Starting from Barcelona, two foreign friends take on the back roads to Southern France during summer, 2014. My Mexican friend and I set out to explore an area not generally known for adventure. But since minor details were left to the spur of the moment decision making, it all manifested very quickly into a spontaneous, wing-it kind of backpacking. The type of things you would typically see only in the movies. People like us inspire such movies…
An early morning start to Sants Estacion train station and our first typical us moment strikes: “Ok, what was the name of the ticket we should get again?” Followed by: “Oh crap, my card doesn’t work here, do you have enough cash on you?” Finally, we got the one we wanted that goes through the beautiful mountain landscapes and takes us to the cute border crossing in Latour de Carol (La Tor de Querol in Catalan).
If you’re planning to take this route instead of the one running next the coast, you need to plan ahead. It’s a nice, relaxing and long ride. Pack your own snacks and drinks, games, iPods, chargers; something to keep you busy. I was so fortunate as to have a friend that loves card games… The mid-way stop/change at the crossing doesn’t have a vending machine and there are no restaurants around either but there are stools and trees outside.
Naturally, whenever you plan to cross a border you should have your travel docs ready. Once the booth is open, you can buy/show your ticket along with your documents and then you’re off again for a few hours. We waited a little while for the next train to arrive but I was happy to soak up some sun, peace and quiet – finally out of the city!
Arriving in Toulouse was quite interesting. The station, as always, bustling with all kinds of people and languages, going and coming, and turning back again. We were one them, we struggled to get out! But once we did it was easy to find our hostel. The city has big open streets, directions, visible signs and names which helped a lot when all you have is a paper map from the station.
We stayed at a hotel, an affordable option and with wifi. It was neat, central and close to the station. Our first day in France consisted of buying snacks and breakfast for the next day at the local supermarkets just up the street. And then, EXPLORE! We quickly invaded the plaza in the centre of this, namely Place de Capitole. Guarded by high surrounding buildings and a rather majestic front entrance, this plaza hosts a lot of activity apart from the variety of restaurants and elegant hotels. You will also find the tourism office here.
For 2 days (1 night) we pretty much discovered the most amazing little streets, markets and parks just by wandering around. My friend has this special ability to walk in circles, so, many things we saw twice… But in our defence, take a look at the city map, you tend to take a few curious turns and you end up right back where you started! We had picnics in the Japanese Gardens and on the river bank and enjoyed very much the southern France welcome. While walking around the market, the down-to-earth atmosphere and people invite you in and to a longer stay. We found the people to be kind, friendly and helpful.
After Toulouse we took the train to Lourdes where the altitude and slightly lower temperature climate caught us by surprise. But this was the perfect climate to hike up that beautiful piece of Pyrenees! As you might already know, Lourdes is quite a religious site and you won’t normally pass through here or stay for a couple of nights unless it was intended. Even though it wasn’t my thing and the small town of Lourdes can be a little overpopulated with tourists all year round, it was an interesting experience.
The old architecture is still something to admire, take a stroll outside of the centre and you can enjoy a different side of this community. And of course you can take a hike up the mountain and enjoy the view and nature at the top. The climb can be a little steep at times but you shouldn’t get lost, if you’re going up, aim up and the same goes for going back down. All trails lead to the main destinations. There is a restaurant at the top with a basic menu, packets of chips and a few different coldrinks/sodas and sweets to choose from. The restaurant at the foot of the mountain should have a much bigger variety.
Next, we planned to take the early train to Irun via Bayonne but instead got in the carriage that took us back to Toulouse… Remember the circles? Hint of advice: the trains split and go their separate ways after leaving the station. Make double sure of your platform number and the number on the various carriages and if you’re still in doubt, ask! Only halfway to Toulouse I looked on my phone’s Google maps as to visually geographically follow our travel and noticed we’re moving in the opposite direction.
Arriving back in Toulouse, getting a ticket again towards the other side of France wasn’t exactly possible. Unless we were to take the train up to Bordeaux and from there to San Sebastian. So that’s what we did. We had around 2 hours of layover at each point. I can’t recall the amount of hours we spent just to get back to Spain and to our reservations in Bilbao but I do remember getting to the hostel fairly late that night after catching a bus from San Sebastian that took us through scenic and mountainous landscapes.
Once we arrived in Bilbao we were tired but not ready for bed since we have been sitting in trains and buses all day, so, instead we went for a walk and scouted the new neighbourhood first. The next day we visited a number of architectural highlights, including the Alhóndiga Bilbao designed by Philippe Starck, the Basque Department of Health building, and the Guggenheim museum to name a few.
The metro service in Bilbao is very similar to Barcelona and easy to use. They have a day ticket that allows unlimited rides, valid in all of the zones, and only expires late night or midnight, perfect for short-term visits and very affordable. Again, if in doubt about tickets, directions, etc., you can ask anyone, the people are very friendly. We chatted to random people everyday and tried to learn Euskara (the Basque language). It’s a very interesting and fascinating language, I enjoyed the pronunciation and the overall sound of the language but, unfortunately, I can’t even remember how to say ‘thank you’. I would have to go back and stay a bit longer.
Our booking at the hostel was for 2 nights, as we planned to be back in Barcelona before the weekend to still finalise projects and hand in homework. But as our train only leaves late afternoon and we have already seen and visited most things we wanted, we decided to do something fun with those few hours we had left. We stumbled across an activity container with canoes, next to the Maritime museum on the Nervión, and knew that was it, we need to do this.
We suited up, came out of the dressing container looking like seals, got our crash course of do’s and don’ts and then we were off! Equipped with waterproof buckets, life jackets, ropes ‘n all, we were rowing like campers once we got comfortable with the team dynamic, rhythm and buoyancy (and smell). We started exploring the underground tunnels you won’t otherwise see from the streets, watch fish jump and and splash as we near them, and spotted some places I’m almost 100% sure someone lives there… The view of the city from the river is a new experience and definitely something to enjoy if you are travelling as a group of friends together. The Zubuzuri bridge by Santiago Calatrava and the Guggenheim museum is great for photography from a different perspective .
Our rowing trip came to an end with a rush to get back to the hostel, fetch our bags and catch that train that was supposed to take us home. But no, there were 2 metro stations equally as far from us, once we got to the one something went haywire and we were all asked to exit the metro. Freaking out and slowly starting a run to the next station, we devised a plan to split up: one gets the luggage, the other stalls our train. Well, no, that didn’t work. My friend got in the metro going in the wrong direction and I had a hill to conquer up and down with luggage, and make it back through the metro filled with people (watching what obviously seemed like a foreigner about to be late). My friend, however, was able to get to the train in time but could not convince them to wait a couple of minutes. We missed the train by literally 5 minutes or so. There was no other available travel options for that day, the next train only leaves 06.00 the next morning. What to do with one more day in Bilbao? Go to the beach!
If there’s one thing that can make it all better it’s the beach: rolling waves, the smell of sea and the lazy sun on the horizon. We set off to find a nice beach, which we did, it’s just that there was not much else in Getxo except for beautiful old buildings and rather lanie neighbourhoods. All the restaurants’ kitchens were closed on the beach, no shops around but way, way, way ‘yonder’ by the harbour, there was a little food court/mall next to the aquarium. Apparently we were lucky to catch them before they also closed.
Fast food has never felt so lifesaving and satisfying! Not that I was that hungry but we were in a bit of a panic =) The free wifi also came as a comfort. I was able to organise some loose ends with the homework and also let my mom know that we won’t be Skyping later that night because we’ve decided to stay a bit longer in Bilbao…
Taking the metro back into the city before it’s completely dark and planning to spend the night abusing the wifi in one of the restaurants in the station, we soon learned that they also close, as the station closes at night and reopens again at 05.00. Wow, we truly are the inspiration to movies about never catching a break. Ok, let’s find a bar or restaurant that’ll be open until the wee hours of the morning, not uncommon in Spain, by the way. But no, all of them also closed around midnight.
Two girls walking, pulling their luggage in the streets of Bilbao. Now, you can safely assume that somewhere between missing our train and walking around 02.00 in the morning that we’ve had some Vodka and OJ. At this point you wouldn’t even need Vodka to laugh at everything. All we wanted was a place to sit down and we found it in the park close to the station. There we met (I can’t remember his name) with a guitar. It made absolutely no sense for him to play that time of night in the park, there was no one around to give money!? He came over to us, probably thinking we are all in the same boat, and we started to chat. He soon handed over his guitar to me and offered to share his Don Simon Sangria.
But the group didn’t stay at 3. After only 10 minutes in the park the lonesome 2 grew to a whole group consisting of Spanish, Mexican, South African, Norwegian and Swedish students. All of a sudden the night seemed not long enough! We had such a blast with them, when it was time to say good bye at 05.00 we wanted to stay but was happy to leave at the same time.
Needless to say, we pretty much slept all the way to Barcelona and then some more once we got home.
I hope that our ‘misfortune-turned-most awesome’ experience would motivate you rather than scare you, to take a road less traveled and not to be afraid of things not going according to plan. It is, after all, what you make of it and who you share it with.