There’s Nothing Quite Like Art & Elephants (Ellie’s Week 12)

Mon 16th Nov – Mon 23rd Nov

On Monday evening (despite our earlier vows of abstinence) we invited Wendy & Brian back to ours for another evening of drinking and socialising. The next day we seemed to have built up a bit more tolerance as we did not feel too worse for wear and so decided that it was about time that we balanced out our drinking with a more healthy pursuit.

With Matt being keen to get on the road again before out parking ticket ran out we embarked on a brisk walk around the harbour and up to the top of the hill to take a peek at the large statue of San Sebastian himself up close.  We figured we would be able to make it there and back in a couple of hours before Heidi was due to turn into a pumpkin (or large parking ticket) at 11.30 ish.


It was a beautiful morning and we felt really good to be getting in some exercise as we missioned it along the promenade of which we had become so fond.  The steep hill gave our legs a good work out but when we got to the top the views over San Sebastian were worth it.  We knew we couldn’t linger too much as time was tight, so we missioned it back round the bay as quickly as we could and had just started getting Heidi ready for her next adventure when we heard a knock at the door…

As it turns out it was another Matt who, seeing our GB plates, had popped over to introduce himself.  He and Jo were doing pretty much the same as us but were already 7 months into their trip, so had already visited many of the countries we hope to travel to (Greece, Hungary, Romania etc…check out  It was great to meet some people our own age-ish (give or take 10years or so.. Matt had just finished a PHD and Jo her uni course).  We were also pretty impressed by their budgeting (we thought that we had been doing brilliantly being €40 a week under our €560 a week budget until we found out that these guys had survived for the last seven months on half of what we were spending).  Me and Matt comforted ourselves that it was just because GF food costs about five times the price of normal food and therefore is something that couldn’t be avoided… (but I am not sure that is the only reason!).

Unfortunately the over due nature of our parking ticket and the circling cars of the municipal police meant that we had to cut short our visit, so we exchanged numbers and emails with Matt and Jo and promised to meet up further down the line.

We were sad to say goodbye to San Sebastian (now officially one of my all time favourite cities) as we headed off in the direction of Bilbao (and of course the inimitable Guggenheim).  Having hit the road a bit later than planned, we decided to stop halfway in a town called Bermeo.  In hindsight, I think fate had decreed that we do this in order to test Matt’s driving prowess on some narrow built up roads before the narrower ones he would ultimately encounter in Bilboa, as there other worldly reason that you would choose to go to Bermeo.

Having arrived however we were definitely there for the night as Matt was seriously in need of a beer after his slightly stressful drive. So, with Heidi nestled opposite some broken down caravans overlooked by some ropey looking buildings I took advantage of the glorious sun and spent an hour or two reading under the trees next to her until I found I was being stared at by a bloke with no teeth and decided to retreat inside.

The next day as soon as we were able we set off for Bilboa, Matt secretly hoping to avoid any traffic (and really any other cars in general).  As luck would have it we had a smooth exit from Bermeo and a great run to Bilboa.  But our luck ran out about half mile from our designated destination (a campsite on the top of a hill over looking Bilboa), as I tried to interpret what google maps and the Sat Nav (the main object of Matt’s frustrations) were trying to tell me. Due to my unsuccessful navigating attempts, we embarked on hairy descent down a tiny lane, Matt carefully balancing us on the edge of a ditch (beyond which was a steep drop) so as not to scrap the houses on the other side of the road (who’s owners were shaking their heads in disbelief that someone in a motorhome would be so stupid as to attempt to go down there).  Needless to say tempers were slightly frayed as we arrived once more at the bottom of the hill only to take anther wrong turn (again I blame the sat nav!), but at last we managed to reach our destination with a huge sigh of relief.


It was such a beautiful location that after about 10 minutes we both stopped our somewhat passive aggressive stropping and started to think about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day.  With Bilboa only 40mins bus ride away we set our adventuring sights on exploring the old town.  Before we heading out we had once again heard a familiar hello… Matt and Jo had driven up to take a look at the campsite and were parked in the carpark next door (a much cheaper option for those on a budget).  Matt was considering the possibility of staying for a night but you could tell that wasn’t going to happen from the excited gleam in Jo’s eyes as she recounted stories of a possible aire that they had heard about right next to a wildlife park overlooking a field of elephants!  It sounded exciting so we copied down the details before wishing them happy traveling, hoping to maybe meet them there.

Once in Bilboa we set to work exploring the old town area.  The numerous cobbled alleys, eclectic mix of shops (designer/makers combined with all manor of independent boutiques) and lively alternative urban feel reminded me a little of the lanes in Brighton (needless to say Matt and I loved it).  Having picked up a ‘Use It’ map at the campsite office we quickly spotted the various recommendations as we wondered around the narrow streets.

For those of you have not encountered them, ‘Use It’ is a great little company who create maps specifically designed for students visiting the many culturally vibrant cities you encounter across Europe and beyond… Before you think that I am living in a delusional world, I am aware that someone who is rapidly approaching the big 40 can’t really claim to be a student in the true sense (i.e. me and Matt don’t really have the stamina for clubbing till 6am in the morning) but it is still great to get see a map that takes a slightly more rounded and fun approach than the usual tourist guides (I also really like the illustrations!).  They are really great for off the wall recommendations and enable you to see the city in a whole new light.

After pootling around for a bit we popped into a supermarket to stock up on a few bits before heading back to the bus stop.  For fellow Coeliacs out there I have to mention that Spain is fab!!! Nearly all types of food in the supermarkets have a little ‘Sin Gluten’ symbol meaning that you can eat really well without risking contamination (sooo much easier than France!).

The next day the sun was shining and the view across the city from up on our hill was absolutely stunning.  For some reason I was feeling slightly out of sorts, so I opted for having a day in Heidi while Matt set off to explore the Guggenheim. .  I don’t know what came over me but I embarked on a crazed cleaning frenzy as soon as Matt left.  I think I had been feeling that Heidi was getting a bit disheveled and I wanted to return her to her homely self.  By the time Matt returned, after about seven hours solid cleaning with only a brief interlude to speak lovely brother (whose birthday it was) all the window and door frames had been thoroughly scrubbed (something we had meant to do before leaving), the windows and dashboard had been polished, the bathroom cleaned and the floors stepped and mopped.  Just as I was finishing I heard a shout behind me and saw Matt had returned and was looking at me in a state of shock, the puzzled look on his face suggesting he thought I had been possessed by an alien.

It was great to hear all about his day, which had been a fantastic adventure (with some incredible sights and some amazing food).  He was blown away by the Guggenheim and felt that I would absolutely love it, so I decided I would go and check it out the following day.

That evening we were invited around for drinks with Caroline and David a an older couple who had been on the road for quite some time.  They were parked up in the carpark as they were waiting for a delivery of a critical part with which to fix their boiler.  They had a somewhat bigger and more spangly motorhome than us complete with a 500cc mop-ed which David enlightened Matt about while Caroline gave me some good tips on places to visit.  It was really funny because Matt had asked me what they were like before we went over and I (only having met them for a couple of minutes) had likened them to Dick the harbour master and his wife (two regulars at our local pub back home in Ashurst wood).  Uncannily it turned out that they were very similar and that David (when not on the road) was harbour master too (my spidy-senses get it right every time!).

The next day I hopped on the bus for to embark on my own exploration of the Guggenheim.  After just landing in the middle of the town, I was deciding which route to take when I was interrupted by a slightly creepy guy offering to assist me after sidling closer to me on the bench.  Needless to say I politely declined his help and nipped into the nearest shop (a vodaphone outlet) and pretended to look at headphones until he had gone.  Undeterred I resumed my meandering towards the Guggenheim, opting for an alternative route to the one he had pointed out to me, which turned out to be a very pleasant walk (no other creepy guys in sight).

My first glimpse of the Guggenheim reinforced Matt’s passionate endorsement, it is an incredible piece of architecture that takes your breath away.  The levels of creative detail put in to the curve of the steel, the juxta-positioning of stone, glass and metal and the gentle sloping of the stone staircases was amazing to see.  It made the Pompidou centre in Metz look like a play-mobil circus tent by comparison.

I was so excited, as I walked around the outside, to see the giant Louise Bourgeois spider (or ‘Maman’) poised over the promenade even bigger than I had imagined.  There was also a beautiful piece by the enigmatic Anish Kapoor aptly named ‘Tall Tree’ whose shiny forms were mirrored in a shallow plain of water alongside the reflective surfaces of the titanium clad Guggenheim.

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Once inside I wondered around the galleries.  The third floor was closed as they were just installing a new exhibition and on the second floor was a dynamically curated ‘Making Africa’ exhibition and on the ground floor a combination of permanent and temporary exhibits.  I stood mesmerised by the flashing words of Jenny Holzer’s ‘Installation for Bilboa’ as they flowed skyward on their vertical LED strips, a waterfall of messages.  But for me one of the best exhibits was the eight permanent sculptures that dominated a huge gallery on the ground floor for Richard Serra’s monumental work ‘The Matter Of Time’.

As I walked between the gargantuan pieces of weathered steel my sense of perspective was distorted by the subtly shifting angles they had created.  It felt bit like walking in the caves that you find on the Cornish coast, tall walls of rock with only a sliver of light visible from the shaft above that distorts your perception of space. At times it felt as if the steel walls were pressing in on all sides but with the next few steps the feeling would change and it was as though you were in a cavity of indeterminable width. It was an awe inspiring feeling.

I glimpsed a different perspective of rust covered sculptures from the gallery above.  As I looked down on them I could see how much they reflected the shape of the Guggenheim and I began to realise that the most impressive work of art was the building itself.

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After leaving the Guggenheim I made a brisk walk back to the bus stop as I knew that Matt was quite keen to make a move before it got too late (plus my stomach had developed a sudden urge for food).  On the bus on the way back I had a text from Matt and Jo to say they were still at the elephant place and would stay one more night if we were heading that way.  I arrived back at the campsite to find that Matt had moved Heidi to the car park and was all prepared and ready for the off.   So we plotted a course to the aire we had heard so much about, stopping only to pick up some bits for dinner, in case Jo and Matt fancied joining us.

The journey there went smoothly right up until the last part which was slightly like a Monty Python sketch as we arrived at the entrance to the park and following Jo’s Matt’s instructions set about trying to find the aire.  This inevitably led to some very narrow roads and tight bends and an even tighter looking expression on my Matt’s face.  After a few attempts and a couple of bewildered calls to Jo’s Matt, we had still not found them, so Jo came out to look for us.

We made yet another phone call to Matt (who by this time must have thought we were completely stark raving mad) to let him know we were once again next to the ticket barriers.  This lead to a confusing moment as apparently Jo were there too?! We were about to conclude that there was obviously some kind of problem with the space/time continu-um as we frantically glanced around trying to spot her when the Jo’s Matt in an enlightened moment had the realisation that there must be two entrances… something we should have realised as it was a rather large wild life park.

After acknowledging the obvious, we quickly rerouted Heidi and within about 10 minutes sheepishly pulled into the car park to see a rather amused Matt and Jo waiting there to greet us.  Any feelings of idiocy were quickly recovered though after a few beers/ wine in Heidi and some of my Matt’s tasty fajitas. We spent a lovely evening with them both, hearing more about their adventures and where they were headed next, picking up tips and enjoying a bit of general banter.  It was great to hear about their first trip to Portugal in a little converted van which had been the inspiration for them then planning their one year trip and they were able to recommend some great places for us to visit.  It was also really funny seeing Jo (an expert at budget travelling) trying to persuade my Matt to convert from his beloved bottled vintages to the infinitely cheaper Aldi wine cartons. At one stage I thought that she might have succeeded at least on the beer front but I have to report he has since regressed back to his old ways (sorry guys, you will have to give it another try when we next see you :)).


The next morning we said our goodbyes to Jo and Matt (hoping to bump into them again when they return from a brief trip back to the UK) and set off up the path to visit the famous ‘elefantes’.  I have to be honest and say I had kind of mentally prepared myself just in case they were cooped up in a tiny space looking forlorn and unloved, but I couldn’t have been more wrong!  As we rounded the corner we were surprised by stunning views across a huge expanse that was more of a valley than an enclosure.  The elephants themselves looked right at home, with huge fields to roam in, a watering hole and a whole load of companions (as there was pretty much a full herd there not to mention some kind of small deer to keep them company).  Matt and I were completely mesmerised.  We spent a couple of hours taking photos and nearly wore the camera out.

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Once we had visited the elephants we took a wander around the village and then headed back to Heidi as it started to rain.  That night we spent a pretty noisy night listening to the rain which was still going strong the next day.  We had one more visit to the elephants and took a few more pics (as lets face it you can never have enough elephant photos) before topping up Heidi (with water etc) and heading off, our destination… Gijon harbour (where we had heard from Brian and Wendy there was a good aire where we could hole up for night).

On the way to Gijon we did stop off at the beautiful historic town of Santillana De Mar. It was like stepping back in time in a way that was not dissimilar to our experience of St Emilion.  Narrow cobbled streets revealed a plethora of artisan shops inside old yellow and grey stone buildings proudly displaying their original coats-of-arms.  Nearly everywhere you looked there was some kind of museum or elegant restaurant (this was clearly a place where you could spend a lot of money had you been that way inclined).  We visited an old toy museum (which was free) but decided to skip cheese museum, cake museum and torture museum as the rain was beginning to make the cobbles glisten and we wanted to make a move as we still had a long drive ahead.

That evening as planned we spent the night in Gijon in an aire next to the harbour, but only really got to see the entrance to the Port and the sandy beach next to it as for us it was just a stop over.  Our mission for the next few days being to get a few miles under our belt and get to Santiago De Compostela (our next UNESCO world heritage site) as quickly as possible so that we could then start heading south out of the rain towards the sunny shores of southern Portugal.

Ellie x



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