We are home in Valencia again. It’s nice to sleep in our own bed. But we did see some really cool stuff and Bilbao is a place we’ll go back to. Like so many cities you visit, you just scratch the surface on a weekend trip. It takes multiple visits at varying times of year to really get a sense of the place. But this first visit left an impression.
The Basque country, where Bilbao sits, is unlike other place in Spain. Not only do they speak a completely different language – the etymology of Basque has yet to be cracked – the culture and traditions are different too. Comparing Valencia to Bilbao is like apples and oranges. Valencians seem much more low key. And drinking here is not a sport. In Bilbao, it seems staying out all night on the weekend and getting plastered isn’t a rare occurrence. More like just a Friday AND Saturday night. So sleeping in an area with a fair few bars was a challenge. I never thought I’d miss Falles. We walked around to other areas of the city at night. It was going on all over – younger and older people staggering down the street. We don’t see that here. Water trucks were out every morning spraying the sidewalks and streets. And it’s no wonder because the remnants of the previous nights partying is all over. You have to step over it if you go out for a morning coffee. Still, it’s very clean. Sometimes I wish they would water down the streets and sidewalks in Valencia more often – especially in summer.
But both cities are big on architecture. Valencia’s modern marvels are most uniform in nature. Bilbao’s more eclectic. If I had to sum up Bilbao in one word it would be ART. I use the term in the broadest sense. Yes, there are plenty of examples of fine art. Painting in the various museums, sculptures/monuments. But there is also architecture and costume. Even their infrastructure is done with an eye to the artistic. Below you’ll see some examples of what I mean.
We took a boat ride from the heart of Bilbao to the port town of Portugalete. It’s a two hour round trip that gives you a sense of what it was like to live and work along the river over the last 300+ years. And it’s undergoing a massive renaissance and revitalization. New housing and refurbishment of historic buildings, and warehouses to use as housing. An award winning Iraqi/English female architect – Zaha Hadid – won the bid to implement multiple phases of her bold new plan for Bilbao. It includes new bridges, an island development and much more. Sadly, she passed away in 2016, but her vision continues to play out in Bilbao and will live on.
The government has also invested over a billion $ over the last 30 years to clean up the river after so many centuries of industrial pollution. Today, it’s got a healthy oxygen rate in the water to support the fish, and wild life have returned to the estuaries. And speaking of water – sports involving water are all the rage. We saw regattas and loads of sea kayaking and rowing. Sail boats are everywhere in Portugalete. Jeff was in heaven.
This small town boasts a ‘Hanging bridge’ that is like a ferry in the air for those wanting to traverse the straight. It takes cars and people back and forth across the divide. There are only of few of these in the world and they’re all in Europe. We didn’t stop in the town but we will next time. There is a lot to see and do in the area.
Back along the river in Bilbao, you can see all the new award winning buildings that have sprung up on the river bank. The new futbol stadium that houses Athletic Club de Bilbao – the local La Liga club. A new convention center. All along the river there are walkways and sculpture littering the path.
When we returned to the city there was a procession going on – of course. What was this for? Who knows? And when I say that I mean it. We asked around. No one knew what it was for. They were just processing. But it was cool.
One of the days we drove up through Mungia to Mirador San Juan Gaztelugatxeko. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you’ll recognize some of the photos, as this is where Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragonstone Castle is located. In actuality, it’s north west of Bilbao by about 35km and is worth the steep hike down and the hike up the causeway and stairs. The views are amazing and you can ring the bell at the church. The hike down and then the eventual very (it seemed much steeper on the way back up) long climb back up to our car was a little more challenging.
You can stay at the inn at the top where the parking is located. And the pinchos in the bar is not to be missed. Each one is huge – like a meal unto itself. But the best thing about staying there are the views. Priceless.
Just as in Ireland where we watched the Irish sport of Hurling on tv, we watched handball in Bilbao. I remember from walking the Camino Frances that every town, village, hamlet in Navarra, no matter the size, had a handball court. Handball is the thing in Basque country. I’m including a video so you can see what I’m talking about. I can’t imagine smacking that hard ball with my hand over and over.
One other random thing we saw on Bilbao tv in a bar was just more confirmation that driving in Spain is not easy. They have an actual show where they pick up people and drive them around quizzing them on Spanish traffic laws. They win prizes if they answer correctly. Like ‘Cash Cab’ filmed in NYC but in that case its random trivia. In this case it’s just the law. Sadly, most people failed.
The flight home was touted at a hour 15. In reality its more like 45 minutes. An easy quick weekend getaway from Valencia. We realized we need much more time than we allotted for exploration. We will be back.