52 days since I last was on a real plane. 52 bloody days! I had thought that was comfortably the longest gap between trips in 2016, but actually there was a 53 day bad boy earlier in the year. I presume that one didn't feel so long because I went to Sheffield in the middle.
Anyway, welcome to chapter 8 of my 2016 resolution to visit foreign lands each month of the year. I have 11 flights left to take. It's August bank holiday and I've rudely bailed out on Owen and Jas visiting so we could go to a beer festival on an island in the Thames about half a mile from my house, and buggered off to Spain. Sorry, guys. Blame BA.
Yeah, BA. Grr. Had to phone them twice and stay on hold for 16 damn minutes on Friday just to be able to check-in. The app had said nope, you can't check-in, we won't tell you why but go to the airport or phone us up and we'll revalidate or reissue your ticket. What? My ticket's fine, isn't it? This isn't some shady mistake fare or anything, just a common-or-garden return trip to Spain: London to Bilbao, Madrid to London. All advice on FlyerTalk was how this thing tends to happen if you've a complex ticket or made changes or whatever, none of which was true. Part of me hoped we'd been upgraded, but in the end the bloke on the phone just came back and said, it's been revalidated, you can check-in now. At least we hadn't lost our exit row seats.
I hate making phone calls, but since I'd already made one I figured I'd double down and call to book a cab too, despite Mauro referring me to use Kabbee. I preferred to go with a company I know and trust when time is of the essence. Then, the hat trick of phone calls as I locked myself out of my Travelex Supercard (interbank spot rate on foreign money, woohoo) by getting my password wrong on the app. Grr.
Enough pre-amble. After Monty Don getting people to make stuff out of clay on 4od, then a few hours sleep, the alarms are going off at 5am and let's get out of here. I am equipped with new hipster manbag and notebooks and all excited because airports and planes and etc.
Since we are actually checked in, with both boarding passes on my phone, we head straight to security. Whereas last time we attempted fast track and were let through by a nice man, this time round we didn't bother. Slow track was empty enough as it was, so Helen goes first and scans my phone on the machine and there's a loud scary alarm beep thing. A member of staff just waves her on and through anyway. Well, OK then.
I don't cause any such commotion, until they come to x-ray my manbag. It spends a long time being examined on screen, and a man comes to ask me what's in it. I say, iPad keyboard, USB battery brick... he goes away. Comes back and says, well, anything else? I remember my selfie-stick/phone grip thing and ahhh, that's probably it. While sending swabs off to be examined he shows me how much it looks REALLY BLOODY SUSPICIOUS on the x-ray screen. Oops.
Nonetheless, before it's even 7am we're in the BA business class lounge sat near the windows, under a TV and boarding screens, tucking in to free breakfast. The place is pretty empty to start with, and only gets emptier.
Jo Pavey is on BBC news pimping parkrun heavily.. We're assigned gate 9, which my phone knows about before the boarding screens do. Apparently gates 1-11 are a 10 minute walk away, and we have to be there 20 minutes before, so meh, we head off.
It's about a 90 second walk away. Bleurgh. There's a fast track line just to get into the waiting area but we don't use it. A woman is coming to put tags on bags which must not be stored overhead, and offering to check some luggage for free, especially the family ahead of us who have about 10 bags between 4 of them. We're exempt from the tagging since we've got exit row seats. Beyond the boarding pass scan we get a seat, and wait. A giant hen party all wearing sashes arrive, and generally the place is now noisy and crowded. A pre-boarding announcement is made but barely audible over the rowdiness.
Then, an actual boarding announcement is made. People in business, plus people with varying degrees of card shiny, are allowed to get on now. Roughly 90% of the room stands up and heads to the doors, and we saunter along at the end only for most people to part like confetti throwers at a wedding. They really are boarding only shiny carders, and we're in our seats with muchos legroom by 0815.
Scheduled departure time is 0825 and that's what time we push back, even though a lot of people are still standing in the aisle putting their bags away. Safety announcement over, Helen reads the inflight magazine pullout section about "citizenship by investment", i.e. how you can buy yourself citizenship of Grenada, or St Kitts, for a few hundred thousand US dollars. I prefer to read about companies who'll keep your private life private, basically by screening your Facebook mates, and, um, ...
Breakfast part 2 arrives in the form of some chemical orange juice and a ham and cheese croissant. I'm a big fan of the former but Helen doesn't like it at all, so I end up with 2. Huzzah. We also order booze, but the woman says she'll have to fetch it afterwards because they've not got alcohol on the cart. Why on earth not? It's 9am ffhs! Etc. When the gin arrives it's almost impossible to open and I think about coining the word 'ginjury' to describe the serrations from the lid on my finger.
Plainly, a ride like that ticked off probably the biggest box of mine for the weekend. But we've still got 90 minutes until we can get a room and it's still crazily hot - like, 36c or so by now - and we're hungry and thirsty. Back down near the river we find seats in the shade outside a restaurant selling booze and food and successfully order the former. The latter, not so much.
During that first drink I get all carried away because Instagram has been a surprising source of likes from strangers. I had no idea simply tagging things would publicise stuff so much. I'm especially taken by the fact that our hotel's account was one of the first to like a pic of mine. Check out my social media mastery! Until I then realise I've been double posting shit to Facebook all morning. Twat.
Finally, we get the attention of the waitress and dismally fail to order food. She speaks not a word of English and our Spanish/Basque extends as far as being able to pronounce things on the menu which we've a rough idea what they are, but not how to react to her saying something like, I dunno, "none of that stuff is available" or whatever. Then she goes "ah!" and fetches an English menu. Good idea.
We order more cerveza and vino and some croquettes and mushrooms. Everything tastes fantastic. We go for a third plate too, some kind of cheese. The waitress asks us a question we plainly don't understand, and "si" isn't a valid answer, so she gives up. When the cheese arrives, it is awesome, and really bastard spicy with all the sauce on it.
We've got 2 receipts on an ashtray but I'm pretty sure the first one has been superseded - it was just for drinks, but the newer one has all our drinks and food on it. It's mostly written in basque and seems to say we should pay €32,70. I hand a €50 over and we're given €8 change. Hang on, what? Neither of us really know what to do at this point - there's really no appetite here for a language-barriered argument about money from a place which just served up such nice food and kept us watered, and we're hot and bothered and it's time to get a room and ah screw it, chalk it up to experience and move on. I doubt we'll revisit. Or if we do, I'll pay with a card.
Back round the block and yes, we now have a room. Excellent. Aircon! Thank fuck. While Helen takes a siesta I resolve to stay awake, perhaps blog, or maybe just fart around on the iPad while watching BBC World. In the end, hotel room wifi is terrible and I conk out, waking up 3 hours later wondering where the cat is. My phone is telling me AFC Wimbledon dropped 2 points with a 90+5 goal which the internet says was because our keeper punched the ball into his own net. God damn it where's our first win coming from?
Anyway. Now it's almost 7pm. We go back to the supermarket and buy some supplies for the room: conditioner, beer, cava, diet coke, apple juice. The shelves say the San Miguel is just €0,21 per can which is preposterous, and in fact the receipt disagrees with this price anyway. It's actually €0, 37 which is still cheaper than the soft drinks and exactly 10% of the price of a can of beer from our room's minibar. Jesus!
After the run we're like, OK, it's 8pm. Apparently things don't really get busy until 10pm or later so let's be the stupid tourists who turn up way too early. We want to do this because we want to sit and eat while the venues are quiet. Our destination is the casco viejo in which there's also some kind of festival happening, so we're told. I had vaguely read that this weekend happened to be the tail end of a week of local celebrations but not in any detail and neither of us were sure what to expect. This is called Semena Grande or Aste Nagusia.
We get beer from the first stall. It is branded, for want of a better term, by anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, anti-racism. Apparently we, and the thouands of people around us, are performing important civic duties by getting drunk. Marvellous.
Hmm. Those photos looked way better on my phone than iPad. Anyway. By now we're back at where all the interesting stuff started earlier in the evening, and we decide to see what's going on on the other side of the river. The bridge is fairly heaving and gets denser and then, holy frijoles, there are tons of people around over here too. In fact, it really has the feel of people starting to pick a spot in order to watch something particular. We'd read that maybe there were competitive fireworks each night of the festival, so perhaps that?
So, a bit more of a wander, Helen queues up for the loo and BANG, the sky makes a noise. What? There are fireworks, and they last about 20 seconds. Hmm.
Then, a few minutes later, the lights go off. Like, almost all of them. We've been able to see a couple of big fairground rides, and they stop. Street lights go out. Buildings turn their lights off. And then, BANG. The real deal.