In early August, all around Casjo Viejo, and up and down the river Nervión, a miniature town will be erected. It is all in aid of Semana Grande, the biggest Festival in Bilbao. Workers are awake early putting up scaffolding, laying out dancing areas, bars, and bull rings. Artists are painting backgrounds for pintxos bars, tents, marquees, stages, exhibition spaces. Muscians are testing their equipment with impromptu guitar and singing sessions. Revelers from out of town are pouring into the city by bus, metro and car getting ready for a 3 day non stop party.
A see a sign that reads pintxourinals, and a group of Spanish matrons are giggling at barely concealed troughs at hip height with a drain pipe straight through the pavement to the river.
It all begins the third week in August, every year. Such a pity I had to leave! But the manager of my hotel reminded me that I probably wouldn't have got much sleep!
A quirk of fate meant I had 3 days alone in Bilbao. I have never traveled alone in a foreign country before!
I always felt free (and safe) to wander the city at will, day and evening.
I stayed in the Tryp Arenal Hotel in Casco Viejo and this is my itinerary.
From the airport I boarded the lime green Bizkaibus Bus to the city center. The journey cost me 1.40 euros. Even though It is August, there are only 10 other travelers on the bus. It is a 20 min ride through lush green scenery to Termibus, where trams, buses & the metro go everywhere else into the city, the rest of Spain and France. I saw buses leaving for Barcelona, San Antonio, Madrid, and even waved to rows of nuns on a bus heading to Lourdes.
Each bus company has a booth to make inquiries and buy tickets, some have long queues. When its my turn, a man says its better to get the metro to Casco Viejo. It is across a walkway from Termibus, down an escalator. Deep under ground I am relieved that there are assistants ready and willing to explain the different types of tickets at the ticket machines, and which platform to catch the train. I paid for a €10 card. It can be used on any public transport for the whole of my stay, as long as I only use zone 1, where most things of interest to visitors are located. You have to get the card ´validated´ at each end of the trip by running it through a machine, either where you buy the tickets or at the entrance and exits to the station.
The metro was spotlessly clean & fairly quite, a pleasant journey, unlike my experience on the metro in Madrid, where I was crowded by a group of teenagers and robbed. The hooded glass entrances themselves are contemporary architectural tourist attractions.
At the Casco Viejo stop, I take the San Nicolas exit. I heave a sigh when find the hotel effortlessly. It is 200m from the metro station. The blue window awnings of the Tryp are a welcome sight, I had worried about locating it. It faces a huge plaza surrounded by a busy criss-crossing of roads, pedestrian walkways, the Arriega Theatre, tram lines & the Puente Arenal bridge over the river. It reminded me a little of Amsterdam with cyclists racing by and trams steaming along the streets with miles of bridges crossing the river.
I soon discover, around the corner of the hotel, a quarry of shops with no traffic. Very Covent Garden. Gifts, clothes, shoes, tabac, correos, beads. Small friendly bars dotted around with tables and chairs outside with their parasols up against the heat of the afternoon.
I peruse menus at restaurants, I stop and listen to musicians, I stare up at old churches and the cathedral. I sniff the air, I can smell grilled chicken coming from an asedero. I admire the paseo, locals air kissing each other and chatting, tourists snapping with their ipads/cameras. Its August and fiesta is in the air.
Its getting hot, I am hungry. I stumble upon Plaza Nuevo, buzzing with people sitting under bright parasols eating & drinking. I sat at the bar Victor expectantly. I had read so much about the pintxos, now here I was oggling the display. How to make a choice ? a thick chunk of white goat cheese with onion marmalade & walnuts, or the jamon Serrano with a meat ball tottering on the surface speared with a grilled cherry tomatoe. Or the wedge of boiled egg, surrounded by 2 fat prawns & a sprinkle of black caviar. Or slow cooked calamari & thin slivers of shiny poached peppers.. Another of chopped Iberico pork with 2 quails eggs, sprinkled with fine grated Parmesan. I am salivating.
I asked for a Txakoli white wine, (vino blanco seco) It has a low alcohol content, perfect for pintxo hopping. A local man is seated next to me wearing a beret, looking after his tiny grandson in a pushchair. I hear him order a copa de vino rojo grande. The waiter takes a bottle of red from a bucket of ice on the bar and a large glass. A lady with her knitting is sat on the other side of me, sipping Txakoli and when she hears me ask for it, raises her glass to me and says 'salud, Señora'. Good conversation openings.
Next a few doors away is Bar, Charly. The waiter handed me a plate, I took a croquet stuffed with garlic pork, topped with a green pimento padrone, speared with a large juicy prawn. I am getting the hang of this. A glass of vino, a pintxo & you move to the next bar. The atmosphere is so relaxed. I can do this. I am sure there are as many tourists as locals, but I haven't yet heard an English voice. A live band is playing in the town square. Am I in urban heaven or a Txakoli haze?
All around Casjo Viejo, and up and down the river a miniature town is being erected. People putting up scaffolding, Artists are painting backgrounds for pintxos bars, tents, marquees, stages, exhibition spaces, dancing areas, bull rings are being laid out. I see a sign pintxourinals, where a group of Spanish matrons are giggling at barely concealed troughs at hip height with a drain pipe straight through to the floor.
I like it that the locals celebrate their culture, people of all ages are just hanging out. There is a park and an ice-cream palour almost opposite the hotel, near the river. I sit and people watch, eating what is to become my favorite ice cream (almendre or almond) .
An open topped, double decker, hop on-hop off tourist bus streams by. Always a good way of orientating yourself. I paid 14 euros for a ticket that I can use for the rest of the day and vied the city from the top of the bus until it was dark.
A gorgeous white tcxelpa in the hotel bar concludes the evening, where I am perched on a high stool with my ipad on a table in front of me. I am overlooking the paseo outside the window, more and more locals are out and about, enjoying the warm evening, the wandering musicians and impromptu street theater.
I danced around my room with happiness to music on the radio before falling into a blissful sleep.
Before I traveled to Bilbao I didnt know a great deal about the city except that it houses the Guggenheim Museum. I devoured what I could from Virutal Tourist and loved it that the the locals in this Basque country have a reputation for their pintxos and wine. I knew enough of the language to know that when you see tx in a word it is pronounced ch. I love the sound already... pinch.owes!
I wanted to understand something of the heart of city and read
The Band of Gypsies by Enrico Antiporda and downloaded it to my ipad from Amazon, it is a romantic thriller set in Bilboa.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the aristocracy settled along Gran Villa, the city’s main street, and it is lined with old palaces. One of them, the Chavarri Palace, is now a government building; another houses the Bank of Madrid. I spent a lot of time strolling up and down Gran Via with my camera.
This pleasant street is about a mile long, with a big statue at each end. The statue of the city's founder is close to Old Town (just cross the nearest bridge.) The statue at the other end of the street is the Sagrado Corazon, in a small plaza. There is a large park just a block off the street at that end. Halfway In between, the Plaza Moyua is an attractive place to get off your feet for a few minutes. There is still another small park between the Plaza and the Corazon statue.
We visited Mercado de la Ribera on a Saturday morning during our stay in Bilbao in December 2012.
This huge indoor market is located in an impressive building on the banks of the Nervion river at the southern edge of Bilbao's old town, Casco Viejo. It can be reached on foot from Casco Viejo metro station (take the exit onto Plaza Unamuno) in a little over 5 minutes.
It is apparently the largest covered market in Spain and, according to some, in the whole of Europe. It is certainly an impressive size, with hundreds of stalls laid out over two floors. Large stained glass windows allow colourful sunlight to shine through into the market hall.
I was looking forward to having a leisurely stroll around the stalls, picking up bits to eat en-route and sampling some local delicacies. I soon realised that this wouldn't be feasible; Mercado de la Ribera is where locals (and lots of them!) go to shop and take things home with them. The crowds were almost overwhelming in parts of the market and we struggled to walk between the stalls, let alone to browse them at a leisurely pace.
The stalls broadly fall into 4 categories:
Seafood – lots of stalls selling freshly caught fish of all kinds, crabs, lobsters, langoustines, prawns...
Meat – just as popular as the seafood stalls; selling chorizo, morcilla, legs of ham, pigs' heads, beef steaks, pork, lamb, chicken, sausages...
Fruit and vegetables – lots of colourful local produce...
Other delicacies – mushrooms, garlic, chilli peppers, local cheeses, nuts, olive oil, dairy products...
We didn't buy anything and we didn't eat anything (although there was a cafe on site) – but we enjoyed walking around the market watching locals filling their shopping bags with prime cuts of meat and fresh seafood and watching the vendors preparing and serving their produce to the eager crowds.
The market is open:
Monday - Friday: 8:00am - 2:00pm & 4:30pm - 7:00pm
Saturdays: 8:30am - 2:30pm
Mercado de la Ribera is a fascinating place to watch locals purchasing local produce, fresh seafood and meat products. It may even be Europe's largest covered market.
We took a ride on the Artxanda Funicular during our visit to Bilbao in December 2012.
The funicular takes passengers to the top of Artxanda mountain and provides excellent panoramic views over the city of Bilbao.
There are various attractions at the top of Artxanda mountain (including a hotel, restaurants, a park and sporting facilities) but we were there purely for the views.
As a cold winter wind blew across the mountain we stood and looked out over the city. To the left we could see Etxebarria Park and the rooftops of Casco Viejo, Bilbao's old town. Straight ahead, we could see the Nervion river, the high rise buildings of modern Bilbao, the Zubizuri bridge and a backdrop of mountains. To the right we could see the unmistakable sight of Bilbao's most famous icon – the Guggenheim Museum.
Crossing the park and looking away from the city centre, we could see the runway and terminal buildings of Bilbao airport and, further afield, we could just about make out the Atlantic coastline, but weather conditions weren't very favourable for long distance viewing that day.
The small park at the top of the mountain contained a few sculptures, water features and benches to sit on. It was desolate on a cold winter's day, but is probably much more lively on a sunny summer's day.
The bottom station of the funicular (on Plaza del Funicular) can be found just a few minutes walk away from Zubizuri bridge and the Nervion river.
One way tickets for adults cost a mere €0.92, with further discounts available for certain concessionary cardholders. You can only purchase one-way tickets, not return tickets. There is a ticket office in the upper station where you can purchase a ticket (at the same price) to come back down.
The length of the funicular's track is around 800 metres and is very steep in parts. The journey between the lower and upper stations takes a little under 3 minutes.
There are two funicular trains (each containing 5 or 6 good sized carriages) which pass each other on a loop midway along the track.
The funicular runs in each direction every 15 minutes from 7:15am until 10:00pm and until 11:00pm in the summer months. On Sundays and holidays, the funicular doesn't start running until 8:15am.
Be sure to take a short ride on the Artxanda Funicular! For less than 1 Euro, you'll be treated to breathtaking panoramic views over the city of Bilbao!
There are 3 train stations in Bilbao, so best know your destination before trying your luck. The main station for RENFE is Bilbao-Abando which serves the major cities in Spain. Backing onto Abando and overlooking the river is Concordia with its lovely facade dating from 1902 which takes you along the coast to Santander and even Leon with FEVE trains. The third is Axturi the stop for Euskotren that goes up as far as San Sebastian and all the little villages on the way. This station will disappear from Eusotrens schedule shortly but will be maintained for the trams that turnaround here and go out to Guggenheim and as far as the major hospital at Basurto.
The art-deco Ribera market stands between the river and the old town. Built in 1929 and covering 10.000 sq.metres, it is the largest covered market in Europe. Open Mon-Fri from 8.00 to 14.00 and 17.00-19.00 plus Sat.from 8.00 to 14.30 and is closed on Sundays. Specialities of fish and seafood. Parts of it were closed in early July 2012 for renovation work.
San Anton church was built from 1422 but suffered much over the years and its tower had to be replaced in the 1770's. This is the church that features on Bilbao's coat of arms.
Although the weather was, at best, refreshing (14/15° C) after the Guggenheim we had a good walk on the two banks of the Nervion, crossing the river by the Deusto bridge and along to the town hall and the old quarter. Sights include the Deusto University, the beautiful fronted Old peoples Servants of Jesus health and home, the Zubizuri bridge and the town hall of Bilbao. Closer to the old quarter is the Arriaga theatre. An extended view is also to be had of Guggenheim and the De la Salve bridge. After walking round the "Casco Viejo" a further walk can be taken on the riverside past the Ribera market (under renovation in July 2012) and San Anton church to the Atxuri tram station for the ride back to the Guggenheim.
You will find this huge column at the western end of Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro, on the Plaza de Sagrado Corazon. The column has a bronze statue on the top and was bult in the mid-1930's
We passed it on our way to the match at the nearby Sam Mames stadium.
As I crossed the river via Puente San Anton, I passed the impressive Church of San Anton.
The church has high walls surrounding it and so I found it difficult to take it in as a whole. I saw it in various parts, as the walls gave me a glimpse every now and again as I wandered around the Old Town.
I was heading to the Old Town of Bilbao and was wandering along the river to see some of the bridges. I enjoyed just wandering around.
I started off the bridge tour with Puente de la Merced, follwed by the Puente de la Ribera, and ended up further along the river at the more historical of the three bridges, Puente San Anton.
Puente San Anton was originally built between 1871 and 1877 and was the only bridge across the river at that time, making it of extreme importance.
The current bridge was reconstructed in 1937, after it was demolished in the Spanish Civil War.
You'll find this huge bridge not too far from the Guggenheim Museum. It gives you some great views of the building. It is also called La Salve Bridge.
If you are on the other side of the river to the Guggenheim, then take the lift or if you are feeling energetic then climb the stairs.
You can't really miss this “towering” tower as you walk around the centre of Bilbao. Construction of the building began in March 2009 and it was officially inaugurated by King Juan Carlos I on 21 February 2012.
It’s certainly a statement of intent in the regeneration of Bilbao.
This is a busy plaza, but a lovely space to chill out with the fountain and enjoy the sunshine.
My bus from the airport dropped me off at this plaza and so I finished reading my book whilst waiting for my other friends to arrive.
Getting onto a transporter bridge is a real experience as it is not so common to live such an experience. Bilbao is home to the oldest transporter bridge which dates back from the year 1888.
The sensation is strange when you have to cross a river in a cubicle that you share with other people and cars and it moves horizontally. It is like getting into a lift but that moves sidewards.
The Vizcaya Bridge (Bizkaiko Zubia in Basque, Puente de Vizcaya in Spanish), is a transporter bridge that links the towns of Portugalete and Las Arenas. The frequency is every 8 minutes and it takes a little less than 2 minutes to get to the other side of the river. The cost per person is 30 cents of a Euro and 1 Euro per car that is transported.
On July 13th of 2006 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, so be sure to get a ride and live this historical bridge.
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