Hello. My name is Isaac, 35 years old from Vancouver, Canada. I have set this blog up to document my journey following Mark Knopfler’s 2013 “Privateering” tour, from April 25 (Bucharest, Romania) to July 31 (Calella de Palafrugell, Spain).

Due to Despite the tour’s obnoxious schedule (thanks, Mark), I cannot be entirely sure that I will attend all concerts. That being said, I will try. You are more than welcome to sit back, relax, read, and comment. You can also subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed (see the “Subscribe for Updates” box at the right hand side of the page. For standard RSS readers, select the “Atom” option).

Have fun,

Note: The contents of this blog are also available in hardcover and paperback formats. For more information, click here:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Málaga to Gijón to San Sebastián, Spain (July 28–30, 2013)

After a few days of easy travel in Spain (I never thought I’ll be writing the words “easy” and “Spain” in the same sentence), there came the time for the grand finale: the longest train‐travel day in the entire tour, which, coincidentally, was also the last train‐travel day in the tour.

The (planned; we’ll get to that soon) itinerary: depart Málaga 9:00am, arrive Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha station 11:50am; take the Cercanías (commuter train) to Madrid’s Chamartín station; depart Madrid Chamartín 2:40am, arrive Gijón 8:15pm.

That’s ten hours and a quarter overall travel, over three trains. Long travel day, crossing Spain from its southern tip to its northern one. The two main train rides involved are high‐speed trains, but the ride from Madrid to Gijón has very slow sections in it due to northern Spain’s terrain.

Feel like having another taste of how difficult it was, at times, to plan for following this tour? buckle your seatbelts.

The very last train ride for the tour—from Madrid to Gijón—was also the hardest one to plan (the Málaga‐Madrid leg was planned for and purchased in advance). When planning the tour’s itinerary, Deutsche Bahn’s website showed that a train indeed exists from Madrid Puerta de Atocha to Gijón, leaving 1:55pm. Hence, the schedule should have been very simple: no need to take the Cercanías from one station in Madrid to another.

However, for whatever reason, that particular train ride couldn’t be purchased through Germany’s railway company (through Deutsche Bahn, you can book train tickets virtually anywhere in Europe). Also, it couldn’t be booked through Renfe’s website (Renfe is the umbrella company for Spain’s railway carriers). The meaning was simple: you must be present on Spanish soil in order to purchase that train ticket.

That particular train ride was a shining red light in the tour’s plan. Maybe at some point I’ll share with you a glimpse of the Google Docs‐based itinerary we had prepared—I consider that spreadsheet a pure mastery; for now, let me just tell you that it was full of green‐coloured cells implying “purchased & confirmed”, but that one last ride was painted red, implying “to be done”. Neither myself nor the Dutchman are fans of things that are “to be done”: I am allergic to procrastination, and that one red‐painted cell felt like a pain in the butt.

That’s why, as soon as we arrived at Barcelona, it was decided to get this thing over with (see the post telling the Barcelona story). Even that wasn’t simple. As we asked for the reservation to be made, we were told that the train doesn’t leave from Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha station, but from Chamartín instead, at 2:40pm; we were instructed to take the commuter train between the two stations in Madrid. We tried explaining to the attendant that we had seen, online, that that it’s possible to board this train in Puerta de Atocha; unfortunately, the language barrier was too high for him to even listen.

Back to July 28. Woke up at around 7:30am, packed and went downstairs for breakfast. The previous night was a late one, went to sleep close to 2:00am after having farewell drinks with dear Ingrid, so I didn’t really wake up: I was half asleep when I approached the elevator. Door opened, we both went inside. By the elevator’s door, there were two couples who were obviously very vocal and even more obviously drunk. At the last moment, they decided to take the same elevator down.

Few things beat spending some time in an elevator with two drunk, vocal couples at 8:00am, before you’re even fully awake. Don’t exactly know who stunk from alcohol more, I think it was the ladies—who were, by the way, not really dressed for breakfast: it seemed like they all just got back from some sort of a party.

Ate breakfast like some sort of a robot, often glancing at the drunk foursome who continued their vocal “conversation” in a table nearby. Breakfast done, up to the room, chilled out for a few more minutes and then embarked on the remarkably difficult journey to the train station, consisting of taking the elevator down and going through one set of doors.

It was worth it to spend the night in a hotel located right at the railway station, even though it was very far from anything that’s interesting in Málaga. Obviously, I’d prefer to stay closer to the beach, but when you’re following a tour, other logistical factors take precedence: the distance from the beach to the railway station is more than 2km, and nobody had any intention walking such distance so early in the morning.

Arrived to Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha, and decided to be enterprising: how about asking on‐site staff whether it’s possible to board the next train in this station, instead of taking the commuter train to the other one?

Approached the platform and asked the attendant, who then delegated to her colleague. Well, what do you know: yes, it was possible to board that train in this station.

Just think how ridiculous this is: Deutsche Bahn, which is the railway company of a different country altogether, is more knowledgeable in Spanish railway schedules than an attendant working in Barcelona Sants, one of the largest, most prominent train stations in Spain.

Why did the attendant in Barcelona not know about it? I have no clue. Anyway, these were good news: no need to take that intermediate train travel.

Knowing that the ride was going to be a long one, it was decided to head out of the station and look for lunch. Unfortunately, restaurants appeared to be closed: not surprising as it was a Sunday, around noon time. Went back to the station, found a restaurant. How good can a restaurant, located inside a train station, be? I don’t have good history with such restaurants and the one in Madrid wasn’t an exception. Cheap food that made no sense, but was enough to keep the body going. Killed some more time in the station, and then boarded the train—each of us boarding to a different coach (it was impossible to even explain to that Barcelona Sants attendant that we’re looking for two adjacent seats).

Last train ride for the tour… what a strange feeling. I still remember having my EURail pass stamped in Milano Centrale, as soon as I arrived there from Milano’s airport, arriving from Belgrade. When the hell was that? WOW. Almost three months ago. THREE MONTHS. Back then, the end of the tour seemed inconceivably distant: and now, there I am, boarding the last train for this tour.

All and all, using trains in Europe was more of a positive experience than a negative one. Not much seemed to have changed since I last used it extensively, back in the 2010 Get Lucky tour: same inefficiencies in the same countries, lack of integration… that’s the empty half of the glass. The full half of the glass is that Europe actually does have a working, functioning railway system. It’ll take ages before such a developed railway system will be implemented in North America. I suppose we, North Americans, are bound to continue using cars as the primary method of transportation for the next little while.

I had many plans for this long train ride, including doing some writing and slowly clear items off my post‐tour to‐do list. Unfortunately, this particular train didn’t offer power sockets, and my dying laptop battery was enough for a little over two hours. Tried to pass the time playing online chess with a friend, but the ride went through so many tunnels and so many desolate places with no cellular reception, that I eventually got fed up with the intermittent connectivity and just sat in my chair doing nothing but thinking.

The ride itself was stunning. At first, it was just more of the same—lots of hills with plenty of trees and small villages; however, once you get north—at around León, the terrain changes dramatically, offering spectacular natural views rivalling those of, say, Switzerland—although the landscape itself is different. No snow‐peaked mountains here (at least not in late July), and not too many lakes, but the rugged green ridges here are nothing short of awesome.

Northern Spain, in that regards, is drastically different than the south and the center. That wasn’t all that new to me: I travelled to northern Spain before, during the 2010 Get Lucky tour, as that tour had a stop in Bilbao. I remember similar spectacular views when taking the train from Madrid to Bilbao back then, often not believing that I’m still in the same country.

Unfortunately, though, I was so busy thinking of all sorts of things; the type of thoughts that really don’t motivate you to do anything, but to the contrary. Therefore, I didn’t even take one single photograph in the entire ride. The Dutchman, however, did; but these turned out very bad due to reflection.

Looked at the time: it’s close to 8:00pm already. Fired up Google Maps to see where the train is and how long it should take to get to the destination… not even close. It was close to 9:00pm—approximately 45 minutes behind schedule—when the train finally stopped in Gijón. Door opened. I looked around me. Took a last look at the train’s cabin, realizing that I won’t be riding any train anymore this tour. As always when I leave a train, I went through a list of important items in my head to ensure that I know that they’re with me: laptop? here. Passport? here. Train pass? here, and I won’t be needing it anymore.

Left the train, onto the platform and out of the station.

Like many other cities visited over the last few months, I have never heard of Gijón before. The city’s name is pronounced he‐hon, and it’s located at Spain’s very north.

The hotel for the next couple of nights, Silken Ciudad Gijón, is adjacent to the railway station, and both aren’t quite located in the city center. It wasn’t the original hotel pick: the reservation for the original hotel—don’t remember its name—had to be cancelled once it turned out that it doesn’t offer air conditioning.

Even though the entire day consisted of sitting inside a train, I was extremely tired upon arrival at the hotel. It was still light outside, but I decided that that’s it for me for the day: going to get something to eat, then call it an early night. Not being quite in the mood to do research about restaurants, the hotel’s restaurant had to do. Overpriced burger, some of which was rare (not the biggest fan of that), went upstairs, shower and bed.

The next morning I woke up with all intentions to have breakfast and go out to see the city. A few readers living in Spain mentioned that the city is pretty, as well as its beaches and its harbour. Somehow, though, I got carried away into doing other things. Kept looking at the clock, thinking what time I should be leaving in order to get some sightseeing time, and kept postponing it. I guess that, at some level, I wasn’t too interested.

On my way to meet the Dutchman for lunch, about a kilometer away from the hotel, I took a few looks around and couldn’t quite believe that I’m in Spain. Contrary to other places I had seen before in Spain, Gijón is spacious, clean and has a “laid back” feel to it. This city “feels” much more like a small Canadian town than a Spanish one, at least based on my own experience with Spain.

And the best thing? the weather. Oh, this northern weather. It’s the end of July, and—lo and behold—you don’t feel like peeling your own skin off when walking the streets here.

Met the Dutchman for lunch in a nearby restaurant (as he headed out earlier to explore the city). On my way there, and during the meal, I started feeling some pain in my right wrist, and the pain spread to my entire arm. I can’t really describe just how frustrated I was with all of this: let’s just say that, at that moment, I decided to simply return to the hotel right after lunch and just sleep, hoping that the frustration will go away throughout, and maybe the pain will subside. That completely pushed aside any plans for seeing anything of this city; I was that frustrated.

Went back to the hotel and slept for about 2–3 hours. Woke up, not much change in the pain, but at least I was extremely fresh. Some writing, some reading, and at around 9:00pm, took a taxi to the venue.

The venue, La Plaza de Universidad, wasn’t very easy to locate online. We figured it might have something to do with a square inside a university: but which university? and where exactly, in the university, is that square located? I was later able to reach a high degree of certainty regarding the venue’s whereabouts by using Google Maps’ satellite imagery, showing a large square inside a university located about 7–8km south west of the central railway station. Later, this was confirmed by the hotel’s staff, who already knew that Knopfler is performing in town, “in the university”—implying that, just maybe, there aren’t many universities in town.

It is known that, in Spain, people’s ability to communicate in English is very limited. Locals that I have been asking about this subject had one cause to point their finger at—the fact that TV programs and movies are dubbed in Spanish rather than being subtitled, so other than learning English in primary school, people don’t really have much opportunity (or reason) to deal with English in their day‐to‐day lives. Still, in big cities such as Barcelona, you can somehow get by; in smaller, or less cosmopolitan cities, communication in English becomes much more problematic.

The nice taxi driver who was misfortunate enough to hail us to the venue tried very hard to start any sort of conversation, only to be stuck after one or two consonants. It was evident that he was somewhat embarrassed. Not sure why: clearly not his fault. He did know, however, exactly where the concert was taking place. Quick ten minutes ride and we arrived.

So: the university is called Laboral, and is located far from the city center, so neat hill views are available everywhere you look. To get into the “Plaza” part in “La Plaza de Universidad”, you need to enter through the university’s main gate. Before entering, took some photographs of the surroundings.


It was rather unclear where ticket pickup should take place. Asking around, it turned out that the venue’s box office is inside a hall which I could best describe as a library.


From there, access to the square is very easy.


This was a general admission standing show, with an early entry privilege for ticket purchasers—again, it was decided to not take advantage of it. It made more sense to enjoy this concert from the back. Weather was perfect—breezy, at the low twenties—providing for a great general admission concert experience: gone were the heat and the humidity of Barcelona.

Hunger, somehow, struck me shortly after the concert started. What do you do in such case? of course, you eat at the venue. Granted, I never expect much from food offered in concert venues. This particular venue sold food and drink out of a huge tent located right in the middle of the square, behind the sound technicians. Approached, and… get this: they ran out of food.

You see, there’s always a first. I thought I had seen everything before; I never imagined that a venue, selling food, will completely run out of food (as garbage quality as that food may be), let alone 10 minutes into the concert.

(It goes without saying that they didn’t run out of beer.)

The audience in Spain’s north is different with respect to loudness. It is loud, but less (though not much) than in, say, Madrid or Barcelona. It was evident that the audience loved the show, but it was also just as evident that people here aren’t in the habit of jumping out of their skins for cheering. People’s temperament, overall, seems to be cooler here than elsewhere (I have been to) in Spain.

I wrote it before and I’ll reiterate: this city and its people reminded me more of a Canadian town than a Spanish one.

During Postcards from Paraguay, a mishap took place when Ian finished the song one verse too early. For a couple of seconds, it looked as if the band was heading into complete mayhem—even Mark started singing the last verse—but within two seconds, somehow, they got out of it.

Similar events happened a couple of times during the 2010 Get Lucky tour, and really, I’m not sure I fully understand how they avoid complete disaster when such things happen. When you’re used to play a particular song following a certain pattern almost on a daily basis, and suddenly something changes radically (and a premature ending of a song is, undoubtedly, a radical change), it is extremely difficult, for the inexperienced performer, to adjust. First, there’s the element of complete surprise; second, there’s the element of looking at what other band members are doing, to somehow try to end things gracefully and harmonically; and third, you actually have to carry out your unplanned sequence. All of the above has to happen within an exceptionally short duration, as these complications tend to grow exponentially the longer the performance goes without a unified “direction”.

As I said before, I don’t know of a band that performs as well as this one.

All other songs in the concert were played in full. Great experience.


Out of the venue and now it was time to figure out how to get back to the city center. Horrible memories of the Rome experience crept in. Fortunately, things were quite organized: a few buses were waiting nearby, each one heading to a different destination. None of the buses seemed to head to the railway station. An attendant—positioned right next to the buses (I love it how they’re organized in here)—was very happy to help out despite the evident language barrier. Boarded one of the buses, waited until it was full… 15 minutes drive to the central bus station, and from there it’s a 10 minutes walk to the hotel. Quick sandwich before heading to the room and off for a good night sleep, knowing that, the next day, I won’t be riding any train and will be heading towards a city that many Spanish people consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in Spain.

July 30. Woke up and realized that this entire tour was going to be over within less than 48 hours. Quick breakfast at the hotel and it was decided to head out early: I wasn’t going to see much of Gijón anyway and I was looking forward to spending as much time as possible in San Sebastián, based on the so many recommendations I have been hearing about it recently.

The quickest route between Gijón and San Sebastián takes about four hours, often right along the coast. For the life of me, my English vocabulary isn’t rich enough to describe just how stunning the scenery was along the ride. Green‐covered mountains as far as the eyes can see, and the clear, amazing blue waters of the Bay of Biscay are often in sight. These views were enough for me to determine that this part of Spain clearly deserves a more in‐depth look in the future. I could easily spend weeks over weeks in this tantalizingly beautiful country.


The awesome scenery helped the long ride feel shorter. Somewhere along the way, it was decided to look for a place for lunch before the entire country of Spain closes all its restaurants. OK… but where? how do you look for a restaurant when you’re in the middle of nowhere?

While driving through the highway, occasionally there were signs showing a symbol of a restaurant, implying that there’s a restaurant nearby. Well, you can never tell by these: it might as well be just a small dirty restaurant inside a gas stop. Still, it was better than nothing. Eventually, I realized that these signs are really the only reasonable guide to get anything to eat around, so I took the exit right into a a town named San Mamés de Meruelo.

Needless to say, I had never heard of anything named San Mamés de Meruelo or even close to it. This town seemed to be as close to “in the middle of nowhere” as they can get. Fired up TripAdvisor and it turned out that there’s a very good restaurant just up the road, which is ranked #1 in San Mamés De Meruelo. That is, ranked #1 out of the staggering total of 2.

OK… drove a few extra kilometers up the road, following the GPS’ advice. “Arrived at your destination” but where’s that restaurant? oh, there it is. Looked nice from the outside but was uncertain whether it’s even open, so I waited in the car as the Dutchman went inside to inquire.

About five minutes later, he was back. Now, you’d wonder why it would take a person (even a Dutch one) five minutes to find out whether a restaurant is presently open or closed. Turns out that the restaurant, La Yaya, is of the more fancy ones, requires reservations and was going to open its door fifteen minutes later. The reason for the delay, then, was that the Dutchman actually had to go about making a reservation, as the restaurant is usually fully booked for lunch.

They also had daily menus: three course meal for €13.

Reservation was made, and we had a few minutes to kill before entering.


So far, the best meal in the entire tour was consumed in a restaurant in Siracusa, on the day‐off before the Taormina concert. That one was as unexpected as they can get: stepping into that restaurant in Siracusa, would have never guessed that the experience would later unfold to be the best dining experience in a three months tour.

It happened again. I am proud to announce the second best meal of this tour so far: it took place right here in San Mamés de Meruelo. The food—just like in Siracusa—was simple, unpretentious; and just as it was simple, it was absolutely fantastic.

At some point, we were wondering whether the Dutchman was right about the price of the daily menu: it was possible that they meant to say “30” and said something that sounded like “13”. Where on earth would you get such a great meal for €13? impossible.

But no, it wasn’t a mistake. The bill arrived, clean €26. Even the (bottled) water was free.

If you’re ever in San Mamés de Meruelo, go visit that restaurant. Once you’re done eating, send me an email and let me know why you had to visit San Mamés de Meruelo in the first place.

About an hour and a half spent in that restaurant; time to go. Started the car and drove non‐stop towards San Sebastián. The destination: Hotel K10 in Urnieta, about 10km south of San Sebastián. The reasons had to do with logistics:

  • Hotels in San Sebastián turned out to be very expensive.
  • The concert venue was far from San Sebastián’s city center anyway.
  • Being in the possession of a car, we were no longer bound to stay in city centers, or close to public transport hubs.
  • The next morning, we’d have to drive south anyway. It made sense to stay somewhere along the highway south of San Sebastián, to save time battling with rush hour in the morning.

Arrived at the hotel, checked in, left luggage in the room and immediately fled the scene. Back to the car and headed north towards San Sebastián’s city center, after getting some advice from the hotel’s receptionist who seemed to be very enthusiastic to talk about San Sebastián, calling it a “very beautiful city”. So far, everybody who’s ever been there was claiming that San Sebastián is pretty; it goes without saying that I was really looking forward to see it.

From the hotel, it’s about 20 minutes drive to San Sebastián’s city center. Approaching the city center, a quick look around was enough to determine that this place is clearly a gem. Found a parking garage, which happened to be located right next to the beach; car parked, took the stairs up, and, two seconds later, realized that I’m in the most beautiful Spanish city I had seen so far, and one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Europe.

I have never heard of San Sebastián before reading the tour’s itinerary (by the number of cities I had never heard of before, I’m starting to get the impression that maybe I should brush up on my knowledge of Europe at some point. I’m way more ignorant about it than I originally thought).

The two main beaches in the city face the Bahia de La Concha, with the gorgeous Santa Clara Island visible from everywhere.


Continued walking east towards the old city area. The old city area is very pretty and ridiculously touristic.


After crossing the old city, there was the water again—now looking to the other beach in San Sebastián, more frequented by surfers.


If only it was possible to look at all of this from above… oh, wait. It is possible. It was very warm, but nothing to deter me from walking up a steep incline. I will let the pictures do the rest of the talking.


And, of course, a panoramic one (not sure why the leftmost part appears as if skewed upwards… I tried taking that shot multiple times, and it always ended the same. Deal with it):


Found another path, kept walking up…


Indeed, this city is a gem: complete different from anything else I had seen in Spain so far in my life. No photograph could possibly do justice to the immense natural beauty of this place.

Walking down, hunger struck again. Everyone I was talking to about San Sebastián mentioned the term Pintxos as a must‐eat thing there. A Pintxo (sometimes written Pincho) is northern Spain’s version of the tapa. Typically, these consist of one or two miniature slices of bread, plus an arbitrary selection of ingredients, all held together with a toothpick or a skewer (the word Pincho in Spanish means “spike”). A pintxo may or may not contain bread: the term, essentially, is used to describe any sort of a very small dish. As long as there’s a skewer holding things together there, it’s a pintxo.

San Sebastián’s old city area was full of bars offering those, which, naturally, raised the question how on earth was I going to go about picking the right one. TripAdvisor suggested a place called Bar Zeruko, which turned out to be closed for another 15–20 minutes once we got there. No problem. A quick walk around the city and a visit to the cash machine, then back, and the place was open.


It took the place about two minutes to be almost completely full of people. Only a few tables to dine on, and if you don’t have a table—no worries, you are invited to just stand next to the bar and eat. The deal: you pick items (with your hands), put them on a plate, and then hand it to one of the people working there. They heat whatever needs heating, give you the rest, and bring the heated items to your table once they’re done.

So much variety, but, what can I tell you… heavenly. Had I not had plans to attend some concert played by some band later on, I’d probably sit there for another hour or so. If you are ever in this part of the country, give those pintxos a shot. Once you do, I guarantee that you will no longer want to hear anything about traditional tapas again.

Back to the city center…


Tried for a low exposure shot…


A few last photographs (I promise)…


… and back to the parking lot, heading to the venue. Took a few minutes to the GPS to find itself, but still, it was a short ride to the venue. Upon noticing the venue on the right, it was decided to park the car nearby, rather than head to the venue’s parking lot: this is based on past experience with getting out of venues’ parking lots after a show. Found a parking spot nearby and walked for about 10 minutes to the venue.

The venue, Plaza de Toros de Illumbe, is a bullring with a retractable roof. Grabbed the tickets and went inside.


The concert was still 30–40 minutes ahead. Spent some time chatting with familiar people who made it to San Sebastián, as well as with a few readers of this blog who came by to introduce themselves.

Concert started a few minutes past schedule and was a very good one. During the concert, multiple references were made to the previous concert’s incident of Ian prematurely ending Postcards from Paraguay: during the band’s introduction, Mark introduced Ian and added “… who will be playing this song all the way through tonight”, eliciting lots of laughter from whoever knew what he was talking about. When it was time for the song’s last verse, Mark turned back, pointing a finger to the air (gesturing the number “1”) and called towards Ian “one more”. When it was time to conclude the song, Ian turned to Guy and asked him, jokingly, “… now?”.

The song was performed, indeed, all the way through.

After the concert, ten minutes walk to the car, another 10 minutes ride to the hotel… a long, long shower and a good night sleep.

Signing off this post from my hotel’s lobby in Llafranc, in Costa Brava. Will upload this and head out to catch tonight’s concert, which will also be the last.

The last post of this blog will be posted later on tonight, or tomorrow morning at the latest.



  1. Sorry about the cercanias mistake. It wasn´t an AVE, the one who starts from Chamartin. Glad you had such as good experiences in the north of Spain. An yes, San Sebastian deserves a try. Safe travel back to your country, or Israel, wathever it is. And thank you for the blog, much more related to the mortals than Guy´s one. All life is a challenge.

  2. I must admit I have to chuckle about the public image that D. Bahn puts out. DB have bought up several passenger and freight companies and shed a few when they realise that the way they think is not the same as the way that companies in other parts of Europe think. It really would be better if they would stick to one speciality..only two choices that would be freight or passengers. Other German carriers like Lufthansa have been successful in this diversification but the railways have just to many variables. If I may say so Isaac you have that logical characteristic of order and conformity that is so very Germanic. All is good when events progress to a plan but all is not so good when they don't. On the upside corruption is non existant and the Germans are an honest people and the companies they run reflect that. Move farther east and south and we still speak German but we have a more open attitude and a little faster way to deal with inconsistancy...which can be lots of fun...naughty but fun. The Spanish took all the sand off the coast line to build those hotels. You probably did not notice but many parts away from the tourist spots are arrid. The coastline in those parts was raped to make money. Sad.