Walking out the hostel early, breathing in the cool Basque morning air, I was ready. It was true, it was a few degrees cooler up here, I let the crispness of the morning refresh me as I thought of my regretfully bought sleeping bag in my rucksack.
I looked back across the river at the museum and then up at the bridge. Last night the lights from the massive La Salve bridge had danced from the shimmering waters of the river and the gleaming silver of the Guggenheim museum below. Today it simply loomed close by looking too big and out of place. Like a lonesome mid-century high-rise in a village. While I searched the local area for a coffee and some breakfast, I found it difficult to form an opinion of Bilbao. It is bordered on 3 sides by steep hills, split in two by a wide river, has new and old bundled together ungraciously. I was not in the touristy centre of the city but for a new comer, it was difficult to tell exactly where that was. One thing was for sure; it was different to the other parts of Spain I had been. Stronger, more robust and also more radical in both architecture and people.
After grabbing a coffee and a few things from a supermarket, I went in search of a walking map. After visiting a paper shop, a tourist information centre and a book shop I had three maps, all fairly useless. One was a road map of the Basque North coast, one was a tourist’s map of the same area dotted with tourist’s intrigues but no paths and the last was of the whole of the Basque municipality. I had even tried asking for maps of this Camino de Santiago several people had spoken of, but to no avail.
I therefore set off that Monday morning in early September following Google maps on my phone. I worked out a rout to a village on the coast around 25 kilometres away. In the village was a campsite, I hadn’t booked anything as I hadn’t thought it necessary, I wanted to keep myself flexible.
The sun was warm as I headed North, on the East side of the wide, brown Ría del Nervión. I followed the main road, occasionally slipping into small neighbourhoods. One of which was the Ibarrekolanda area. Here, there was a low view point looking over the mishmash of architecture which followed the river. It was very industrial, rusted metal structures and simple, old, block buildings with work yards covered in dirt hovering between a state of use and forgotteness. In another neighbourhood I saw the preparations of a fiesta; fresh bunting crisscrossed above the road as people cleaned the street.
Despite diverting into some residential streets my rout kept linking up with the road along the river. Passing under the vast concrete Puente de Róntegui, I eventually peeled off to the East and began to rise into another urban area: Los Pinos. I walked through several interconnecting towns and villages, all were nice, quiet, middle class affairs. Just outside the city and not too far from the sea. Immediately I felt that these little towns had more in common with what I knew about England rather than what I’d learnt about Spain.
I continued to gradually climb. The villages became more open, greener and less dense but the urban areas continued to interlink. I was longing to reach wilder climates. I passed through Kurtze Auzoa, a small place where my rout crossed a railway several times. Here I had my first real view of the tree engulfed hills and mountains of which the Basque country is famous, just out of reach. Finally I reached Sopela, a pleasant little village where I crossed a park and started to climb a steep hill marking the end of the urban sprawl. The road was boarded by two small goat farms on each side and headed towards some woodland at its peak. I checked Googlemaps to make sure I was heading in the right direction. It displayed a path which cut through the trees before heading down towards the village I was heading for. I followed, but despite the path indeed being there it was impossible to follow. I’m not sure how often and by whom Google maps is updated, but sometimes it really does send you down blind alleyways.
This time wasn’t so bad. I retraced my steps to the road and traversed a 10 minuet diversion to a junction. From there on out it was easy sailing to the village. To my left, the green, grazed grass hills rolled away down to the Atlantic, to my right were the low wooded mountains of País Vasco. The sounds of birds and breeze brushed trees filled the air and bounced off the hillside. Not too long after reaching the countryside of the coastline I began to hear another, less natural sound. I could hear the beat of music, echoing up the hill far before I spotted the town. After climbing up, the road began to descend towards the picturesque town of Plentiza. Its white, red roofed buildings tightly clumped over a steep, short hill. On its near side was a clear, clean estuary and just beyond I could see a yellow sand beach.
The bass beat slowly materialised into music as I got closer, but not just any music. The first song I made out clearly was not of the Spanish guitar or reggaeton but the WMCA. I arrived into the beautiful town of Plentiza to the Village People. Here the streets were also crisscrossed in bunting and only beginning to fill up with people in the mid-afternoon. I decided not to explore the fiesta just yet but to find my campsite and pitch my tent for the first time.
The campsite was just beyond in neighbouring Gorliz. A very happy, smiling lady showed me around the busy and well facilitated campsite. I hate to admit it but I didn’t manage to put my tent up on my own the first time around. With the aid of a Dutch guy we managed it. After all was done I went back into the town to see what all the commotion was about. The town was celebrating San Antolín, its most prominent fiesta. In true Basque style the men wore red berets and neckerchiefs with white shirts and black waistcoats while the woman wore traditional red skirts. In the main street Basque men and women drank and laughed wholeheartedly. In the plaza children from a local school were putting on a performance. With everyone distracted with the activity, I peered tiredly into the river, where hundreds of fish were pushing unseen, upriver.
The #beautiful #playadeplentzia next to the town of #Plentzia in the #Basquecountry . The yellow sand beach sits in a short bay and is a popular destination for those living in nearby #Bilbao It was also my first stop on my Basque adventure. #internationalstumblingsofamoneylessidol #wordpress #jakestumbler
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.
Valencia is a city without many superlatives. It is the 3rd biggest city in Spain by population, 2nd biggest on the Mediterranean. It is 3rd in Spain by square meters. It is not the hottest, coldest, driest or wettest. It has one of but not the biggest public parks in the country, the same can be said for its beach. It is neither the wealthiest or the poorest and has arguably the 4/5th biggest football team.
Valencia is not a city which tops many fact based lists but it is one that sits at the top of many an opinionated one. Ask anybody that has spent time in the city and they will speak highly of it. This is because it has a little something for everyone. The sunbathers go to the beach, the partiers go to the clubs, the foodies go to the paella restaurants and the shoppers head to the center.
Valencia is an amazing holiday destination but it’s an even better place to live. While Madrid and Barcelona are big and fat enough to swallow you up, Valencia is just right. (The city has nearly half the population of Barcelona.) It’s a big city, 800,000 people, but them people are spread across a large area. Its 6 miles from city center to the furthest end of the massive Malverrosa beach. This means you’re never too far from a gap in the urban sprawl. The biggest of which is the 9 kilometer long public park which sits in the old river bed, cutting through the city. El Jardines del Turia is a beautiful park of many different habitats, playgrounds, sports fields and ponds. The unmortised highway, I called it. There are not many cities where you can go from one end to the other without even crossing a road. Most Spanish cities are not the most bike friendly. They try to be but cycle lanes are often ignored or neglected. In Valencia that isn’t the case. The city is flat and bike lanes can take you to any part of it, obviously the park helps out here too. This is why the city has one of the most popular city bike facilities.
If you travel to the far end of the park you reach the City of Arts and Sciences. A project stooped in controversy because of its high maintenance and building coasts. It is truly a unique, futuristic and oddly relaxing place though. A garden above the project and an underground car park built into its side transform into serial, fantastical and undoubtedly cool nightclubs of an evening. Umbracle and Mya are just two of many you can find throughout the city, creating a constantly buzzing nightlife.
If you are one for a party, Valencia also has one of the biggest and craziest fiestas in a country full of big and crazy fiestas. Las Fallas, the festival of fire; where mascletas deafen your ears in the daytime sun, grand, skillfully crafted monuments pop-up in every crossroad and plaza just to be set alight in a blazing fire in the night of the last day, all while the city descends into a chaotic party.
Many people leave the city for Las Fallas. Too loud, too much. Many quieter people may also not enjoy the lively nights. On the other hand, if you are a big city person, Valencia might not feel like enough and only Madrid or Barcelona can satisfy your needs. If you are anywhere in the middle, you’ll enjoy Valencia.
So my days in Valencia came to an end. Thursday, which was very much my Friday, came about and I had gone drinking. I did as I had the previous Thursday, I met with Jon and found the students next to the beach. We danced at the beachside club Akuarela and stumbled home. This time however, with it being my last day, I had got a little more drunk. I’m not sure what time I got back to Marcella’s flat and passed out on my sofa-bed but I woke up in the morning with a message from a BlaBla car I had booked the day before: “where are you?” I had booked the ride for 9:00, I woke up at 9:05, with no BlaBla car. Hung-over and still a little drunk my mind didn’t tell me to relax, book another one in an hour or so and chill-out. Instead it said: QUICK, LEAVE, WE NEED TO GO TO MADRID. Whilst nursing my dizzy head on the coach after rushing to the bus station and booking the earliest Westward coach, I wondered why.
For a few days I had been pondering over how to spend my free week. It was Friday 29th of August. I had a flight booked from Madrid to Bristol on Wednesday September 10th, the day before my Graduation. Between them dates, I was free. I had very little money; my bank account had gone from -600 to -1200 in the 3 months I’d spent in Valencia. Considering I’d had free accommodation that entire time and had earned 160 euros, it my lifestyle had hardly been modest.
My mind asked two things: first, could I stay in Madrid with Atlas? That was dismissed by her as soon as it was suggested. Secondly, should I go home? It seemed pretty logical; save money, relax, see family. As logical as it seemed, another voice encouraged me to explore. Not for the first time, Atlas egged me on to do something more than just sit on my ass. So instead of going home, I decided I would go walking. My diet hadn’t been great in Valencia but my almost daily runs in the Mediterranean heat had made me fitter than I had felt in years. Use the strength, I thought to myself, go on a 7 day hike.
My first plan was to walk from Bilbao to Gijon along the north coast. I’d heard many good things about the beauty of the North so I wanted to see it for myself. My second idea was to hike through the Pyrenees. I’d missed the mountains, I loved mountain landscapes and I hadn’t been in so long. After careful consideration, Huesca to San Sebastian might have been too much to chew. Finally, I settled on Bilbao to San Sebastian. This way I had the best of all worlds: mountains, sea and cities. I jotted down the names of some campsites along the coast, booked a BlaBla car from Madrid to Bilbao for the Sunday and an Air BnB in San Sebastian exactly 7 days later. It was set, adventure booked.
As well as a change of job, I had also changed my dwellings for my last two weeks of Valencian summer. Not once but twice. I had told all the staff at the hostel that I was leaving but staying in the city for a couple of weeks. Alex, one of the Aussie activity guys said he had a spare room in his house that I could have till the end of the week. It was just around the corner of the hostel, right next to the Torres de Quart; one of the two remaining 14th century city gates. Serrans Gate is the touristy one, restored to full spender, it sits in an open area next to the park at the end of one of the old towns busiest streets. Torres de Quart is the battle scarred gate, inconspicuously looming at the end of a quiet road covered in cannon ball holes and blows left by the Napoleonic Wars. Apartments in most major cities which live in quiet, central streets next to major monuments are normally very expensive. In Spain that isn’t the case. You can have a cheap, central flat on a pretty road for ten times less than in England. I’m not exaggerating.
The flat I stayed in the following week was Marcella’s. A Colombian Canadian who I had met through the German friend I’d met at a Couch Surfing event. Marcella was a jovial, wholehearted person volunteering at a nursing home. She had once tried to teach me how to dance to Latin music; I was a slow learner. There wasn’t any drama in Marcella’s flat in the modern North of the city. Well not until the very last moment anyway. I had a sofa-bed in the entrance parlor that would have been very uncomfortable had I not been tired at the end of each day.
Alex’s was quite different. I’m not sure what happened to Atlas. I know that she had been seeing a Spanish guy in Madrid and had continued to reiterate that we should talk less, but two days into me living at Alex’s flat she decided to visit. I asked if it was cool for her to stay and he brushed it aside, “of course”. I was staying in a free room he had; Atlas arrived, she was very happy and very prurient. We court up in my spare room before leaving the house for a drink. We quickly returned though as, well, when in company. I had a message on my phone from Alex when we got back. He was asking me to move our things into the room next door as the landlord might arrive to show the room to someone. He said that the room was free. I took that as the room was available to use as I had the last but when we moved our things in, it seemed very much occupied. I sent a text to confirm its availability and he replied, simply: “Sure”. Given Atlas’ unexpected, welcome visit we dived into the room. It was a hot sticky summers day. In midst of things there was the noise of someone entering through the front door, the sound of a suitcase. I leapt off the bed and blocked the door just as someone tried to push it open.
“Hello?” a female voice asked confused.
Me and Atlas looked to each other fearfully.
“Just a minute.”
We had taken the precaution of removing the sheets from the bed. We quickly returned them over the sweaty mattress, threw on our clothes, took a deep breath and hid our smiles the best we could. The girl, quite confused, sat awkwardly in the kitchen. She took it well enough. She didn’t seem happy about it but who would? We quickly left her to enter her room, smells of us surely lingering unpleasantly. I slept my last two nights on the sofa in the front room.
The next few weeks went by very quickly. Two of the most enjoyable I had that summer in Valencia. It wasn’t all because I’d stopped working at the hostel but that was a big part of it. The new job was; not like a job. On Monday we walked with students down to the beach where I played some volleyball with them before heading back. On Tuesday and Thursday we took them on tours of the city center and on Wednesday I had six 15 minuet conversations. (Ann did the tour, I just came along and chatted). After the tour we would allow the students 30 minutes to wonder about the center while we and the other conversation partners had a quick beer. At the end of each activity we would have to go to the canteen in the student’s residence to eat with them, to me this just meant free food. The canteen buffet wasn’t great but my diet that summer had been awful.
For two weeks that was my job in Valencia: beach, talking, walking and free food. My workmates were a laugh too. One was an older Canadian guy who was in-between jobs, the other two were English and around my age. One, a tanned, confident boy who looked like he had been doing the job for years asked where I was from. Being used to no one knowing my small hometown of Telford, I said:
“The West Midlands.”
“Me too” he said “Where in the West midlands?”
“Shropshire” I said.
“No way, me to. Where?”
In a job that employed native English speakers from all over the world, I was working, in a group of 4, with a guy from Telford. I came from an area called Ketley bank, he was from neighboring Ketley. He had also been to the same collage as me at the same time as me, just the year above. I was surprised I hadn’t recognized him, Telford’s not a big place. They were good guys, on the Thursday, both Thursdays, I went out with non-Telford Jon (They were both called Jon).
The first Thursday, we had met the students during a botellón next to the beach. To the delight of Jon who could introduce me to the concept, this would be my first experience of a botellón. Botellón translates as big bottle and all it is, is a bunch of people who gather in a public place and drink supermarket alcohol. Its ‘predrinks’ but Spanish style. From what I can tell, every city has a selected botellón spot. A place where people drink and the police turn a blind eye. I’m not sure what happened after the big bottle but I remember how it ended. Me, Jon and about 8 of the uni students stripping to our underwear and jumping in the sea. I was told the following week that this is deemed unacceptable.
In terms of the job, I was enjoying it and looking forward to continuing in Cartagena after my graduation. There, I was told that I’d be a “conversation partner coordinator”, earning a hundred quid more a month. All was looking pretty rosy.
That Sunday I finished my final shift at the hostel, I had no party, no cake but I really didn’t expect one. If the hostel staff had a celebration every time someone left then there would be one every week. Also, it wasn’t my last day living in the hostel. I was allowed to stay for free for two more days before they would kick me out. After, I was going to move into one of the pub crawl Aussie’s houses until the end of the week. He lived 3 minutes away, just around the corner, I wasn’t going anywhere fast.
Before starting work for Berlitz I had ironed out the details of where and for how long I was working. They had offered me positions in Valencia, Madrid, Sevilla and Cartagena; the last of which I knew nothing about. My mind worked like this as I made my decision: I had spent a very pleasant 2 months in Valencia but this was an opportunity to go somewhere new. Madrid was where Atlas was and I really thought it wouldn’t aid my emotions and our separation if I went and lived in her city. Sevilla, I had been told, was Spains hottest city and although it was a place I would really like to visit, I didn’t really want to work in such sweltering conditions. That left the obscure Cartagena; a seaside city in the region south of Valencia, Mercia. That short description and the fact it was home to some impressive remains of a Roman amphitheatre, was all I knew of Cartagena when I decided it would be the next city I would live in. Little did I know at the time but that decision would end up saving my Spanish adventure. There was another reason for choosing Cartagena. 3 weeks from then I had my graduation ceremony for my university back in Falmouth. I had always intended to go but because the Cartagena job didn’t start until the week after, it meant I wouldn’t need to take any time off. The plan was: work for 2 weeks in Valencia, bum around for a week (I hadn’t quite decided what to do), go back to Falmouth for 3 days, graduate, fly back to Spain to start a 2 and a half month contract in the unknown town of Cartagena.
I went to start the new job on the Monday full of optimism. Before I arrived I knew 3 things about the job: It was fewer hours (4 ½ hours instead of 7), less days worked (4 days instead of 5) and more money (550 a month instead of 100). Apart from that I knew nothing about what a conversation partner was or did. I arrived and was greeted by the “head of conversation partners” Anna, outside. She was sitting down at a table furiously puffing on a cigarette and sipping a coffee. From the moment she started talking I could tell she was a character. She had an energy which she seemed to only just keep controlled, she was constantly smiling, not a fake smile but genuine and she had a childish youthfulness even though she was probably around 50 years old. She explained, extremely casually, that our roles as conversation partners were to keep the students entertained, but more importantly, speaking English after they had finished their lessons. The students were all university goers on a 5 day intensive course. Anna explained that the way we kept them speaking English and enjoying themselves was simple. We took them to the beach, took them on tours of the city centre and had little chats with them. That was the job.
If it sounds easy or good fun, that’s because it was. For the entire time I worked as a conversation partner, I never felt like I was working. All the students were around my age so I’d always be able to have a laugh with them. They all wanted to go for drinks with you on a Friday. Let’s face it, gong to the beach isn’t work. Working as a conversation partner just felt like a good way to spend my time while I was in Spain and nothing you would consider “a job”.
Working, living at the hostel had been, all in all, a pleasant experience. It wasn’t what had been advertised and you had no privacy but it had been a great departure point to help cast me off on my overseas life. I met a lot of interesting, outgoing people, especially in the first few weeks, the staff were friendly and it was cool being able to live smack-bang in the middle of Valencia’s oldest district “Carmen”. The pub crawls, which were extended from 6 nights a week to 7, meant I always had a chance to let off some steam with the crazy, Aussie lead group who ran the activities. Most of the time I would just go to the first bar where the drinks were free and then go home. I only ever made it to the big night club at the end of the crawl if it was a particularly good group and I could make myself turn a blind eye to the amount of money I would spend on drinks getting there.The only two nights a week I couldn’t go on the crawl were the two I worked. Even the night shifts I began enjoying. I ran the hostel on those nights and I often didn’t have any problems. Only once in my 2 and half month tenure did I have to call the management back because a Spanish guy refused to believe the hostel was full.
On the morning shift, which was my most common, I had to wake up early to get the croissants from the small bakery 5 minuets walk from the hostel. I’d walk through the old town as it was still waking up; no tourists or trinket salesmen to disturb the scenery as I walked to the back door of the yet to open bakery. The smell of the freshly baking pastries wafted out to relieve the senses of the early morning sewer smell. The hairy armed baker would grunt and pass me a tray half full with croissants, half pain au chocolat, I’d always steal one while they were warm.
After returning to the police station, this time armed with my Spanish speaking German friend, I was ready for another day of Spanish Bureaucracy. It wasn’t to be. To my amazement I went through to the office and was told the number I had on a piece of paper was my NIE and all I had to do was pay for it at a bank. After all that waiting, walking and box checking, I hadn’t even known that the task had been completed. Later that day I approached the hostel boss, an Argentine lady who everyone feared and who apparently hated men. I told her that I would be finishing at the end of the week as I didn’t have the cash to continue working there. She took it well enough, the staff turn around at the hostel was ludicrously frequent, and with that, my hostel life would soon be over.