The sound woke me out of a dead sleep and I pushed at my sleeping mask clumsily, still in that REM state where you aren't fully conscious, and listened.
It was music.
Let's be clear, I'm ok with being awakened by noise in the night if it is the 'signaling danger' kind like fire alarms and tornado sirens. I've always wondered why the brain can distinguish between the sound of imminent death vs. music when awake, but not when asleep?
Still laying there, I grabbed my phone to check the time and was instantly peeved to discover it was 3 am. I'm a real whiner when it comes to nighttime disruptions to begin with, and then I remembered we had to get up at 6:30 for a day trip to San Sebastian, a 15 hour extravaganza where napping would not be an option.
The thought of this started to move my anger dial from 'slightly irritated' to 'fully pissed off' when I actually processed what I was hearing.
It was Volare, the Gipsy Kings version of the classic Italian song, and the man singing and playing the Spanish guitar was good. Really good.
I was not the only one partaking in this middle-of-the-night concert. A crowd had gathered outside the bar under my window and began to sing and clap along-- that fast clapping you often hear in Spanish music. There were even a few OLE's! For real.
The next song was now underway and since there was nothing I could do about it, sat up to give the performance my full attention. Because how many times in my life will I be serenaded by live Spanish music playing right outside my window?
It struck me that our week in Bilbao was full of these dream-like moments.
It all started in Casco Viejo, where we were staying in a really cool apartment. I was delighted to find the old town is first and foremost a regular neighborhood that also happens to attract tourists (instead of the other way around) creating a lively zone filled with busy cafes, quirky shops and rowdy bars. The arcades of Plaza Nueva balance the party scene with their sophisticated Pinxto's, more wine bar than pub, offering large tapas and free-flowing vino. The pedestrian-only cobble streets showcase architecture that is uniquely Basque, all character and wooden shutters.
On our first day, I was giddy standing on the balcony, thrilled to be in the center of it all. That afternoon, I looked on as crowds of people walked though the streets, singing, chanting and holding Basque flags, in a show of cultural unity.
We hit up Plaza Nueva that night. It was a little intimidating to nose our way into crowded bars as my Spanish, while improving, is still fairly inadequate.
I stood over the colorful tapas, a variety of Spain's specialties- ham, octopus, and sardines- trying to catch the bartender's eye. Luckily, all I needed to do was point to the pieces I wanted and say 'vino tinto, por favor' (red wine, please)!
The lively activity of Casco Viejo was not just reserved for the evening. One morning I was eating breakfast when I heard what sounded like music straight from the Revolutionary War era. I was lucky enough to catch them coming down my street on this video. The redcoats are coming!
We also got caught up in the football action that Sunday with Atletico Bilbao hosting nearby rival Real Sociedad of San Sebastian. The revelry was unbelievable but seemed to be good natured. Despite scoping out the stadium the day before, we decided to join locals in the bar downstairs to watch the match. We tipped back some famous local cider and cheered for the home team as they rewarded us with a 3-2 victory.
All of this Casco Viejo excitement was a cherry on top of the sundae as my real motivation for visiting Bilbao (aside from forcing myself to speak Spanish) was to check off a bucket list item-- the Guggenheim. It took all of my will not to immediately run to the museum on the day we arrived.
On our second day, it was Guggenheim time, but I kept my excitement in check as we first started out at the Mercado de la Ribera, an upscale market with rows of vendors selling mainly produce and fish, but also houses some of the most elegant pinxto bars.
We continued our walk along the outstanding riverfront and admired how the elegant buildings contrasted with the green hills rising up around the city.
With its wide pedestrian boulevards and unique bridges, the Nervion River is simply made for a relaxing stroll and I nearly forgot about my destination until there it was.
A shimmering titanium crown that reflects gold or copper, depending on the light, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim is simply awe-inspiring! My photos don't do it's gravity-defying peaks and metallic curves justice-- you could easily stare at it all day.
We went back on our third day so I could tour the museum, which had an exciting exhibition on the life and art of Francis Bacon, featuring the influence Picasso and Velazquez had on his works. No photos are allowed inside, so nothing to show here, but the space is just as impressive inside as it is on the outside!
It was a dream come true and worthy bucket list experience for 13 euro per person.
While the Guggenheim should make everything else pale in comparison, our self-guided city tour the following day was not disappointing. First, we visited the Indautxo district to catch a glimpse of Estadio San Mames, home of Atletico Bilbao football club.
Nearby, the city center streets are bustling with offices, apartments and the usual everyday shops. But after our stadium excursion, it was food we were after, armed with tales of huge meals at reasonable prices. This proved to be true with our lunch at La Fabula, a small family-run cafeteria with food that was anything but school-issue. We had the three-course prix fixe that included wine for 18 euro. Our mains of beef and pork were outstanding and I'm still dreaming about the flan I had for dessert, but the best part is that they put a full bottle of wine on your table and charge you only what you consume.
On second thought, maybe that isn't such a good idea.
Our remaining days were relatively quiet with plenty of time spent in our apartment resting, cooking and drinking wine interspersed with leisurely strolls through the neighborhood.
Our last day, I rode the Funicular Artxanda up to the Uribarri district where outstanding views were on display, even with the cloudy weather. At the top, there is a lovely little park to take a romantic stroll as well as a children's playground. At a cost of just .95 euro cents, it was the best bargain of the week.
Looking out over the gorgeous vistas, Bilbao (and northern Spain) officially joined my 'favorite destinations' list.
Back at the apartment, the music ended at 4 am and I settled back down for what I hoped would be a couple hours of shut-eye. At 7:30, I was on the bus to San Sebastian and unable to get Volare out of my head, so I downloaded a Gipsy Kings album off iTunes.
This time, my brain heard a lullaby and I was soon fast asleep, dreaming in Spanish.
Thanks for reading! If you want to see more photos of Bilbao (ok, more photos of the Guggenheim), click here.