How come Bilbao isn’t topping your city break list? Maybe for the same reason it wasn’t topping mine. It was firmly in the camp of ‘sort of heard of it’, which hardly makes it the place to go. But now I’ve visited I want to tell you a story about our trip to the beautiful Basque city late last year.
I’m now slightly ashamed that the only reason we found ourselves in Bilbao was because we couldn’t get a straight forward flight from Bristol to Cadiz. Staring into the jaws of defeat we decided to pick a cheap, direct flight to anywhere else in Spain that we hadn’t visited before. That quite literally left Bilbao. And so it was, for a price cheaper than my normal train to London. Unburdened from any expectation for a destination we barely had heard of, we didn’t do any planning. To the point I forgot to brush up on my Spanish. We barely remembered our euros, let alone our passports. We couldn’t have been more in the moment.
We arrived to a non-descript airport and an equally non-descript transit into the City limits. Well, this was true right up until we crossed the Guggenheim bridge, which served up a taste of things to come, sharing some intriguing architecture. As whizzed through the streets, we noticed immediately it was spotless from pavement right up to the decorative facades. It was also unseasonably warm for an early November weekend, offering the kind of warm continental breeze that reminds you that you’re on your holidays.
Our first day was cut in half by our travels. We headed straight out to discover the cobbled seven streets which forms the Old Town area. We wandered down a series of narrow streets lined with independent shops, bars and restaurants. We found ‘la Catedral’ which only appealed to me. I did a very quick visit while the rest of the party kept wandering. I found it to be quite understated in comparison to Sister Churches in other major European cities. It was soon cerbeza o’clock and we sought out Plaza Nueva, infamous for its Pintxos bars. These were our culinary highlight, some say Pintxos is like Tapas, but it really does have its own identity. It’s a very Basque thing and typified by being skewered with a cocktail stick and mostly being served on bread. Each bar has rows upon rows of these little sandwiches, fried delights, tortillas and more. They’re cheap and support a really vibrant bar culture. It meant that we only had proper dinner one night of our trip, saving us from the difficulty of eating late. I’ve never been able to get used to carbing up at 10pm.
Our first proper day was Friday and we made straight for the Market, which features high in most tourist lists for good reason. There’s an abundance of fish and meat stalls with a couple of veg stalls thrown in. It’s fun to watch the local Bilbaons going about their daily lives supporting local traders. And you can also get a great breakfast in the food court, pleasing all levels of appetite. Bueno!
We walked to the river, an important feature of Bilbao, which they have decorated with plentiful and diverse bridges. It was a beautiful day and we did our best ‘paseado’ (stroll) along its banks. Our next port of call was the Guggenheim museum in all its titanium clad glory. The wonderful run up to the museum holds major art installations, a feature in their own right. I recommend you find ‘puppy’.
We spent a couple of hours in the museum which equally offered something for the traditionalist as well as the modernist. I particularly enjoyed the variety of Picasso works. Who knew he actually had a really varied style? I certainly didn’t. The exhibition on the ground floor by Joana Vasconcelos was as breath-taking as it was enormous. I mean properly huge art installations and lots of them. I’m still disappointed that no cameras were permitted in her ‘I’m your mirror’ exhibition, because the picture would paint more than a thousand words. The only exception was the installation hung in the very centre of the gallery, which you could capture. It’s bright, bold, it’s in your face, it creeps into every crevice and you feel it wrap around you as you wind down the spiral stairs. It’s tactile, you want to touch it. You can almost sense a glint in her eyes when it comes to how ostentatious some of these pieces are. It felt a bit like pop art to me, garish colours and oversized statement pieces but with much more heart. For example, she made a room sized venetian mask, constructed from layers of hand-held ornate mirrors. Then there was a vibrant, blood red hanging heart, made from plastic cutlery. Every piece had a distinct societal message.
We were pretty hungry after we finished browsing the gallery, so we headed upstairs to the Guggenheim restaurant. We weren’t sure at first as the restaurant was pretty stylised. Almost a bit too classy for us. The menu for example wasn’t on paper. No, no, it was printed on a sculpted plywood board. However, we couldn’t get over the ‘menu del dia’ price – for 30 euros it included bread, starters, mains, dessert and wine. The price meant that we got over feeling out of place very quickly, and the staff helped as they were just lovely. And my god was the food good. Fine dining level good, but more substantial. We lunched like a Spaniard which then provoked the need for a siesta. I would love to tell you more about the evening that followed but it was predictably more drinks followed by Pintxos. Salud!
We took to the water, wanting to see Bilbao’s beautiful bridges from another angle. I always love a boat trip. You get a different take on things, and I love the narration and the useless bits of information I pick up. The trip also took us out of the city limits and out to the docks. One notable bridge called the ‘hanging bridge’ is a world heritage site as it was the first ever transporter bridge. It features a swinging gondola that transports both people and cars across the water, keeping out of the way of the busy water highway. It was monolithic in construct.
Back on dry land and we tried to repeat the previous days success with another ‘menu del dia’ in the Old Town. Whilst we found a cheap menu, it wasn’t a patch on the food from the museum. But we did follow the tried and tested routine of having a siesta, followed by bar hopping and Pintxos for dinner.
Our trip drew to a close and we had a half day to fill before our flight. We decided to wander new parts of the city and try to take in more of the wonderful architecture. We started on the banks of the river at a little bakery. Honestly if you come here don’t book the hotel breakfast. That’s a general truth for me on a city break, but never more so in Bilbao which seems to host a bakery on every street, stuffed full of sticky looking pastries. Just remembering this whilst writing is making me crave a huge Danish pastry, and I’m not even hungry.
Anyway, back to the subject in hand. We walked through neat parks housing art installations and fountains all teeming with life, people enjoying the communal space. We ended our meander at the incredible Phillipe Stark ‘Azkuna Zentro’ Culture and Leisure Centre. How to explain this one? Ok so you have the obligatory swimming pool, library and cinema. But that’s where the comparison with other leisure centres ends. You walk into a cavernous space punctuated with individual designed and carved columns. They are art in their own right. When you look to the sky you see the bottom of the swimming pool. It’s a slightly surreal experience watching people doing the breaststroke above you. Then there are bars and restaurants behind glass walls, where we stopped for some more traditional tapas and a final vino.
What’s not to like? A rich culture, good looking architecture, accessible art and an abundance of bars and eateries. I’m a massive fan, and in the words of Arni “I’ll be back.”