Continuing our long weekend in Bilbao………
As we had plenty of time over the next two days to explore the rest of Bilbao, we decided upon side trip. San Sebastián was the most obvious choice, but we plumped for the ‘third’ Spanish Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz.
Return bus tickets cost us €12 each for the hour’s ride south. A modern tram whisked us the few stops into the centre and we were soon exploring the impressive Gothic Santa Maria katedrala as it is named in the Basque language.
We spent a very pleasant half hour exploring the decorative crypt and the slightly less impressive main building.
As we wandered outside again, we noticed a few people wearing a blue and white football shirt. We figured the local team must have been playing that day. I had never heard of a team called Vitoria, so assumed they must play in the lower Spanish leagues.
As we sat for an early afternoon beer in the main squares (Plaza de la Virgen Blanca) the number of football shirts grew. We were intrigued so asked a local.
First up the Vitoria team are called Alaves, a team that have flitted between the top two leagues in Spain. They had been promoted the previous season and that day they were only up against the giants of Real Madrid.
Before long, droves of noisy flare wielding fans marched past us on the way to the small stadium, whose capacity is less than twenty thousand. It would be full to bursting that day for the visit of one of Spain’s big two.
We toyed with the unlikely idea of getting tickets, but of course it had been sold out weeks in advance, so we ventured up hill into the old town.
We passed a multitude of bars en route to the old town centre, each of them thronging with excited fans eagerly anticipating how their low profile heroes would cope with the likes of world stars such as Ronaldo, Bale, Modric and Benzema.
We squeezed past them through the narrow streets, before finding ourselves in the spacious courtyard of the San Miguel church.
Sadly it was clad in scaffolding and was also shut so we satisfied ourselves with the splendid view of the town and surrounding countryside rather than what was described as a marvellous Baroque altar designed by Gregorio Fernández.
The walk down again via ancient steps and cobbled streets was very pleasant. We soon found ourselves directly above the square where we had sat earlier, now a whole lot quieter now the match had commenced.
The only thing to do was to have another glass and appetising pintxos and watch some of the match on TV.
Real had an early scare when Alaves took the lead, but soon took control, running out 4-1 winners including a treble from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Back in Bilbao by 6.30pm, we hunted for what seemed a rare beast in the city, a restaurant.
Bars definitely dominated the culinary scene. We eventually found a (rather disappointing) Italian and vowed to return to delicious pintxos for the rest of our trip.
Over the next couple of days we re-traced some of our steps. Sunday was remarkably traffic free, the old town remarkably crowded. The weather remained fabulous and many families were taking the opportunity for a stroll and leisurely lunch.
We joined them in some al fresco pintxos and beer before heading for the Bilbao San Mames stadium for the top flight match against local Basque rivals Osasuna.
We had purchased the rather pricey tickets in England. Despite looking for weeks ahead, all but the €180-€250 price range were not up for sale. In the event we managed to book what appeared to be the only three seats next to each other in the whole ground for €86 each.
The match unfortunately did not really live up to the pre-game anticipation. The stadium was magnificent but the result petered into a rather dull one-one draw and the atmosphere was also relatively muted.
We still enjoyed the experience and I managed to tick off a long-held ambition to watch a Bilbao home game.
Finally a bit of a mystery. Bilbao has a very fine railway station and you would have thought for a city of 350,000 people that it would be a hive of activity with trains heading all over Spain and over the border to France. In actuality, there was just one local journey available, presumably linking up with the more extensive network elsewhere.
I am guessing it is for reasons of engineering difficulty that the are not AVE trains speeding to Madrid or Barcelona. Or maybe it is cultural, with the Basques not really wanting to connect with the rest of Spain?