Bilbao: Bold as Basque

Posted by in Culture, Travel

WHERE IN THE WORLD?

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Is it Dublin? Is it Pontypool? With all this white sky, its liquid fill and frequent spill you’d certainly think so but whatever it is, I like it. Aside the weather – which I’m forewarned about – Bilbao ticks many boxes. Cool metro system, elder folk having a coffee and chin wag at traditional European cafes, Art and I don’t just mean that museum.

Bilbao seems like some cosmic architect has taken Ireland’s capital, not forgetting my own Newport, a Welsh valley town (Ponty, Ebbw Vale – take your pick) blended them all together and dropped them in northern Spain. Otherwise known as Euskedu or the Basque Country.

BILLINGTON?

It’s perhaps not too far fetched to call Bilbao the Spanish (or Basque) Wellington (NZ) with the city on one side of Archanda Hill and the airport via a tunnel on the other. Sound familiar? Only the river replaces the harbour and no bays caress either end of the runway (or pummel it in the case of Lyall).

Not only that but an amble around Archanda (the local Mt Victoria accessed by funicular) presents a sign pointing towards the nearby aerodrome. As it comes into focus it says ‘Miramar’ (actually a restaurant not a suburb) spooky or what? If the similarities weren’t already noticeable, they were now. No Hobbits though the distant stadium does a reasonable cake tin.

SPEED OF URBAN DEVELOPMENT

I’m here as it’s one of the busiest hubs for English teachers but speaking of architects, there must be as many as there are schools. Like Dublin, Cardiff and Shenzhen, Bilbao has reinvented itself so fast one of its urban rail arteries has already been left behind!

The EuskaTren stations, platforms and in some cases bridges don’t look that old but are left where they stood, the tracks overgrown. Ironic when you consider the main station is called Abando. I know from my own hometown (the Clarence Place art college) and the ‘in search of’ airport blogs I’ve produced here how quickly things fall into disrepair.

TRANSPORTER BRIDGE

Another nod to Newport is the Bizkaia transporter bridge. The oldest of its kind in the world, it straddles the narrowest channel of the Rio Bilbao between the plush Areeta and slightly more earthy terrain of Portugalete. Either side of the river (just prior to its mouth opening into the Bay of Biscay). The bridge also serves as a connecting bracket as the metro splits into two lines at San Inazio further downstream.

M FOR METRO, M FOR MODERN

As mentioned the metro is modern with a capital M and cool as it gets with red neon signs set against the bare concrete station walls. However unlike those in Shenzhen or Guangzhou this is a metro designed and built to a budget.

The escalators only get you so far, there are no glass petitions lining the platform to prevent nasty mishaps or accidents. Also don’t expect four points of entry per station, nor can you (as yet) make it to the airport by metro. Still a town of this size having a metro at all is a pretty strong testament to its status and willingness to reinvent itself.

Hello Adventure

Another feature is the logo, most cities settle on a stylised M, but not Bilbao, here we have three inter-connecting circles, certainly more interesting as well as eye catching. 

Also worth noting is the trains don’t necessarily run to the end of the line and the maps are not so visible as other cities so the names can be bewildering and by the time you’ve figured out weather it’s the right train or not its already gone, so expect to miss a train or two if new in town. As a secondary note of caution, the doors don’t open automatically at stations so don’t forget to hit that door button!

HEROES

Musica? It has not escaped me that Simple Minds filmed the video for Glitterball in the city and if you’re a Duran Duran fan, you’ll be super pleased with my findings in the Algorta and Areeta regions of Getxo (north of Bilbao proper but serviced by the metro). The ‘Notorious’ style finger print sculpture awaits atop Archanda Hill. If all else fails you can still be a hero – just for one day.

IF NOT HERE, WHERE?

Many mornings see patches of fog and snow smother the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately one of the more unpleasant aspects of life in Bilbao is the almost omnipresent stench of ganja or weed. Fast track to the city’s lesser known and smaller funicular (more or less a free lift for the elderly) where I stood scanning the panorama at an observation point only to hear myself say ‘Is it home?’ A question I’m still unable to answer.

Would I rather be in Barcelona? Probably if not for its rental prices. Pamplona? indeed! As stated I am here as it’s a busy hub for teachers and also for its geographic proximity to France, Andorra and the Camino. Even without doing the latter a sea change has occurred. I can now safely say I see the future differently, beyond that of just teaching which let’s face it has, for many reasons, been a resounding disappointment.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Back down to earth from existential hill and my attention turns to food. Here’s a few ideas if you find yourself in Bilbao. Firstly you must try the Pintxos – a mainstay of Spanish life. It’s ok to order just one and some charge only one euro if ordering with a coffee.

Speaking of which, Bertiz (pronounced Bertith) – is a gorgeous city wide chain with warm lighting which you really notice on dark Dick Whittington-esque rainy mornings. Reasonable breakfast deals; coffee and tostada (lots of breads to choose from). The only downside is the hot chocolate doesn’t come with churros. It’s far too rich and sickly on its own.

Nostrum – amazing place with pre-cooked (microwavable) pasta and rice dishes. Note, they charge for everything, sitting down, plastic cutlery, take away bags but otherwise a brilliant concept especially if you happen to be stuck in a hostel. Code – rustic chic near the Termibus station in San Mamés.

Only one Starbucks that I know of along the broad Gran Via and no end of sophisticate chic on its side streets, Amaren for one. In Areeta, check out the Plaza cafe near Bertiz and HANOI right by the metro.

‘Whatever fate you bring I’ll welcome it.’ Again I hear that line and if Bilbao was fine, somehow it simply wasn’t gelling. After a month I felt the familiar call to move on. There’s only so long you can give a place to feel like home but WHERE? Seville? France? Italy, back home or even back to Asia.

Nowhere seemed a clear winner. There was still a world to see, though I’m glad to have finally seen more of Spain even if the results are as mixed as the local delicacies (and minus a Camino).

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos. 

Meanwhile, stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world.

PLAYLIST
Glitterball (from Neapolis) – Simple Minds
So Misled (from Notorious)  – Duran Duran
Barbarella (from Dark Circles) – The Devils
Heroes (from Heroes) – David Bowie
Brilliant Trees (from Brilliant Trees) – David Sylvian

Photos: KH, See the Panorama video from Archanda Hill here