A few days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, Spain

We had decided before we left Canada, that we would go to Bilbao and San Sebastian for a few days, that was a great call on our part. The only thing I would have done differently is probably spend one extra day in each city.

Bilbao was only a two hour flight from Lisbon. We are always amazed at the low cost of flights within Europe. The Bilbao terminal itself is a work of art; it was designed by Santiago Calatrava, the famous Spanish architect. The terminal has a sleek design, and to me has the look of a “Concorde”. We have seen his bridges and buildings throughout the world and are always taken aback by the uniqueness of his designs. In Calgary, the Peace Bridge (pedestrian bridge) was designed by him. A little controversy occurred at the time it was built, but now an iconic symbol of Calgary.

Our main objective of visiting Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim Museum. I had bought tickets prior to leaving Canada. I would think that this would be a must do in the height of the season. The side trip to San Sebastian was added thanks to our friends Joanne and Bob who had visited and told us it was a must see. So glad we took their advice.

We had arranged for a driver from the airport as we landed around 7 pm. Our driver was a young Basque man who was very informative on our way to the hotel. Bilbao proper has a population of about 350,000 and 1 million in greater Bilbao. We talked about the Basque language which is called “Euskara” and he told us that every sign (highway, street name, etc.) was always in the Basque language first and Spanish on the bottom. Bilbao (Bizkaia) is considered the capital of the Basque region. He indicated that the basque language has seen a resurgence; it had been banned under the Franco regime. In the business sector, Spanish is still the main language.

Following are a few examples of the Basque language

Hello = Kaixo

Good Morning = Egunan

Goodbye = Agur

And we thought Portuguese was a hard language!

As we passed the football stadium (soccer in North America), he told us that the Bilbao team is very special as all its members must either be from the Basque region or have some type of relationship with the region.

We talked a little about the separation of the Basque region from Spain, and he advised that issue really no longer existed. The Basque region is the only region in Spain which keeps all of the local taxes. They than have total control over how the money is spent.

Our our first morning in Bilbao, we asked the concierge of the hotel where we could find a coffee shop for breakfast. Hotel breakfasts are so often overpriced and we simply are not interested in the breakfast buffets. He directs us to his favourite coffee shop called Plaza, just at the end of the block. Oh my gosh, we walk in and find that this place is just jumping. Everyone seems to know each other, a quick coffee and short conversation, then they are off to work. So interesting to see the differences between Europe and North America. In the mornings, we in Canada would just have our coffee to go before we went to work vs. Europe where they actually take the time to have their coffee at the coffee shop and enjoy a quick conversation with others.

The concierge at the hotel was so friendly. He provided us with a city map, told us how to get to the Guggenheim. Pointed out other places we should see and gave us a small package of chocolates and wished us a good day.

After our breakfast we decided to walk a bit in the area of the hotel and just one block off was a beautiful urban park called the Parque de Dona Casilda Iturrizar, a wealthy woman who donated the 8.52 hectares (about 21 acres) of land to the City over 100 years ago. When I went to look into the history of the park, once again I noted that it is referred to as the “lung of the city”.

On our way to the Guggenheim, we note that the City has lovely old buildings in the main area of the city. All are so well preserved, simply magnificent.

When we arrive at the Guggenheim, we take the time to admire the exterior of the building. A work of art in itself, it was designed by the Canadian born architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997. The building is clad in titanium, glass and sandstone and there is a random aspect to the design of the various curves, which is said to have been done, to reflect the light from different angles.

An excerpt from Wikipedia about the museum and it’s impact to the City of Bilbao which I find very interesting…”After the phenomenal success of Gehry’s design for the museum, critics began referring to the economic and cultural revitalization of cities through iconic, innovative architecture as the “Bilbao effect“. In the first 12 months after the museum was opened, an estimated US$160 million were added to the Basque economy. Indeed, over $3.5 billion has been added to the Basque economy since the building opened”.

The interior is a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao’s estuary and the surrounding hills. One is allowed to take pictures of the interior of the building, but not of the art work in the various galleries. Works of art on the exterior of the building as well. Spent a couple of hours viewing the art in the various galleries. So worth the wait to see this spectacular building and its art.

Our next stop was the old town, which is mainly a pedestrian zone. We wind our way around the streets and stop for lunch at a small bar and have our first “Pintxos”, the “small bites” of the Basque region. Very good and great for a small lunch or appetizers.

On Thursday, we had arranged for a private tour of San Sebastian. Our guide/driver Aitor picked us up at the hotel and we headed off. San Sebastian is about an one hour drive from Bilbao. I had looked into getting to San Sebastian on our own. It would have been a four hour train trip both there and back. Once again it was one of those “you can’t get there from here” situations. We are so glad that we opted for this private tour. Aitor shared with us his knowledge of the Basque country including both Bilbao and San Sebastian. He was so very considerate the whole day, listening to what we had to say as well. We drive into the old town and do a “walk about”.

Our first stop was the market including the fish market. We always find these places so interesting and all have their own personality. We stop at one vendor and Aitor tells us that we need to try our first “pintxos”. He said that this particular one was one of the first that was invented. The name pintxos referred to the toothpicks that held the creations together. The waiter would then calculate what you owed based on the number of toothpicks on your plate. Today, the toothpicks are used on those pintxos which include a slice of bread at the bottom, simply to keep them together.

We stop for a coffee in a small square, nice people watching. Aitor insisted on doing a selfie.

Walked by a local church and there was a piece of modern art on the front of the church. I found this a little bizarre, but Aitor told us that the local priest had it commissioned. Not sure if it was supposed to stand for anything or represent something.

We continue to meander through the pedestrian zone and our next stop is a “locals” bar. Here is where we taste Chacoli (Txakolina) which is a sparkling Basque white wine. It was quite good, but the most amazing part of the process is the way they pour the wine. They hold the bottle about one meter above the glass and pour slowly. Not sure why they do this, but perhaps to aerate the wine? Aitor also ordered some deep fried shrimp pintxos which were made fresh and very delicious, went well with the wine. I love the way the bartender is not even looking at where he is pouring the wine!

He then tells us that we are going to a locals restaurant for a lunch of various pintxos. He says that he normally has six to seven….there is no way I could eat this many. We ordered various pintxos and shared. A nice way to do it, as we were able to really get a good sense of the variety available. Not just the tastes that are so good, the presentation is always quite amazing.

Walking through the old town, saw a few old gentleman wearing their berets, a Basque tradition. Here, they are not normally worn by woman…..notwithstanding, I will continue to wear my beret when I get back home!

We drive through parts of San Sebastian and view the beautiful buildings and wind our way up to a viewpoint overlooking the city and the Bay of Biscay, beautiful! The city reminded me in many ways of Biarritz, which is in France and only 50 kms away.

Can’t believe it is already time to head back to Bilbao. On our way back, Aitor makes a detour to take Robin to a chocolate manufacturer and shop, Chocolates of Mendaro- Saint Gerons. Robin had mentioned earlier in the day that he liked dark chocolate, so this was a surprise stop, what a lovely gesture on Aitor’s part. They have been in business since 1850 and still use an ancient mill to grind the cocoa beans. The lady who greeted us told us that they had to shut down the mill as they were having a problem with it and they were hoping it would be fixed in the next couple of days. How does one find someone to fix a mill that is over one hundred years old? Needless to say that we left with a few (large) bars of both dark chocolate for Robin and milk chocolate for Claire.

Earlier in the day at one of our stops and discussions with Aitor, I had mentioned that I had a travel blog and he looked at the site. He asked about my heading on “Unesco World Heritage Sites” and I told him that I kept track of those we had visited. Well, guess what, another nice surprise for us. Instead of dropping us off that the hotel, we take another detour and this time it is to see the Vizcaya bridge which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The bridge was built in 1893 and has a gondola which can transport 6 vehicles and several dozen passengers. It runs from side to side of Nervion river every 8 minutes and takes 1 1/2 minutes to cross. It really is quite amazing to see. What a great day.

Look closely at the hanging cable car

There is only one flight per day from Lisbon to Bilbao and back. Our flight left at 7 am. Because of the time we had to be at the airport, we had arranged for a transfer. So little traffic at that time of the morning, we got to the airport before it actually opened. We were not the only ones, several other people waiting outside as well. We start talking to an American couple about their travels and they were on their way home to Chicago. They had been in Bilbao for a week, which we said seemed a long way to come for just a week. He told us he still worked for Bank of Montreal in Chicago. I am always amazed at what a small world it really is. Both Robin and I worked for Bank of Montreal. Nice two hour flight back to Lisbon, watching the sun rise as we travelled.

Really enjoyed our time in both Bilbao and San Sebastian, but could have spent an extra day in Bilbao. A must visit.

4 thoughts on “A few days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, Spain

  1. Alway’s enjoy your blogs Claire. Just went back and read the Morocco one the other day getting ideas for our trip. Even I want to try the pintos after looking looking at your pictures and of course help Robin with the dark chocolate.

    Liked by 1 person

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