Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Northern Spain 2015

From one 'green and pleasant land' to another

Umbrellas at the ready, and having been in our hotel room for no more than ten or fifteen minutes, Bruce and I prepared to brave the elements for an introductory walk in our latest destination, one that was new to both of us. The location was Bilbao, largest city of the Basque Country. (Although Bilbao is the city's official name, the older form Bilbo also exists in the Basque language, a variant that in this context has absolutely nothing to do with Hobbits!)

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of recent history and current affairs will be aware that the Basque Country is an area of Europe with an exceptionally strong sense of local culture and identity. The current Spanish constitution, adopted in 1978, recognises that the Kingdom of Spain is made up of various 'regions and nations' and divides the kingdom into a number of 'autonomous communities', each of which enjoys a degree of self-government. The Statutes of Autonomy for the Basque Country then go on to define this particular area as a 'nation', rather than a Spanish region. Notwithstanding this degree of recognition, the political situation in this part of the Iberian peninsula remains complex and sensitive. The traditional Basque Country went well beyond the boundaries of the present-day autonomous community to encompass the territory of the neighbouring autonomous community of Navarra, as well as parts of southwest France. Many people would like to see this historical entity restored as a sovereign state, and the political campaign over the last fifty years or so has sometimes spilled over into violence and terrorism.

But enough of politics! Having each positioned to London Heathrow on Friday, we had earlier in the day flown first to Madrid and then northwards again to reach Bilbao, sampling Iberia's short-haul business class product on both sectors. The journey was completed by a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport, during which we had both been surprised by the local topography, as the road wound its way down one side of the dramatic gorge carved into the remarkably lush, green countryside by the Nervión river. Our conveniently situated hotel, the Barceló Bilbao Nervión, which was costing a modest 54 euros for two people, had also created a favourable first impression.

Walking from Bilbao City Hall to St Nicholas's Church

With all these various journey elements under our belts, it was no surprise at all that the clocks were already showing 5:30 in the afternoon. Now, as planned in advance, it was time to head out for a quick taste of this new destination in the 90 minutes or so of remaining daylight. Since we would be walking towards the Guggenheim Museum the next morning, the idea this evening was to head in the opposite direction, towards Bilbao's Old Town area, or Casco Viejo.

The impressively ornate Arriaga Theatre

A few steps brought us to the impressive sight of Bilbao City Hall, dating from 1892 but much influenced by the earlier Baroque era. Continuing along the spacious riverside walkway, we passed the impressive bulk of St Nicholas's Church, noted for its unusual layout involving an octagon placed inside a square, before arriving at the splendidly ornate facade of the Teatro Arriaga.

Mercado de la Ribera

We pressed on into the heart of the Casco Viejo, temporarily veering away from the riverbank to pass St James's Cathedral (below), which proved difficult to photograph due to the lack of open space around the building and the increasingly miserable weather. Finally, we re-emerged onto the right bank of the Nervión at the cluster of adjacent attractions formed by St Anthony's Church (below right), the bridge of the same name and the Mercado de la Ribera, one of the largest covered markets in Europe (right).

LEFT: St James's Cathedral and surroundings
RIGHT: St Anthony's Church and Bridge
The weather did nothing to dampen spirits in the Plaza Nueva

Having already decided to get the trip off to a memorable start with one of Bruce's celebrated in-room picnics, we acquired a few supplies at one of those small city-centre supermarkets that seem to be popping up everywhere; this one was across the street from St Anthony's Church. Passing through the attractive Plaza Nueva, which was looking increasingly lively as local people ignored the weather and gathered to spend their Saturday evening socialising, we then retraced our steps to something that we had spotted a little earlier: the wonderful Viandas de Salamanca delicatessen, specialising in beautifully displayed and thoroughly mouth-watering cooked meats.

LEFT: City Hall looked even better after dark

Fully stocked up, we then returned to base to consume our assortment of tasty treats, noting en route that the floodlit City Hall was now looking quite spectacular.

As I turned in for the night, my impression of the Old Town and indeed of Bilbao in general was that it was a perfectly pleasant place that was very much alive in the evening. It was amazing how people had seemingly appeared from nowhere to fill streets that had been near-deserted when we set first out for our walk - and this despite less than favourable weather. This was not a city that seemed in any way down at heel. Bilbao appeared to have been successful in leaving behind its heavy-industrial past to embrace a new, service-orientated future with confidence and optimism.

Saturday 28 Feb

Next Day