Bilbao. The name itself fills the mouth. I’ll admit, at first, I kept messing it up. Pronouncing it like the last name of a certain famous movie boxer. I could not quite get my tongue around it. For the record, it’s Bihl. Bow. As in, take a bow.
And indeed, the resilient Spanish city by the bay should take a bow.
Bilbao has rebuilt itself several times, usually after being wiped out by a war. Surrounded by iron ore and located on the Biscay Bay, the city focused on its industrial growth, particularly exporting iron to Great Britain, and shipbuilding.
Several factors in the 1980s, including labor disputes and terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA, caused the city to switch to a more services-focused path of economic growth. It’s now home to major companies, particularly in the banking sector. And the whole city has been undergoing an urban renewal, kicked off by the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in 1997.
(Interesting side note: earlier this week, ETA announced that they are ready to disband after more than 45 years of fighting for Basque independence. I’m pretty sure our visit had something to do with that).
Bilbao was the first stop on our Spanish vacation and was a good introduction to the Basque region. We were attracted to the city by the fact that 1) there was an international airport nearby, so it was easy for both of us travelling from different directions to get to; 2) the Guggenheim Museum; 3) it was off the beaten path. But what really clinched the deal was the fact that there was a soccer game at the same time we were planning to be there.
The airport: XFE was already in the south of Spain for work, and I was flying over to meet him. The Bilbao airport itself is pretty lackluster and a bit depressing. It was small, particularly for an international airport serving 3.9 million customers, and it didn’t have any shops or restaurants. It was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed one of the wineries we went to later in the week. Overall, it was very modern, but in a cold, concrete-gray kind of way.
But, it was easy to get in and out of, so that’s a bonus.
The Guggenheim: We figured going to northern Spain in November was a risk, weather-wise. We expected cold, rainy and gloomy, so we thought it would make a perfect excuse to spend a day in a museum. It was indeed chilly and drizzly the day we went to the Guggenheim, but the inside was comfortable, and because it was November, blessedly free of masses of tourists (the Guggenheim had 4 million visitors in its first three years). If anything, the gray skies made a fantastic contrasting backdrop to the gold, undulating exterior made of sandstone, titanium and glass.
The museum is pretty massive with a total of 256,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that big. It was well laid out and focused on modern art. A couple of our favorites were the Jenny Holzer installation piece of large LED columns with phrases in English and Basque, and a current exhibit of works by Austrian painter Egon Schiele.
But the real star of the show is the building. It is breathtaking. We stayed at the Hotel Miro, which is spitting distance from the museum and had a waterfront room with views of the museum so we could see it day and night. It never got old.
I’ve heard it described many ways — like a giant ship in a nod to Bilbao’s maritime past, like a giant fish with scales made up of titanium, like a flowing river reflecting back into the River Nervion it hovers over. It was all of that and more. It was one of those buildings that somehow stirs an emotion in you.
The Hotel Miro was great, both in location (city center) and amenities. It’s very modern and small, and had a great breakfast including pour-your-own mimosas. It was close to the museum, shopping and the soccer stadium.
The beaten path: Bilbao was quite a surprise to us, but a very pleasant one. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever been there, so we had no idea what to expect. But the city is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings with wide European avenues lined with trees and lots of pedestrian-only streets and bridges. There’s a fairly new metro system, but we never needed it during our two-day stay.
Thanks to the great location of our hotel, we walked everywhere. Our first night in town, we fought off jetlag by strolling over to the Gran Via and the Plaza Eliptica for a couple of hours of shopping. All the major Spanish chains were well represented, including Zara, Mango and Maje.
On Sunday afternoon, we made like Spainards and strolled through the lovely Dona Casida Itturizar Park on our way to the soccer game. It was a gorgeous fall day, and everyone was out, pushing strollers, chasing kids and walking dogs. Usually, in that amazing way that European women have, all three at the same time and looking stylish while doing it.
We didn’t really make any dinner plans, but more often than not found ourselves eating pinxtos at the casual English-themed bar next to the hotel. There was a post-soccer/all-day-drinking feast at a donner kabob place near the hotel. At the time, I was sure it was the best restaurant in all of Spain.
Which brings us to our final deciding factor: the soccer game.
When we first started planning our trip, we looked up the schedules for three soccer teams in Northern Spain: Sevilla, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Only one was playing on the weekend we would be there: Athletico Bilbao.
Spain, like all of Europe, is crazy about soccer. It’s like a holiday when the home team is in town, and Bilbao was no exception. They regularly reach full capacity in their 40,000 seat San Mames, known affectionately as the Cathedral. (Don’t worry, they’re building an even larger new 53,000 seat stadium right next to the old one to open sometime in 2013 – the 100th anniversary of the original stadium).
It’s an understatement to say we were very concerned about our ability to get tickets to the game.
We contacted our concierge to get tickets but were told they weren’t released until the week of the game. His recommendation was that we stand in line at the stadium to buy them the day before the game. Not a very appealing option.
Instead, we took our chances with an online ticket broker, Viagogo, and had them delivered to our hotel. It was a nerve-wracking four weeks while we waited to see if the tickets would indeed show up, but they were waiting for us when we checked in at the Hotel Miro and the seats were fantastic. Front row. They were very expensive, but worth it.
Not surprisingly, the people of Bilbao make a whole day of the soccer game. We saw people heading towards the 4 pm game at around 10 am. We left our hotel at around 11:30 and headed to Calle Licenciado Poza for pinxtos and drinks.
The entire neighborhood was draped in red and white Athletico bunting and every bar was flying the Athletico flag. We stopped at bar after bar—everything ranging from super chic steel and chrome numbers, to older establishments with plexiglass protecting their pintxos—and the whole vibe was very festive. Since they don’t serve beer or alcohol at the stadium (a widespread European rule that I’m not particularly fond of), things get pretty tipsy on the streets beforehand.
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of families out and about. We particularly enjoyed one kid who sat next to us and just inhaled two bowls of the tiniest little garlicky snails we’d ever seen. They were miniscule, but this kid was pulling them out of their tiny shells like he was a machine.
We bought our traditional (and overpriced) team garb from a small shop right outside the stadium. We try to go to a soccer game every time we go to Europe and now have a pretty impressive collection of scarves (for me) and baseball hats (for XFE). I also might have accosted a group of young American students I happened to overhear on our way in as if they were our long-lost relatives. What can I say? I was carried away by the many glasses of 1 Euro tintos and the excitement of game day.
Finally, we made our way into the Cathedral. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. European men, I’ve observed, are very, very demonstrative at soccer games. They cheer wildly and cry and throw their hands up in disgust and hug each other. It’s a pretty impressive display. On that particular day, the home team beat the Sevilla visitors 2-0, so it was mostly cheers.
As we marched out of the stadium, carried along by the exuberant crowd into the neighborhood streets, I decided I liked Bilbao very, very much indeed. And then I went into a bar and had another glass of tinto. Somewhere there was a very non-Spanish kebab calling my name.