Although I’m sure you probably weren’t aware of it, Bilbao is the capital of the world.
“Where?” you might be asking. “The world has no capital!” You may scoff, but according to many people, the largest city in the Basque Country, Bilbao, is the capital of the world. Sure, it’s just their self-promotion and way of feeling better about the fact that the actual capital of País vasco is “Vitoria-Gasteiz” an hour to the south.
Although it may not be the actual “capital of the world” or even the autonomous community of País vasco, Bilbao is the capital of one of Spain’s most gorgeous provinces, Vizcaya (officially Bizkaia). It is home to the Guggenheim Museum which attracts many tourists. However, the Guggenheim, while a very pretty building I will admit, is not close to capturing the real allure of the town. Bilbao has a population of around 350,000 people, but it is classified as a “villa”, not a city, due to ancient classifications. In fact, Vizcaya only has one city, “Orduña”, which has just over 4000 inhabitants.
The coolest neighbourhood of Bilbao is the Casco Viejo with its “Seven Streets,” which even a Bilbao native can lose themselves in. The labyrinth of streets is home to all kinds of shops, bars, cafés, nightlife (including several gay bars) and activity. The Unamuno Plaza is home to two museums, the Basque Museum and the Basque Archeological Museum. It also offers the stairs to the best park in the city, Extebarria, which offers views of the entire city and allows dogs a place to play. By the way, the Basques are very dog-friendly. It’s quite common to see dogs in the bars and cafés next to their people.
Bilbao is also home to an estuary with fancy bridges, including my favorite, the Calatrava-designed “Zubizuri”. Since Bilbao was an industrial center for so many years before reinventing itself in the 1990s as a service-oriented city, the Nervion River leaves a lot to be desired. However, it does provide a nice place to walk, run, skate or ride your bike in the bike lanes.
The new San Mames soccer stadium, still under construction, is at the top of the vizcainos’ favourite places. Soccer/football is the most popular sport here, and the Athletic de Bilbao squad is beloved by nearly every citizen of Bilbao. They are one of three Spanish teams that has never lowered to Second Division. The other two are, of course, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Even if you don’t speak Basque (which to be honest, few people do in Bilbao), greeting someone with Aupa Athletic will make you fast friends with the Bilbao citizens.
For the nature lovers like me, Bilbao offers plenty. From the city center, you can take the cable car to Artxanda for the best views of the city. On a clear day, you can also see the sea. For the hikers, Bilbao is on the Northern route of the Camino de Santiago. I’ve already conquered Pagasarri, the highest peak of Bilbao at 673 metres.
Bilbao’s metropolitan area includes Portugalete and Getxo. Getxo is home of the rich and not-so famous, and several beaches, but the “Puente Colgante” that connects the two over the Nervion belongs to Portugalete. For the small fee of 35 cents, you can cross the river next to cars and other people by the ferry hanging from the top of the bridge. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There is also a nice walk along the costal cliffs from Getxo to Sopelana (and even beyond to Plentzia, I hear).
As for actual villages, the coastal villages of Mundaka, Bermeo, Ondarroa and Lekeitio all offer spectacular views of the coast and interesting churches and other sites. Mundaka is one of the few places in the world where surfers can check out left-banking waves.
Gernika (Guernica), a few kilometres south of Mundaka and the scenic Urdabai area, is important for history buffs. Every Basque leader has taken his or her oath of office underneath the important tree of Gernika. This might be why it was the scene of attack on that fateful April morning during the Spanish Civil War, immortalized by Picasso in his famous painting Guernica.
Durango is another quaint village close to the Urkiola Natural Park, which offers rocky mountains and a small church with an important meteorite that legend states will permit whoever walks around it backward the sufficent number of times (3? 7? 13? The number changes depending on who you talk to) to meet the person they will marry within six months. It did not work for me, I have to say. I guess I’ll have to try it again now that I live in Bilbao.
For me, the most stunning place in the Basque Country is San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an old church located on an island, reached only by a bridge with 210 stairs. I’ve been twice, and both times, I felt as if I were on the Great Wall of China with waves crashing up against the bridge. I rang the church bell 13 times both visits. I’m not sure why. One person says that it will stop headaches, but I still get them. Another person says it gives you luck. I don’t know if I feel any luckier or not. Maybe the third time will be the charm.
If that is not enough, there is also a forest that has been turned into a work of art by Agustin Ibarrola, the Bosque de Oma.
Vizcaya/Bizcaia is one of Spain’s most stunning provinces. For years, the threat of ETA, the Basque separation terrorist group, kept people from discovering its joys, and now that they are more or less history, the constant threat of rain keeps people away. The recent surge of Basque Tourism due to 8 Apellidos Vascos drives people to Gipuzkoa, and frankly, I prefer it that way. Vizcaya is my little kept secret of beauty. I don’t think it will be kept so secret for much longer.
1. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (Between Bakio and Bermeo)
2. El Arbol de Gernika (Gernika/Guernica)
3. El Puente Colgante, Portugalete and Getxo
4. Urkiola (near Durango)
5. Urdabai (near Mundaka)
6. Bosque de Oma (Kortezubi)
7. Zubizuri (Bilbao)
Bonus Entry: Guggenheim (Bilbao) (Happy?)