I had been to many areas of Spain (starting with an infamous ’83 trip to Benidorm), but never the Basque region.
In my youth I only knew of the violent separist movement who wanted independence for the region that straddles Northern Spain and Southern France. In relatively modern times it was the Guggenheim Museum and the football club known as Athletic that sprang to mind whenever Bilbao was mentioned.
We decided that it was time to pay a visit, so ventured there late last month for a long weekend, timed to also take in a match at the splendid San Mame stadium.
Mrs Wilbur and I travelled with our friend Chris on low cost carrier Vueling out of Gatwick and headed for our central Air bnb two bedroom apartment which was booked for the bargain price of €228 for four nights.
We arrived close to midnight and scoffed the little cakey snacks that were left out for us, which went down lovely with a cup of tea. Rock n’ Roll all the way!
We had struck lucky weather wise with all four days reaching 25+.
Day one was spent wandering. We got our first proper sight of the iconic Guggenheim at the end of a long street, but avoided the obvious draw as we had decided on the walk suggested by our guidebook that would take us along the River Nervion as we traversed new town to old.
We quickly noticed that the local dialect was totally different to Spanish or Catalan. Road sign spellings were more akin to a Scandinavian language than a Indo-European one. In fact nobody really knows the origin of the Basque lingo, but for such a relatively small region flanked by French and Spanish, it is quite remarkable how very different the language is.
Bilbao is a perfect place for strolling, a compelling mix of old and new architecture, quirky objets d’art and leafy parks.
There are bus and tram options, but à pied is the best option to see all the centre has to offer.
Our first proper stop was an old wine warehouse converted by French designer Philippe Starck into an culture and leisure facility called the Alhóndiga. Most striking were the imaginatively decorated stubby pillars, which looked as it they had been squashed under the weight of the roof.
After taking in some wonderful buildings, remarkable art nouveau features and a lake filled park with crumbling pavilion, we found ourselves following the twisting river.
After our third bend, the shining facade of the Guggenheim crept into view. Before long we were beside the curious structure designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and inaugurated 1997 by the former king, Juan Carlos I.
It was best viewed from on high up on the main bridge crossing the river. From there you could properly appreciate the majestic curves of the titanium covered building.
None of us were fans of modern art (apologies to Francis Bacon whose work was being exhibited), so we were all more than satisfied with the sparkling copper coloured facade. Was it depicting billowing sails or the bow of a ship? The architect himself merely stated “the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light”. Whatever it appears to be to the enthralled observer, very pleasing on the eye it was indeed.
A giant Daliesque arachnid stood guard on the adjacent promenade, a magnet for tourists and local kids alike.
At the top of the steps standing guard on the other side of the museum was a situated a huge flower arrangement in the shape of a giant dog. It was pretty threadbare for our visit, but in full bloom it looked pretty amazing, as we witnessed at nearby postcard sellers.
We criss-crossed the river a couple of times and soon found ourselves in the typical Spanish old town.
The gothic cathedral was disappointing in as much as it was swamped by other buildings making it hard to take a representative photo.
It was in the vicinity of the main old town square that we had our first taste of the famous local snack known as pintxos.
For €1-2 you take your pick from a wide selection of little open sandwiches. Most have three mouth-watering layers. Ham, mushroom dip and black olives, smoked salmon & taramasalata topped with a shrimp, black pudding, rocket and horseradish and many more, all held together by a cocktail stick.
With a very acceptable Rioja at around €1.50 a glass, it was hard to tear ourselves away.
In the evening the Guggenheim, the river and the bridges looked splendid all lit up. We ventured once more to the old town for more delicious pintxos and red wine.
The main square was crammed with bars on all four sides, so we were spoilt for choice. We seemingly couldn’t go wrong so visited three different establishments before wandering to our apartment via the next door bar, where we enjoyed a nightcap before retiring.
All in all a wonderful first day and I wondered why it had taken us so long to get there……