Atlas is very much an organizer and a little bit of a worrier. If it was up to me I would have travelled to Bilbao without any equipment or preparation. Atlas didn’t allow that. On the Saturday, a day before I left for Bilbao to start my week long hike, I went shopping. I rented a bike from the center while Atlas took her own. We cycled to the deep south of the city where there was a big Decathlon (Spain’s biggest sports outlet). We cycled along the river, through the park and playgrounds close to the Vicente Calderon stadium. Over the bridge and around the grounds of a arts space built amongst old industrial buildings.
I was very shy in parting with cash, I didn’t think I would need a sleeping bag or a mallet, but Atlas convinced me otherwise. I can admit in hindsight that I needed to be convinced. I brought the cheapest everything, tent, pegs, sleeping bag. It was strange buying new things, I wasn’t one for buying much that didn’t disappear down my gullet. When we rode away from Decathlon, I had all this new stuff.
On the Sunday, the time had come, I met my BlaBla car in the Madrid city center. It was a van driven by two middle-aged hippy rockers who played Spanish ska the whole way up to the Basque county. The passengers included their young collie dog who patiently sat between them, a young, extremely hung-over guy who somehow slept the entire way and an old lady who sat silently peering out the window, with me in the middle. We were an odd bunch of travel companions.
While in Madrid, me and Atlas had acted how we always had since I arrived in Spain, like a couple. Before I left she had said that when I returned we would not be like this anymore. Even though she had been saying that for three months, there was more of a certainty about it this time. More surprisingly, there was more of an acceptance of it on my part. Valencia had been a great experience for me, don’t get me wrong, but it had been massively hindered by my longing for Atlas. I hadn’t wanted to give her up but maybe now I was more ready. It played on my mind on the long 5 or so hour drive up North, but not in a negative way.
I arrived in Bilbao and was dropped off at the bus station after descending into the city on a motorway that hung off the side of a cliff. The hippy rockers hadn’t spoken a word of English on the way up but when I got out the car the lady hugged me and said “fly free”, I liked that.
It was already dark when I arrived and I still needed to find a hostel. I hadn’t booked one because I was holding out to see if someone would accept my couch surfing request but it didn’t happen. I had made a mental map of where a few hostels where though so I walked to them and they were all full. Unknown to me, the basketball world cup started in Bilbao the following day and most places where fully booked. The last place I walked to was closed, it was a hostel called Botxo gallery, right on the opposite side of the river to the very impressive, immediately recognizable Guggenheim museum. I walked around for a little before scouting a bench I thought I could sleep the night on. I’d never slept rough in a city before but my sense of adventure was so high at that moment it didn’t seem to bother me. I approached a young guy who had been sitting on a bench, on his laptop, looking across the river at the arching, leaning, shining Guggenheim and the towering, modern, dazzling bridge which soared close by. I asked if he too was sleeping out tonight.
“No” he replied, “I just booked a bed in that hostel” pointing to the closed building I’d inspected before. “They just sent me the code to get in”.
“Oh”, I said. “That’s convenient.”
“Do you want to use my laptop to book one for yourself?”
“Yes, yes please.”
Not for the last time on that specific trip or indeed on my travels in general would a fellow traveller help me out. My first night sleeping rough would have to wait.