Arriving on the Basque Coast

April Fools Day was meant to be the first working day after Britain’s exit from the EU. It turns out it wasn’t. In any case we had planned our first non-working day after Brexit as one of exiting Britain. With Bertha packed and house and jobs closed down, we set off to spend springtime in Spain.

The queue for the early morning ferry out of Portsmouth to Bilbao was strangely short. Instead of being sent down into the galleys to park in the Baie de Seine’s garage we were directed up onto its open deck and instructed to park directly alongside the starboard rails. It was not a great start.

Leaving Portsmouth on starboard

The 28 hour ‘economie’ crossing was a strain on nerves and stomachs. The sea swell was rough and the north-westerly wind worse. We feared for Bertha bouncing on the deck at the back of the ship and being buffeted by the strong gales. It was a nervy and sleepless night, not helped by our inability to find out where we had reached so far.

Brittany Ferries’ own tracking website had no record of the boat or the schedule of our voyage. We visited the site a number of times, but the boat was always missing. No one ever seemed to be staffing the information desk when we went to enquire.

The missing Baie de Seine ferry

Over tea in the morning, relieved at seeing our van still sitting squat squarely on the deck, with her roof intact, we wandered about the boat seeing the same few people as we had last night.

We discovered the reason for the boat’s eerie emptiness – sales of passenger tickets had been stopped two months previously when it was put on a requisition list in case of needing to transport food and supplies to crashed out Brexit Britain. As it was not registered as a passenger voyage it did not show on the online tracker. We had sailed across the Bay of Biscay on a ‘ghost ship’.

Arriving at Bilbao, battered and blown on a Brexit boat

The coastline from Bilbao stretches west to the UNESCO world heritage site around Zumaia. 13kms of unique layered rocks and cliffs, called the ‘Flysch’, tell 60 million years of geological history, including the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The ‘Flysch’ is the setting for Dragonstone, featured in the Game of Thrones TV series. Huge numbers of international tourists are now flocking to the Basque coastline and, tellingly, we saw graffiti protests of ‘sin dragones’ painted along the long harbourside walls of the port of Bilbao.

Flysch view

Bilbao is a city of modernity, home to Athletic Bilbao’s incredible football stadium, the modern art world’s Guggenheim Museum, soaring skyscrapers and a dazzling medieval centre, Casco Viejo.

Twisting narrow lanes of brightly painted and balconied apartments open onto grand arcaded plazas, full of eateries and swanky bars where locals and visitors mix together.

Landmark architectural gems of the art noveau railway station and Europe’s largest indoor market squat proudly amid the green river, its’ many bridges and the iron balconied and bay window-fronted apartments.

The air smells Mediterranean with the aromas of seafood lunches, freshly baked bread and accompanying basura (which the local green-clad army of Garbi hastily dispose of and clear up).

We drove past the heights of Monte Kobeta where previously we had had a birds’ eye view of the city at night. Stormy skies, high winds and a residual queasy feeling had us driving south through green hills of the Basque lands and to its elegant capital, Vitoria–Gasteiz.