L’Escale in Bilbao

Monday 5 – Tuesday 13 August

Having dozed away Sunday afternoon recovering from two days at sea, it was time to make our first landfall on Spanish, or rather Basque, soil.  We pottered across the harbour in the dinghy, to land at the private yacht club to which we were nearest – not to the warmest of welcomes, it has to be said.

Las Arenas

Aitzgoyen, neo-Basque, 1909

We wandered first along the promenade, originally populated by families of wealthy business owners around the turn of the last Century.  They commissioned famous architects of the day to design grand houses facing the sea, and well away from the heavy industries that used to line the banks of the Nervión River that leads to Bilbao itself.  We soon realised that we were well out in the leafy suburbs here at the port, and it’s some 10km by Metro into town.


We admired the Vizcaya Suspension Bridge, the oldest in the world and still in operation, carrying pedestrians and vehicles across the river by gondola every few minutes.  We passed on the opportunity to take the lift within the tower framework to walk across the overhead gantry – some 45 metres above the ground.  Instead we experienced our first taste of Basque food, treating ourselves to lunch; fortunately the waiter was patient with our mangled attempts at Spanish.

A ‘Fosterito’

Pinpointing the local Metro station for another day, we were able to find our way to the tourist office in the city centre for a very helpful chat with one of their guides, a free map and the purchase of a travel card.  This is a bargain for anyone visiting the city from outside and for more than a day, as we both travelled on the one card (purchase price €3, minimum ‘loading’ and top-up €5), and saved around 40% on every journey by Metro, bus and tram – it more than paid for itself.  The Metro system is clean, simple and efficient.  It was designed by Norman Foster, and has only been running since the early 1990s.  Some of the stations in the city centre have entrances that look like giant prawns.

On one occasion, we landed at Getxo marina to walk along the breakwater and around the beach to explore the old fishing harbour at Algorta.  The brisk Northerly breeze was blowing straight onto the seafront, whipping the sand up into clouds across the promenade.  Soon rain accompanied the wind, and we took shelter up narrow flights of steps between old fishermen’s cottages to the heart of the village above: the square in front of the church of San Nikolas – the patron saint of sailors.


‘Puppy’ guards the Guggenheim

Bilbao, capital of the Basque Country and very proud of its heritage, is a relatively recent discovery for tourists.  Until the virtual collapse of heavy industries such as shipbuilding and mining in the 1970s, it was a thriving, dirty, noisy port.  After a period of decline, Government money was committed to beginning the re-invention of the city by inviting Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry to design the Guggenheim, a museum of contemporary and modern art.  It is now the most-visited attraction in the city; one evening we strolled along the riverbank where it is situated, enjoying the sunset reflecting in the titanium panels of its curvy construction.

Bilbao is a fairly small city, and the key sites of interest can be reached easily on foot.  We spent time in the Casco Viejo, the old city, just East of the river from the more modern districts.  Here we enjoyed the Plaza Nueva, a cloistered quadrangle lined with boutiques and pintxo bars: pintxo (pronounced pincho) are the Basque variation of tapas, savoury snacks mostly served on bread, and are enjoyed with a glass of local Rioja Alavesa or txakoli, a pleasant white wine; both are served chilled.  Every bar everywhere has platters of these lined up on the counter, and some are delicious works of culinary art.

Sampler stitched on linen

Just outside the Plaza Nueva is the Basque Museum, the Euskal Museoa, also known as the Museo Vasco [Welsh-speaking readers may notice the apparent mutation of B to V; although Basque is thought to be the oldest living language in Europe, and similar to no other, I detected examples like this that made me think about the ancient Celtic cultural links].  In my quest to pinpoint something unique about each place we visit, I decided this was my museum choice of all those available, but to be honest, I learned more about Basque culture, customs and history from the Internet.

The museum is interesting, to a point; unfortunately every item is described in Basque and Castellan Spanish, but very little in English; some of the displays feel rather unrealistic and contrived, and there is a feeling of “well, we were donated this, so let’s exhibit it”. 

We found an interesting scale model of the region created in 3-D from nutmeg wood, that illustrates very clearly the rugged terrain of the Basque Country and the scattering of communities that inhabit it.  It is accompanied by a series of electronic tablets that give a well-written and informative selection of facts and figures about the region.  I’d have loved to be able to purchase a book or DVD of this to take away and absorb in comfort, as the room was extremely hot and one had to stand to read.

The museum illuminates a largely peasant community, whose livelihoods were earned shepherding, creating textiles from fleece and linen, or fishing, as well as local manufacturing of ironwork, ceramics and chinaware.  Many men went away to sea; it is said that the best seafaring explorers were Basque.  My favourite artefact was a 19th Century red (!) linen shawl, exquisitely embroidered. 

Main entrance to Mercado La Ribera

We wandered some of the Seven Streets that formed the original heart of Bilbao, on our way to the riverside where we found the Ribera market hall and San Antón Bridge, from where the founding charter of the City was read in 1300.  Disappointingly the market was closed for the day, but the building is attractive in Art Deco ironwork and stained glass, and the array of pintxos on display was the best anywhere for variety and style.

In the centre of the Casco Viejo stands Santiago Cathedral, but it was heaving with tourists and entry was €5 each, so we opted instead for the much quieter San Nicolás Church, built in the shape of a Greek cross and decorated in the Rococo style.  Inside was all dark wood panelling, heavily decorated reredos and statues to various saints.

We also tried for a visit to the ‘Mama’ church, the Basilica of Begoña, 213 steps up a hillside to overlook the city…but it was closed for siesta.  Top tip: always check opening times before you decide to visit anything in Spain – we’ve been caught out more than once.  It was a good view over the city, and a peaceful atmosphere in the small plaza beyond the East wall of the church.

We strolled across the Arenal bridge, past the attractive façade of the Arriaga Theatre, and into Abando main railway station, to admire a stunning stained glass window that depicts various aspects of Basque life.  Crossing the Plaza Circular, location of a very helpful tourist information office, we headed a short way along the main ‘artery’ of the city: Gran Via Don Diego López de Haro (known as Gran Via) is a sort of Champs Élysées of important government buildings and designer shopping.  Down a side street is Café Iruna, famous for stunning tiling and Art Nouveau wood panelling, but they couldn’t offer Earl Grey tea, so we moved on, pausing at a delicious bakery nearby to sample local specialities.

View from the top

Northwards to the riverside, we crossed the Zubizuri pedestrian bridge, a modern construction with an amusing subtext: the ‘floor’ of the bridge was built of glass panels, presumably so you could see the water below your feet as you crossed (why would you want to??), but it rains a lot in Bilbao, and when it rained, the surface became dangerously slippery, so it’s been carpeted with black rubber, obliterating the glass and view.  The texture of the matting is reminiscent of astro-turf, and walking on it is a very strange sensation.  Safely North of the river Nervión, we made our way to the funicular station for a short ride up another hillside to take in the spectacular views of the city in a botxo (hole) from the Artxanda Park viewpoint.

The final highlight of our time in this fascinating and attractive city was the Alhóndiga, now known as Azkuna Zentroa.  Originally the city’s wine warehouse, it was reimagined by Philippe Starck and is now a centre for contemporary art, culture and leisure.  At street level, the exterior of the building looks as it did in 1905, but as you walk up a broad ramp and under one of four arches, you find yourself in a vast atrium, used for temporary exhibitions.  The interior contains a series of huge cubes, used for a variety of purposes, supported on 43 unique columns.  The leisure facility is at the top of the building, and includes a long, narrow swimming pool with a (opaque) glass bottom that can be viewed from below [when it is not closed for maintenance].

Urban greenery

We enjoyed a number of the plentiful green spaces the city offers, including the Jardines Albia, near Café Iruna, reminiscent of a leafy London square, and the Dña. Casilda Iturrizar Park behind the modern Palacio Euskalduna Conference and Performing Arts Centre.  The park was laid out in 1907 and makes good use of varying ground levels to create a series of inter-connected water features amid lawns and shade-giving specimen trees.  There is also a formal courtyard area, including a colonnade of tiled arches.

Not included in our itinerary, but of interest to sport lovers, is the ‘Cathedral to Football’, the San Mamés Stadium that is home to Athletic Bilbao.  This team has a unique philosophy in only employing players of Basque origin – and they are one of the top Spanish teams.

We rounded off the extended stopover with two nights on the visitors’ pontoon managed by the local tourist office in Santurtzi, famous as a landing port for sardine fishing boats.  As well as our nights at anchor in the harbour bay, our time with easy access to land and facilities was also free, including power and water.  This is very much a typical workaday Spanish town, where we found a convenient launderette and some reasonable local shops for food, fruit and vegetables.