It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Bilbao as I had with no other city before. This wasn’t the head-spinning infatuation of first moments in Galway; this was a more subdued love, intellectual and appreciative (and longer lasting). It’s an odd mix of a typical European old town, industrial outskirts, and futuristic buildings that look like something out of The Jetsons. The odd thing is that it’s empty. A classy, spotlessly clean model of urban planning with a smattering of people to enjoy it.
I’m still in awe over Bilbao when I recall it: I have never seen a better laid-out city. Two-lane bike paths swerve along neat green patches and wide pedestrian walkways by the river. Modern bridges crisscross above and flow seamlessly out of and into the sidewalks. From afar the whole thing looks like a perfectly spaced, harmonious balance of logically interwoven ribbons. Bilbao makes so much sense.
It shouldn’t have surprised me to learn that all this was only fifteen years old and the work of a bunch of architects who’d been brought in specifically to make Bilbao the home of spiraling bridges, space-bubble metro entrances, and watery glass buildings. Its main draw, the Guggenheim, must have been a means to revive the city because it didn’t seem worth all the hype it got. That’s not to say the building wasn’t cool; it was a hundred times more impressive than the exhibits inside it. Or maybe I just don’t understand modern art.
I was far more impressed by the Euskal Museoa – Basque Museum – in the heart of the old town. Basque culture is fascinating. It’s deeply rooted in sailing (and thus piracy) and all the old reliefs show motifs of ships riding crashing waves, teetering castles, deep oceans below celestial symbols, portrayed not with strict lines but asymmetrical waves that make you feel like you’re ever rocked by the sea just looking at them. I fell in love with the art, losing myself in this oceanic culture for a few days.
You find the sea theme all over town: in a building that resembles an underwater palace; in churches adorned with wavy lines distinct from all others in Europe; in nautical windows on buildings along the poorer, industrial parts; in ship reliefs decorating balconies and doors; in the form of a giant pirate ship in a playground. The Basques were master fisherman and also probably master pirates.
Then there is the language, which is unique in Europe as being unrelated to the Indo-European languages. It has nothing in common with Spanish and sounded to me like it could have been distantly related to Russian. There’s a theory that it is related to Caucasian languages and that the Basques are originally from around modern-day Georgia, but this theory is not very popular. Sometimes, though, when I read it I had that tip-of-your-tongue, just-out-of-reach sense that I should understand it but couldn’t’. Its abundance of “x”s, “y”s, and “z”s boggles many.
Outside the museum, Bilbao’s old town is like any Spanish city’s, distinct for that dark and spindly feel Spanish old towns have thanks to their narrow alleys bordered by dark five-story buildings. Up close it’s both classy and quirky: shops are elegant and perfectly kept; the street names are given in identical, cerulean blue art nouveau plaques on every corner; everything looks like it was painted that morning. At the same time all other signs are written in this distinct, uneven, whimsical font that echoes the art in the museum, and interesting shops crop up all around.
Another day, I took a long walk following the river into Bilbao’s less charming industrial parts. Here the buildings get older, their condition gets worse, empty lots crop up, the gray tones become more prevalent, yet most of the buildings are full of character and still colorful, even if that color is faded. And there’s that amazing pirate ship playground along the way, and an enormous piece of street art lining the highway far off in the distance as the hills rise. It’s especially quiet out here. I passed by three people on the whole walk. But it wasn’t depressing; it was strangely peaceful. Northern Spain is the safest area of the country, at least according to a girl who grew up there.
If you walk long enough and turn around to look at the way from whence you came, you get a spectacular view of an industrial strip on the brink of steampunkishness and, behind that, an über-modern pedestrian bridge winding like a great burgundy snake around the edge of what could be a Martian colony.
I think what I appreciated most about Bilbao, though, was the care people put into it. One afternoon I passed by a man in the old town meticulously repainting a bit of faded black road fresh black. The Basque Museum has a slideshow of all the people working on the larger-than-life-size traditional Basque caricatures that fill the museum, then posing, all huge smiles, with their finished results. People clearly love their city, which could very well be the cleanest city in the world.
The other side of this is that many people are very nationalistic. One of the girls working at the hostel, who herself was half Basque half Castilian, told me that about half the people distinguish themselves as Basque and the other half don’t really care.
It would be hard to get by in the Basque Country only on English. I spoke only Spanish during my time there, which everyone knows. According to Wikipedia 1/3 of the inhabitants also speak Basque, but it felt like a much higher percentage. I’d hear only Basque on my walks to the nearby grocery store, where a bunch of middle-aged people would be congregated and watch me, a clear foreigner, as I approached, with not altogether friendly stares. In passing, the Basques were some of the most reserved people I came across. Bilbao’s metro, for one, is one of the quietest urban places in the world. It also feels like you’re accelerating forward in time when walk through its long, sleek tubes.
I feel a shout out deserves to go to the girl at the hostel and the waiter in the only-slightly-sketchy part of town who served me a “filete” (I found out on the spot that that means “steak”), fries, salad, dessert, and water for 8 Euros. He didn’t even give me a bill, just said “8 Euros” and I put the cash into his hand. This wouldn’t happen again until eastern Europe. Then, another man who’d been hovering nearby asked me if I would like some company and mistook my “no” for “yes”. I can’t speak for every girl traveling on her own, but this was the most intimidating kind of situation I came across. I quickly left and he didn’t follow me.
Anyway, they were both really relaxed and conversational. The girl played what was my entire playlist at the hostel and we had long conversations about Bilbao.
Bilbao was the first place that really struck a common chord. I spent a lot of time those few days imagining myself settling there, but at the end of the day something about it didn’t quite sit with me, like finding a color just a shade to the side of what you really wanted. I think it was the fact that there were so few young people there. With mostly middle-aged to elderly people and couples with toddlers, the city is very quiet. Too quiet even for me. I’m not a clubber, but the sight of only one club depressed me, and there isn’t much of a café or teahouse culture, either. There isn’t much apparent life from the outside at all other than blank apartment windows and constant cyclists. Even for Europe it’s one of the biggest bike cities.
I’m interested to see how it changes in the next few decades as its mean age becomes much younger and if it’s able to keep its character. And its cleanliness….
At any rate, Bilbao was the first place I returned to. After a weekend in San Sebastian, I came back for one more day and rode the metro all the way down to the other end of the river, to the nearby town of Getxo on the Bay of Biscay. This was Bilbao’s classier, wealthier suburb, just as clean and well planned but with nicer houses. Bilbao itself is somewhat off the beaten path for travelers (except for those walking the Camino since it’s on the way), but here I must have been one of three tourists.
In the morning I was almost alone when I got to the mouth of the river and looked across at neighboring Portugalete, accessible via a cool bridge that transported people and cars across in a hanging compartment.
This changed into the afternoon as I walked for hours along the coastline, passing comfortably populated beaches, harbors full of yachts and boats, and a perplexingly single row of wealthy houses facing the water, each unique from the others. A very high standard of living was enjoyed here. There was even exercise equipment on the sidewalk! I saw countless runners stop and stretch against it or peddle a stationary bike.
I walked all the way until I found where the trashed streets were, a disappointing climax. The road ended at a cliff overlooking the bay and I climbed its wooded paths up to a little, nearly empty park atop the overlook.
I wish I’d taken some photos of the inland route I took back. I wandered into a little hill-climbing neighborhood nothing as posh as that row of houses a mile away. Its rickety little streets climbed vertically between white houses with languidly hanging sheets. Potted plants with red, pink, and orange flowers were everywhere. Crooked staircases led in all directions. I remember a woman running out of an alley chasing a toddler while some men watched beside a little neighborhood restaurant with a fading sign and chalkboard whose menu was written in Basque, hanging out lazily on this hot, sunny afternoon. This was Spain after all.
I was tired after all these walks and ready for a couple days on the beach in San Sebastian, where I’d meet up with Alix again. I took the metro back to my new, much lonelier and less quirky hostel with no music (Akelarre was full that night). Its only redeeming quality was being a three minute walk to the train station, perfect for catching a 6AM train back to Barcelona and then Switzerland. But we’re not there yet.
Overall, Bilbao was a classy, cultured, quiet, and quirky city with that, in spite of being so empty, was still one of my favorites in the end.