From bus-hopping to bar-hopping: España del norte

A mere four days after completing the AmsterdamBerlinFreiburg circuit I found myself once again packing up my Porter 46. This time, I’d be lugging it to a town called Miranda de Ebro in Northern Spain.

Unlike my last trip (for which I was the organizational puppeteer) I had absolutely no hand in planning this one, whatsoever. Instead, Ashely took the reins, which makes sense as the impetus for the trip was to visit her boyfriend Borja for his birthday.

The outward trajectory was simple in theory: a train to Toulouse and then a bus to Vitoria, where Borja would pick us up and drive us to Miranda.

In practice, it was one of the worst travel experiences of our lives.

After taking the last train to Toulouse from Auch, Ashley, Lyanne and I had four hours to kill before the 12:30 a.m. departure of our bus, so we met up with our friend and fellow Gers teaching assistant, Lorna, for some pizza and quality time with her landlord’s cat, Hugo.

Eventually, it was time to make our way to the bus depot, and since the Toulouse metro stops running around midnight on Thursdays, we ended up having to sit around waiting for the bus for roughly an hour.

We arrived at the depot and were confronted with a nearly empty departures screen. We were mildly unsettled but figured they’d probably post info about our bus once it was past midnight (and thus the actual day of departure). But midnight came and went and the only bus that appeared on the screen was one departing at 8 a.m. for Nice.

Worried that we were somehow in the wrong place, Ashely called Borja and had him make sure that our bus really was supposed to depart from the Gare Routiere. He (and the other passengers who were starting to arrive) confirmed that we were indeed in the right place.

Finally, the bus pulled into the station and we heaved a sigh of relief.

We queued up to present our tickets and load our luggage. But when we reached the front of the line, we met a major roadblock.

Because we’d booked online, we had our tickets emailed to us. Poor wretches that we are, we don’t have ready access to a printer, so Borja printed the tickets and sent them by mail to Ashley. Of course, they didn’t get to Auch in time, so we put the ticket PDFs on Ashley’s Kindle, after verifying with the bus company that e-tickets would be acceptable.

The bus drivers disagreed.

Because they didn’t speak any French (or English for that matter), it was up to Lyanne to negotiate, plead and eventually start crying in rapid, angry Spanish, while Ashley and I stood helplessly on the sidelines.

I’d all but resigned myself to the fact that we weren’t going to Spain and would be spending the night in the cold bus depot when the drivers decided to let us on (after calling up HQ). They loaded on our luggage, looked at our passports and checked our names off of a list of passengers they’d had THE WHOLE TIME.

Frustrated, but relieved to not be stranded in Toulouse, we climbed aboard for the least restful bus ride ever.

The bus had started out in Lyon and was thus pretty full by the time it got to Toulouse, so we found ourselves sitting in the very last row. On school trips, this was always where the cool kids sat. But when you’re riding a bus in the middle of the night, this is the least cool place to sit: you have no leg room, your seat doesn’t recline and you risk being thrown into the aisle with the slightest change in velocity.

After six and a half hours of cramped dozing (we woke up every time the bus made a stop), we stopped in Bilbao, where we had to transfer to a different bus before continuing on.

We finally got to Vitoria around 8:30 a.m. and climbed gratefully into Borja’s waiting car.

Five hours later—after showers and naps at the hostel—our visit to Spain was kicked off by a delicious welcome lunch prepared by Borja’s family. (The same hospitality would be repeated with Borja’s birthday lunch the next day.)

In Spain, lunch is the focal meal of the day. For this reason, dinner often takes the form of pinchos—bar snacks particular to Northern Spain, especially Basque Country, that are related to tapas.

Lucky for us, Borja’s birthday week was also Pincho Week in Miranda de Ebro. During Pincho Week, each bar whips up a special pincho (in addition to its usual fare) and competes to win the title of best pincho in town. For only 2€20, you get the pincho and a small serving of wine, beer or mosto (grape juice served on ice with a lemon wedge).

For us, this meant two successive nights of bar hopping and tastes of six different pinchos:

Pincho 1: Delicious mystery meat with gravy and walnut atop a parmesan crisp

Pincho 2: Potato tart with caramelized onion, jam, goat cheese and prune atop a balsamic reduction

Pincho 3: Baby ham and cheese sandwich

Pincho 4: Mushroom and beef stew with garlic toast

Pincho 5: Squid mousse in a colorful wafer with creme fraiche

Pincho 6: An array of foie gras on crackers, each with a different accent flavor

When we weren’t stuffing our faces we were roaming around Basque wine country and breathing in the salty sea air in San Sebastian.

La Rioja, Basque Country

Laguardia, walled medieval city

Elciego (The avant-garde structure in the background is the bodega Marqués de Riscal)

My first glimpse of the ocean in months—San Sebastian

San Sebastian


Click here for more pictures from España del norte.



  1. […] I’m breaking with chronology a bit here (I’ve still yet to post about my trip to Spain last weekend. It’s coming, I promise! And I’m way behind on catching you up with how […]

  2. At least you were rewarded, after the horrendous bus journey, by what seems like a wonderful visit. Those pinchos look amazing – I want some!! And San Sebastian looks beautiful. What a nice boyfriend and family your friend has to take you all around and feed you and everything.

  3. Linda Fredricks · · Reply

    When I had my junior year abroad in Pau, we would go to San Sebastien every month. I LOVE that city!!!

    1. It was so wonderful! Sadly we were only able to stop for an hour; I definitely need to go back.

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