Today we are in Bilbao, located in the northern part of Spain. Bilbao is the largest city of the Basque Country which cover parts of Spain and France. Twenty-three years ago this was considered a gritty, industrial city and not on anyone’s bucket list for travel. However, I knew we were in for something special when early in our trip a fellow cruise passenger told me that this stop was the reason she had chosen this cruise.
This is the workers’ city of the Basque Country, its waterfront formerly dominated by factories and warehouses. The Basque Administration plans for redevelopment of the city began in the 1980s, but it was the inspired move in 1991 to lure the Guggenheim Foundation to Bilbao that would transform the city. American Frank O Gehry’s limestone, titanium, and glass structure, the Guggenheim Museum-Bilbao, opened in 1997. The museum sits along the Nervión River in the old industrial heart of the city.
Suddenly other architects wanted to leave their mark on city. Over the past twenty years the city has created a whole new identity. It is a beautiful mix of the old and the new. In 2010, Bilbo received the World City Prize, “considered the Nobel Prize for urbanism”. The city’s mayor received the World Mayor Prize just two years later. Bilbao was chosen the Best European City 2018 by the Academy of Urbanism.
Even though the architecture, the museum, and the transformation are enough reasons to visit, come for the culture. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country, the only region in Spain not to be conquered by the Moors. The Basque people were often isolated. Their language is considered one of the world’s oldest surviving languages and is unrelated to any other existing language.
Just take a look at the blood types and you will see the uniqueness of these people. “Basques have the highest concentration of type O in the world — more than 50 percent of the population — with an even higher percentage in remote areas where the language is best preserved…Most of the rest are type A. Type B is extremely rare among Basques… [Additionally, ] Basques were found to have the highest incidence of Rh negative blood of any people in the world, significantly higher than the rest of Europe, even significantly higher than neighboring regions of France and Spain.”
Today, I picked the tour. Boris’ only stipulation was that he didn’t want to spend the day at the Guggenheim. Sorry if any of you are reading this post to hear about that. I knew we only had one day, so I wanted the overview and a chance to see a little of the culture. I chose a walking tour with wine and tapas. Tapas was the tour title as a way of explanation, but the treats we commonly know as tapas have their own name here.
Pintxos are a type of tapas. Our guide said that there were distinguished as being more artistic and with a special taste. I just thought it sounded yummy and a chance to have some Spanish wine as well. We’ll make three stops for pintxos as we walk through the medieval part of the city known as Casco Viejo.
Our ship is actually docked in Getxo, one of the ritzy suburbs with mansions along the waterfront. We rode into Bilbao by bus and our guide pointed out the one remaining industrial area where redevelopment is currently being planned.
Our bus left us off along the waterfront of Rio Nervion in the historic heart of the city. This is the edge of the Casco Viejo, the old city. We walked toward the Bilbao Cathedral where the Casco Viejo’s seven major streets meet. The cathedral has lovely stained glass but one of the interesting things about the church is the facade that was to have two spires. The second was never constructed due to settlement.
Our first stop was at Berton. The bar had patrons even in the morning. They had cool business cards with translations from English to Basque to Spanish on the reverse side. I enjoyed my first pintxo. “Although they are similar to tapas, generally speaking, pintxos are smaller. The name comes from the Spanish verb “pincher” meaning to poke or stab. Historically, pintxos used to be served on a small slice of bread and have a toothpick piercing them through the middle.” Our first pintxo was toothpick free. It was delicious, as was the wine.
After our stop at the pintxo bar, we wandered through the winding streets of Casco Viejo, arriving at the Merkatua La Ribera. This is Europe’s largest indoor market. The art deco building housing the city’s main market has been extensively renovated-too expensively to the taste of our guide. The market features modern stalls and access while retaining the building’s lovely stained glass. The market had a nice display on Bilbao’s history (and public toilets if you are in need of such while you are in the area.
We got a good view of one of the few remaining homes of the old city. My favorite part was the portico and the beautiful painting on the underside. Beside the market was the one of the city’s oldest churches. This is truly a scenic part of the city with views over the river to trendy Bilbi and beautiful stone bridges.
We left the water behind, and returned to Casco Viejo for more pintxos. After more wandering, we stopped at the Plaza Nueva (aka Plaza Barria). The Plaza features neoclassical buildings on four sides with wonderful porticos where you find restaurants and pintxo bars. You access the Plaza through “arches known as cuevas (caves).” The main building of the plaza is “the site of Eukaltzindia, the Basque language Royal Academy.” The plaza was constructed in 1821 and the main building originally housed government offices.
The first pintxo bar we visited on the plaza is a traditional one established in 1911. We also ate in the traditional style, standing up at a long counter. We had two treats at this pintxo bar and they were both yummy. I love the taste, but I will say that nothing we had was too spicy. I don’t know if that is because they traditionally are not spicy or if the cruise line requested those types to insure everyone was happy.
In addition to the wonderful pintxos and wine, the plaza offered great people watching. Our pintxo bar was packed. There were sidewalk tables to sit at if you were not into the traditional standing. As it turned out, our third pintxo bar was also on the plaza at the far corner from where we entered. This is a more modern approach to the pintxo and we sat inside for our single sample. I stuck with the Spanish wine, but Boris went for a beer at this location.
One of my favorite things about wandering around Bilbao were the apartments all over the city with their wonderful balconies and glassed-in porches. We saw both older buildings and modern structures adopting this style.
Leaving behind the Plaza Nueva, we went back to the waterfront to catch our bus. It was really just around the corner. I loved Casco Viejo as well as the more modern parts of the city. You would have a wonderful time just wandering up and down the waterfront, not to mention the many museums I didn’t get to see. This is a teaser trip for Bilbao. With all the construction still going on, I anticipate more to see on my next visit.
As we were departing the city, we saw an example of some groups not happy with all of Bilbao’s changes. There was a protest of older citizens regarding their pension rights at the city hall. Our guide told us that this was one of the smaller protests and that protests were quite common. They are part of the European culture.
Before heading back to the ship at Getxo, we are headed up to the city’s lookout point. There were amazing views of this transformed city and just in case you forgot where you were, big letters with the city’s name in a bold red (which are actually intended to be read from below).
Just before reaching the port we passed the Vizcaya Bridge that connects the Bilbao suburbs of Portugalete and Las Arenas (part of Getxo) The transporter or ferry bridge crosses the Nervion River. “People in the area, and even the official website, commonly call it the Puente Colgante (literally “hanging bridge”, used for suspension bridge in Spanish), although its structure is quite different from a suspension bridge.” Our guide correctly referred to it as a ferry bridge. In spite of everything else we had seen today, our guide considers it the most iconic symbol of Bilbao.
After our tour it was back to Getxo and the ship. Tonight is our Azamazing Evening, the cruise line signature event. Each cruise (except transatlantic ones) the ship hosts an evening out in one of our ports focusing on the unique culture of that region. In is included in the price of our cruise. Azamara does not cut cost on these events. All we have attended have been fabulous.
Tonight we are going to the Theatre Campos Eliseos, commonly called the “chocolate box” in reference to its unique facade. The brown paint of the interior also serves to reinforce this. The theater was originally designed in 1910 and reopened in 2010. We will be seeing Korrontzi with 5 musicians and a troop of 40 dancers. They perform “a unique blend of Basque, and modern dance art, whose roots are based in the movements and steps that define the Basque Culture.”
Buses took us to the performance. After a brief reception we took our seats for what turned out to be an exhilarating performance. I loved every minute of it. The music was wonderful. They made use of several unique accordions-including a trikitixa (a Basque diatonic accordion), drums, a bass, a traditional guitar, and a tambourine (with an attached microphone). Korrontzi took the name of an old trikitixa player who went down from the mountain each Sunday to the Mungia main square to play his accordion for the generous crowds.
We headed back to the ship afterwards where they served champagne on the dock as we boarded. A late night buffet was also served. We leave behind the Basque Country today, but have one more stop in Spain before heading to Lisbon.