‘Welcome to my local,” says lorry driver Mick, from Limerick, who’s clinging to the bar with one hand and to a pint of Murphy’s with the other.
is ‘local’ is the Plaza Mayor lounge on the Brittany Ferries vessel Salamanca, and we’re both swaying.
This has nothing to do with the stout — rather, the sea is a bit rough out there in the pitch-black south-west of Land’s End as we head through the night towards the Bay of Biscay.
The cruise ferry is the only vehicle and passenger ship linking Ireland directly with Spain. It began plying the Rosslare-to-Bilbao route last November, and Mick has made the round-trip every week.
Sailings take an average of 30 hours each way, depending on the sea conditions — in winter it can be choppy for spells, but for the rest of the year it’s generally a smooth and carefree crossing.
“I sail to Bilbao on Wednesday morning with a refrigerated container of cod or prime Irish beef and drive down to Madrid on Thursday evening,” says Mick.
“On Friday and Saturday, I load up with Spanish onions, oranges, artichokes and asparagus, and sail home on Sunday. It’s a quick enough turn-around, so this is the only chance I get to have a pint. That’s why I call this my local — I’m a regular.”
Mick thinks €6.75 is a bit steep for Murphy’s (draught cider is a steal at €4.90), but he’s saving a fortune on fuel.
“I used to take the ferry to France,” he says. “It’s 1,400km from there to Madrid, but from Bilbao it’s only 400, so every trip I’m doing 2,000km less driving and burning a lot less diesel.
“It’s good for me and my wallet, and it’s good for the environment, and that keeps my kids happy.”
Salamanca has 343 en-suite cabins, all with multi-channel TVs and free movies. A small number are luxury suites, several have been adapted for passengers with reduced mobility and two dozen are specially designed for people travelling with their dogs.
There are also cosy, quiet lounges with reclining seats and dimmed lighting that offer a cheaper option to a cabin, especially for solo travellers.
“It’s not like a ferry at all, it’s like being on a cruise liner,” says a midwife from Cork, who’s hammering her husband at Scrabble.
“Our room is nice and comfortable, the Spanish food in the Azul restaurant is gorgeous, and all the crew are so friendly and helpful — we feel very well looked after.”
The couple, who have brought their car, usually spend a fortnight touring Normandy and Brittany in the run-up to Easter, but this year they’ve opted to sail to Bilbao instead of Cherbourg and explore Spain’s north coast.
“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” says the husband. “We’re going to Santander — we have a niece there who teaches English — and then on to Asturias and Galicia before coming back to Bilbao for a couple of nights.”
About half of those enjoying an after-dinner drink in the Plaza Mayor lounge are lorry drivers, while the rest are car and motorhome drivers, cyclists, bikers and a few Camino hikers taking advantage of the overnight voyage.
Among the foot passengers is a young fella from Kilkenny who’s going to see his brother in Barcelona. He has vowed never to get on a plane again after a terrifying experience with turbulence over the Atlantic.
“I must’ve said a thousand Hail Marys — and I don’t even go to mass,” he says. “I’ll tell ye, it’s the boat for me from now on. If we sail into a storm, it won’t bother me a bit after that nightmare.”
Another couple, from Ballynahinch, Co Down, have plans for a month-long tour in the motorhome they bought last year as a retirement present for themselves, and will be clocking up the kilometres.
“We’re doing San Sebastián first, then driving back the other way as far as La Coruña, then we’re going to Santiago de Compostela and heading down to Porto,” says the husband, who ran his own landscape gardening business.
“If we meet any pilgrims with blisters on the way to Santiago, they’re welcome to a lift.”
His wife, a former art teacher who’s looking forward especially to visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, adds: “It was our 40th anniversary last month, so this trip is our special treat.”
My own brief visit isn’t quite so adventurous, but I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks — particularly the novelty of taking the boat and just driving around for a couple of days.
You can fly from Ireland to Brisbane quicker than you can sail to Bilbao, but 30 hours at sea isn’t quite the slog it sounds, and you arrive refreshed after a good night’s sleep and with plenty of time to kill before disembarking.
In the late afternoon, I head straight to San Sebastián, where I’m staying in the movie-themed Zinema7 hotel (zinema7hotel.com), and am just in time to catch the most glorious sunset from the promenade that runs the length of La Concha beach.
Every evening from spring through autumn, massive crowds gather along the seafront to “ooh” and “aah” at the spectacle, which takes some beating.
San Sebastián has more Michelin-star restaurants per capita than any other city in the world, but my budget is more Starbar, so I pop into a pintxos café and tuck into some tasty tapas Basque-style before hitting the hay.
One of the great advantages of ferry and car travel is that you can fill the boot with as many bottles of wine as you like, and that’s exactly what I do next day deep in the heart of La Rioja.
The Bodegas Amador García winery in the village of Baños de Ebro produces the Basque Country’s top-selling whites, and it’s a no-brainer to part with just under €50 for a dozen bottles.
If you’re following the wine trail, the medieval town of Laguardia is the perfect base for touring, and the Silken Villa de Laguardia hotel (hoteles-silken.com) and spa is a top recommendation for a night or two.
In Bilbao, the hotel with arguably the best rooms with a view is the Vincci Consulado (vinccihoteles.com), as it overlooks the remarkable Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggi, as it’s known locally, is an attraction in itself, no matter what artworks are on show inside; with its wave-like titanium surfaces, it has been described variously as a UFO and a turkey wrapped in tinfoil.
Outside the main entrance, American artist Jeff Koons’ Puppy sculpture is a huge attraction in more ways than one — it’s 12.4 metres tall and covered with 38,000 living plants and flowers. Not surprisingly, it’s the city’s most photographed sight.
If there’s such a thing as a flying visit on a boat, mine last week to the Basque Country was plain sailing all the way — except for that choppy patch.
However, lorry driver Mick has the solution for anyone prone to seasickness.
“Get a packet of Kwells tablets from the chemist and take one half-an-hour before the ship sails,” he says. “Ye’d be grand in a tsunami with one of them in ye.”
How to do it
Brittany Ferries operates weekly overnight sailings year round from Rosslare to Bilbao on Wednesday and Friday, and from Bilbao to Rosslare on Sunday and Thursday.
Fares cost from €329 each way for a car and two passengers, including an en-suite cabin (motorhome from €379); €308 each way for a motorbike and two passengers, including an en-suite cabin; €332 each way for two foot passengers sharing an en-suite cabin, and €111 each way for a foot passenger, including reclining seat. brittany-ferries.ie
Tom was a guest of Brittany Ferries and the Basque Country Tourism Board. For more to see and do in the area, see tourism.euskadi.eus
Take three: travel tips
The Bay of Biscay is one of the world’s richest feeding grounds for resident dolphins and migrating whales. Salamanca’s open-air deck 10 is the best place from which to spy them in the morning.
A pintxos trail
In the Basque Country, tapas are called pintxos, and the variety on offer is mind-blowing. Bars are forever trying to outdo rivals with their inventiveness. Expect to pay €2 to €4 per pintxo.
Best bar none
Manu Iturregi is Basque, but his DNA contains a healthy dose of Irish. The rugby fan, who often wears a kilt, owns Bar Residence in Bilbao and hosts weekly live music sessions. Irish visitors can expect a warm céad míle fáilte.