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Published: January 15th 2017
As I’ve lived in Spain, my ‘Spain Bucket List’ has grown and grown. But one place that has been on my list since before I moved here was Bilbao. For winter vacation, I went to the Basque Country before visiting a good friend in Brittany, northwestern France.
Flying on Christmas Day was overall a good idea (due to price, lack of passengers, surprising cheeriness of staff), but I arrived too early to the tiny La Coruña airport. I had to wait in the main entrance for a while until they opened the gift shop that acted as the route to the security clearance. I was happy, though, that the duty-free shop (after security) was open because I wanted to buy some Galician liquor (crema de orujo or café licor were both options) as a host present to take to Brittany.
My hostel in Bilbao was a bit of a climb with my backpack. After getting settled and the Christmas Skype with my family, I went to check out the Casco Viejo (Old City). Not much was happening because of Christmas. I was actually surprised that more bars weren’t open.
The next day,
I bought a one-day metro pass for 4.70 euros. It ended up being more than worth it. First, I headed to the Vizkaya Bridge, which crosses the river north of the city. It was well cool (English-isms occasionally invade my speech). Instead of cars and people crossing the bridge itself, a gondola hangs below. Once everyone (cars, bikes, people etc.) is aboard this ‘air ferry’, it is pulled across the river in the air. The crossing only takes about a minute.
I continued walking along the water all the way to Getxo. The sky was overcast most of the day, but luckily it didn’t rain. The walk along the coast was full of mansions, almost as if the residential area of Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh) were next to the sea. Just like in Squirrel Hill, the variety of architecture was interesting. However, the sea view there was kind of ugly due to industry further out in the bay.
Puerto Viejo, a more-traditional-style Basque hillside neighborhood, was pretty. It’s probably super-touristy in the summer. The day I went in late December, there were tourists but also locals around. Climbing the hillside with a sea view and
wandering the tiny alleys reminded me a bit of Cinque Terre.
Continuing to the windmill (molino) further on was kind of a waste. First, after exploring Puerto Viejo, I assumed I could descend the hill to continue on the seaside path. However, once down there, I realized the path ends, so I then had to climb back up. It was only with my phone map that I was finally able to find another path uphill towards the windmill. The area surrounding the windmill wasn’t nearly as rustic or rural as I expected, more like a suburb. Afterwards, I again (regrettably) relied on the tourist map, which seemed to show the metro station a few blocks away. However, after wandering a while and bringing it up on my phone, I found that it was actually a 25 minute walk. Anyway, I had a bit of a grumpy half-hour related to that windmill. Renting bikes on a nice day and planning to continue past the windmill to the lighthouse might make it worth it, but otherwise, I’d skip.
I elected to return to the hostel for a siesta. This is where my metro card really came
in handy, because my hostel was in Begoña, above the Casco Viejo metro station. This station has two entrances, one below in the Casco Viejo, and one way, way above, near Parque Etxebarria. I had to walk up probably 6 stories worth of steps just to get to that point, then my hostel was probably about 4 more stories above that. However, I figured out that if you have an active metro card, you can use it to access an elevator from the park down to the metro and vice versa. So I ended up using my metro card 4 times that day just coming and going on that elevator.
The main reason Bilbao was on my bucket list is because it was an ugly industrial city which turned itself around into a design capital. It sounded to me like the Spanish Pittsburgh, in that it has reinvented itself. What’s funny is that there were moments there that it really did feel more American, and the hilly landscapes near the city center were similar in size and greyness (that day) to Pittsburgh. Even the way the Guggenheim Museum, the city’s most talked-about architectural marvel, was placed next
to the river, reminded me of the Carnegie Science Center next to the Ohio/Allegheny River.
The difference, however, apart from the city’s place in Europe and not the US, was my feeling about the people. Pittsburghers have a deep sense of pride for their roots in the working class. Their fandom is well-known, especially for sports like football and hockey. Many of our most popular ‘regional dishes’ are Americanized replications of foods Central European ancestors brought. And Pittsburghers generally try their hardest to escape that most working-class institution, public transportation, and opt if they can for their own car.
In contrast, my time in Bilbao showed me how much thought was put into designing great public transportation, with a metro, tram lines, buses, and trains, all affordable and used frequently by people from many walks of life. The metro for me immediately made the city feel advanced. More than that, the people seemed more ‘fine-arts-culture’ proud; I got the feeling that people there, instead of being sports fans, were invested in fine arts—arts, design, music, literature, etc. The food situation is also, along with San Sebastian, becoming more and more well-known for inventive and
modern takes on pintxos (small bites like tapas). Bilbao, for me, felt like a Spanish Switzerland, but with more character.
I explored the area around the Guggenheim Museum, University of Deusto, and the Museo de Bellas Artes, and stopped for a coffee. When it starts to get dark in the winter, it sucks as a tourist. You feel like there are so many cool things left to see, but the sun doesn’t care. Luckily, I found the Askuna Zentroa (formerly known as the Alhóndiga) building. It’s a cultural space with a movie theater in the basement. When I arrived on a Monday the free exhibits weren’t open, but I could walk around the main hall. It’s filled with unique artistically-enhanced columns that support the building. But my second ‘well-cool’ of the day was standing under the building’s swimming pool. It’s a few stories above the hall, and part of the bottom is made of glass, so that from below, you can catch glimpses of swimmers.
The final part of my Bilbao experience was Casco Viejo in the evening again. I’m pleased to report that bars were much livelier the day after Christmas. Walking near
the river bordering Casco Viejo in the evening, I came across some buildings, like the train station, which, illuminated by golden streetlights, seemed beautiful examples of the Belle Époque.
The next morning, I took an Euskotren train from Bilbao to San Sebastian (aka Donostia in Basque language). The 2.5 hour ride cost me about 7 euros. It took longer than a bus, but was cheaper, and certainly just as scenic. Euskotren trains seem to be similar to FEVEs, but smoother and quicker. The landscape I passed reminded me of Pennsylvania—lots of hills and forests full of winterized trees without leaves.
I think if you’re interested in museums, Bilbao is worth 2 days itself. Even without the museums, a day and a half is good. The Getxo area is great, the area near the Guggenheim is pleasant, and the city in general is full of interesting architecture, which generally feels more modern (less historical) than many other places in Spain. It’s also a great jumping point for the rest of the Basque country. You can reach lots of interesting places within 2 hours by bus or train.
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