I need to briefly discuss whether Bilbao is an unusual destination or not. In some respects it is not, because Bilbao is a large and well-known city graced with Frank Gehry’s immense and iconic Museo Guggenheim overlooking the river to the north-west of the pretty Casco Viejo (Old Town), and because, a few miles downstream from the Guggenheim, the views are dominated by a UNESCO world heritage site, the equally iconic Puente Colgante, or the Hanging Bridge, the world’s oldest transporter bridge dating from 1893. But in other respects Bilbao is an unusual destination. Very few foreign visitors stay in the city (unless they are on business or watching a football match involving the home team of Athletic Bilbao) because, if you want to experience urban Spain, you are far more likely to travel to more famous (and prettier?) Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Granada or Cordoba. Moreover, if visitors seek something urban but less conventional than Madrid, etc., they will stay in Malaga, Salamanca or Santiago de Compostela before Bilbao, if only because the weather is more predictable in the three cities just identified (this said, it was the persistent November rain which, for me at least, helped make Bilbao such an enchanting city. The glistening cobbles and paving stones, and the grey skies overhead, ensured that Bilbao’s bold colours assumed an intensity not marred by extreme contrasts in light and shade). Another reason why Bilbao is an unusual destination is that, despite efforts in recent years to revive its fortunes by becoming a cultural and shopping destination that most cities in the UK can only dream of emulating, quite a lot of Bilbao’s rust-bucket and industrial past remains (Bilbao used to be Spain’s most important city for shipbuilding, heavy engineering and the manufacture of iron and steel. Enormous factories, warehouses and shipyards once lined the riverbanks, and the polluted air hung around the grim apartment blocks in which most working class families had to live). However, as a future post will reveal, what remains of the city’s rust-bucket and industrial past is the source of a lot of present-day Bilbao’s fascination (and, as I hope the same post will confirm, the source of a lot of its eccentric beauty).
Because Bilbao’s more conventional delights will be unknown to most people, this post concentrates on the city centre (although I take a brief detour to include Puente Colgante). In the photos I hope to convey something of the distinctive nature of Bilbao’s best-known buildings, of its attractive streets and of the views along the river. Inevitably, a few photos feature the Museo Guggenheim and the delightful Casco Viejo. One photo features a restaurant because Bilbao is justifiably renowned for its excellent food and drink.
By the way: if you want something genuinely foodie at half the cost it would be in the UK, with a very good bottle of Rioja wine included in the fixed price lunch, look no further than Bistro Guggenheim at the Museo Guggenheim. A Tuesday afternoon lunch made it onto my list of the five best meals anywhere in 2013 (the meal began at 2.30pm, a popular time for lunch to start in Spain). The bill for two, with a generous tip included, came to 65 euros. Back home, a wine of quality comparable to the Bistro’s Rioja would have accounted for almost half the bill (yes, I kid you not). When it comes to wine, UK restaurants rip you off as much as UK banks. Or privately-owned UK rail companies. Where did we go wrong?