Basque Country: Bilbao

Casco Viejo, Bilbao

Casco Viejo, Bilbao

This past weekend was spent exploring new cities surround by gorgeous scenery. I didn’t expect so many incredible things to be such a short distance from my new home! We started our weekend by waking up 30 minutes before our bus was supposed to leave (7:00) and running to the bus station (it’s funnier now looking back). Once the sun rose I got to take in the beautiful Basque countryside.

Basque Country is the autonomous community directly north of La Rioja. It is green, rainy, and mountainous. I couldn’t believe just how green! It is also the wealthiest community in Spain. I don’t know much about Basque Country, but I knew it was beautiful. I almost picked it as my number one placement choice, but the thought of another language in addition to Spanish scared me off! Because of the recession and cultural differences (they speak another language in addition to Spanish and have their own customs), some of the Basque people wish to secede from Spain. I knew this before my visit because one of my coworkers proudly told me he was Basque, and I couldn’t help but noticing Basque flags hanging in all the cities much more often than the Spanish flag.

Our home base for the weekend was Bilbao. It has a population of about 355,000 people and is vey metropolitan compared to cute, little Logroño. There are multiple bus lines, a tram, subway, and an airport. After we arrived, we had several hours to kill before we could check in to our hostel so we began to wander around. We went down to the river (that divides the city) and meandered around in what seemed (at that point) to be an ugly, gray, industrial city. We stayed at Pil Pil Hostel, right next to the bus station. It was my first hostel experience and I would like to claim it was two of the worst nights of sleep I’ve had. We shared a room with ten other people (mostly other Americans) and although every other aspect of the hostel was great, I couldn’t handle people coming in at all hours of the night. We went to bed “early” because we had a hike planned and early buses to catch.

After dropping off our things we headed in opposite direction of the bus station to explore and I quickly realized my mistake in quick judgement. We headed down Gran Via (which is much more “Gran” than Logroño’s) and marveled at how unique all of the buildings are. Bilbao is an interesting mixture of classic, modern, and ornate that I just couldn’t get over! Every turn down a street had us intrigued by something new. We lingered in Parque de Doña Casilda, continued down Gran Via, and walked through the Alhóndiga.

In the Alhóndiga exhibit we realized we were starving and made a deal to eat at the first place we stumbled on, which ended up being none other than….. A Texas-style rib joint. It was funny and also nice to shamelessly indulge in comfort food while laughing over the American clichés that covered the restaurant walls. After lunch we walked straight to the Guggenheim. It was so incredible to stand in front of something I’ve studied in school and never thought that I would have the chance to see. I enjoyed every second of if (so much that it will have its own blog post later).

It was raining off and on for most of the day and would stop in one area and after taking several steps it would annoyingly start again. We decided to stick it out and continue on, once again over the river, to Old Town. As it grew dark the city came alive. Bilbao was celebrating their Basque holiday on Friday and we got to see dancers in traditional dress. The old, ornate buildings are incredibly beautiful. We stumbled into a small archway that suddenly revealed a plaza smaller (but almost identical) to Plaza Mayor in Madrid. We stopped there for pintxos and drank in as much of the elated European traveler feeling as we could! I really loved my time in Bilbao and I’m so happy it’s close enough to return to easily. I want to learn more about Basque history and see more of what Bilbao has to offer. The next morning we were off to Bakio for our hike… More on that next!