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Bilbao, More Than 10 Reasons

Sunday, August 25, 2019

So when talking Spain for vacation you would perhaps quickly list places like Madrid, Seville, Granada, Barcelona or Ibiza as your hot-spot place to go. However, if you were to point your compass north, a novel idea for where to spend your precious holiday takes on a language all of its own.

Along the coast of the Cantabrian Sea, the Basque Country beckons:

My first exposure to the Bay of Biscay was a direct drop in the belly of Bilbao, the capital of the Basque region. It was a baptism by fire. I had gone there visiting friends and ended up choosing the densely populated area, Spain's tenth largest city, as my home.

Seeing it through the eyes of a resident for over 13 years allowed for a rite of passage to many things a tourist would never experience, but something which admittedly caused me to take many of the wonderful features and sights therein for granted... for at least the first four or five. For one, I found myself hard-pressed to guide any of the visitors to my home to anything more than the Guggenheim and popular bar hops, as everyday living did not require me to have any further knowledge. Thus, relying heavily on my employees to be my guests' trip advisors was the easier route.

That soon changed, however, when I was told I'd be hosting a friend of the family who also happened to be a travel writer and planned on taking a week away from his desk, on what I like to call 'working overseas', to decompress. That immediately put a different tone to how his stay was going to be managed. I obviously had to up my game as I was sure that the success of his feature was all in my hands. Knowing more about the place in which I lived had suddenly become a priority.



Although I started my research in the field of sports, I remembered that my passion for the city was first fed by my interest in its music, and not by my addiction to football or food. As a lover of wind and string instruments, I'd always had the tendency to seek out unique or long-forgotten conduits of the food of love. Surely no one could complain about being bored from the front row of a good concert. Explaining the task I had at hand to my students, and the specifics of my project, led them to introduce me to the txistu. This close cousin of the flute streams out such a melodic sound that is best listened to whilst ruminating over the day's events, sipping on cider with a bit of chorizo on the side. You then realise that all that you thought was the end of the world was not as bad.

A Basque music festival was put on the list as the surefire space-filler. He must be entertained at all hours of the day and a live show cannot lose. El Athletic is playing this weekend, however — so Saturday would not be that day. He would have to put on his red and white supporters' shirt and know not to cheer for any other team regardless of their winning prowess. I learnt the hard way. Studying Spanish in Barçelona made me an avid fan of its team — affectionately called Barça (pronounced Bar-sah). I was soon cured of that though, the very day I made the mistake of attending an invitational friendly only to realise that there was nothing friendly about it.

Luckily, I was still able to continue supporting football club Barçelona if I only mentioned that its [then] coach Pep Guardiola was akin to an adonis. No talk of Leo Messi (or any of their other outstanding players) was allowed. I therefore resigned myself to cheering for the Bilbainos without guilt for the mere fact that they appointed their first ever black player in the club's history – Iñaki Williams – and thus was awarded official supporter status.

Another booster to spouting Bilbao clout came from a more egocentric standpoint. Having the privilege of being featured on the world's largest mural painted by a single artist became the second instigator. I realised that the image of my smile which flanked the river Nervión needed to seem as if it reflected a sincere pride. So I too delved further into what made this city the heartbeat of Euskadi.

I set off to study and explore and look way beyond the walls of the world's second Guggenheim museum, creation of the magnificent architect Frank Owen Gehry (no relation), and made it a point to fall hard and deeply for the place.

It did not take much or long. I learned fast — there is always something to pin on your calendar at any given time of the year in the beautiful Bay of Biscay. My friend left convinced that Bilbao is definitely a must do. I gave him way more than 10 reasons!


Noteworthy Points:

— Bilbao was voted the best city in Europe in 2018, the Academy of Urbanism. It boasts the world's largest mural painted by a single artist ( The Guinness Book of World Records).

— Apple cider houses are many (one with great ambiance is located on the outskirts of Bilbao)... and normally open between January and April.

— General activities (for example, txakoli tasting and Basque festivals)...

— Basque music festivals ...normally during March or April

— Antique book fair at the Bilbao Book Fair at the Hotel Abando ...normally May/June



The annual Bilbao Festival (Fiestas de Bilbao) – normally celebrated towards the end of August.

The Guggenheim (speaks for itself).

The Bellas Artes Museum (very understated – well worth the visit).

The Casco Viejo area (craft fairs, bar hops, flower and plant fairs at the turn of a corner).

Bilboboat (a trip down the River Vervión where you can get a close-up view of the spectacular mural).


My Little Nooks and Crannies:

The Basque Country is known for its amazing cuisine and the list of the top 10 Spanish chefs has no less than four Basque cooks. I therefore am unapologetic about eating out almost every evening as nothing beats a bar with a wonderful assortment of pintxos washed down with a glass of full-bodied Tempranillo.


The Yetti (now serves a great Jamaican curry chicken and white rice or cassava, due to my residence on a bar stool in the corner). Ask for Jorge!

Donde Zé (the bubbly Portuguese owner Zé will make you fresh wholewheat toast and avocado drizzled with olive oil and a dash of pepper).

Casa Rufo (chargrilled steak served on your own personal table-grill so you may prepare it to your liking).

Basque Cook (a Japanese-and-Basque-cuisine-themed restaurant).

The Marquez (delicious seafood with an excellent personal service by Manu... who never seems to take a day off).


In Part 2 Owen extends your visit to include more of the Basque country.