The Mole Diaries: Bilbao

The Mole Diaries: Bilbao Bilbao by miss_ohara

This article was written by Lucy Fisher, published on 30th September 2011 and has been read 9843 times.

Lucy is studying BA French Studies and Spanish Studies at Lancaster University, spending a semester at the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain, before moving on to ÉTI in Geneva, Switzerland, next semester.

I chose Bilbao because I’m useless in hot weather, so I couldn’t really go too far south as I’d spend all my time being ill (no joke, I’m built for the arctic!). Also, a big draw was the fact that the uni give you help finding accommodation, and I like to know I’ll have a roof over my head! I’ve been here nearly a month now, so here’s some things I hope you’ll find helpful!

First impressions

For me, getting on the plane was hard enough! Everything went very smoothly, and a good friend of mine met me at the airport and came out with me, but I’d never flown before! I’d only ever been to France, and that was on a school trip so this wasn’t just a big deal, it was a HUGE deal! Having said that, there were taxis waiting just outside the airport and they got us to my accommodation. The landlord, in true Spanish fashion, was 2 hours late, and we sat in the entrance way to the piso and said ‘hola’ to all the residents that passed us. The landlord turned up, and he’d lost his keys! But after much faffing about we got into my piso, and collapsed into bed. The people seemed very friendly, and this was later proved to be right as they are very approachable. 

The next day we went to do some food shopping and explored a little. One day we turned left out of my piso and carried on walking, and the next day we turned right! Simple but effective method! There were palm trees, it was hideously hot (around 37 degrees – too much for me!), but the mountains and river were very pretty. 

As you can imagine, having never really been abroad before, my culture shock happened from the day I set off so the first two weeks were very hard. But once things were sorted at uni, I felt much better and the time has flown ever since.

Finding Accommodation

The Universidad de Deusto will help you find accommodation which is usually a shared flat (they should send you a link to an application form when they send you all the other bits of paper they want you to fill in!). It’s a good idea to request internet in your flat, because it can be tricky to set up when you get here. You have to have a Spanish bank account, a residence number, etc etc. Just request it, it will save you time! If there’s no internet in your flat, there’s Wi-Fi all over the campus. It’s also a good idea to put down the maximum price you’re willing to pay for your accommodation, in euros, per month, including bills. The only thing with living in a flat, is that you probably won’t be with Spanish people – even if you request it. As with most flats I know, the lingo is all done in English because that’s what people have in common. Just a thought!

If you would rather stay with a host family, that option is available and it is a great way to practise your Spanish. The only drawback is that you have to stay either half- or full-board. Bear this in mind, as you don’t want to offend your hosts by not eating what they put in front of you – if you’re a fussy eater, don’t do it! 

If you decide to find something when you get here, head to the uni. There are signs EVERYWHERE for people to share an apartment, so I’m fairly sure you won’t go homeless.

Getting Around

Bilbao has a metro service which is pretty cheap and it offers a frequent service, continuing until late at night. If you buy a Creditrans ticket, it works out much cheaper than buying a ticket every time you want to travel and it saves you time as well. You can also use this ticket on the tram.

The tram service goes through Casco Viejo and that side of town, but I don’t believe it crosses the river, so there’s no service to the Deusto area (but you don’t really need it – there’s the metro, or if you cross the river using the bridge by the uni, there’s a tram stop just there!).

The buses seem pretty complicated to work out, and as yet I’ve had no need of them, but my French flatmate gets a bus each day to work and she says they are reliable and frequent, although this can depend on where you want to go.

If you want to visit Madrid, the coach is much cheaper than taking the train, with internal flights being hideously expensive. Weigh up your options though, as the coach may be cheaper but it does take five hours!

Visiting Barcelona, however, is pretty much the opposite, with an internal flight from Bilbao costing around 25-30 euros (one-way) – a very good deal, but again shop around the airlines and you do need to book in advance if you’re going to fly!

Flights from Bilbao airport back to England are cheap on Easyjet if you book well ahead, but they only fly three times a week to Manchester. I’m told that Vueling is the main operator to Heathrow, but that can be awfully expensive if you’re not on the ball with booking. Remember to add luggage too, unless you’re just making a quick trip and can cope with just hand luggage. On the whole, it’s fairly easy to get back to England and the airport has a good and cheap bus service.

La Universidad de Deusto

There was a welcome meeting in the 1st week for international students, and this was given in Spanish and English (very useful – I went to both to make sure I understood). The system here is a bit complicated, in terms of sorting out a timetable. You’ll have been assigned to a faculty, and the majority of your courses have to be from that faculty. Remember that some courses here are taught in Basque (Euskera) and English, both of which you should avoid. In the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales y Humanas there are free electives offered, which are aimed at Erasmus students – this is good on the one hand, as the majority of tutors explain things very clearly and they are quite understanding if you ask them to repeat. On the other hand, it’s not really a true representation of Spanish university life. 

Also, the uni insists that you are registered for 30 credits per semester – no matter what your home uni is asking for. The solution is that you sign up for 30 credits, then if your home uni wants you to do less, you just don’t turn up to one and on your transcript it says ‘no presente’ – which is neither a pass nor a fail. 

The credits system can be confusing. When you look at the notice boards for your faculty which are full of timetables, the number of credits may be given in ECTS, or it may be given in Deusto credits. Not very helpful! I thought I had my timetable sorted, then was told I didn’t have enough credits after all (there’s only one point difference – so 5 ECTS is 6 Deusto credits…Crazy system!).

You chose your courses by finding your faculty’s notice boards (usually outside the faculty office) and pick ones that look interesting. You have 2 weeks to try them out and chop and change, but be warned that some classes will not happen in the 1st week because tutors know that it’s a bit disorganised – they may have a class waiting for them or they may not!

You will be offered a Spanish language course when you fill in your forms at home – take them up on it! Although it costs around 40 euros for printing and materials, the teaching is of a very high standard. You sit a test in the 1st week to determine which group you will be put into – I would recommend NOT revising for this test, as some people revised, did well, and were put in a group that was too hard for their true ability. They offer a course in August that is worth 5 credits, and one in the semester worth 6. If you’re staying for a year, you can do a course second semester as well (also worth 6 credits).

The uni has a strong Christian ethos, so saints’ days are in abundance! Great if there’s a puente (when a holiday falls on a Tuesday, the Spanish take the Monday off too, as, let’s face it, there’s always mañana!). Perfect for a long weekend exploring somewhere, a quick trip home if needed, or visits from loved ones. Your student card gets you discounts all over the place – don’t lose it!

Town centre

Bilbao is made up of little districts that are accessible by Metro. When I looked on google maps before I got here, I assumed that the Universidad de Deusto was in the middle of the town, because there were shops around and it seemed highly populated. I was wrong! Deusto is out of the town centre – the middle bit of town with the old streets and pretty buildings is called Casco Viejo.

There’s plenty of good shopping less than a metro ride away, including an IKEA for all that stuff you couldn’t bring! 

If I could do it all again, I’d have bought a map online before I got here (both a street map and an Ordinance Survey kind). A street map just to orientate yourself a bit, and find your way around places, and a proper one because the mountains around here look far too inviting!

Things to do to find your feet

1. There’s a Funicular about 10mins from the uni which will take you up a mountain so you get a panorama over Bilbao town. Beautiful as the sun is setting and very reasonably priced – only 90 cents up and 90 cents back. Here’s the website so grab a picnic and some friends for a relaxing afternoon!
2. Take a trip to Casco Viejo. The uni organised a free guided tour in the 1st week which is a good way of getting to know Bilbao a little better and it was quite interesting. 
3. The Guggenheim. If you’re into Modern Art, go check it out. This year the uni offered free tickets to international students – all you had to do was to ask!
4. There are parks in abundance if you want to relax in green surroundings or take a nice walk. There’s one next to the Guggenheim. Also, a walk by the river from the uni until you get to Casco Viejo is really beautiful.
5. Go and try some pinchos – Basque tapas! They are very reasonably priced and, especially in Casco Viejo, you couldn’t feel more Spanish!
6. The ‘turn left, turn right’ method as I explained earlier. Makes it difficult to get lost if you just walk in a straight line!

Odds and sods

1. It rains. Take an umbrella!
2. It gets hot. Take sun cream and light clothes so you can cover up and prevent burning.
3. The main supermarket round Deusto is Eroski, but there are also Carrefour and Simply and, of course, el Corte Inglés (which sells cheddar and Cadbury’s, if you’ve got a spare few euros and you’re missing English food!). All are reasonably priced. 
4. The locals are very friendly, as are the people who sell newspapers and magazines from little booths on the street, great for striking up a conversation! 
5. People round here really appreciate it if you make an effort with their language, so if you don’t know the word for something and you end up pointing at it, ask them what the name is in Spanish and the atmosphere is immediately less tense!
6. Enjoy the atmosphere, take several proverbial chill pills, and just think ‘mañana’ when things don’t go to plan!

Our Mole Diaries are insider city guides written by students about their experiences, filled with top tips and recommendations. Please view our 200+ Mole Diaries arranged by language, and if you'd like to contribute, do find out more about becoming a Mole!

If you would like to comment, please login or register.