at least 6 restaurant visits were made. When you’re served food like this though it does kinda make sense:

And what better to accompany good food? Good conversation. And we had a VERY generous helping of that. Genuinely if you took a transcript of what myself, Hughie and Niamh talked about over the weekend, you’d have a book co-authored by the three of us entitled “Life”. No stone was left unturned: Sarah Palin and the US Presidential race, what there is to love about Dublin, what there is to hate about Dublin, a bit of bitching, the oddness that is the relationship of Starsky and Hutch and how none of us would ever allow ourselves to get into that situation (and no, it’s not about the TV show/movie), expectations about the Erasmus year and the meaning of friendship to name but a few topics of discussion.

I arrived on Friday night at about midnight but Hughie wasn’t arriving til Saturday evening. So it gave myself and Niamh a good chance to do the touristy thang.
Here’s me shaking my tail feather in Plaza Mayor during the day:

Here’s the same place by night:

Pretty, much??

Pretty, much??

I gotta say the Salamenticenses (People or things from Salamanca – take that English students!!) have a pretty good sense of humour.

When restoring this beast of a cathedral…

…they decided to go a little bit mad with the stone work:

Yes that is a dragon with an ice cream

Yes that is a dragon with an ice cream

and that's an astronaut

and that is an astronaut

There’s also a local legend that if you find the frog in the stone work on one of the external walls of the university unaided then you’ll have seven years of good luck. Ask any student and they’ll tell you that it’s actually seven years good sex.

I was searching for quite a while

I was searching for quite a while

it was actually in such an obvious spot

I'd been staring about a foot to the right of it for a good 5 minutes before seeing it

The trio (Niamh, Hughie and I) were reunited on Saturday evening and we were all ready for the fun to begin.

But as I mentioned in the title of this post it was a “very mature weekend”. Why? I managed to spend the entire weekend without getting crazy drunk (that’s not to say I wasn’t merry!) and we didn’t set foot into a single club given how good the banter was between us. I’ve kinda come to feel recently that I’m not enjoying club nights as much as I used to. I still enjoy them no doubt but nights in with good mates, good banter and good food really is a hard thing to beat. I suppose it’s the product of being a Celtic Tiger Cub. For me and so many others my age going out at least once a week is was the norm (we’re in a recession now don’cha know?) so having a night in by choice – as opposed to due to exhaustion, hangovers, etc. – is, I suppose, a somewhat alien concept!

Sunday night Ger’s dad very generously treated us to dinner which we followed with a few drinks in the Plaza Mayor and the aforementioned trio continued on in the Erasmus bar. Look how happy we are:

note: A couple of jugs of sangría and tanques of beer/glasses of wine may have been consumed at this point

And now I need to make my thank yous. Thank you to:

  • Ger, Niamh and Trish for offering up their abode to myself and Hughie
  • Trish for personally giving up her bedroom for the weekend (you were missed but I hope you had a great time in Alicante!)
  • Niamh for her fantastic tour-guide skills and much appreciated personal shopper assistance
  • Cormac Farrell for a seriously good dinner (first time I’ve properly had red meat since coming to Spain and it was goooooooood)
  • Hughie and Niamh for the great conversation
  • Salamanca for being a hoot

Thanks shall not, however, be made to Alsa for arriving late into Madrid on the outward journey or RENFE for arriving late into Madrid on the homeward journey and stressing the bejayzus outta me in fear that I’d miss my connecting transport.

A good weekend? Indeedee. Hasta luego, Salamanca.