“Basqueing” in Bilbao

Tapas, paella, palm trees, (mostly) sunny skies, and pronouncing the double consonants ll and rr- all things I love about Spain, which I was reminded of during our recent weekend trip to the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Even while studying abroad in the Southern Spanish city of Sevilla, I never made it all the way north to the Basque Region, so I was very eager to explore Bilbao. I was also looking forward to easily reading and understanding signs and menus and even more so, confidently conversing with locals. This assuredness of being able to speak in a local’s native language is something I’ve been missing considering there hasn’t been much progress on my French or Dutch while in Belgium, so I went out of my way to use Spanish whenever and wherever possible.

We flew into Bilbao late Thursday night and took a cab from the airport to our Airbnb (side note: no Ubers in Bilbao). Even in the dark, we could tell that the area was very hilly, with Bilbao being surrounded by two small mountain ranges, the more well-known being the Pyrenees. Not only were we impressed by the geography, but also the Casco Viejo neighborhood in which our rental apartment was located, which we got a first look at that evening on our walk from the cab drop-off to the apartment. Our Airbnb host greeted us warmly and before leaving, provided us with ample tips and recommendations. We called it a night almost immediately as Dan and I were both going to be working remotely that Friday.

I started my Friday with a run along the estuary of Bilbao as the rest of the city was awakening slowly following the Constitution Day holiday. In search of brunch and Wi-Fi, we sought out a café that also had space for us to work, and ended up at a spot with friendly service and delicious food. I was feeling quite at home at Cafeteria Bizubi while eating my omelet, peppers, fries, and ensalada rusa, and the morning passed by quickly before we headed back to the apartment for the afternoon for a change of scenery. Unfortunately, that meant that we missed the nicest part of Friday, but the rain that evening wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying the happy hour tapas.

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Bilbao train station

That evening, we walked over to Plaza Berria and into Victor Montes where we ordered an assortment of pinxtos from the bar to go with our wine and beer. Pinxtos are the small snacks served in the Basque region that are typically fixed to a piece of bread by a cocktail stick. Most people are familiar with the term tapas, but after some research, I learned that the terms are actually not quite interchangeable and while both do refer to snack-type foods, you need to choose appropriately based on where you are. At one point during the weekend, when I said we would like to order tapas, I received a friendly reminder that the correct term was pinxtos. Victor Montes did service some excellent pinxtos, and my favorite was the empanada, but Dan’s was, unsurprisingly, the one wrapped in bacon. Side note: While proof-reading this post for the first time, I realized that in almost every instance, I had incorrectly written the word tapas where I was actually referencing pinxtos… apparently that’s a hard habit for me to break.

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I can almost smell the tasty tapas from Victor Montes all the way back in Brussels

Our next stop on our own tour de pinxtos was a little bar down the street with a friendly bartender who recommended local wine and beer to us as we selected a few more snacks. That’s another interesting tidbit about pinxtos- they sit on platters in front of you and sometimes they will plate the pinxtos for you but sometimes you serve yourself. Perhaps not the most hygienic, but embrace the local customs we did. We hid from the rain a little while longer but finally ventured out to explore a bit more of Bilbao before a late dinner. We encountered a small Christmas Market (of course) that was understandably not so busy, given the rain, but we moved on to the Abando area of Bilbao for dinner at a highly recommended paella restaurant.

I had been craving paella since we first planned the trip, so when we knocked on the door at La Barraca and were greeted warmly despite not having a reservation, I knew we were off to a good start. I think this restaurant is most popular with the lunchtime crowd and so it was just us and one other couple in the restaurant for dinner where the one waiter provided excellent service and the paella exceeded my expectations. I read that the seafood paella was highly recommended and our waiter was more than happy to share a story about how he had once served this paella to nuns dining at the restaurant. As he was piling our plates high with rice and crustaceans directly from the paella pan set at our table, he explained that on this occasion, while serving one nun at the table, he had accidentally plated the prawn so it was resting on its front legs and staring the nun directly in the eyes. The first picture below shows my little crustacean friend plated in a better manner such that we weren’t making eye contact. Well, he now has another story to tell of how he once waited on this messy American diner who managed to spill her paella and wine all over the white tablecloths because she was so too excited to eat her meal in a civilized manner. See the second picture below as evidence that the end result wasn’t pretty. At least to my face he was very gracious about the mess and even put down a clean napkin to cover the stains while we enjoyed a traditional dessert from the region, at his recommendation of course.

Our run along the water the next morning took us past the Mercado Ribera and impressive Guggenheim, both of which we would visit later that day. The city has a nice, flat path all along the estuary with numerous car and pedestrian bridges and given the beautiful December weather, we were not the only ones out running, walking, biking, roller-blading, and even water-skiing. We finished our run in the hilly Casco Viejo area where Dan’s Dessert Director nose sniffed out a busy bakery with plenty of tasty breakfast treats.

The treats were helpful in tiding us over temporarily, but our first stop of the day was to grab lunch at Mercado Ribera. The market is has a couple floors, but the area we visited is comprised of a dozen or pinxtos bars serving varied snacks that you can ultimately make a meal out of. The place was packed, but we managed to grab a seat at the counter at a restaurant with a very promising looking assortment. It wasn’t long before I had ordered our meal and drinks, which were delivered to us after a quick warm-up in the microwave behind the bar. It’s definitely different to see your meal warmed in a microwave before it’s served to you, but we also did note a fresh delivery of pinxtos from the chef while we ate, so I don’t think these were coming from a freezer box. My favorites from the bunch were the honey mustard chicken skewers and shrimp!

Well-fed, we commenced our walk to see the modern art on display at the Guggenheim Museum, which is quite the contemporary piece of art itself. The art museum has both permanent and temporary exhibits but during our visit, we were able to see the works of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Warhol to name a few that even non art enthusiasts would recognize. As Dan observed though, the building itself photographs quite well, so we spent some time walking around the outside before going in. The spider sculpture itself is pretty cool, as is the flower puppy on the opposite side of the building.

The inside of the Guggenheim was spacious, airy, and pleasantly manageable feeling, and by that I mean that you could enjoy the artwork with your own personal space without feeling rushed to see a million pieces. In some rooms, the art takes up an entire wall, as is the case with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreen painting, and in others you can get a 360 degree view of the sculptures by walking around them, as is the case with Alberto Giacometti’s human figures sculptures. Even after we were done with the indoor exhibits, there were still tulips and fog to see from the patio. The fog coming from the pond surrounding the museum started unannounced and therefore I’d say that we got pretty lucky to be standing on the patio enjoying the view when it started. Dan and I, who would not consider ourselves aesthetes (I had to look that word up) with refined tastes in the fine arts, both agreed that Guggenheim was well worth the 16 EUR.

 

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The Guggenheim in all its photogenic glory

The inside of the Guggenheim was spacious, airy, and pleasantly manageable feeling, and by that I mean that you could enjoy the artwork with your own personal space without feeling rushed to see a million pieces. In some rooms, the art takes up an entire wall, as is the case with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreen painting, and in others you can get a 360 degree view of the sculptures by walking around them, as is the case with Alberto Giacometti’s human figures sculptures. Even after we were done with the indoor exhibits, there were still tulips and fog to see from the patio. The fog coming from the pond surrounding the museum started unannounced and therefore I’d say that we got pretty lucky to be standing on the patio enjoying the view when it started. Dan and I, who would not consider ourselves aesthetes (I had to look that word up) with refined tastes in the fine arts, both agreed that Guggenheim was well worth the 16 EUR.

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The only picture of the two of us from this trip

A stroll through the Abando neighborhood to Azkuna Zentroa was next on our list. The former wine warehouse converted to cultural center has some unique décor, cafes, a library, and a rooftop terrace, where we stopped for a few drinks before dinner.

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Dan’s rooftop San Miguel beer and my Moscow Mule

The Abando neighborhood also has an impressive street light display and it seemed like everyone was out doing their Christmas shopping on Saturday evening. The crowds made finding a place to eat a bit challenging, so, not surprisingly, we managed to make a small meal out of assorted pinxtos, but when I recognized a familiar eatery up the street from our Airbnb, a stop at Cien Montaditos was in order. Cien Montaditos was a favorite of us US students studying abroad in Sevilla almost eight years ago because you can chose from a menu of 100 (“cien” in Spanish) sandwiches for around 1-2 EUR a piece. The sandwiches aren’t too fancy, but the assortment is impressive and I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like. What an iconic last dinner in Spain!

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Tourist Kaitlan with the Christmas lights illuminating the streets of Abando

Dan caught a very early cab ride to the airport the next morning, owing to his quick flight to Madrid for a work trip, so I was on my own getting to the airport. Following the advice of our Airbnb host, I took the much cheaper option of the bus from the center of Bilbao to the airport. It took all the way until the end of trip, at the airport, for me to finally break-down and ask someone to please speak to me in English. Due to more “unique” security check rules at the airport, I had a hard time getting all my belongings through and when they took my laptop away, I broke down and became the foreigner who, with a confused look on her face says, “English please?”. Fortunately, everything did make it through eventually and the rest of my trip back to Brussels went just fine. Even my unpleasant airport experience wasn’t going to sway my opinion of Bilbao- I truly hope that we make it back to this part of Spain to explore the coast next time. Either way, I am adding Bilbao to the list of must-visit places for those looking for a fun and inexpensive weekend full of great food, culture, and of course, ample opportunity to practice your Spanish!

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