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Portugal and Bilbao, Summer 2007


100+ Posts
By Andrew from Missouri, Summer 2007
August-September 2007: trip to Coimbra, Porto, and Lisbon in Portugal, with side trip to Bilbao, Spain.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.


For a long time I’d been wanting to return to Portugal and visit Bilbao, Spain. Here is my report on finally taking the opportunity.

I will discuss my transatlantic flights at the end of this report and start with my arrival at Lisbon airport. After passport control, pleased that the ATM was working this Sunday and giving notes no higher than €20 as I would find at all ATMs in Portugal, and a restroom stop, my bag was ready. My flight had been a little late and I was eager to get to the Gare do Oriente to catch my train to Coimbra.

The direct city bus didn’t run on Sunday, so I had plans to take a taxi. I had learned that taxi vouchers were sold at the tourist office across from the baggage claim exit, but I might as well just take a cab and make sure the meter was on. I went to the stand outside arrivals, and the driver in front was a woman, I hoped a sign of a good chance of honesty. I got in, we took off, and I wasn’t seeing a meter. I asked “Taximetro?” and got an affirmative response but no more explanation. It was a five-minute drive and she asked for €14, when I hear that it should be around €5 but there is a surcharge on Sundays. I’ve been cheated worse; I thought then that I should have bought a voucher at the airport. The discussions I saw after this say that the vouchers cost a little more than a proper metered fare and, oddly, it’s best to catch a cab at the departures area rather than arrivals.

At this modern station, designed by Santiago Calatrava, I found the escalator entrance to the middle level, below the track level at the top. I had booked my train ticket in advance online, this being the last Sunday in August, and worried about the consequences of missing the train. I was there two hours early and sat in chairs on the middle level, open to the outside. The time approached, I went up to the platform, the Intercity train made its brief stop, and I found the first class car I’d booked. I got my seat, and the car was less than half full. I had printed a ticket looking like a station-issued ticket; it passed muster.

I noted lush green countryside during the train ride. One stop was Fátima; what was visible from the train looked no different from any other small-town station; I learned that that station is quite a distance from the town and is not the closest station for it.

The train arrived at Coimbra B station, where I knew that I would need to change to get to the central Coimbra (A) station. I didn’t see much in the way of signage, but I followed the crowd. I had some assurances online that, even though my printed ticket just showed a Coimbra B destination, I would not need a separate ticket, even though the rail site, Portugese Railways (under Web Resources), wasn’t clear about this. I figured that on this short segment tickets generally weren’t checked; in fact there was a check, and my ticket from Lisbon to Coimbra B was fine.

I arrived at the central station, a.k.a. Estação Nova, and followed the walking route I’d charted along the Rio Mondego to my hotel, the Ibis. I got checked in and took the elevator to my room on the European fifth floor. It faced the river; the only view was of a tree, but I can’t be critical of that. This was a good enough modern hotel.

It was 4pm and I was ready to wander to orient myself. I was close to Largo da Portagem, a hub of activity at the end of the central bridge, where the tourist office was open and I could get a map in addition to the one I had in the Lonely Planet guide. The dominant feature of Coimbra is the high hill where the university stands. I started my way up there with the stair street known as Quebra-Costa or “Back-breaker.” It was a picturesque route where I could consider myself arrived in Europe as I turned to quiet streets and went by tiled walls. I reached the university area, quiet on this intersession Sunday, with drab 1920s blocks and finally appealing old buildings. I went back down to the river; there was a riverfront park full of people and a modern pedestrian bridge.

Not many restaurants listed in the Lonely Planet guide were open on Sunday; I had picked the Hotel Astória as a good place to have my first dinner. I first went at 7, remembering that as a common dinner time in Portugal, but they opened at 8. I returned; the restaurant was upscale with all women servers that night. I had my frequent meal of bacalhau (codfish), accompanied by vinho verde. It was good, with pleasant service. Knowing this was Europe, I made sure to ask for the bill. Time passed, the other diners were leaving, and the waitress asked if I wanted to charge the meal to my room. I said I wasn’t staying at the hotel, and there was more of a wait. Finally, after everyone else had left, she brought a bill with an amount that looked about right but wasn’t itemized, I charged it to my credit card, and left.

My hotel rate didn’t include breakfast, and I identified a pastelaria down the street to have that; for my stay I regularly had pasteis de nata (cream pastries).

Having in mind to get to sights that were open on Monday, I crossed the river to see the Baroque Santa Clara a Nova. Following the practice that I found common, there was an admission charge to see the cloister; I went there and appreciated the quiet.

Returning to the other side, I thought I might as well take the bus to return to the university. At a kiosk by the river, I bought a card good for three rides. The next step was to find the stop for line 1 to the university. I walked along the riverfront to the station and a little beyond, and was not seeing that line. It was getting close to the lunch closing of the ticket office for the old library, and I thought of an alternate plan to get to a big shopping mall.

I found the bus line for that and made the first attempt to insert the ticket. I was getting error messages and the driver said “Push,” at least I think it was the English word, but I later learned it could be the Portuguese “Puxe,” meaning “Pull.” Anyway, he took the card and got it in right; I saw that there’s a barely perceptible arrow.

I got to the shopping mall, got one thing in the big store; then, what about lunch? There was a sign for Golden Arches, where I don’t completely rule out eating in Europe, but I got to the food court and preferred to have a falafel.

Then the return: I crossed the big street to get the return bus, but a stop wasn’t immediately visible and I ended up walking a long way. I knew I’d be walking a lot in any case and was hoping not to do too much climbing, but one thing led to another. There was one dominant building, approached by a stairway, where I thought I could exit at the other side, but it wasn’t possible and I had to go back down. So there was a lot of moving and climbing on this hot day.

I went by a park and reached the historic university courtyard. The guidebook said that one wasn’t certain to get tickets for the historic library rooms on the same day; that was a reason for wanting to go on Monday, but a ticket was promptly available, with an academic discount off the low price.

At the top of the hour, I was in a small group admitted to the Biblioteca Joanina, a series of high-ceilinged library rooms with lavish gilt decorations, indeed fascinating to see. In the same courtyard, there was a student refreshment center where I stopped for some refreshment after the climb. Then I blended in with an Italian tour group, who cut through construction tape for a shortcut entrance to the Sala dos Capelos, with interesting old rooms and a catwalk with limited access for a good view of the city. I then felt the professional duty to look at the architecturally drab current university library, pretty empty with school not in session, something familiar to me in the weeks leading up to the trip. There was a display of historic azulejo tiles illustrating mathematical principles. On the way downhill, I saw the Sé Velha.

For dinner, an Indian-Italian restaurant near the hotel had caught my eye, since I like to have occasional Italian food wherever I am; it was a bad move to ask Indians to make spaghetti carbonara.

For the next morning, after breakfast, I wanted to find out where along the riverfront bus 1 stopped. At the tourist office, I found out that it was just beyond where I had looked the day before, down the side of the train station away from the river and around the corner. Also, that bus ran on a reduced schedule with the university not in session; I had about a 40-minute wait. On reaching the top of the hill, I visited the Sé Nova; then I looked down the wrong row of buildings before finding the correct building (a former hospital) with the Museu Académico; I saw some nice azulejos before the woman there established that I was an English speaker and narrated many displays showing university traditions and their athletic trophies. I went around to use my last transit ticket down the Elevadore do Mercado on the side of the hill away from the river, a ride with segments on funicular, walkway, and elevator.

At the base was the covered market, a drab 20th-century structure not as picturesque as some. It didn’t seem like the right place for lunch. I took the opportunity to look around the Baixa shopping area; where the streets going up to the university were quiet, this was a very busy area of narrow streets. For lunch, I was finally attracted to Salão Brasil, an upstairs place with music playing into a square. I had what would be a frequent light meal for me, a cheese omelet with fries and beer.

After a rest at the hotel, I went back across the Baixa to the modern art display at the Centro Artes Visuais. I strolled up the major avenue near there to the Praça da República, had a drink outside, and back. Some notes I’d taken in advance recommended Nicola’s restaurant. I noted it as a coffee brand posted in many places, and ultimately I think the reference was to a café on the main Rua Ferreira Borges, but a place with the sign that caught my eye was A Cozinha. I had another version of bacalhau listed on the English menu as with “chips”; I was expecting the British version of this (French fries), but they were homemade crisps or chips in the American sense. I had noted that there was a free outdoor fado concert at the square near the modern museum I’d visited; I went there and enjoyed the free show, easy to hear the music but not the introductions, some of which were in English.

So that was my last night in Coimbra. Some people had said that three nights could be too many, but I felt it was right; I didn’t exhaust the possibilities there, and it was good to start my trip and get my bearings in a smaller city.


Coimbra: View of the university hill from the bridge over the Mondego


100+ Posts
Porto, Douro Valley Cruise, Braga

The next morning, it was off to Porto, and I’d made my plans to go on the slow trains that didn’t take reservations. In both Coimbra and Porto, most of the faster trains only stop at the peripheral stations, so I would have a total of two changes to get between the more central stations. I thought the connection leaving at 10:04 and arriving at 12:25 worked well in going at decent times and minimizing worries about hotel check-out and check-in times.

So, after checking out, I walked to Estação Nova and bought the ticket. Even though the trip took a little longer that some other options, it went fine; the connection at Aveiro just meant that the arriving train stopped behind the departing train and we needed to walk down the platform. The commuter train offered dramatic views of the river between the high bluffs as it entered the Porto area. It arrived at the central São Bento station; I took my first glance at the lobby amply decorated with azulejos. I exited to the right and went up the steady slope of rua 31 de Janeiro.

I had wondered about the adjacent rua da Madeira, and I investigated it later; it’s not worth taking, a back street with weed-infested steps. I reached the Praça da Batalha at the top, with my hotel, the Quality Inn. The great thing about this hotel is that I got five free nights there at 6000 Choice Privileges points per night. This is their lowest point rate; many run-of-the-mill Choice hotels in the U.S. charge more than twice that many points. I was directed to a small but decent room.

Porto has had some occasions for construction in recent years: being capital of European culture in 2001, and the European soccer championship in 2004, but there was still plenty of construction going on in this area. Praça da Batalha was largely torn up, and it extended to the top of rua 31 de Janeiro. In my walk up, I’d noticed a place marked “Creperia,” which could be a good place to go for a light lunch. I saw the description of francesinhas; would these be crêpes? They listed a large amount of meat for this to be likely, but I ordered one and found that it was a sandwich covered with gravy. That was still okay in this small lunch place.

I had studied extensively the Porto transit system, learning that the Andante card was needed for any ride on the bus or metro. I figured that for my plans it was best to get the card loaded with 11 rides for the price of 10. I went to the São Bento metro station and found that the vending machine didn’t take paper money. I went to the train station, where there was a joint information office for trains and city transit. I took a number based on the type of help I needed, and got an English-speaking agent who sold me a loaded Andante card at €8.50 for the 11 rides plus 50 cents for the card. This was for a Z2 card, meaning rides within the zone where I started (central Porto being one zone) and one adjacent zone.

After a first stroll north to look at the Rua Santa Catarina shopping street, I returned south for a first look at the Ribeira riverfront area. I went there by taking the Funicular dos Guindais down from just below my base, Praça da Batalha. This called for my first use of the Andante card, passing it in front of a card reader. I took the funicular, reopened in 2004, down and arrived at the entrance to the lower roadway of the landmark Ponte Dom Luiz I. Police were blocking the bridge to vehicles and pedestrians, and there were large crowds gathered along the Douro river. Was it a regatta? I learned that it was the Red Bull Air Race. There were pylons on the river, known as air gates; small planes were to come and do daredevil maneuvers near the river surface. This Wednesday was a practice day before the big race on Saturday. It was disorienting to see such crowds.

I determined that I should see the Palacio da Bolsa. It needed to be seen on a guided tour, and the first one available was in Spanish. The woman conducted it in “Portuguized” Spanish, with every "s" at the end of a word becoming sh, and needing to make herself heard over the loud planes flying nearby. The highlight of this neoclassical stock exchange building was the Arabian Hall at the end, with lavish designs standing out. The bridge was just reopening to traffic, and I found a long line at the funicular entrance for the return trip uphill. There were complaints, and I saw that I could bypass the ticket purchase with my card; I just needed to wait to be in the small number admitted for each ride.

For dinner, I made my way to one place where I’d jotted down a recommendation, but it was closed; summer closings were common enough with August coming to an end. I looked around for a bit to find a place that looked right, and came upon Regaleira, rua do Bonjardim 87, which I later determined was also on a list. I had a good sardine dish there, and wine that the waiter made a show of pouring from a height so it foamed as it entered the glass and stopped right at the rim. This meal cost €16; in general I was getting into a groove of getting good meals for around €10, for which I comfortably paid cash. Although I generally prefer to use credit cards, I went with the sense that in Europe cash is preferred for smaller charges, and for this trip for cash I had an ATM card that took no conversion percentage, as opposed to the 2-3% that the credit cards took. (NetBank, which issued this ATM card, has subsequently shut down.)

For Thursday, I was booked on a train-cruise trip on the Douro Valley. I had the hotel’s included breakfast in my free stay; there was a nice buffet. The breakfast area in the basement was crowded before 8, and I noted that many of the guests could be fashion models. I had booked the cruise through Douro Azul, making the first contact about a week before departure when I was on a new American Express billing period. When I did this, I didn’t see a credit card option for payment, so I checked cash. The e-mail response invited me to make a credit card payment if not doing it by bank transfer. I asked if American Express was allowed for payment; they said not, and I got my Visa information to them for the reportedly reasonable cruise price of €59.

So I reported to the nearby São Bento station at 8:30. The tour leader, Lurdes, checked me off and said we were waiting for the 9:15 train to have its track number posted. The crowd gathered, and the track was posted only shortly before departure. We went to our reserved cars at the far end. There was a nice picturesque ride through the morning, arriving at Régua at 11:30. Then there were a few buses for the short trip to the dock. I was in the back of the crowd, and I eventually saw that Lurdes was calling roll, and I boarded.

I took a place on the deck; the ship departed at noon, and they promptly invited us to lunch in the dining room. I was assigned to a table and there was a very full meal, with a pork main dish and lots of wine. I noted that the group was predominantly Portuguese (maybe some were Brazilian); I wouldn’t expect to see an Italian predominance in something similar in Italy.

There were seven hours scheduled for the cruise; I wondered if there would be a stop at a Port vineyard. No, we just looked at the terraced vineyards from the ship, and Lurdes reported on a few landmarks, such as the bridges, and we went through two locks, for one of which we needed to take cover while the ship was showered. The people happily stretched out, singing songs, and overall it was a happy time. There was a good view of Porto and its bridges on the approach. At lunch, Lurdes had said that because of the air show we couldn’t get to our scheduled dock at Vila Nova de Gaia, commonly known as Gaia, across from Porto. We would dock short of Porto and she took a count of how many people wanted to be bused to Gaia. But then we finally could get to Porto but docked on the Ribeira side. Although I was trying to avoid going there again until the air show was done, I took another funicular ride up to Batalha and my hotel.

Then on Friday, I had a day to get around Porto. First I went down some small streets to look at the Sé. I’d made something of a plan before leaving on my trip, charting public transportation routes in advance, on Porto Transit (see Web Resources at the end), which I learned worked better in Portuguese than English; I needed to rework the plan when I wanted to stay away from the Ribeira until Sunday, and many bus lines were rerouted during the air show. There was a tourist office near the Sé and the panoramic terrace, where they advised me on getting to the Fundação Serralves: walk to Praça Dom João I and catch bus 207. I had a chance to look over the bus map at the stop and figure out when I’d be getting close to my stop. I boarded and passed the Andante card over the reader (good for an hour of travel with a change of vehicle). This bus had a display and voice giving the next stop; mine didn’t give the Serralves name, so I think I got off a stop late. But that was fine, just a short walk in a residential neighborhood.

The Fundação Serralves, in its own park, features a modern art museum that is one of the top designs of local architect Alvaro Siza, who had been featured in a recent New York Times article. I had a look at the library (one of my reasons for going on a weekday) and the collections on display, overall not too memorable; it was a nice minimalist building. I looked around the park, which included farm animals. I went back to the museum and had lunch in their interesting dining room. The hostess quickly explained that at one price there was a choice of taking a main dish or the buffet of other dishes, in addition to a dessert buffet. I mistakenly took a main dish and a few buffet selections (which would be a higher price) before I saw the menu card explaining the choices, but I was charged the lower price and it was tasty. It was a popular place, with a line quickly forming outside.

I took the return bus and got off at the Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, which gave a sense primarily of 19th-century Portuguese art. I had dinner at the Café Embaixador, off Avenida dos Aliados, a large place with good value.

Saturday was the day of my day trip to Braga; it was reaffirmed as a good choice on the day of the air show, which 600,000 people were gathering to see along the riverfront and panoramic terrace, and I wasn’t too interested in being with those crowds. I took the train out of São Bento at 8:45, buying the €2 ticket from a machine. Crowds were on the arriving trains, and there were signs about special trains. My train made over 20 stops, arriving just before 10am. I found my way into the old town and the Sé there, the oldest in Portugal, with a jumble of architectural styles. The guidebook warned me that crowds would make it slow going through the treasury; in fact I went around all alone. I wandered around the city some more and visited the Museu dos Biscainhos, an azulejo-covered aristocratic palace. A guide quickly showed me around rooms with interesting furnishings; it was getting close to lunch closing. I was invited to look around the gardens on my own.

After that, I went to the Praça da República, its openness and green space contrasting with the small old streets where I’d been. I looked for one restaurant from the guidebook and found it closed, so I went to the Bragashopping Centre, a somewhat tired mall, and found a place for a cheese omelet standby. Then I made my way to an outer part of town to find the new archaeological museum, which mixed with an archaeological site; it was a pretty interesting setup. I made my way back to the train station for the 5:30 p.m. train. I saw some air show coverage on the television at Braga station. I saw some of the crowds when the train reached the outer Porto station; when we reached São Bento the people leaving the train had to contend with the packed platform of boarding passengers. I made my way through a gauntlet as I left the train, being lifted momentarily between people, and I dealt with the terrible crush as I left the station. Settled back after that, I had a few small things to eat at the food court of the Via Catarina shopping mall, where I was leaving my laundry.

On Sunday my first destination was the Casa da Música. With a detour in my walk I boarded the metro at 24 Agosto instead of Bolhão as planned. I passed my Andante card over the reader and made my way to the platform, getting a look at this new metro system. Several lines used this track, and any of them was fine for getting to the Casa da Música station. I got there to see the new large concert hall designed by Rem Koolhaas. There was a tour in English shortly after I got there, at 11am. A British couple and I were on the tour, which couldn’t go into the main auditorium because a rehearsal was going on, but we could see it through soundproof glass; we saw many super-modern spaces on this tour.

At the end, I asked the guide about buses to Ribeira or Gaia; she wasn’t sure but suggested taking a bus to Aliados where many lines converged. Ultimately, looking at itinerarium.net, it looks like I should have taken the metro to start. Instead, I went to the bus stop near the Casa, which didn’t have a system map, but I knew that the 900-series buses went to Gaia. So I took the first one, and when it crossed the river I thought I would see if went towards the quay with the wineries, where I had in mind to go. It started in that direction, but then went through some small streets and then the other way. I’m not sure why I stayed on, other than that I wouldn’t know which bus to take afterwards. Eventually I noted that some of the passengers were wearing wraps over beachwear and we were going to the beach. That was the end of the line, so I took the time to get a look at the Sunday beach scene there.

I went back to the bus stop, where a man was giving bus advice and getting across without a common language. I learned that there were Gaia buses going to Cais de Gaia, where I wanted to go, but my Andante card wasn’t good on them: I would need to take a 900-series Porto bus and change during a brief segment where lines to the quay ran the same route. I did this, during the quiet Sunday lunchtime, and got to the active quay. I found a restaurant for a nice late lunch. Then for my main objective: to join a Port wine tour, with not many wineries open on Sunday. I found Cálem open; once again the first tour open was in Spanish, and I joined it. There was a brief look around barrels, before we sat down and had some nice tastings.

After that, I finally had the chance to walk across the historic bridge to the Porto (Ribeira) side. The main site was the Casa do Infante, where I remember a courtyard with glassed-in historical displays. Then I had a sample of the two functioning lines of historic trams: one following the river to the shore and back (I skipped the chance to see the museum of transport), and another line back uphill. After a brief stop at the hotel, I went up rua Santa Catarina to see everything closed on Sunday, including the Café Majestic where I had hoped to stop. That is until I got to the Via Catarina shopping mall where all shops were open until 10pm including – I’d made absolutely sure by learning the words – the laundry where I’d left my clothes. So that ended my visit to Porto, very interesting, leaving me wanting to see more and hang out longer.

On Monday morning I went to the breakfast room at the opening time of 6:30, exiting the elevator into complete darkness. The lights came on promptly, I had a quick breakfast, and checked out. I walked up the quiet shopping street to the Bolhão metro station to catch the train to the airport. My Andante card had one Z2 ride left, worth 85 cents. The ride to the airport called for a Z4 ticket at €1.35. I figured that I could pay the 50 cents to get the upgrade or, at worst, add a full Z4 ticket. The station had no staffed ticket window, only a machine; I put the card in and it asked “How many Z2 tickets do you want to add?” I did not see a way to tell it that I wanted a Z4 ride. Before my trip I had asked on online boards if a card loaded with two Z2 tickets at €1.70 would be good enough for this trip; I didn’t get a definite answer but it appeared not.

Now the only thing I could figure out to do was buy the Z4 ticket on a new Andante card at €1.85. I was kicking myself that I didn’t ask about it at São Bento the day before, or maybe I should have passed the card over a card reader so the last Z2 ticket would be used. After buying the new card, I wondered if I could have just passed the old card over the reader right there and it would have been empty and rechargeable with a new value; maybe it wouldn’t have worked because I’d have been considered still using the ticket for an hour. Anyway, different lines used that track; I took the one that went to the airport and got there. There was no further inspection of my ticket, not that anyone should use less than the proper ticket.


Porto: Crowds gathering for air show practice


100+ Posts
Bilbao, With Side Trips to Gernika and Donostia-San Sebastian

I took the passageway and escalator from the Porto airport metro station to check-in at the new, spacious airport terminal. I found the designated counter for my Iberia flight to Madrid, and I checked through to my connecting flight to Bilbao. Security was pretty quick, and I had a good amount of time to look around the departure area. I boarded the flight on an A320: scheduled departure 9:10, door closed 9:12, takeoff 9:22. In the seat pockets, there were cards saying that snacks and soft drinks were for sale. I didn’t see much of the flight attendants; they weren’t expecting to make many sales on this flight scheduled for an hour. With the time difference, the scheduled landing was 11:10; it landed at 11:07 and was at the gate at 11:12.

I’d been interested in this opportunity to see the recently opened Terminal 4 at Madrid airport. I thought this connection was a big detour to the south, but in fact Madrid isn’t much south of Porto. This flight docked at the satellite terminal, used mainly for intercontinental flights. Connecting gates had been announced on the plane, and many people were connecting to Latin America. I needed to get to the main Terminal 4; that meant going deep down an escalator to the shuttle train for that terminal and the main exit. There was a wait to get on the train, then a big climb up to the terminal. I noted that this was my first trip between two Schengen countries since those rules had been implemented: there were no border controls and no new currency to get, but there was a big wait to get through security to this new concourse. I was through at 11.55.

My gate to Bilbao had been given as HJK, which are the names of the three sections of the main terminal; I would need to wait to see the exact gate posted. I hoped that there would be a big board in front of a seating area where people could wait and see it posted, but I didn’t see anything other than small monitors that needed to be approached, one contributor to my overall disappointment in this airport. I found a snack stand to buy a long sandwich, and I found the gate posted at the far end of the terminal. I took the long walk there, partly by moving sidewalk; they called boarding while I was still eating. I noted that there were small passport control booths at the gate if needed for non-Schengen flights. This A319 flight was scheduled for 12:55, when it took off after the door closing at 12:51. It wasn’t too full; arrival was scheduled for 13:50; it landed at 13:32, stopped at 13:35, and just about everyone got up and took bags out of the overheads when the plane started moving again and people were ordered to sit. We were finally at our stopping point at 13:48 and needed to take a bus to the terminal, designed by Calatrava, my first taste of Bilbao modern architecture. I saw, new to me for a European airport, car rental counters in the baggage claim area, and tourist brochures in Basque.

I claimed my bag and was out to the sidewalk. I had researched the bus to town; there was a long line of people waiting at the stop. There were also many taxis waiting; I considered that at my age and station in life I should just take a cab, but since I was also planning to take one for my early-morning return, I held to my tradition and waited with the backpackers for the bus. After one bus filled, I was close to the front of the line for the bus 30 minutes later. The fare was €1.25, “exact change please” but they could make change within reason. A Nordic young man practiced Spanish with me, letting me regain some practice.

Pretty soon we were in the city, crossing a bridge giving me my first look at the vast reaches of the Guggenheim. I saw that we were at the stop I wanted, Plaza Moyúa. At this point I did want to take a cab; I saw a sign for one hotel, but I think it was a billboard for a place out of town. On the other side I saw the Hotel Carlton, where there was a line of cabs waiting. I got a cab; a brief ride for €3.25 got me to my reserved lodging, the Hotel Silken Indautxu.

I checked in and was impressed with the very nice room I got for a rate of €75; this was considerably better than what one could get for that rate in an Italian city. The room was spacious with a modern look, big-screen TV, and large bathroom with a big assortment of toiletries; it was a legitimate 4-star hotel.

A good city map, issued by El Corte Inglés department store, could be picked up at the front desk, and I started my exploration of the city. Although the ride from the airport had gone through hills, the central city was, as I expected, flat, so I could walk around without too much exertion. Most of the city was laid out in the 19th century; interestingly the old part of town, the Casco Viejo, is on the edge of the central city. I made my way there, looked around, and had a first sampling of pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. I was noting the bilingual Basque-Spanish street and official signs, but only hearing Spanish, in what sounded more like the neutral Latin American form familiar to me than the Castilian lilt (and lisp). At shops I got the informal “Hola” greeting, one sign of the considerable easing of society since I was last in Spain in 1980.

I went back to the modern city center and thought I’d go into El Corte Inglés bookstore, across the street from the department store. So far I’d made my plans from Internet information, but the bookstore had the Cadogan guide to Bilbao and the Basque Lands, which I’d had trouble acquiring before the trip. I bought it with a credit card, and the sales clerk gave me the choice of having the charge post in euros or dollars: the dollar amount showed on her screen and looked high, although I wasn’t in a frame of mind to convert in my head. I said I wanted it to post in euros. Later my memory was refreshed that this is known as dynamic currency conversion: in addition to the charge showing in dollars at an inflated rate, a conversion percentage can still be added because it’s outside the U.S. I had more pintxos before returning to the hotel.

Since I’d had a small lunch, I was planning to have a proper dinner. I knew that it was common for Spaniards to dine after 10, but restaurants should be open at 9. Whether it was because it was still early, or Monday, I walked around some distance and had trouble finding anyplace that looked right. There was one place with a bar and dining room, where they told me they weren’t serving dinner. I wound up at the cafeteria of the hotel; around the hotel there had been signs advertising their lunch menu, but at this time they told me that dinner was only served in the hotel restaurant. (It was open until 10, so I suppose I just got there a little late.) I gave up and went to the restaurant, although it was a more fancy and pricey deal than I wanted. They kept my water and wine bottles at a remote table and didn’t pay much attention to when I needed a refill. I had ox tail, knowing that fish in general is not advisable on Monday. It was nice enough, and I was glad to let the charge go to my hotel bill.

It was raining in the morning, the only rain on this trip, so I would at least spend the morning in Bilbao rather than day trip. The hotel didn’t include breakfast, so I went to a bar down the street for pastries and coffee; I also tried the cold omelet slice that they offer, an odd taste to me. My destination for this morning was the Museo de Bellas Artes, the older fine arts museum. The rain having let up, I started down what I figured was the direct street there. After one failed ATM transaction, I went to another one; after giving English prompts at the start, it oddly switched to Catalan and had a €2 extra fee, the first time I’d seen that in Europe. I was at the end of this locally-oriented retail street, the edge of town, and didn’t see the museum; I figured out that I’d gone south when I wanted to go north. With the modern city being mostly on a grid, I guess it was easy to miss my mistake: I normally have a good sense of direction, but I had the idea that the hotel was on the opposite side of its Plaza than it was, which is how the online Michelin map shows it, since it has a “no-number” address. Anyway, after this mistake, I figured it was time to take a taxi. I found one at a stand and asked to go to the Museo de Bellas Artes. The driver kept asking something I couldn’t understand until I realized that he was saying a Spanish pronunciation of Guggenheim; I said “No, the other one.”

So I got there; there was an older building, but one entered through a modern addition in back. I asked to get the joint ticket for this museum and the Guggenheim for €12; the ATM had given me €50 notes and I couldn’t break it there. The featured show in the new section was on radical feminist topics, an odd collection of things, mainly on video; it was interesting to see labels describing certain concepts in Basque. I got to the old building with a nice traditional collection.

After the previous day, I felt that I should have a big meal at lunch and pintxos for dinner. With my walking route on the Gran Vía, I worried that I’d only see high-priced places, but I found a cafeteria-style place that gave a full meal with wine for a set price of €8-something, and broke a €50 note.

In the afternoon I made my half-day trip to Gernika. The regional buses stopped outside the Abando train station; I paid the €2.25 fare on board. As I understood, it was not advisable to get off in front of the Gernika-Lumo train station; as many people got off, I asked a woman if there was a better stop for central Gernika; she said I could wait for the next. I did, and determined that the town center was behind me; I walked back there, and I’m not sure that the train station wasn’t the better stop.

In going to the center, I found directional signs in Basque only, with the target symbol indicating that I was on the way to center, but a word that looked nothing like “centro.” This town being such a symbol of Basque pride, this is a point to say something about what I observed about Basque language and culture. The language was banned for the four decades of the Franco era, but reportedly a big portion of the people use it as their primary language. Basque nationalists have run the regional and local governments and have made the language prominent on official signage. The language is complex and has no relation to other languages, but new words are close to Spanish and these cases allow the Basque to be the only language on signs, such as “aireportua.” Gernika is only spelled that way, but it’s pronounced the same as the Spanish Guernica. Other cities can be known by both Basque and Spanish names. On shops, even in Gernika, I only saw signs in Spanish, and I only heard Spanish spoken. I saw a minute of an American courtroom drama dubbed into Basque on my hotel TV. The region is an interesting position claiming autonomy while being part of modernizing Spain.

Gernika is, of course, widely known for the Nazi saturation bombing of 1937. It was an attack on Basque morale rather than on a place of any strategic importance. So the town consists mostly of structures rebuilt since then, with many memorials of Basque history and the significance of the bombing. I had long known of the significance of the oak tree around which Basque representatives met since the Middle Ages; a 19th-century parliament building stood next to it. The tree was replaced several times, but the one in place at the time of the bombing survived it and was viewed as a symbol of hope by Basques and others. That tree dried up a few years ago and a new one is in its place. After going uphill and seeing that, I returned downhill and saw the Museum of Peace, where much is shown about the bombing and there are other displays about war, at this time a show on the atomic bombings in Japan.

In a somber mood after that, it was time to return to Bilbao. I had a Gernika map and felt that I might as well catch the bus at the train station, although the train (Euskotren) could have worked as well. When I reached the station, slightly to the left of it while facing it, I found that the street in front of it was one-way; I looked around and crossed the tracks to see if there was clearly a street going the other way. I went back to the station and found a plaza to the right where the buses stopped and could turn around. I made the return trip. On my return, I took my one ride on the metro, another feature of modern Bilbao, buying a ticket from the machine, to get to the Termibus intercity bus station at San Mamés and buy a ticket for the next morning’s bus trip. I stopped for pintxos on the way back to the hotel.

I got up at 7:30 (seeing a U.S. Open tennis match winding up at 1:30am New York time) to catch the 8:40 bus to Donostia-San Sebastián, the city whose official name combines the Basque and Spanish, but it can be called San Sé for short, so I’ll do that. I took the ALSA line, there was one stop on the way, and arrived at 10. I made my way toward the shore. I followed the basic outline of a day trip shown at Virtual Tourist, starting at Chez Croissant for breakfast. I found the tourist office to pick up some brochures before taking a slow promenade along the beaches, well-populated and in a spectacular setting, with mainly 19th-century seaside architecture. The coastal road went through a tunnel, as I remembered from a close study of the Michelin guide 42 years earlier, which proposed this as the first city to enter Spain coming from France. I’m glad that my parents didn’t make this trip to Spain during the Franco era. At the end of the Playa de Ondarreta, I took the funicular up Monte Igueldo. This was a spot for great views of the crescent-shaped shoreline, with a small-scale amusement park.

After returning down, it was getting to 2pm and time for a Spanish lunch. I went to Chomin, listed in the Cadogan guide as “moderate,” but I found it pretty upscale. My main dish was Láminas de bacalao y berenjenas (codfish and eggplants), very good and my glass of wine cost €1.10, less than the coffee.

So then it was Parque de Miramar and into the central city to see Catedral del Buen Pastor, but it didn’t reopen until 5. I crossed over to the Gros area and saw the train station with Eiffel-designed ironwork. It was back to the Parte Vieja and the church of Santa María del Coro, where uplifting music played (as I would also see in the Bilbao cathedral). It was getting to the time that I could start sampling San Sé’s renowned pintxos. So a couple of stops with nice spreads of crab on bread, other delicacies on toothpicks, and wine for around €5. I’d consented not to take the last ALSA bus at around 6:30, so I would take the PESA bus at around 7:30. Each line has a ticket office on the street leading to the bus station. I was at the station at the departure time, and asked about the buses, knowing not to count completely on what was on the front of the bus. I got on the right one and, although I’d seen warnings about PESA being inferior at a higher price, the ride went fine without a stop.

The next morning it was my birthday: I’ll say it once, my fiftieth. I’d scheduled the trip around this occasion, and I was left feeling happy enough but didn’t feel like it was a huge change. I had saved my visit to the Guggenheim for this day. Frank Gehry’s dramatic titanium structure was visible some distance down the street from a street near the hotel, and I made my way there without problems. The entrance was marked by Jeff Koons’ flowery Puppy. The name of the museum and the information desk inside were named only in Basque, but without much problem of comprehension. There was a sign for a special channel for holders of the joint ticket I’d gotten at the other museum, but I was turned back when I went straight to the ticket-taker; I needed to add another €2 ticket at the ticket counter.

So on the inside the main feature of the museum is its vast rooms, which can accommodate very large works of art. The first big room had several Richard Serra sculptures, one common feature being big spirals where one can walk inside and be disoriented; I’d been to a similar one in St. Louis. A big part of the museum was devoted to a show of large canvases by Anselm Kiefer, which I didn’t care to spend much time seeing. There was also a multimedia show about 20th-century Basque art, interesting to see in how they dealt with the time of repression and afterwards. The highlight was an indication that this isn’t exclusively a modern art museum: a show of Dürer woodcuts on loan from Germany. Since I was planning on having a big dinner, I didn’t consider the fancier restaurants in the Guggenheim for lunch; I went to a snack bar off the Serra room. So I confirmed as expected: the museum is much more interesting architecturally than for its displays (and little of what I saw was in the permanent collection). I got an outside look at the structure from terraces and the riverside park.

In the afternoon I got a closer look at the Casco Viejo. I didn’t get a chance to look more closely at the riverfront development, which could have included taking the Euskotram. Some people had said that I was planning too long a stay in this city, but I would gladly have stayed longer in this city, once known as an ugly industrial city and terrorist hotbed, which now came across as vibrant and full of street life on streets well-developed for walking.

This included my walk to the Etxanobe restaurant, which I had picked in advance for this occasion. It was in the Eusakalduna conference center. When I was in Porto I tried to reserve it online and got a warning in Portuguese that I didn’t quite understand; it looked like it was saying that my address would become the cybercafé computer’s e-mail address, so I didn’t proceed; I reserved by phone when I arrived in Bilbao. I was going to mention my birthday in the online reservation, but I didn’t mention it on the phone. It was an upscale place where I felt pretty comfortable while worrying about how high the bill would be, and it was an appealing meal. I had a glass of cava to start, which I nursed through most of the meal, but I got a glass of another white. I had a meal of anchovy lasagna and bacalao pil pil, with the creamy sauce that unexpectedly comes together from olive oil, garlic, and chiles. The chef came out to make greetings; overall a very fine meal for this occasion, where I didn’t worry too much about the price.

The next morning I got up at 5:30 to check out of the hotel; others were checking out at the same time, but I didn’t get a chance to ask any about sharing a cab to the airport. The last cab remaining from the line sitting in front was ready. It was a short ride down the highway in the dark; the fare was €21. It being around 6am, I checked in quickly for my 7:30 flight. Security was also quick, and I had a bar breakfast. The gate was at ground level, and people boarded the bus to go to the plane at 7:20, reaching the plane at 7:25. The doors closed at the scheduled time of 7:30 and it took off at 7:35. This Iberia flight, on a Canadair regional jet, was operated by Air Nostrum, which bills itself as offering all Business Class service. In contrast to my previous Iberia flights, there was breakfast service at no extra charge. From the white-gloved attendants I had another try at a cold omelet slice and didn’t like that, and yogurt. As had happened on my transatlantic arrival, the final approach offered a great view of central Lisbon and the wide boulevards. With the time difference, the scheduled arrival was at 8; it landed at 7:45 and was at the gate at 7:49. With no passport control, I was in the same baggage claim area as on my transatlantic arrival.


Bilbao Guggenheim


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Upon arrival in Lisbon, my plan was to take the city bus to my hotel. The city transit pass was sold at the airport post office, which opened at 9. Expecting the room not to be ready and not being in much of a hurry, I waited for that. I bought a 7 Colinas pass for the bus and metro at €3.35 for the day and 50 cents for the card. I took bus 22, going through the area where I stayed in 2000, and spotted my hotel, the Comfort Inn Embaixador. Many months earlier I’d started a booking there with the thought of earning Choice Privileges points; in the middle of the booking there was a warning that stays in Europe did not earn points. I paused to look for alternatives, and found that this still appeared to be the best combination of price and location. As expected, my room wasn’t ready and I checked my bags.

I walked down the tiled sidewalk (which once during my stay, with no obvious reason for it, got so slippery that I slid out of control and was lucky to catch a railing before going into the street) to Marquês de Pombal, central to the area of broad boulevards that I wanted to see on this trip. I went through the Parque Eduardo VII, quiet at this time, and had a good view down to the waterfront. I cut through Lisbon’s El Corte Inglés and reached the Gulbenkian museum, an important destination for this trip, it having been closed on my previous trip. It had an impressive collection giving a cross-section of ancient art, plus some 19th-century European art, in a manageable size. I paid the additional price for their temporary show on 50 years of Portuguese art, not of exceptional interest, but giving some perspective on art in a time of dictatorship and the transition afterwards. I then had a full lunch in the museum cafeteria.

I was ready to return to the hotel area by metro. There was a slot in the turnstile that was the right size for my pass; I put it in every possible way and kept getting rejected. I finally got the tip from others that the pass should be passed horizontally over a reproduction of the card on top of the turnstile, and right over it, not higher. I rode the three stops to Marquês de Pombal, went to the hotel, and my room was ready. After my early rise and with plans to be up late, I had a nice nap.

I walked down the gentle slope of the broad Avenida da Liberdade to the central Baixa area. After wandering there, I took the escalator in the Baixa-Chiado metro station to the Chiado. I walked along the high area, aiming for a store that turned out to be closed, and was again close to my hotel area. Another break and I went out for my evening plans to see fado. To keep it simple, although it’s sometimes considered overly touristy, I had dinner at a fado place. Following my earlier research, I went to Os Ferreiras, above Martim Moniz on the hill between the main boulevards approaching the Baixa, and so between the better-known hilly quarters of Bairro Alto and Alfama. This restaurant had fado only on Friday and Saturday.

I ordered a fish dish; I know that in Portugal you can decline the hors d’oeuvres that they bring without asking; otherwise you’re charged for them. Usually that’s a little bread, cheese, and olives and the charge isn’t much. This time they brought a full plate of prosciutto and fruit slices, which I accepted and it was good, but it raised the price. It was a long wait before the fado began. It was a different setup than when I’d seen it seven years prior, not so captivating but it was well done. Singers were at different tables around the restaurant; I was especially interested in the women, older and younger, all strong-voiced, singing apparent challenges to one another. It ended after midnight; I thought I could find my way back to the hotel, going down the hill on the opposite side from whence I came, but it got a little confusing and uneasy, and I got a cab to take me the short distance for €3 and change.

Breakfast was included at the hotel; it was a nice buffet on the top floor with a great view of the city. Continuing my days in Lisbon without a big agenda, I added another day’s transit pass to my 7 Colinas card at the machine at the metro station. I took the metro to Baixa to take the streetcar up the Alfama, where I would spend the day. It took some interesting wandering to find a place where I could board tram 28E; although it goes around the Baixa, it seemed that I needed to board it at Martim Moniz. I located the alighting place at Largo da Graça, and I used the Lonely Planet guide’s walking tour as a template from which I would vary. While I skipped the Castelo San Jorge this time, I had a good slow tour. There are great views at the start; I then saw the grandiose church of São Vicente de Fora, where a wedding was happening in the first few pews. Just past it was the National Pantheon, which featured cenotaphs, fake tombs of people buried elsewhere, such as Vasco da Gama. This was conceived during the Salazar regime, and there were the real tombs of some figurehead presidents of that time, but also of an opposition figure killed by the regime. There were also the tombs of cultural figures including Almeida Garrett and Amália Rodrigues; it was interesting to see this setup.

Down a little farther and active this Saturday was the Thieves’ Market, very much the flea market of individuals selling all kinds of collectibles and knick-knacks. I continued around and stopped for lunch, meaning that my time around the Alfama would take a good part of the day. I went around this very appealing area: medieval streets of steps and the feeling of an active working class quarter.

I wound up on the riverfront and found a bus to Marquês de Pombal. I had a cheese omelet dinner; I had hoped to see the Italy-France soccer match, but this was the one hotel on my trip that didn’t get the Italian RAI channel. So I saw the telecast of the Portugal-Poland match being played in Lisbon; earlier I had seen many Polish fans in the street.

On Sunday I had in mind to see a couple of museums that had free admission from 10 to 2 that day. I had looked up bus lines from M. Pombal to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga on rua das Janelas Verdes, but I hadn’t noted which street out of the big circle they took, so it took some hunting to find the right place and a wait. I had a pleasant visit to the museum, my first stop on my 2000 trip, a bit disoriented this time because I used a different entrance. Then I took a bus to the Chiado area and the Museu do Chiado with modern art displays. This included a show on contrasting 19th- and 20th-century art, also dealing with dissent from the dictatorship.

As I’d seen in Porto, all stores on the main Chiado shopping street were closed, but the Armazéns do Chiado shopping mall was busy and wide open. At the food court I went to Sr. Frango for one try of the frango (chicken) specialty. I saw an appealing special including beer and asked for that; they brought an English-speaker to say that it was only available for take-out. So I had my meal there with drinks à la carte. The mall (which had a severe fire in the 1990s) is built into the sharp drop of the Chiado hill; on my previous trip I remembered needing to find a hidden service exit to get out at the bottom. Now I saw that the escalator eventually goes from the mall to the inside of a sporting goods store, and I found a main exit there. Most Internet access places were full or overpriced; I found a reasonable one operated by the phone company and was able to check-in for an exit row on my return flight.

At dinnertime, for my last meal I chose to go away from the center to the Saldana area and Lonely Planet’s recommended Galeto restaurant. It’s in 1960s modern style, and all seats are at counters. I had a fish dish and vinho verde to say my good-bye. They said, new to me, that American Express payment would require a PIN but I could use Visa without one.

The next morning, I checked out at 8:30, lots of time for my flight, took bus 22, and paid cash, getting change, since this would be my only city transit ride that day.


Lisbon, Alfama, fish being grilled


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Transatlantic Flights

My planning blog shows how I got this trip on Northwest’s frequent flyer program, with Continental (CO) flights. For my departure from Kansas City, I got advice to check-in online but print the boarding passes at the airport. The online check-in required my passport number and expiration date; there was an initial problem that I got fixed by phone. When I started the printing process at the airport, I missed the prompt for reprinting the pass and got some scolding from the agent. I made sure that my bag got a priority tag, since there were stories of long waits for bags at Lisbon.

The KC-Newark flight, on an ERJ regional jet, was scheduled for 1:45 and postponed to 3:15. They paged people making other international connections, because they would miss them. An earlier flight had been cancelled and people from that flight were standing by. This was announced as an air traffic control hold; the plane was there and the weather was fine in KC. I boarded at 2:50 with the only Elite Access pass on this Saturday flight. The door closed at 3:20 and takeoff was at 3:30. Scheduled landing at Newark was 5:37, there was haze, and it landed at 7:17. As booked, I was allowed a long layover before my 10:05 departure; I was glad I wasn’t on the later inbound on which I was booked for a while; I think with its delayed arrival, I could have made the connection, but it would have been close.

I was going BusinessFirst (BF) to Lisbon and had access to the Presidents Club, which I didn’t find that special. An hour before departure I went to the gate area, where I found a feeling of excitement looking at the many, mostly minor, international destinations in lights over the gates. I boarded when it opened and took my BF seat, nice on this narrow-body 757. The male flight attendant in charge of the section gave me menus and asked if I wanted to be awakened for breakfast. The captain announced late connectors from Central America who were clearing customs, and they would wait just a short time for them. I don’t remember anyone else boarding, and they closed the door at 10:15. I think they waited to get baggage and left the gate at 10:30, taking off at 10:40 (a late hour helps cut the wait before takeoff at Newark.) The flight was announced as full in Economy, and I had an empty seat next to me in BF. I had a steak dinner, it appeared that the seat belt sign was on all the time, I reclined to near-horizontal and got a good amount of sleep.

I was awakened for breakfast (involving warm croissants and yogurt?), and there was the great view of central Lisbon on the approach. Scheduled landing was 10:05am, it landed at 10:30, and was at a stand at 10:40, requiring a bus to the terminal entrance and passport control. As reported at the top, with this small delay I had plenty of time to get to the train station.

The return flight was in Economy, I’d seen warnings about this on narrow-body long flights, and I was glad to check-in to the exit row. I got to Lisbon airport around 9am and the CO counters were busy checking in their earlier flight; I needed to wait. At 10 the sign over the counter hadn’t changed but I was able to check-in. I got through security and exit passport control. Our gate was small and occupied with a low-cost carrier’s flight to Manchester, England; people were reaching the gate and boarding past the departure time of 11:20. As they were wrapping up, CO agents set up a sign and blue carpet for their BF passengers. My Economy group was admitted, meaning going downstairs and onto a bus, and up stairs to either end of the plane. I got to my exit row, and the middle seat stayed empty. I was on board at 11:45, scheduled departure was 12:15, the door closed at 12:11, takeoff at 12:30. I have notes about taking the beef lunch selection, with just a “chicken or beef?” question. There was a snack of a sandwich with German mayonnaise and Breton potato chips.

Scheduled arrival was at 3:05, it landed at 2:43 and was at the gate at 2:48. As we got off, law enforcement officers were coming on the other way: was it because of the man who repeatedly got up to go to the lavatory after being directly warned to stay seated because of turbulence? Claiming my bag and entry formalities were quick, but there was some confusion about where to drop the bag off for the connection; it was upstairs. I had another five hours to spend at Newark airport. I walked around the concourses, not too satisfied at what I could find to eat.

My regional jet flight to Kansas City was from a different gate than previously announced; it was in the lower level at the end of concourse C-1 , where there have been stories of hot tempers. This time worked fine, but the seat on the plane was uncomfortable: scheduled 8:15, door closed 8:10, takeoff 8:35. Landing at Kansas City scheduled at 11 (ready to cover long delays out of Newark ) landed 10:23, at the gate 10:27. I got my car and stayed at the KCI Sleep Inn to go with a new Choice promotion.

This trip fulfilled several longtime dreams, letting me see the mix of history and modernity in these countries.


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