Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Appearantly, what I needed was to get out of Madrid. As soon as I saw the lush green mountains of northern Spain through the window of the airplane, I felt much better. The mountains were so reminescent of Scotland, Ireland, or even northeastern PA, that my spirit soared as we touched down. Even searching for the bus from the airport to downtown Bilboa was a pleasure. The air smelled so fresh, so clean.

Not that being in Madrid was a problem. It just felt bad going back, to the very same hostel as a matter of fact, after having been in Portugal. Madrid had inspired in me the conviction that the Spanish are not a particularly friendly people. After having yet another rude post-menopausal gargoyle cut in front of me, this sentiment was set in stone. Of course, as soon as I think nothing else about the Spanish, I was waited on in a tapas bar by the friendliest, nicest bartender imaginable.

It appears it may just be that big city Spaniards get on my nerves. I was tired and everything was bigging me. I was in the midst of a lot of travel, spending the majority of each day in a different city. This also accounts for why I haven´t posted too much in this journal the last few days. This past week, I have been in:

Thursday - Fatima
Friday - Lisbon
Saturday - Sintra
Sunday - Toledo
Monday - Bilboa
Tuesday - Granada

I enjoyed all these cities and appreciate the chance to get to travel, but it was wearing on me. I had also picked up a little cold in Portugal, which magically changed into Montazuma´s Revenge on the overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid. So I had little patience for the general rudeness of Madrid, nice bartenders notwithstanding. I got back to the hostel after a good day in Toledo and found that I was sharing a six bed room with five girls. Sadly, this scenario did not play out the way it does in movies on Cinemax. They were five very young girls, as in college age, as in those who use the word "like" as every other word in a sentence. However, to their credit, when they got up to go to dinner at 10:00pm, they told me I was welcome to join them. I thanked them, but said I had an early flight. I´m sure the invitation was simply a courtesy, but I was still surprised and flattered. One of those unexpected moments of decency that makes you happy, like.

I had reserved a room in Bilboa online, as I have throughout this trip. There´s something too unsettling about going to a town and not knowing where you´re staying that night, although lots of backpackers (and not just young ones) do this. However, booking places based on a brief online description is just as much of a crapshoot, as I discovered. I arrived in Bilboa for the day, and went straight to the Guggenheim Museum, the reason I included the town in my itinerary. I walked around the building for over an hour, then decided I would try to find my hostel, check in, and try to catch a few hours at the beach at San Sebastian. Well, "try" is the operative word.

Warning bells began tolling for thee when I asked the girl at the tourist info office about the address. She said the street didn´t sound familiar. She got a map of Bilboa hostels and pensions, and my hostel was literally off the map. The index mentioned it, then had a little arrow pointing to some mystery area beyond the map´s borders. "Here be dragons" is what they used to write on maps. But I thought "no problem." I´ve faced, and beaten, bigger challenges before. Figuring the bus station would be an easy common landmark, I went there and called the hostel for directions.

Well, the old lady who answered the phone was very sweet, but couldn´t speak English. Between my English and rudimentary Spanish, I couldn´t make her understand I had a reservation and needed directions. She kept saying her son would call me back. I couldn´t make her understand that he couldn´t call me back, that I didn´t have a phone and was calling from a public phone. After it became evident she had hung up on me, I wondered what to do. Much as I resented taking a taxi, I approached one several cabdrivers, pointed to the address and asked how much it would cost to go there. His puzzled expression at the address told me all I needed to know. He went to confer with the other cabdrivers and to try to reach a consensus as to the street´s location. He came back, told me it would be 5 euros. I thanked him for his help, but had decided that 5 euros each way to the hostel was too much, and the mystery location was more of an adventure than I was in the mood for.

Using the map the tourist office had given me, I headed to the closest location, envisioning a day of wandering around Bilboa, begging for a place to stay and finally having to settle for a room in some superexpensive hotel. As it turned out, the first place I stopped had an available single room. It cost about 1.5x what my orginal place cost, but keep in mind this means $48 vs. $30.

I got to my room and it was like a small hotel room. I had my own bathroom! My own towel! My own tv! All for less than $50! What had I been thinking, staying in hostels and sharing rooms that don´t turn into Cinemax movies? $25 hostel beds vs. $50 hotel rooms? Damn my Scottish ancestory, with their ingrained penny-pinching ways. (My apologies to any Mulhern relatives who might be reading this from the afterlife. Sorry.)

So, was this all worth it? I came all this way to look at a building I couldn´t even go in -- the museum is closed on Mondays. Is the Guggenheim in Bilboa worth the money to fly here (although I did get a cheap ticket) and the temporary aggrevation in finding a room? Oh God, is it ever. Geek that I am, I went to look at the museum three times yesterday, just to see how it looks in different light. I don´t regret a thing. It´s not just a building, but one of the greatest sculptures I´ve seen, and on my second viewing, I was so overwhelmed I almost accosted an Asian tourist to ask him "Aren´t you happy to be alive?" This probably would have freaked him out, but I don´t care. It´s such an incredible building, I could never tire of looking at it. Each approach reveals enjoyable new views and it looks different at different times of the day. It makes the people nearby act with a joy and freedom you don´t see around other museums. I love it. God, I´m so fucking happy to be alive.


Molly said...

John, that is so inspiring. There is little like traveling-being so open to what's around you, maybe feeling a little more raw from fatigue/being in places where so much thought has to go into communication-to just be filled with joy at an unexpected moment. I'm grateful for you!

Molly said...

Oh, and part two is isn't it incredible that art (particularly this museum and that sculpture) can move you that way? It's amazing.

Iva said...

That last E-mail is what I was hoping to hear from you...I am so happy to receive it and to know that you are getting such pleasure from your visits to the museums. The last step is to stand still and cry when you see the statue of David in Florence! I love you,