AND A ROUNDUP OF BILBAO AND SAN SEBASTIAN
I have been asked a few times to recommend a good travel camera, and to be honest until recently, I could only make a bit of a vague statement like why don’t you check out mirrorless cameras or something like that. Fuji’s range of mirrorless cameras are becoming more and more popular with wedding photographers – smaller and much more discreet than DSLRs with super quiet shutters, and they produce a spectrum of cameras from the basic, to the pro under this umbrella.
When I travel I’ve tended to take a film SLR, or even on occasion, a medium format camera (which weighs a tonne!) but I’ve begun to find it a bit limiting – a huge camera and my go-to 35mm lens are hardly discreet, mark you out as a photo-tourist, and shooting film limits you to only taking photos in outdoor light – a problem that I encountered especially badly in Copenhagen, when I just wanted to take photos of all the pretty interiors and the highest ISO film I was carrying was 800. I managed to get a few shots which you can see over on my Instagram, but I felt creatively held back.
So although I love the look (and relative ease) of film photography when I’m travelling, it was time for something different. Something I could potentially use for some street photography and where creating images on the go doesn’t end up taking over from couple time with the Mr, I thought it would also be the perfect notebook camera – to document things when I’m out and about. I found the answer in the Fuji X100t, and I’m going to be reviewing it from a practical point of view instead of being overly techie – shortly after it arrived we headed to Bilbao and San Sebastian and later in the post I’ll be sharing some of my travel recs.
I wanted a handbag sized camera, with manual controls, the ability to shoot RAW for consistent post processing with my Nikon cameras and my other work. Retro good looks don’t hurt either, and the style means that the dials for aperture and shutter speed are easily accessible. The camera has a fixed 23mm lens, which is a 35mm equivalent on a full frame camera. For me this is perfect – I shoot all prime lenses, and my go to is my 35mm 1.4. It’s a great length for both landscape and portraits although some people might be put off by the lack of zoom given that you can’t change the lens. The highest native ISO is 6400, and the one downside of the controls is that it’s one of the elements of the camera that you need to enter the menus to change.
The camera retails four just under £800 and you can get it here (http://www.wexphotographic.com/buy-fuji-finepix-x100t-digital-camera-black/p1559868)
The camera, is light, fast to shoot and super quiet. The handle and build quality is wonderful. For me, getting used to composing my images in Live View, or using the Electronic Viewfinder felt strange and I also found that despite the f2 lens unless you were extremely close to the subject, the wonderful depth of field that you get with prime lenses on a full frame camera, and that I love to use in my work, just wasn’t there. It meant that certain parts of my photographic vocabulary, I just couldn’t use and it felt strange to create images with a different voice.
Though there are various film type looks that you can apply directly to your jpgs that are intended to replicate the look of certain types of classic Fuji film stock (though they don’t seem to have 400H) I chose to shoot RAW so I could compare the editing techniques to those I use on my pro pics. I also found that the jpg images lacked a little bit of contrast, but that RAWs when edited exactly as I do my work shot on a Nikon camera, the images were perhaps a little too contrasty but this seems a little dependent on the light coming into the camera – the below portrait was shot fairly close up, but this was actually taken on a rainy day in Amsterdam – very different light from the Basque sun.
I found also that there was a tendency for the highlights to blow out, especially on bright but cloudy days as you can see on the images of the Guggenheim below.
Arguably a camera like this makes you a better photographer – when you can’t rely on the things your camera lens can do with depth of field, or the prettiness of film colours, you need to find a new language to share, ensure your subject is compelling, that the composition is spot on. Do I feel like I nailed it using this camera? Honestly, no. Did I take lots and lots of photos in an (almost) pocket sized camera and have fun doing it – hell yes….
After the images I’ve written a little bit more about what we got up to in Bilbao & San Sebastian, in case you’re interested or heading there soon.
Bilbao is the closest airport to San Sebastian (though you can also approach from Santander, or even from France) but as home of the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim, the city warranted a brief stay before heading onto the enjoy the gluttony and beaches of San Sebastian.
We stayed in the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao http://www.hoteldominebilbao.com/ for 2 nights, which is conveniently just over the road from the museum.The rooms are spacious and well appointed, although lots of them don’t have a proper outward facing window, only one into their cavernous lobby with it’s slightly weird phallic sculpture. Their gym was also quite nice – free water and (bizarrely) cereal bars.
We pre booked our tickets online, which I’d recommend (visit their website here https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/) as even first thing, the queues are pretty long. Take some time also to look round the various outdoor sculptures on the site, including Jeff Koons’ Puppy and Tulips, and the famous Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’ Spider. At the time we visited there was also a pretty in depth retrospective of her work, and your ticket covers all the exhibitions – permanent and temporary. We also wandered round the site at night, which gave us a different perspective on the building all lit up at night.
Drink, Eat, Do
Although it’s San Sebastian that’s famous for pintxos, they are everywhere throughout the Basque region and whilst Bilbao might not be as culturally famous as it’s more glamourous cousin, it was a great introduction to the art of grabbing a plate and feasting and drinking throughout the day. Heading into the old town, there are pintos bars of varying quality on every corner, though the fare available here tended to be a little bit more traditional it was also cheap as chips and we ate and drank our way around town. Starting out across the river we started off in Plaza Berria, heading up through the ‘up and coming’ San Francisco area for a tipple in a locals bar before heading back to the slightly more upmarket streets around Kalea Henao for yet more wine before collapsing in bed with full bellies and tired feet.
Travel to San Sebastian
We walked to Bilbao’s main bus station, it took about 25 mins and in hindsight I wish we’d got the hotel to call us a cab as we managed to break out suitcase on the cobbled streets. The bus station is organised chaos with lots of different operators runnings different buses to different locations. The long distance terminal is also distinct from the local bus stops and the metro station there – anyway, the destinations of the buses are all listed on one central board, with the bus operators name which meant you could then find their booth and buy your ticket. Some buses for San Sebastian are labelled as being to Donostia, it’s just another name for the same place, but worth checking with the coach driver! Finally loaded up with beer and cheetos we boarded the bus and before we knew it we were in San Sebastian.
We did a whole save/splurge thing with our accommodation. We stayed for 4 nights in the simple but friendly Pension Amaiur http://www.pensionamaiur.com/, which is located almost next door to the famous Iglesia Santa Maria and on the historic Calle 31 Agosto in one of the oldest houses in San Sebastian. It was charming but quite wonky, and I swear our bed was on a downhill slope. It was however slap bang in the middle of the old town and everything that it offered and was a great base to get eating and exploring.
We then did one night in the absolutely stunning Hotel Maria Cristina http://www.hotel-mariacristina.com/en, I think it might be the most expensive hotel room I’ve EVER stayed in but my goodness it was worth it. Joss was outside trying to find somewhere to buy cigarettes (filthy habit!) but as soon as I got the room key I put the hotel robe on and ran round the massive room, opened the huge balcony doors and watched the world go by on the square outside and realised I could see the sea.
There are a few museums and attractions in San Sebastian – I’ll come onto what to do soon – but I decided to book a food tour, and opted to go with San Sebastian Food (now called Mimo Food as they have locations in Seville and Mallorca too now http://sansebastian.mimofood.com/en) who, in addition to doing various cooking lessons, also do Pintxos tasting tours. Our guide Arantxa was fabulous. They took us to some of the old towns best bars and talked to us about the house speciality in each, filled us with delicious wine and txakoli (the Basque sparkling wine that isn’t fizzy until you pour it from a great height and make quite a lot of mess) and explained that the best food in most bars isn’t what was on the counter, but what was on the menu and had to be ordered. And after that we felt way more confident standing in crowded bars knowing what to eat.
Drink, Eat, Do
One of the key reasons to visit San Sebastian is to eat, apparently it has more michelin starred restaurants than any other European city. Although we preferred eating more casually there’s more to San Sebastian than just pintxos.
Beaches – it has three beaches! Playa Concha is the best known and slightly more family friendly with shallow water and floating pontoons out in the bay that you can swim out to. Playa Zurriola, across the river in Gros, is hipper, younger and with a surf feel – surf and skate stores line the shops in the seafront, and the bars here are less touristy and a little bit more fun.
Beer – in addition to the wine, there is also a burgeoning craft beer scene in this part of spain, spearheaded by the Basque Brewing Project. We particularly liked Pub Drop https://www.facebook.com/PubDropDonosti/ in the newer part of SS but saw the beer in a few places in Gros too.
The San Telmo museum – there’s a museum, it’s about Basque society in case you feel like taking a break from all the gluttony
Monte Urgul – this is basically the big hill you can see from all over San Sebastian with the obligatory statue of Jesus on top. The whole area is worth an explore, whether you walk around looking at the sea, heading out by the San Telmo and rejoining the city at the port, it’s a lovely walk and a perfect jogging route if you’re so inclined. You can also take any of the paths up to the top of the hill, which affords beautiful views over the city, and is a lovely break from the hustle and bustle. As we were walking up the hill we heard a throbbing dub baseline, and came across a little cafe built into a cave like structure playing loud reggae and stopped for a beer and a gaze across the bay – it was all very lovely!
Shopping – Sen Sebastian is pretty well equipped for shopping, there are quite a few independent boutiques in the old town and lots of surf stores in Gros as well as plenty of delis in case you want to take home some food stuffs. The centre of town also has a mahoosive Zara and good sized versions of the various Inditex stores that we don’t yet have here in the UK like Oysho (their lingerie concept) and Utterque.
Eating – obviously. As a vegetarian who also eats fish there was plenty of choice, even more for meat eating compatriots and you could just about get by as a true vegetarian too, though you would struggle to enjoy Pintos as a vegan – there are a few plant only dishes but almost everything has cheese, or an egg involved somehow.
These were some of our favourite Pintxos bars.
- Casa Urola
- Zeruko (molecular pintxos with the house favourite being smoked cod with a twist!)
- Borda Berri
- La Chuchara di San Telmo
Day trips – Joss wanted to know somewhere he could go an eat grilled fish and pretend to be Rick Stein. Arantxa, our guide from San Sebastian Food recommended visiting the fishing town of Getaria, East of San Sebastian on the Basque coast. We caught the bus from the centre of town (the bus stop is almost outside Sephora) and headed over there, admiring the views from a crowded but mercifully air conditioned, bus. There the restaurants fire up charcoal grills, grilling whatever has been caught that day – you can take a stroll through the tiny port and up around the hill, for views of the waves and then relax on Getaria’s small but lovely beach before heading back home. There’s also a museum dedicated to Balenciaga if you are so inclined.