From San Sebastián we became car drivers, always a scary thought when you are used to driving a) on the left hand side of the road, and b) an automatic (apologies to the van we rolled back into whilst trying to find the right gear this morning!). However, navigating in foreign cities has been made easier thanks to Google maps and the TomTom – well, at least that is the theory (but more of that later).
The Europecar office was a 15 minute walk from our hotel, so we set off trundling our suitcases behind us. With a little help from a friendly local we found the office, eventually located the car in the shopping centre car park (again with help from a local) and breathed a sigh of relief that all our gear fitted in the boot. Then it was off on our meandering path to Bilbao.
Our first stop was the lovely fishing village of Getaria, a short drive up the coastline and home to the local wine, txacoli. Its other claim to fame is being the birthplace of Balenciago. Unfortunately we were too early for the Balenciago museum to be open – in fact, we were too early for most things to be open as we arrived around 9.30 in the morning, much too early for the more civilised Spainards.
However, wandering the tiny laneways we stumbled upon a Pintxo bar that was open and enjoyed some very delicious Pintxo and a coffee for breakfast, watched over by two old guys who were clearly enjoying their morning glass (or two) of txacoli!
We noticed that many of the restaurants have huge BBQs outside, so can only guess that they specialise in grilled seafood as there is clearly a large working port in the town. It looks like a little town that would be worth lingering longer in; one more to add to the list.
We popped into the lovely central church and admired its unusual sea inspired stained glass:
We have been intrigued by a particular flag that we have seen festooned over balconies ever since arriving in the Basque area. I took the opportunity of questioning a local shopkeeper as to its meaning. He told us that it is an exhortation to bring the Basque separatist prisoners, who are held in jails elsewhere in Spain, to jails within the region in order to make it easier for their families to visit them.
We then turned inland, heading for Gernika (or Guernica as we know it) – famous in our minds for the Picasso painting of the massacre that occurred in the town in 1937 when German planes used the town for bombing practice. A tiled version of the painting sits in the town.
Gernika sits at one end of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is a large marsh area apparently teaming with bird life. We had thought we were going to be able to drive through the area but in fact the road skirts up above the river Oka and views are limited.
But no matter as our real destination is The Painted Forest of Oma, a pine forest near the villages of Oma and Basondo that has been used as a living canvas by the Basque painter and sculptor, Agustin Ibarrola. The artist began painting the trees in the forest in 1982, finishing the work in 2000. You can visit the forest as part of a 7km circuit walk, starting from the restaurant Lezika (where you can park the car) just before Basondo.
The work takes a while to grow on you ( excuse the pun), and it may be best to ignore the rather cryptic descriptions – rather, allow yourself to simply enjoy the visual joy and exuberance of the painted forest.
We were hot and sweaty after our hike, so gladly clambered back into the car and headed off to Elantxobe in search of a cooling beer. We had read that Elantxobe was the most attractive of the villages along that part of the coast, clinging as it does to the cliff face. Well, we beg to differ with whoever wrote that, as Elantxobe appears to be something of a ghost town, with many closed and abandoned premises and a generally derelict air. We found one small and uninspiring bar, but at least the beer was cold.
Slightly refreshed we headed for Bilbao, and our accommodation for the night – Caravan Cinema, situated in the old part of Town (http://www.caravan-cinema.com). We knew from our host that we would not be able to park at the Pensione, but somehow or other the other information about how to get to the accommodation and where to park had become lost in transit, so we were reliant on the very nice English lady in the navigational device. Turns out someone had forgotten to tell her that the old part of Bilbao was a pedestrian zone – cars are only allowed in before 8am. So, being obedient types when she told us, confidently, to turn Right, we did – straight into the rabbit warren of pedestrian streets with no way of getting out except to move ever so slowly forward, dodging pedestrians, playing children, prams, dogs, wheelchairs, and outdoor cafes.
After half an hour of nail biting negotiations around people (all shaking their heads and tutting) and obstacles we finally found an exit and burst forth into the traffic with relief. Turns out we were very lucky not to be spotted by the traffic police as we would have incurred a 300 Euro fine, and a very stern lecture.
We finally managed to locate the Pensione, and our host – who thought the situation was very funny, but kindly came in the car with us to shepherd us to the car park and then back to his hotel.
The hotel was delightful, themed around Spanish actors and film directors. And, was perfectly located – for anything on foot!
We quickly showered and then went to the Pintxo bar over the road to join a girlfriend from Melbourne who had flown into Bilbao that afternoon. By then we really needed a drink! From the bar we moved on to a little cafe (Cafe Rotterdam) that had been recommended by our host as a casual place specialising in Basque cuisine.