I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Bilbao. It is much talked about – still the opinions can get divergent, sometimes even too divergent. I was expecting a cosmopolitan city with a nice modern area nothing but ugly industrial districts around it, so I decided 3 days would be enough to stay here. 3 days turned into a month and as I am writing this post I begin to understand just how little I’ve seen and experienced, here.
I got to Bilbao to catch a flight to Eindhoven (work stuff). I got back and as I had work to do (writing about Eindhoven) I decided it’s best not to travel but stay put and finish the work properly. I found a nice room up the hill on Iturribide Kalea and, long story short, here is what I love about Bilbao: walking down the river, taking one or two streets left or right, seeing places, having a small bite or a glass of wine, getting back, walking down the river…
Bilbao La Vieja
When I first arrived in Bilbao it was in Atxuri (I took the train from San Sebastián) which is a few minutes walking from a place where several districts of Bilbao reach the river – the bridge of San António and the old market of the city, Mercado de la Ribera. This area is quite in contrast with the contemporary image I had of the city and it was a pleasure to discover it. Of course that if you keep on walking you’d eventually come across the new vanguard bridges and the Guggenheim, still I strongly suggest a visit in this area – the authentic Bilbao.
Mercado de la Ribera is the biggest covered market of Europe with 10,000 square metres of surface. The site on which it’s built has been used as market for the city of Bilbao since the 14th century and the building dates from 1929 (arch. Pedro Ispizua). Besides being an architectural wonder Mercado de la Ribera is also the place from where the restaurants around the area buy the fresh fish and seafood caught daily and all the local delicacies.
Across the bridge from Mercado, on the left side of the river, there’s the Bilbao la Vieja or Bilbi, now the hippest and trendiest district in Bilbao. It’s known for its innovative street art, funky bars and cafés, as well as small galleries and fashion boutiques. Locals say that the Nervión estuary, on its way to the sea, separates two worlds: the left side of Bilbao, more industrial and working, and the traditionally bourgeois right side.
For a long time something similar has happened in the oldest part of the city, where crossing from the Casco Viejo to the other shore was quite rare, still something has changed in recent years – or everything. Those who approach the capital of Vizcaya today can hardly recognize that grey and industrial city that faded when compared to the elegant capital of Gipuzkoa, San Sebastián. The Guggenheim effect and the arrival of tourism have drawn a new landscape in which the word cosmopolitan rhymes perfectly with tradition, and this district, La Vieja, is where they meet, to the delight of the cultured travellers and Basque hipsters as well.
For me La Vieja is pretty much about scenic graffitti and some original places such as Dando la Brasa and Peso Neto that have a lot to say about the city’s creative way. I first met the team of Dando la Brasa at an Urbanbat event where they created a menu inspired from the topics of the event – urbanism and architecture, menu which was served outside at a bar decorated with bricks and metallic scaffolding (pretty cool).
Later on I found the restaurant and tried their grilled seafood which I think is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. The restaurant offers original dishes from Nikkei cuisine, a combination of traditional Peruvian and Japanese cooking, in a calm and tranquil setting.
As for Peso Neto, it’s a versatile gastro bar where you can have lunch, a snack, dinner or a late drink. I have two words for you: Wachiporonga Selectown. Just try it. It’s a great assortment of Iberian tastes – jamón, lómo, salchichon, cured cheese, pickles, seaweed salad, smoked salmon, cod, pickled sardines and meatballs.
The area of Bilbao la Vieja is made up of three neighbourhoods: Bilbao la Vieja – the old iron-working and maritime centre; San Francisco, originally a convent area that became a very much talked about district because of conflicts and life quality (not enough public space, lots of delinquents – what Raval is, to Barcelona); and Zabala, linked to the former mines and the railway. Spanish newspaper La Vanguaria says that, with the industrial revolution, the area became a populous working class neighbourhood, the flipside of the Bilbao of the gentry. A special character has been forged by that historical inheritance and its subsequent evolution. San Antón bridge, Bilboarte, the 17th century church adapted to Bilborock or Plaza de la Cantera are some points of interest.
But let’s get back to Nervión and follow the river further on.
Passing by several bridges and beautiful buildings like the Arriaga Theatre on the right (opened in 1890 and designed by local architect Joaquín Rucoba with a silhouette inspired fron the Paris Opera and with plenty of thematic details decorating the facades) Zubizuri announces the contemporary area.
Santiago Calatrava was responsible for this White Bridge (Zubizuri in Basque language) with an elegant shape resembling a yacht and with a translucent glass floor that unfortunately was so slippery that it had to be covered so that the bridge could be used on rain.
The two skyscrapers were designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, another starchitect to round off the long list which has Frank Gehry in the leading position as author of the Guggenheim Museum (the list of the most famous architects of the world having created for Bilbao is completed, by the way, by the studio of Zaha Hadid who has taken on the task of transforming the Zorrozaurre peninsula, beyond the old shipyards, which will be sectioned off into an island, filled with new houses, businesses and recreational spaces, an €1bn project to purge the Ría of all its pollution). Passing by the Gugg, the Nervión river continues with a gorgeous left side promenade and reaches the Euskalduna Bridge (architect Javier Materola).
This is an area that tells stories about the industrial past of Bilbao – with its Maritime Museum and the crane, now carefully repainted in red, but also with little details such as the contemporary lights inspired from harbour designs.
There’s also a Dalí that you can admire in this area. The Dancers’ Muse or the Terpsícore sculpture is one of only two casts made from a mould created by Salvador Dalí in 1971, and it was cast specifically for installation in Bilbao. It is more than five feet tall and weighs about 2,000 kilos. It stands next to the Euskalduna Palace Conference Centre.
And if you’ve walked all your way down here (I’d estimate one to three hours to walk this route, depending on how long you stop for taking pics or having a snack and a drink) then you’re super close to two of my favourite places for crafted beer, tapas and wine: Singular and Mr. Marvellous. Singular is one of the best places to have lunch and work from your laptop, it’s so nicely designed and also a great opportunity to try crafted beer, local and international. As for Mr. Marvellous, a great place to dine and have good wine, I will only share the essential. They have a quote on their entrance wall saying: I can resist everything except temptation. Oscar Wilde. I avise you believe what they say… 🙂