Woke up beautifully shortly before 7:00am to leave enough time for catching my 8:05am train from Madrid to Bilbao, scheduled to arrive 12:45pm. Seems a bit early to you, doesn’t it? Well, I decided to take no chance whatsoever; a rule of thumb in journeys such as this one is to never assume that time’s your best friend—and being this a 5 hours train ride, best thing is to get it over with as early as possible.
What a good night sleep that was, after the perfect ending of the day before (fantastic concert in Madrid). Woke up as if there are 3 concerts behind me in this tour, rather than 85. I felt ready for more.
The usual morning routine and I was checked‐out and on my way to the metro by 7:25am. Not quite the boring place, the metro… even this early in the morning.
A good word about Madrid’s metro system: it is clear, efficient, right on time (at least in all cases I attended it). You can’t get lost and even if you speak no word in Spanish, you can get along pretty well with those automated ticketing machines they have there. €1 buys you more than an hour worth of metro travel, in a system that covers pretty much everything there is to see and do in Madrid.
In fact, train travel in Spain isn’t that horrible as I initially concluded. The only thing that’s annoying in Spain’s railway system is the routing—some cities are hard to reach in certain days (for example, Murcia to Córdoba on Sundays; bus is your only option. An airplane too, if you’re willing to arrive late). Other than that, the trains appear fine—and, in fact, their high‐speed trains boast first‐class cabins that are very impressive. Meals are included, too!
Anyway, arrived at Madrid Chamartín train station 20 minutes before departure time. A sandwich and a bottle of water for the road; boarded the train, parked my ass on the comfy first‐class seat and was happy to be alive. Really, the luggage fiasco that ended the day before made so much weight get the fuck off my soul that I felt reborn.
The train ride to Bilbao—up north—is boring at first but, about an hour or so into the ride, you start getting views that rival the best views I’ve seen so far in Europe. I had absolutely no idea how beautiful (some parts of) Spain can be. Mountains; valleys; greenery; blue skies, and a bit cooler temperature than the south. What else could one ask for?
Every now and then, a set of red‐roofed houses laying neatly on the slope of some hill, or a mountain. Haven’t seen any lakes, but the scenery was impressive nonetheless. I was happy to be there.
Also during the ride, I finally got an email from my buddy Jeroen Gerrits that he decided, as a last‐minute thing, to fly‐in to Madrid Saturday morning to join me for the last concert in Gredos. That’s a one‐day‐ahead planning coming from an extremely calculated and thoughtful individual. The interesting thing about it, though, is that I knew it’s going to happen ever since we parted ways after the Amsterdam shows (as you may recall, I wrote there that I have a feeling we’ll see each other again before the tour’s conclusion). Despite his denial, I knew there’s no way he’s going this tour end without watching another show. Took him some time to realize, though. Well, buddy, you’re always welcome and I’m happy we get to watch the last show together.
I’m thinking about it, and the more I think about it, the less I believe (or want to believe it): The last show. The LAST show. The last show is tomorrow.
A five‐hours ride full of blogging and catching up with things, as well as beautiful views of northern Spain… Relaxed and full of energy, I finally arrived at Bilbao’s impressive main railway station. A few escalators and I was outside.
Welcome to Bilbao.
OK so lets get one thing straight here: I knew absolutely nothing about Bilbao before I came here. My hotel was located 800m from the train station; an easy walk, yet so enjoyable that I immediately fell in love with this city. This must be the most beautiful sizeable city in Spain, and if it isn’t—please let me know now so I know how to plan my next moves.
Bilbao (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilbao) is the capital city of the Spanish province of Biscay; it is also the largest city in the Basque Country. Half of Basque Country’s population lives in the greater Bilbao area, which enjoys a mild climate—get this: January’s average temperature is 9℃, and August—23℃. Much favourable over, say, southern Spain where the average summer temperature exceeds the 30℃ barrier.
The first two things one notices as soon as one opens his eyes in Bilbao are mountains and trees. Beautiful, tree‐rich mountains surround this city, and trees are erected along the main avenues of the city centre. People‐wise, this area is so different than southern Spain that one might think he’s in a different country altogether (well, as a matter of fact, some people do assume so, and take it a bit to the extreme; read about the Basques, it’s quite the interesting story). People here are far calmer; less aggressive; less vocal.
Walked towards my hotel—Hotel Carlton; a 5‐star hotel that sold rooms for about €80—a bargain, considering the fact that it’s one of the best hotels in the city. Walking towards my hotel, I realized how beautiful this city is. I will certainly visit again.
Arrived at the hotel, fought for a bit with the Wi‐Fi connection there; well, not for a bit. More like an hour or so. Here’s another thing I just don’t get, should you allow me to rant here—how come more than half of the hotels I’ve been in during this tour claim to offer free Wi‐Fi, but Wi‐Fi signal is too weak in certain areas of the hotel. For example—top floors. You would expect hotels to not just state “yeah we offer free Wi‐Fi”, but also make sure that it is indeed the truth. Let alone when you’re talking about one of the best 5‐star hotels in a city like Bilbao; this hotel won Expedia’s Pick award in 2009, being one of the top 1% hotels in the world.
Over the next few days, I intend to open a Facebook group encouraging people to only stay in hotels offering free Internet access. I am wondering how many people will join, and how many people will actually abide. It’s about fucking time that Internet access is given the importance it deserves, as it is more vital—and actually cheaper!—than some other amenities offered by hotels which are not used anyway.
Perhaps I’m too enterprising, and it takes time for this world to catch up with new ideas.
ANYWAY. Valeria, Daria’s sister who hosted me in her place in northern Italy during the fantastic 4 days off period in early July, happened to be on vacation in Bilbao so we got together at around 2:30pm. A short stroll along one of the main avenues there, looking for a belt to replace my broken one; €30 minimum, thank you very much. I decided to defer.
Off to lunch together in a nearby restaurant. Tasty omelette with ham, for €11. I guess it costs a lot of money to eat anything other than bocadillos here… Time then ran out, Valeria and I bid each other goodbye and I went back to the hotel to rest. On 5:30pm, I decided it’s a gorgeous day outside so I decided to take a walk towards the old city and take some pictures along the way.
A short visit to a department store yielded an ugly belt for the bargain price of €20. Sold. On towards the old city:
The time comes when you have to cross a bridge from the city centre towards the old city, and that’s when things start to get more interesting:
The old city of Bilbao is beautiful; crowded apartment buildings painted in all sorts of interesting colors—another “walking back in time” experience. I love those.
I became hungry so I decided to give Spanish cuisine another chance. Found a tourist trap that sold all sorts of interestingly‐looking tapas: dry slices of bread topped by all sorts of things. One of the items there was a pate of duck’s liver topped with cheese—impressively delicious. A short, quick meal of 4 small servings went for the staggering price of €11 (!). Some ice‐cream to finish and I walked back to the hotel, as concert time approached.
As my hotel was located approximately 15 minutes walk from the venue, I decided to leave late; it wasn’t before 9:15pm (concert start time: 10:00pm) when I left my comfortable room and started walking through Bilbao’s beautiful streets towards the venue—Plaza de Toros de Vista Alegre.
The last bullring for this tour, the Vista Alegre is not a very interesting venue from the exterior or the interior—unless I was looking at the wrong things.
markknopfler.com ticket‐pickup was a bit of a mess this time, mostly due to complete and utter ignorance of people working at the ticket booths. I walked there, presented my ID and said that I’m looking for my fan‐club ticket; that was after waiting 20 minutes in line for other people (5 of them) to get their own tickets. The attendant there explained to me (mostly using sign language) that fan club ticket collection is at the other side of the arena. Well, good thing I arrived early…
Tried walking around the venue—blocked. From the other side—blocked again. I then decided that in Spain, most likely, nothing works without some aggression. Started talking to people working there, who referred me to a guy with an “MK” sticker on his shirt. He started walking, myself following him; where did he walk? That’s right—back to the ticketing office where I started my search. He was told, I believe, to fuck off from there.
As we were both just about to leave the ticket booth area, I suddenly saw another small ticket window with two people standing outside checking tickets with lists in their hands. I tapped the crew guy on his shoulder and diverted his attention to the ongoing; he spoke a few words with those people and left. Now, that small ticket window I was mentioning a few sentences ago, was manned by an individual who knew exactly what I needed and provided me with the ticket instantly.
And now comes the fun part: that small window belongs to the very same ticketing office that I went to in the first place. Actually, the guy who sent me going around the venue was sitting right there—right next to the guy who actually served me.
That brought back memories from the unforgettable experience of the New‐York City Kill to Get Crimson show, when I was facing complete and utter ignorance by venue workers who seemed to not know anything beyond what they were prescribed to know. Single‐function minds who would never think an inch beyond the minimum that is absolutely required for them to maintain their job.
Grabbed my ticket and entered the venue. Actually, I was forced to enter the venue—one couldn’t pick‐up markknopfler.com tickets and enter the venue at a later stage. It seemed odd to me as this practice was only followed once before—in Barcelona. Then I thought about it and it made such a perfect sense that I can’t understand how come it didn’t take place in all the rest of the concerts. The entire idea behind the markknopfler.com pickup‐at‐venue procedure was to avoid having these tickets sold to / by scalpers. If you don’t force the ticket owner to enter the venue upon pickup, who to guarantee that the ticket‐owner isn’t going to scalp them out?
Ticket scalping for me is one of the most disrespectful, fucked‐up activity one can engage with. I think markknopfler.com made a good call with the ticket pickup procedure, however I do have an idea or two on how to improve this process further to maintain its benefits but still make life easier to ticket owners. I will contact markknopfler.com once I go back home and settle back to real life.
Entered the venue; a few heads of bulls who found their death during bullfights were hung up along the walls.
Entered the venue and asked for an usher to show me where my seat was: row 1, seat 1. She used sign language to demonstrate to me that it’s the front row, all the way to the right. I was bummed, but the words “THIS IS SPAIN” kept ringing in my ears. Went to the front row and looked at the seats, until I got to number 1 which was occupied by a lady. Looked back towards the stage: I’m right at the dividing line between the two speakers in front of Mark.
I’m telling you guys… If you ever go to Spain, I suggest you do a lot of preparation and never trust the opinion of one single individual. Always double‐check; always be on alert; always suspect. This is especially true for the North Americans of you, especially Canadians who are used to stuff being very clear to them. By no means should you consider Spain as a “lesser” country—it is just very different and you better adjust unless you want your trip to go awry.
Upon arrival, I was immediately recognized by Spanish Mark Knopfler fans who showed quite a bit of interest in the fact that I managed to go to all prior shows. A happy bunch of about 10 people who were a pleasure to share the front row with. A few pictures taken, as well—sorry, guys, I told you I’m not very photogenic; I get a bit shy when cameras are around—some of which have been already sent to me but I can’t post them due to some technical difficulties I encountered earlier today (July 31; what a day).
Time passed quickly and the band took the stage almost exactly at 10:00pm.
So first, before we discuss the music, a few words about the surrounding experience. Just as fantastic as the one in Madrid—perhaps even a bit better due to the weather being slightly cooler. Perfect temperature, the occasional wind helped a lot.
The people here are different than in the south, as I wrote above; more laid back and even though there was some chatter going on at the back, it wasn’t too bad. People here give more personal space to others which is a great thing. Being a part of the audience yesterday was a pleasure.
Something seemed to be a bit off with the sound at the front rows, as Mark’s voice as well as his guitar sounded a bit as if they’re coming from hidden speakers in the clouds. A bit bothersome in Border Reiver but, when the time came for the outro solos of What It Is and Sailing to Philadelphia, this “airy” feel of the music actually contributed a lot.
A note‐worthy performance of Sailing to Philadelphia, offering a significantly more elaborate outro solo than usual, with Mark‐John collaboration that caused some shivers, as they both complemented each other perfectly.
Coyote was back, rocking the front rows. Oddly enough, during the quiet bit (“Now I’m a speck on your horizon…”), Guy’s synth’d samples didn’t come through (I’m referring to the synth’d samples that he used to vary at times) except for the last one. Nobody cared except for me as I have heard this song played live so many times before.
Hill Farmer’s Blues outro solo was (unless my memory is betraying me real hard) shorter—and better—than usual.
On we went to a performance of Romeo and Juliet, which prompted a sweet girl sitting two seats left of me to burst out in tears. The traditional “oe‐oe‐oe‐oo” (I’m pretty sure I’m the one who initiated it this time) accompanied by the band, and off to Sultans of Swing which prompted quite a few audience members to spring out of their seats and dance.
We then proceeded to one of the more anticipated bits in the show (for me)—Marbletown. Good performance of the jam, to my liking; a mild (not too quiet) opening by John, joined in quite the dramatic way by Mike who went on to vary his flute routine for a bit. People started clapping as soon as Mike started—a beautiful performance by the John—Mike duo that, I believe, even made a few band members smile.
As usual, an explosive Telegraph Road performance and outro…
… Sending the front rows to the barrier. Not much of Running of the Bulls here as the barrier was less than one meter away from the front row. We remained standing throughout a beautiful encore. “Standing”… I mean, dancing and moving our limbs in random directions, that sounds more like it.
The cheers at the end of the first part of the encore were too strong to bear without blocking your ears; a short pause and Piper to the End concluded yet another impressive concert.
On my way back to the hotel, hunger struck me as fiercely as it rarely does. Cafe’s were closed, so my only option was “Gino’s Restaurant”, an Italian restaurant that’s open until 1:00am on Fridays and Saturdays. The time was around 12:35am. Close call, but very good pizza. Together with some garlic bread, I was set to go for a good night sleep.
Back at the hotel, arranged everything for an early departure the next day. All packed, I was laying on my bed and started thinking. It’s incomprehensible; this tour is actually going to end in 24 hours. 86 shows over, one left.
Signing‐off this post at around 3:50pm, July 31. A long, unnerving day, as unnerving as it can get in Spain. So unnerving that I feel like it affected my writing of this very post, so I apologize for that.
One show left, one post left. Tomorrow’s post is going to be the last post in this blog, so stay tuned.