I call them “safe” spaces

I spent my morning at a coffee shop that I fell in love with towards the end of my stay here in Bilbao. On my way out I took a picture of it to post to Instagram. At the time I had no real reason to do that. I just knew I wanted to share it. I thought about this all the way home (walking) and in between last minute gift-buying for family members. Why did I want to share this picture? (I have been practicing “conscious posting” recently and so the reason why I want to post a photo is something I insist on understanding before I do). It wasn’t to brag (If it feels like bragging I don’t share a picture), it wasn’t merely to keep my family in the loop of what my life 11 000km away from them is like (my primary reason for posting anything to social media), it isn’t even a place any of my Bilbao friends ever join me at. I started writing the caption and the reason why dawned on me. I feel “safe” here. It has become one of my mentally “safe spaces”. It also occurred to me that my “safe” spaces are more often than not also places or people I don’t like to “share” with others.

I don’t mean  the coffee shop is “safe” in the normal grammatical meaning of the word (“protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost.” or “not likely to cause or lead to harm or injury; not involving danger or risk.”). Its Bilbao, everywhere is safe in that way! I mean mentally uncomplicated. Familiar. When it feels “like home”. Bilbao, in general, is a “safe” space for me. I leave next week in a better mental state than when I arrived. That’s a post for another day.

Back to the specific safe spaces I wanted to talk about. What is it about a place that makes it “safe” for me? I am a walking paradox. I am both a creature of habit and filled with a sense of adventure. I am traditional in my views on many things yet I actively seek situations that challenge these views. I love spending quality time with people but at the same time crave my own company and a solitary existence where I do what I do only because I want to do it. I crave the familiarity and stability of a loving long term relationship but at the same time run from the thought of settling down. I want to be challenged academically but at the same time just want an uncomplicated conversation without over thinking the different viewpoints and lenses through which the various actors might experience the situation or topic under discussion.

Why is El Tilo de Mami Lou a “safe” space for me? Is it because I don’t have one of my aunts close to me to go and get some motherly love from when my own mother is in a different country, as I do when at University? Is it because my mom makes the best cupcakes in the world and this place reminds me of her? Is it because I know the answer to the question “what would you like to order”? These facts probably play a role too. I don’t have any friends here with whom I share any significant history beyond the past 4 months and so when I am anxious about what’s happening in one of my home countries or to one of my family or friends, there is no one that just gets it. It’s a much more challenging conversation. I found a space where I can be all of these things for myself without any added pressure. I am selfish about the spaces where I feel secure. In a new environment and even in the old ones I am used to there are places I like to frequent for various reasons. Not necessarily because the coffee is the best or the service is great or because there is safe parking available or because it’s close to me. I like some of them because they represent the type of “safe” that I crave. A “safe” space is different to a “working” space for example. I write in coffee shops, I write in libraries, I write at my desk, I write on my yoga mat on my kitchen floor, I write on airplanes and then some days I waste 2 hours searching for a space where I feel like I can write. But that’s different. Another post perhaps.

I am an academic. I am writing a PhD and what I do with the majority of my day is read articles, over analyse every word, criticise or agree, justify, over-complicate the topic, feel like an imposter, feel like a champion, attack what I don’t agree with and over justify what I do agree with (in my mind) – regroup and find some sort of reason and objectivity and write. It’s exhausting. Some days I crave being able to switch it off. And so I have safe spaces where I can be the less analytical version of myself. Where I escape from myself. Places where, if I think about, it either one or all of these characteristics are present: Consistency. Unconditional understanding or love. No tough choices. Acceptance. Peace. Peace of mind. No internal debate. History. Silence.

El Tilo de Mami Lou is my safe space not only because the cupcakes are consistently nice, the barista is consistently friendly (all of them actually), the music in the background is consistently soothing and mostly in a language that I understand and because the choice of newspapers is consistent. A local one, a National one, and a “Hello” magazine. None in a language that I speak, but this is how I gauge how much Spanish I have learned. I read the paper. A newspaper anywhere in the world smells the same too. I don’t have to make a decision at Mami Lou. I take a cupcake flavor that I haven’t had yet every time. I order English Breakfast tea con leche and I know I will be happy on my way out. There is no hostility. There is no academic debate about whether the blueberries in the cupcake are organic and what organic really means in terms of accountability and market access and how this relates to the Millenium Development Goals in the context of law and development in a post-modern word. It’s busy up in my head. But I identify safe spaces as being spaces where I can just be “in the moment”. Cellphone on flight mode, a Spanish newspaper in hand and daydreaming about all sorts. Even if just for 30 minutes.

Sometimes my safe space is a person. Sometimes it’s a place. Sometimes I share it. Sometimes I don’t.

Even if you’re not looking for a “safe space” to regroup and gather all the ducks that perpetually step out of the row, I recommend El Tilo De Mami Lou near Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao. The cupcakes (and other actual cakes) are amazing. They do breakfast and lunch menus and coffee, tea, smoothies etc. The vibe is peaceful, you already know which newspapers are on offer, and you will leave feeling good.


The Painted Forest – Bosque Pintado de Oma

I surprisingly didn’t read about this forest in any of the tourist information books I have. A foreign friend I met here told me about this “cool forest with painted trees” they had heard of and I looked in Instagram.  The hashtag #paintedforest wasn’t difficult to guess. This forest is worth the effort to see! And it is an effort unless you rent a car and drive to Lezika pub (GPS: 43 20′ 42″ l / 2 38′ 15″ M). There is still a considerable walk ahead of you from there though!

This blog helped me a lot. This one was “underwhelmed” by the forest but makes a good point that it’s well worth being outside in nature even if the paintings aren’t that impressive.  What I particularly like is the comment in that same blog that “when I returned home to Bilbao, it was still just as gorgeous.” I couldn’t agree more, and that is how I also felt upon my return to Bilbao from the Camino Del Norte and from Donostia-San Sebastian. I’ll add a few more additional tips about getting to the forest that I think might be useful to someone else too.

Although the photo directions posted in the first blog linked in the above paragraph is useful, it’s good to remember that corn will not be growing all year. I recommend walking from the bus stop in the direction you just came from, so out of town, past the traffic circle and up the hill and turning left at the first paved road that turns left (you will see a small dirt road turning left just before it too, unless you have google maps helping you, stick to the paved road). It has signs directing you to the forest and Santimamine caves, walk straight down the paved road you turned left onto until you get to Lezika bar which is on your left (Lezika is not that first bar on the right that you reach after having turned off, it’s about 2-3km walk, carry on up the hill past the vineyards). You will see a road turning right up a hill directing you to the forest, just across the road from the pub. Alternatively, follow the directions on the blog mentioned.

I went on a public holiday. I was able to foresee that there would be a lot of people so this didn’t bother me. I went with 3 friends and we took the A 3513 Bizkai bus (Bilbao-Elantxobe-Lekeitio). Tip: Be careful not to get onto the fast bus to Lekeitio. We met at the San Mames Metro exit and went up to the termibus. This is the wrong stop. Ask for directions to Calle Capuchinos. The bus stops there. This is pretty much left of San Mames stadium if you’re facing the stadium with your back to Moyua side of town. Ask for directions, if you can’t speak Spanish show an official at the termibus your bus number and mention Kortezubi and they will direct you. keep in mind this was the case in 2017 – It looks like there is construction of some sort going on near the Termibus so the A 3513 may very well move closer to the termibus in the future. If in doubt ask Bilbao tourism at the Guggenheim or Abando a day or two in advance. Remember to get off at Kortezubi (there is a picture at the end). From there you walk. (For general Bilbao travel tips and links to bus schedules and tourism information, click here).

The trees are cool, I have pictures at the end of what to expect – but that’s just a small section of what’s on offer. If you are interested in the reason for this forests existence, read here. For more pictures click here. The artist is Agustín Ibarrola.

I suggest wearing trainers (or if you’re South African or Zimbabwean, wear “takkies”) or hiking boots. The road is wide and relatively smooth (it’s a dirt road, so muddy after the rain) until the last 250m descent into the painted forest. This section gets muddy and slippery and is very steep. If you have bad knees, it will be unpleasant for all 250m.  It’s an uphill walk most of the way from the bus stop to the forest. This is not enough reason not to go. Lots of children and older people were on the walk – take your time and enjoy the gorgeous scenery! I recommend taking a water bottle as there is no water point in the forest as far as I am aware. It’s a great place to sit and chat, take some snacks, but take your rubbish home with you too.

On your way back stop for a drink or lunch at Lezika. It’s a real Basque pub. The one you walked past before you turned right, up the path to the painted forest. I ate a “bocadillo” (sandwich) with ham (one of the best things about Northern Spain) and cheese. I paid 5.50 Euros. The “bocadillo” was huge! I wasn’t able to finish it all. I have posted a picture at the bottom. They also had tortilla “pintxos” on offer and I assume other “bocadillo” options if not a menu del dia.

To the left of the pub are the Santimamiñe Caves. I’m going back for this. The caves are only accessible by appointment. I have been assured I can book as a solo traveller and do not need to gather 4 other people to join me. This is good news. General entrance: 5 Euros. Contact: 94 465 16 57 or 94 465 16 60. E-mail: santimamine@bizkaia.eus.

The bus back (on the public holiday) arrived at 15:30 despite the schedule saying 14:50. That’s not a very big issue though. I would not count on the bus being late every time, so be there at 14:50. A picture of the schedule is also at the bottom of the post.

It gets chilly in the forest but on your way there you are exposed to a lot of sun. Prepare for both!


A tree in the painted forest


The eyes are very popular on Instagram




Lezika Pub


One ham and cheese bocadillo and one tortilla bocadillo – both are huge.


Chillies hanging from Lezika pubs entrance – very typical of Basque country. Santimamiñe caves in the background.


A 3513 Bus


A 3513 Bus


When you arrive, get off here just as you drive into Kortezubi after the traffic circle. Use the one on the other side on your way out.


Bilbao Spain – How to get around

I heard about Bilbao for the first time last year. I started by doing some googling to check out the place that I would be spending four months in as part of an academic course I was going to take part in. I figured that as long as I could find OK coffee to drink, the cost of living wasn’t going to be too high, and the public transport was semi-reliable I could deal with whatever else the town had to offer. I fell in love before I knew it – Bilbao is a very underrated part of Spain. Google offered very little clear information in English and few insiders tips for this part of Spain, or Basque country in general.  I’ll post a few pieces on what to do and how to get there, what it costs and all of that, but forget the usual tourist route and head up to Bilbao.

Bilbao effortlessly charms and does not disappoint, even on a moody day. Bilbao quickly becomes “Bae” (if that’s a word you are inclined to use or if you have social media full of people that do, you will know what I mean). Bilbao is also within an hour or two’s travel by public transport from places like Donostia-San Sebastian, Zarautz, Bakio (San Juan Gaztelugatxe), Bermeo, Oma (Bosque Pintado de Oma), Pamplona, Vitoria, Santander, Portugalette and many more! I’ll start with transport in this post.

Public Transport in Bilbao 

There is no reason to complain about Bilbao public transport. When you arrive though, grab a map from the airport information centre or the closest Bilbao tourism office. Most hotels also have maps at reception. The tram and metro stops are marked on the standard Bilbao maps and most people will be able to point out bus stops and points of interest.

From the airport:



Bizkai Bus is Green (Like the one in the Picture)

Bizkai Bus A3247 runs 365 days a year every 20 minutes in Summer, and every 30 minutes in Winter (check this online and be wary of Sundays and Public holidays, especially the two weeks around Easter. That goes for all public transport). It will get you to the “termibus” the Bilbao bus and coach terminus.  This is next to San Mames football stadium, where there is a metro entrance and a tram stop, so if you accidentally miss any of the other stops, one of those two will get you to more or less the same spots). Before reaching the end of the route, this airport bus makes three stops in at 14 Alameda Rekalde (this is on the same road that leads out of Bilbao underneath the red arch above the Guggenheim), Plaza Moyúa (Near the Carlton – a good meeting spot is the fountain in the middle of the circle. Or just a thinking spot) and at 74 Gran Vía (This is just down the road from Moyua plaza).

My colleague flew in and out of Bilbao a few times during our course and always took the early KLM flight outbound and late KLM returning flight. She didn’t have any problems with the bus being excessively late (It’s Spain, “on time” is slightly more variable than in a lot of other countries), neither did I on any other occasion.

If you are going to take the bus (or any other public transport such as the tram, metro or Bilbobus during your stay) you will need a “Barik” transport card. You can buy it at the airport, at the metro or you can buy it at any Tobacos store in the City. It works on a pay as you go basis. The card costs 3 Euros.



A typical Bilbao Taxi

Taxis are parked at the exit of the Airport building next to the buses. I took one (I figured arriving in a strange City with arms full of luggage this would be more comfortable and I would not be getting lost between a bus stop and my accommodation). This “comfort (zone)” cost me about 25 Euros to San Francisco area in Bilbao. Which, to be fair to the Taxi service, is about what I would have paid for an Airport Uber in South Africa. Femade Radio Taxi provides 24-hour service every day of the year and allows the traveller to book in advance. Contact: 944 800 909. Bilbao taxi is also 24 hours and can be contacted on 944 448 888. There are also other companies. Bilbao taxi takes Visa cards, others cash only. The taxis are easily identifiable. They are white vehicles and say “taxi” in red on the roof. They vary in design from Mercedes to Prius and if you do not speak Spanish or Basque it is advisable to mark on a map where you want to go and point it out. The taxi drivers are very patient with illiterate tourists but can’t read minds. There is NO UBER in Bilbao.

Public transport in the City

Bilbao is a very “walking friendly” type City. You can walk from the City Centre (Casco Viejo) to the Maritime Museum within about 30 minutes and the bits in between are beautiful. There are however options if you wish to use transport around Town. The Metro, the bilbobus,  the Tram and rented bicycles. You can use the Metro without a Barik card for a once off trip by buying a ticket at the machines in the metro station. This is a few cents more expensive than using the Barik. Bilbao has very good disabled and elderly access. Keep an eye open for a lift at staircases. The tram has easy wheelchair access.


Metro Stops in the background (Left and right, plastic arches) at Moyua plaza. Often easiest to identify by the red “Audi” looking sign on top of a silver pole.

The Metro has three lines and stops at a number of places within Bilbao. These are San Mames, Indautxu, Moyua, Deusto and Abando (not in that order- but these are examples of useful or tactical stops if you do not want to walk too far). You can use the Metro without a Barik card for a once off trip by buying a ticket at the machines in the metro station. This is a few cents more expensive than using the Barik.


The Tram at Abando tram stop



The tram pretty much runs both ways along the river from la Casilla (San Mames side of town) to Atxuri (San Anton or the old side of town). Swipe with your Barik and get on.

Bicycles can be rented at a few places. Two are very popular. Tourné is located in between the Ayuntamiento bridge and the Arenal bridge on the Guggenheim side of the river. The second option is Bilbao Xperience where you can also rent roller blades, hover boards and go-carts.

Bilbo bus has an app that you can download for schedules and routes. The tourist office at the Guggenheim can also help out if you need information about a specific line.

Transport to other Towns and Cities in the area

A lot of the small Basque Country Towns are easily reached via Bizkai Bus. Check schedules online but be aware that fewer run on Public Holidays and they are often late on those days too! In general, they are very reliable and frequent. You can buy a ticket in cash or with your Barik card. These buses don’t all depart from the same places in town, make sure you are at the right stop. Common ones are near Abando and San Mames for out of Town trips to smaller towns.

Traveling to Donostia- San Sebastian or Irun? Try Pesa buses (I found this one to be more expensive but faster) or Alsa (there is an app). Both are found at the “Termibus” near San Mames. Buy tickets at the ticket offices or machines, not on the bus. You can’t use your Barik card for these two.

Try Euskotrein as well – I have no personal experience with this service though.

Useful links:

Bilbao Tourism

Bilbao Airport

Trip advisor

Wellcome to Bilbao! Aupa! – enjoy this wonderful place 🙂