I didn’t know what to expect from Bilbao yet from the very first moment the city made it to the top of my favorite Spanish places list. It was beautiful, stylish and charming and the location along the Nervion river with the hills gently rolling down to it added up to the perfect scenery. I just couldn’t believe how come this place isn’t overcrowded with tourist and hardly ever makes to the list of top Spanish attraction. And funny thing, if it wasn’t for my trip to South America I’d never visit Bilbao which would be a huge, HUGE shame!
Back in spring 2014 I found extremely cheap flights across the Atlantic Ocean – to Sao Paulo and back from Buenos Aires for less than 300€. The trick was I had to fly out from either Bilbao or Malaga and since Andalucia is more likely a place I’d eventually visit I’ve decided for the first option. I didn’t have many hopes for Bilbao, I knew next to nothing about it and the only thing two things I could recall about the city were Basque Country and the Guggenheim Museum with its funky shape. But again it turned out to be for the best as I let Bilbao surprise me and enchant me!
Right from the moment when I stepped out of the fast train from Barcelona I knew I made the right choice coming to Bilbao with a day to spend. The Abando train station was so pretty, with an incredible stained glass work showing some of the typical Basque jobs and on the right a promising view across the river to the Old Town. I was so excited to enter the maze of the narrow streets and see what they hide! Fortunately I booked my accommodation few steps away from where I arrived so I just quickly left my backpack there and set off to explore. The weather was on my side and I knew I will have few lovely hours to get to know Bilbao.
The Old Town, known also as Casco Viejo, was probably the reason why I felt in love with Bilbao so much. It was one of the prettiest and most charming I’ve ever seen and nothing like the rest of Spanish cities I’ve been to. Even if I happened to be there on beautiful Saturday afternoon the place felt abandoned at first and while walking around I kept wondering what could have happened. Quickly I’ve found my answer – it was lunch time and even if the streets were empty numerous bars and restaurants were bustling with people who came in for a small snack accompanied by the glass of wine. Some places were so full that customers had to stand outside but that didn’t seem to be a problem and everyone was joyfully enjoying the food and the company. I was impressed how big the groups of people were, usually 10 or so friends met together to catch up over lunch but then I’ve realized its’s Spain after all, a place where food and people are two most important things.
My walk around Old Town left me awestruck. How come I’ve never really heard of this place before?? Casco Viejo is a great example of Middle Ages urban planning, the seven streets that are the core of the district date back to the 1400s, until the 19th century the place was surrounded by the walls. Now the narrow streets create a maze where getting lost is a pure pleasure. Beautiful colourful houses opened their doors not only to lively bars but also to independent shops and quirky boutiques. The architecture of the Old Town reminded me a little bit of La Valletta, the capital of Malta (a country I yet have to visit) – every second building had a distinctive bay window that made the whole place look unique and so different. Surprisingly enough there were hardly any tourists around, I’ve spotted maybe 10 more besides me. I really would expect from the place as charming and stunning as this to be a visitors hub of Bilbao as Casco Viejo surely can win many hearts with its undeniable beauty…
Eventually I found myself on Plaza Nueva – the main square of the Old Town, reminding me a lot of Plaza Mayor in Madrid – where the rehearsal before the big evening concert took place. You see, I happened to be in Bilbao on the weekend when Scotland held the voting of the independence, the issue so close to the inhabitants of Bilbao and surrounding region. The event on Plaza Nueva was a way to show support to Scotland and other autonomous regions in Europe that would like to create separate countries, especially to Catalonia and well, Basque Country.
It was then that the importance and the uniqueness of the place I’m in has struck me. I’ve been noticing around strange language or red-green-white flags that I haven’t seen before but it was there, at Plaza Nueva that I finally could reflect at the issue a little bit and give it a proper thought. All the issues of borders, languages and the identity confuse me a lot and visiting Basque Country was pretty challenging as well. Until 1978 all the languages other than Castilian Spanish and all the national movements were forbidden and persecuted. The new constitution of Spain has changed that, giving the Basque Country (that consist of three provinces: Araba, Biscay and Gipuzkoa) the status of the autonomous region with the capital in Vitoria-Gasteiz (though Bilbao is the biggest city). The region is known for its different language (some sources say it is related to Albanian), distinctive cuisine and, unfortunately, the terrorist attacks. Now, with the ETA’s ceasefire, the place is very safe but there were times when this national organization ruled the place and it was best to avoid the region. With all the autonomous areas of Europe it’s Basque Country that has the most tragic troublesome recent history and is a reason why Spain doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
Even if I just adored the Old Town and could have stayed there much longer, just wandering around, there were more places I wanted to see in Bilbao and the time was running out. The walk along the Nervion river took me all the way to the famous Guggenheim Museum – the highlight of Bilbao and probably the whole Basque Country. The Museum was opened in 1997 and was a way to bring more tourist into the city – it worked as the increase in the number of visitors coming to Bilbao was huge! Even if I didn’t go in (I was there too late) I was impressed by the place – and so were lots of other people as that’s where I finally saw a significant number of tourists in the city. The building itself is a masterpiece, resembling the big ship it is often named one of the most spectacular architecture creation of 20th century. Even if I’m not good at design etc I could clearly see this place is really special and already from the outside has a huge value to the modern world of art. The numerous quirky statues around – such as the giant spider – only added up to the awesomeness of the place!
I was slowly running out of the time but there was one more place I wanted to check – Plaza Moyua and Gran Via. That’s where the heart of Bilbao is, were the important institutions have their premises and where small yet busy and intense shopping district can be found. Even if the Casco Viejo is just a short walk away these two parts of Bilbao couldn’t be much different but equally interesting! The sun was slowly setting down, the streets were full of shoppers and for the first time I could really feel I’m in a big city. And while I really wanted to stay there longer, join the crowds getting ready for the evening out in the city it was time for me to get early to bed and prepare for the long journey to Brazil…
I must admit I’m not a big fan of Spain. I never really fell for Barcelona, Madrid was pretty good but Sevilla and Valencia just ok. I also haven’t done any Camino de Santiago routes yet. But It was in Bilbao that I felt the unique atmosphere of the place and where I finally understood why so many people are crazy about Spain (even if this city isn’t as Spanish as the rest). I just don’t know why there aren’t as many tourists as the place deserves to have but that might actually work out for good as that way Bilbao has chances to stay authentic for much longer…
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