06.06.21 — Travel

Bilbao Weekend

Today’s update comes from the place I actually sat down and wrote the entirety of my last blog post – Bilbao. This isn’t the first or even the second time that I’ve visited this lovely city in the north of Spain, but it felt like a whole new experience as we had a full four days to explore and tickets booked to visit the Guggenheim – but we shall get to that in due course. For now, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…

Our journey began with a somewhat lengthy five-hour bus journey which had us land in the Basque Country’s largest city at around 9pm. From there, we headed straight for our hotel in order to drop off our stuff and having a quick shower. As our trip had been a last-minute decision, however, we hadn’t even thought to check what the local coronavirus restrictions were like, so I checked that there wasn’t a curfew in place before heading out.

Thankfully there was no curfew in place, but to our great dismay we discovered that all restaurants and bars had to close at 10pm. Regardless, we thought we would still be able to bag something to eat, and headed out just after this cut-off time.

Well, this turned out to be a rather optimistic assessment, as we were faced with shutter after closed shutter. Thankfully though, a lady I spoke to on the street gave us a tip, telling us to knock on the shutters of one of the kebab shops. To our surprise, the shutter opened, a guy took our order, and we were then told to wait around the corner in order to draw attention from the slightly illegal sale of kebabs after 10pm. Me and Jhosef were quite giddy as we waited for our evening meal – of all the naughty kebabs I’ve ever had, this was by far the naughtiest!

After inhaling our kebabs in the hotel room, we headed off to sleep, waking up with plenty of energy to explore the day after. Our outing began with breakfast in a local bar, where we had our first taste of pintxos (also spelled pinchos elsewhere in Spain), which are little portions of food which are usually served atop a little piece of bread. These are a staple of Basque cuisine, and can be found in every bar that you may happen across in Bilbao.

The Txabarri Jauregia palace looked lovely even under grey skies.

We then headed to the historical centre of the city, which took us across the river, where we stopped to snap some photos of the central train station and the waterside basement below. In order to bag some photographs at interesting angles, we then snuck down one of the perilously slippy concrete staircases which lead to the water’s edge, taking care not to be hurtled headfirst into its murky depths by the green slime that covered the lower half of the descent.

The concrete stairs were the perfect place for a grungy photo shoot.

Once firmly in the centre of the oldest part of the city, we stopped for a couple more pintxos and a drink at a little bar. Freshly energized, we crossed the river once again, exploring another area of the city that we stumbled across by pure chance whilst looking for somewhere to eat something more substantial for lunch.

This quest for a restaurant wasn’t all that fruitful, however, and we wound up accidentally looping back on ourselves and back near the hotel. The abundance of 1.50€ pintxos had our back though, and we grazed on a few more of them in another bar before heading back to the hotel via a nearby park for a nap before our evening’s travels.

After our siesta we headed down to a nearby riverside spot that Jhosef had stumbled across on his morning jog which is famous for its huge red crane. From there we followed the river’s meandering all the way to the infamous architecture of the Guggenheim, where we headed back into the centre to scout out something to eat.

Before we even stepped foot in our chosen restaurant, we had a cheeky couple of pintxos at a neighboring bar, where we got chatting to the lady at the bar about life in Bilbao. By this point, the two of us had settled into the rhythm of the city quite nicely, and this only continued as we headed to our evening’s restaurant and dined on bao and a delicious duck and mushroom dish.

After rushing out of the restaurant in order to squeeze in one last drink at another bar before the 10pm closing time, we sauntered back to the hotel full of good food and even better patxaran (also spelled pacharán, a delicious alcohol made from sloe berries). On the way, however, we stumbled across something that had me all excited and took me back to my childhood: an artwork made of various different models of streetlight.

I should explain, for those who don’t know me, that I have been obsessed with lights from the moment I began speaking (my first word was light thanks to my grandma). Here it’s also worth noting that as a young child, when presented with a painting kit, the first thing I painted was a motorway in order to then carefully paint its accompanying streetlights. I was also once gifted a plastic train set, and managed to lose every piece except the precious three streetlights that it came with… I think you get the idea.

Me and Jhosef lay down in the grass looking up at the lights and resting off some of the food for a good while, before returning to the hotel in preparation for our second day’s main activity: a visit to the Guggenheim.

The morning began, as was quickly becoming habit, with a coffee and a round of pintxos. We then made the short direct journey to the world renowned art museum, grabbing our tickets and heading into the central atrium of the Frank Ghery masterpiece for the first time. As I said, I’ve been in Bilbao twice before, and I’d visited the museum’s gift shop on both occasions, but I’d never actually had the chance to see the art within.

The museum was absolutely fascinating, with various works catching my eye, but I shan’t go into too much detail. I’ll just leave it at this: it’s very much worth a visit, no matter what kind of art interests you. Hell, even if you think that art isn’t for you, there’s some really interesting and beautiful sights to be appreciated within. To prove this, I’ll leave a few pictures that I took during our visit:

Leaving the museum behind after a good while snooping around the gift shop (I do love a good gift shop), we headed back into the city and to a restaurant that we’d booked to have lunch, Monocromo. The quirky little restaurant with it’s open kitchen and specialty vermouths (one of my favourite tipples) was a hit with the two of us, and we thoroughly enjoyed the seafood, drinks, and huge dessert that were placed before us.

We left the place absolutely stuffed, and so headed back to the hotel to sleep it all off. Jhosef was particularly exhausted, and so whilst he slept I headed off for a solitary wander and to buy some snacks lest we be caught out again by the 10pm closing time.

I’m not a fan of this skyscraper which towers over the city, but this couple didn’t mind.

As I returned to the hotel with my bag full of edible goodies, I noticed that the night sky was fading into a particularly beautiful sunset, and so made a substantial detour in order to witness it from the banks of the river. This didn’t disappoint at all, as I was treated to a view over the infamous red crane and the silhouetted by a gorgeous celestial explosion of pink and orange.

The sunset was particularly striking behind the big red crane.

After spending that evening munching on crisps and watching the second half of a Batman film in the hotel room, we were once again on the move the day after. For breakfast, we’d arranged to meet up with Jhosef’s friend, Sergio. We headed to a local bakery for some pastries, chatted for a good while over coffee, and I thanked him for the restaurant recommendation from the day before.

When Sergio had to dash off to work, Jhosef and I then made our first descent into the tunnels of Bilbao’s metro system, catching the (wrong) train to the coast to spend a day in Getxo. After switching trains to one that was actually going where we wanted to go, we arrived in Algorta, a lovely coastal town which we’d been told was famed for its beautiful old port.

A quick wander round in the intense sun (an odd occurrence in the north of Spain) was all it took to tire us out, and so we perched ourselves on the terrace of a tiny bar and ordered some drinks and a bite to eat. The food came in the form of gildas, little cocktail sticks holding delicious combinations of fish, olives, and pickled vegetables, amongst other ingredients. Jhosef was a big fan of these little sticks of goodness, and so we grabbed ourselves another round before heading down to the old port area of the town.

The old port was absolutely beautiful, with quirky little houses lining the sloped streets which led to the waterfront. On the way down to the port itself, we passed by a restaurant with a gorgeous open terrace shaded by a smattering of trees, and decided that we’d return there for some lunch after catching a glimpse of the sea.

The port itself was lovely, but rather small, and so we didn’t spend too long exploring the area – a decision made easier by the fact that the sun was now directly above us and threatening to burn my poor English skin. I avoided the otherwise guaranteed sunburn with the aid of an umbrella – I must have been a right sight to behold…

After a spot of crab spotting we began to make our way back to the quaint little terrace I mentioned, where we sat down for one of the most drawn-out lunches I’ve ever experienced. In this little village time seemed to slow, and we probably spent about four hours eating, drinking, and chatting, both to each other and the friendly waitress who served us a series of delicious local dishes.

Eventually we finally decided to move on with the rest of our plans, prompted to do so partly by the breeze that had picked up and the smattering of clouds that had begun rolling in. Not wanting to miss our only opportunity to stroll along the shoreline, we headed down to the neighbouring beach and spent a good half hour crossing its entire width. Whilst Jhosef dipped his feet in the surf, I engaged in a spot of beach combing, bagging myself a couple of shells which I now have accompanying my many plants in my flat.

Once we’d reached the other end of the beach and after a failed attempt at catching a bus, we resigned to walk the rest of the path down to the estuary of the river that winds inland and through Bilbao. Here I wanted to get up close and personal with the Bizkaia Bridge, the world’s first suspension bridge which is still in operation, spanning the width of the Nerbioi River just before it reaches the sea.

To get a better view of the bridge, Jhosef and I crept down yet another concrete stairwell which led straight into the choppy waters of the estuary. After a near miss involving the wake of a passing boat, we climbed back up to safety and headed to the bridge’s viewing platform, taking a few more photos before heading back to the metro bound back to Bilbao – stopping along the way for a couple of pintxos and a glass of wine, of course.

That evening, our last in this great city, was rather eventful. After a day on our feet we weren’t up for an evening searching out a restaurant, and so nipped into a bar next door to the hotel to dine on some more pintxos. Having neglected to check the weather forecast beforehand, we decided to sit outside on the roadside terrace – and I’m sure you can imagine what happened next.

After being blessed with such a sunny day up to that point, it was high time that the Basque weather pulled one of its usual tricks and changed within a blink of an eye. In an instant the evening heat gave way to a raging thunderstorm, with the downpour soaking us to the skin but doing very little to dampen our spirits: rather than run back inside, we decided to enjoy the rain, going so far as to film a parody of the music video from that early 2000’s classic “All The Things She Said”!

Now absolutely drenched, we headed up to our room after paying the very bemused owner of the restaurant who had observed our antics, and all too soon our last day in the city came around. With our bus back to Madrid scheduled to leave at 4pm, it was a bit of an odd day to go out and do too much for fear of arriving late at the bus station, but we managed to make the most of the time we had anyway.

Our morning began with a walk down the other side of the river, passing behind the contorted architecture of the Guggenheim and taking us all the way back to the old town. Once there, we explored some of the streets which we hadn’t seen during our first quick visit, and nipped in a sweet shop in order to buy some treats for friends, colleagues, and family back in Madrid.

We then headed back to the hotel after one last cheeky vermouth, having decided that it was a good idea to have lunch in the restaurant by the hotel as we could pick up our bags from next door and make the short journey up to the bus station when the time came. We were treated to a delicious full menú del día on the same terrace where we had been drenched the night before, topped off with a glass of wine and some lovely ice cream to keep us satisfied through the long journey back to Madrid.

With the last bill paid and our bags recovered from the hotel’s storeroom, the two of us then had to speed our way up to the bus station, arriving just in time to be two of the last people to board the bus. Our sizable lunch worked just perfectly to put us to sleep during the journey back, and so we were back in the capital before you can say pintxo – which, if you’ve been wondering all this time, is pronounced pin-cho.

All that’s left to say is that I had an absolutely lovely time in Bilbao – but I think that my admiration for the place has been pretty evident throughout this post. Thanks to Jhosef for suggesting the idea of a city break and then putting up with me for the four days that we travelled together, and also to my colleague María, a native of the region without whose recommendations we wouldn’t have thought to do half the amazing things we did nor order some of the delicious local dishes that we sampled.

Bilbao – I will be back. Until then, agur!