Not to shortchange Bilbao, the city that we visited after Barcelona, but the two are simply incomparable. Perhaps the extreme tourism of Barcelona had clouded my outlook on Spanish cities, but Bilbao’s thriving Basque culture and lack of tourists took me completely by surprise. The countryside alone was a drastic change from Barça’s seaside beauty; from first impressions, the fog trapped in valleys as the sun set behind rocky, forest-covered hills reminded me more of Virginia than anything. Cooler breezes from the Atlantic, a trip to the Guggenheim, a funky language isolate – Euskara – and a Peruvian CouchSurfing host with a penchant for partying colored my three-day weekend in Bilbao.
After getting past the sheer awesomeness of the building’s exterior, the range of emotions the exhibitions induced was almost frightening. From a giant wall of scrolling, blinking red text about an artist’s reaction to an AIDS diagnosis to a case of jars containing formaldehyde-soaked cow organs (supposedly meant to represent two lovers), the exhibits assaulted the senses.
The nights passed in FIESTA party-mode, doing botellon in a few pueblos around Bilbao as part of the summer’s nonstop outdoor festival that rotates between towns each weekend. We drank kalimotxo (red wine mixed with Coca Cola, better than it sounds, actually), danced in the streets, met the Bilbao CouchSurfing community and cooked for Adrian, our last host in Spain.
He was our tour guide and translator, taking pity on our lack of knowledge of Euskara, Basque country’s unique language. He clued us onto the difference between everyday tapas and the more refined pintxos of Basque country. After an endless dinner of fantastic food at a local restaurant, the owner — a friend of our host — even gave me a “Sopelako jaiak 2011” bandanna as a souvenir of the fiesta in Sopelana, one of the villages outside of Bilbao.
Though Bilbao was a spur-of-the-moment decision after rethinking our flexible itinerary, I’m really glad we ended up there. The intangible difference – a feeling brought on by the different language, weather, and food – and the tangible pride and separatist attitude surrounding the Basque people, a weekend with a fiesta-loving Peruvian…lovely reminders of why I adore traveling.