When a little while ago I joined my friends on a spontaneous short trip to the north of Spain, I didn’t know much about the Basque Country, except that people there wore cool hats. Right before landing, the first look out of the airplane window let me know that this part of Spain would be totally different from what I had expected. Beautiful green mountains, tiny black and white frame houses and pouring rain reminded me more of my homeland of Germany than of anything i connected to Spanish culture.
The first impression of the city of Bilboa was somewhat disappointing, with ugly large tower blocks from back in the Sixties blocking the view. But being a sucker for old industrial cities (I’d been living in the Ruhr Area for quite a while) and the sun coming out, I wanted to gave the city a chance, hoping to discover what there was to it other than the Guggenheim museum and and old men in Basque hats. And sure enough I was able to find quite a few positives to the city of Bilbao. Read on for my five reasons, why Bilbao is definitely worth a visit.
1. The Old Town – Casco Viejo
The medieval neighbourhood of Bilbao has many names. Except for “Casco Viejo” (Old Town) or Zazpikaleak in Basque it is also called “Las Siete Calles” (Seven Streets, Alde Zaharra in Basque) which describes the oldest part of the area, consisting of only seven streets (hence the name). Apart from colorful old buildings the Old Town will provide you with some of the best traditional Pintxo bars and Cider taverns in Bilbao.
2. Pintxos and Cidre
We are all little foodies over here at Travelettes so let’s move straight over to the remarkable traditional food to be found here.
picture by Sifu Ranka
Pintxos are basically the Basque kind of Tapas. While Tapas means cap, describing the little bowls and their matching caps, Tapas are served in, Pintxo means spike, typically a toothpick pinned through the appetizers. Mainly slices of bread with toppings of fish, different pastries or salads but also stuffed peppers, slices of Tortilla or croquettes are called Pintxos, as long as they have the spike in it. Although Pintxos are meant to be appetizers, you can definitely replace a whole meal with them, because all of them are so delicious and it’s hard to decide for 2 or 3 anyway. But be careful: different lengths of spikes mean different prices!
picture by Jonas Seaman
Cider is the commonly considered the ideal liquid pendant to Pinxtos and apart from the most other European ciders, the Basque version is not sparkling. Also different is how Basque cider is served: waiters hold the bottle as high as possible to aerate the cider while pouring. During cider season (January to April), cider houses open the areas where the cider is produced and guests stand in line to catch the stream of fresh cider directly from the barrel, with their glasses held as low as possible. Made from apples, cider flavours range from fresh fruit notes to very sweet or sherry like ones.
3. Traditional festivals
Speaking of traditions, like everywhere in Spain the Basque have a lot to celebrate. There are a lot of fiestas on throughout the year and inhabitants wear their traditional costumes at any given occasion.
I’ve listed some of the most interesting ones in Bilbao for you:
Fiesta Santo Tomas, 21. December
This holiday close to Christmas is a big festival around the district of El Arenal (no, not that El Arenal…) including a traditional market with traditional music, where people drink cider and eat “Talo” (Corn bread with Chorizo, spanish sausage) or Pastel Vasco (Basque cake) and party on the streets.
Txikitos, every Sunday
Sunday mornings the people of Bilbao spread out to the Old Town for “Txikitos”, some kind of pub crawl where people have a glass of wine or cider in every bar. Back in the days men were singing in the streets, but today, there are only a few “Txikiteros” left. Maybe you are lucky, finding some old men with Basque hats, holding a glass of wine and singing traditional songs.
Semana Grande, 3rd week of August
Bilbao’s main festival attracting over 100,000 people from around Spain and even abroad is “Semana Grande” (Big week). It takes place each year, lasting 9 days and has been around since 1978.
The celebrations include the strongman games, free music performances, street entertainment like dancers in traditional costumes, bullfighting and nightly firework displays. Catch the best view of the fireworks from the city’s bridges. Each year, there are different events, so make sure to get a festival programme available all over the city.
Apart from those ugly block towers I mentioned before, Bilbao is really famous for its modern architecture. Not only is there the award-winning design and architecture of the Metro Bilbao by architect Norman Foster and graphic designer Otl Aicher or the Abaandoibarra district with museums and shiny boulevards, there are also quite a few delightful signs of love all around the city.
The most fascinating pieces of architecture for me were two of the many bridges in Bilbao, the Zubizuri and the Viscaya Bridge. The Zubizuri (basque for “white bridge”) is a footbridge across the Nervion River, designed by Santiago Calatrava, with a glass walkway and an overhead white arch, supported by steel cables. Walking over the bridge feels like being in some kind of cocoon network and the glass floor automatically gives you the sensation of flotation. Sadly nowadays the glass floor is covered with a plastic carpet due to the slippery surface, but I bet that doesn’t do a lot of harm to the experience.
The Viscaya Bridge, also named “Puente Colgante” (hanging bridge), is the worlds oldest transporter bridge. Announced UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, the fascinating construction work was originally built to connect the two districts of Portugalete and Getxo without disturbing the maritime traffic of Bilbao’s port and without having to build a massive structure with long ramps.
While you can take an elevator up to the bridge and walk to the other side with spectacular views over the port and the city of Bilbao, the gondola hanging from the bridge is able to transport six cars and several passengers from side to side.
Those bridges couldn’t be more different from each other in its construction and architecture but they are both fascinating in their own way.
5. Guggenheim Museum
Last but not least: The Guggenheim. Although you are not a fan of all the above mentioned architecture and foodie treats, only the Guggenheim makes Bilbao worth a thousand visits. I spent a whole day walking around the building and the exhibition. While I was there, Anselm Kiefer was on and I couldn’t imagine a better museum for this artist. The architecture of the building appears very weird to many people, so it did to me, but the silver surface is so fascinating, because light, weather and surrounding objects make the building change with every step you take.
Also, the permanent exhibition at Guggenheim Bilbao contains one of my favourite installations, “The Matter of Time” by Richard Serra, a series of watering steel constructions you can walk in and which will awake the strangest feelings in you. Besides this installation, you can also find pieces by the Basque artist Eduardo Chillida and American artist Jeff Koons (“Puppy”, on the picture above is one of them).
Hopefully these 5 reasons have inspired you to go to Bilbao anytime soon. While you are already there, make sure to make side trips to Donostia, Guernica and especially San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an hermitage on top of a tiny island on the coast of Biscay.
What are your favourite spots in Bilbao?
She has an eye for beauty and even finds it in ugly apartment blogs. Her weekly photo chronicle “My week in pictures” has already become a classic among urban Berliners. Find out more at smaracuja.de.