I would describe myself as a pretty adventurous person. I’ve done the typical adrenaline rush activities – skydiving, bungee jumping, white water rafting, etc. I’ve traveled the globe, visiting 25 countries across 5 continents. I’ve even moved across the Atlantic to a new city where I didn’t know a soul. Yet there is one thing I have never had the courage to do – vacation alone. In fact, I’ve never even stayed in a hostel. In part, it’s because I’ve never had trouble finding a travel partner (yes I recognize I am blessed to have so many friends that are willing and able to travel the world with me!), but mostly it’s that the thought of taking a vacation on my own scared me. It’s not that I am not comfortable being alone – I am an only child – being content with my own company is something I mastered at an early age. It’s not that I haven’t explored cities on my own – I’ve taken advantage of long layovers and have gone sightseeing all by my lonesome. It’s not even that I’ve never stayed overnight in a foreign city on my own – as a consultant I do this regularly. I think it was more the fear of braving the nightlife – eating/drinking alone – that intimidated me. Yet two weeks ago, on my birthday weekend no less, that is exactly what I did. I found myself accidentally alone in Bilbao.
How do you wind up accidentally alone? Let me explain. I had originally planned to take this trip with a fellow American expat living in Barcelona. She is a foodie and an architect – the perfect travel companion for a trip to visit the capital city of the Basque Country. It was to be a quick trip – leaving on an early morning train on Saturday and returning on Sunday evening. On Friday, my actual birthday, we decided to have a quiet dinner with another friend. Our quiet dinner ended with free birthday shots and 2 –for- 1 after dinner drinks at a gay bar full of Drag Queens! Yes it was a fun unexpected night in Barcelona. I decided to go home at 2am, early by BCN standards, while my friends continued the party.
The next day, I snoozed one too many times and jumped out of bed at 7am frazzled – the train was at 735am! I hadn’t packed so I threw some clothes and half my bathroom into an overnight bag, ran out of my house and hailed a taxi to Sants Estació. I called my friend to tell her I was on my way, but when she picked up the phone she was hysterically crying. In between sobs I could make out the words “alarm clock,” “out drinking too late” and “soooo sorry!”
I wasn’t mad. These things happen. I barely made the train myself. But I am not going to lie, once I realized she wasn’t coming, a few tears were shed. I was panicked. I was not mentally prepared for travelling alone. I was not staying at a hostel – where I am told solo travelers quickly make new life long Facebook friends. I had done little research on Bilbao. I had no plan. So I took out my blackberry, and g-chatted, facebook chatted and bbm’d my friends around the globe for advice. In this day in age – you are never really alone. The best advice came from my running buddy in New York. She said “Just think of it as one more item crossed off the Bucket List. You’re a trooper tía. You are going to be fine.” She was right. The truth is I probably never would have purposefully planned a vacation alone. This was my opportunity to test out the world of solo travel. So after checking into the hotel, and pulling myself together, I got a map of the city and began to explore on my own.
My first stop was the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim is one of the city’s main draws. The building itself is breathtaking. I had lots of fun photographing it up close and from across the river. I didn’t have to feel bad about taking my time and playing with all my camera settings – one big perk of solo travel for this wanna be photographer.
Around the building there are various installations including the spooky looking spider sculpture Maman by Louise Bourgeois, Puppy and Tulips by Jeff Koons and Fog Sculpture # 08025 (F.O.G.) by Fujiko Nakaya – just to name a few.
After spending some time along the perimeter of the museum, it started to rain, so I sought out shelter inside. I was happy to discover the admission ticket included a free audio guide. I lazily strolled through the museum, admiring the artwork and listening to the audio guide at every stop – soaking it all in.
They kicked me out of the museum when it closed, and luckily it had stopped raining. In an effort to delay the inevitable solo night out, I decided to walk along the banks of the Nervión River while making my way to the Casco Viejo. I am happy I did, the city is even more beautiful by night.
Once I arrived in the Casco Viejo, I didn’t really have a plan, so I just let my nose be the guide. It was now 830pm on a Saturday night – prime Pintxo eating time (pronounced peencho – a Pintxo is the typical tapa of the Basque Country usually consisting of a piece of bread with an array of toppings held together by a toothpick).
I walked into my first bar, which was loud and overflowing with people kicking off their evening. I found some room at the bar, ordered a caña and two Pintxos that looked intriguing. One was a piece of fish covered in a yellow sauce and the other consisted of a piece of jamón, egg, and shrimp covered with some stringy stuff. I couldn’t say no to three different animals on one piece of bread! Surprisingly, everyone in the bar did not turn their heads and stare at me for being the friendless girl eating alone. I stood there among the crowd, enjoying my food and drinking my beer – congratulating myself for actually doing it – hanging out alone on a Saturday night. I paid the bill and made my way to the next bar. I continued my Pintxo crawl until I was full. It was liberating to wander on my own – knowing I could enter any restaurant/bar I wanted and order whatever I wanted without having to share (as I said – I’m an only child – sometimes I have problems with sharing).
The next day I walked around the city some more and of course ate more pintxos before hopping on the 3pm train back to Barcelona. As I sat on the train reflecting upon my experience, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of nights before my trip. We were discussing my upcoming plans to finally visit the País Vaco. “What’s going on in Bilbao?” he asked. “A celebration of my birth” I said. “As long as I see the Guggenheim and have some pintxos I will be happy.” Yes I was happy. I managed to do both those things while also overcoming one of my biggest fears. I’m even contemplating doing it again.
So to all of you out there who are afraid of the solo travel – I say encourage your friend to party all night the night before thereby missing his/her early morning flight/train so you have no other option. Just Kidding! I say start off with a short overnight trip to a manageable city. Like me, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover it isn’t so scary. It could even open up a whole new world of travel.
To see more of my pictures of Bilbao click here.