day 3 :

monday, 28 may

We awoke not particularly rested, eager to figure out how we were going to get Eric's missing wallet back. After a quick breakfast at our B&B, we returned to our room and found our phone message light flashing. We listen, and it's Nikki, the head reservationist from The Fat Duck! She said she had received our messages and had Eric's wallet, and that she'd be working today so we could come by to pick it up while she was fielding the morning reservation requests. "Phew," we think, feeling much relieved. With that, we packed up, caught a taxi to Paddington Station, the train to Maidenhead, and one more taxi, putting us at the front door of The Fat Duck an hour later, a bit after 11 o'clock. After a quick exchange of profuse gratitude and the wallet (with every bit of cash and contents intact), we waited in a parking lot with our luggage, a light drizzle falling on us. We had decided we'd have lunch at The Hinds Head, which is the pub a couple doors down, owned by Heston Blumenthal, The Fat Duck's chef. Then we'd take a taxi to Heathrow. But we were there a half hour before opening time. Waiting for the pub to open turned out to be a good decision, though. There were no conch shells with headphones coming out of them here – just good soups (Dawn had the most vibrant green pea soup we've ever seen, the color of fresh raw peas), salads, meat roasts, fish and chips, and beer. It felt like a very fitting lunch spot on such a cold and rainy day in Britain.

By evening, we were in Bilbao, renting our car for the next two weeks. We've liked the hatchbacks we rented on previous trips, since most of our luggage can be tucked into the trunk out of sight, and were expecting something similar this time. We lucked out and got a mid-sized Volvo S40 2.0-liter diesel car. Well, lucky in the sense that it's a very nice car and easily fit all of our luggage in the trunk, but for parking on small city streets in Europe, it proved to be a little trickier. More on that later.

We fired up our TomTom One hand-held GPS device to get directions to our hotel. In the U.S., the GPS is pre-loaded with North American maps, so we bought and downloaded an Iberian Peninsula map from TomTom's website. Eric spent an hour last week pre-programming our major destinations, with the idea that we'd get going more quickly each day by having it just a click away. For the most part, it was a success; the problem tonight was that neither of us had used the GPS much before today, so we left the Avis parking lot not quite sure what to expect. Our worries were for naught, because it got us to the hotel with no problem. It directed us along the Bilbao riverfront, past the Guggenheim museum, which was glowing in the warm sunset. This building was our favorite example of Gehry's architecture we've seen yet. The GPS then led us straight to our hotel with no problems. Our challenge instead was to find the overnight parking somewhere "just down the street," as the hotel reservationist had told us. Our hotel was in Bilbao's historic district (Casco Viejo), and it proved to be quite difficult to turn around, so we did a much larger driving loop around many blocks, and nearly drove right by the underground parking entrance a second time; Dawn spotted the little lighted sign and we zipped down the ramp.

After getting checked in to our hotel, it was time to sample our first Spanish food of the trip. We had a recommendation for Xukela, a short walk from our hotel, and it turned out to be a great little tapas bar. We enjoyed chorizo, Idiazabel cheese, asparagus with jamon, and a couple of glasses of txakolí. We also got our introductory inundation of second-hand smoke from the crowd of patrons. We hadn't noticed any smoke in restaurants or pubs in London these past couple of days, and it's probably because they were getting ready for the UK-wide smoking ban, which was going into effect on July 1, 2007. (Smoke-free Spain? Seems just about as unlikely as smoke-free Italy.) We escaped the smoke, went for a nighttime stroll along the Nervion River winding through Bilbao, then slept soundly, happy to be back in Spain.


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