Old Town + Cathedral - Casco Viejo & El Arenal, Bilbao
Listen, I've lived in Lanzarote for too long. I am used to the lazy pace of life on a sun drenched hot island. I fully embrace the word mañana and know how the relentless heat slows your pace.
I wasn't really expecting that level of chill out in a city... especially one that's much cooler and more trendy.......but I have been happily surprised by the hot August temperatures and the laid back mood.
I took a long roam around Casco Viejo, looking at the historic buildings, looking in shop windows, trying on clothes, sampling lovely pintxos and wishing everyone a 'salud' with my glass of wine... after my first long wander, I look at my watch, its only 9pm. I have feasted well, and have chatted to new friends, taken photographs, got my bearings, I am contented. So nothing for it but to go to my hotel for the night.
A free glass of chilled white tcxelpa in the hotel bar from the management to welcome me, concludes the evening. I perched myself on a high chrome stool with my ipad on a table in front of me. I am overlooking the paseo outside the large plate glass window, more and more locals are out and about, enjoying the warm evening. I can see and hear the wandering musicians and impromptu street theater, that spells Fiesta.
There will be plenty more opportunities to chill tomorrow. I am really excited to be here alone, learning about a new place, new things to do and see. I danced around my room with happiness & maybe tad to much tcxelpa, to the music on the radio, before falling into a blissful sleep. Anyway, outside, the chilling out and party atmosphere will probably go on into the early hours of the morning. I am so glad I asked for the room at the back of the hotel.
A quirk of fate meant I had 3 days alone in Bilbao. I have never traveled alone in a foreign country before!
As a woman, during my whole trip I always felt safe to wander the city at will, day and evening. Obviously I had read the Warnings and Dangers and kept away from dodgy places in the dark.
I stayed in the Tryp Arenal Hotel in Casco Viejo.
From the airport I took 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 it was 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.
Its early August, and all around Casjo Viejo, and up and down the river Nervión, a free festival site is going up. Semana Grande is the biggest Festival in Bilbao's calender. Workers are up early putting up scaffolding, laying out dancing areas, bars, and bull rings. Artists are painting backgrounds for pintxos bars, tents, marquees, stages, exhibition spaces. Musicians 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 sign reads pintxourinals, and a group of Spanish matrons are giggling at barely concealed metal troughs at hip height with a drain pipe straight through the pavement down 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!
The Plaza Nueva is busy and colorful, and there is a weekly flea market. It is the place where kids gather to swap soccer cards. Adults spill out of the cafes, wine in hand, as they visit with friends. This is not a park-like plaza with lawns and flowers--It is paved, and surrounded by buildings.One of the buildings facing it is the Euskaltzaindia, the Academy of Basque Language. It is a social center, and it's worth wandering through it to see what is going on
Centred on the Plaza Nueva and the Santiago cathedral the old quarter of Bilbao is pretty compact and a walk around its streets doesn't take long. The impressive church of San Nicolas built in 1743 in honour of the sailors from Bilbao stands at the entrance to the Casco Viejo. Contrary to most of the churches here being gothic, this one is in a baroque style with an octagonal interior.
The Plaza Nueva is typical Spanish with its arcades, restaurants and open space, but does have the Royal Academy of the Basque language situated on the north facade of the Plaza.
The Santiago cathedral has its beginnings before 1300 but only officially declared "cathedral" in 1950. Mainly gothic in style the facade and spire lend themselves to gothic revival.
My continuing wander around the Old Town led me, to paraphrase a U2 song, a "Street With My Name", Calle Viktor.
I then took a rest in the lovely Plaza Nueva. This plaza has plenty of smal restaurants and souvenir shops, but I just sat and enjoyed the peace.
Built in 1799 and rebuilt in 1986, the Arriaga is THE theatre in Bilbao, the place where the main plays and events take place, there you can see theatre, ballet, and many other shows. They have guided tours you can ask for at phone 944 79 20 36 or at the Tourist Info.
For schedules look at the link below:
Bilbao's Old City isn't actually that much of a contrast from its new. The streets are bit narrower, the buildings a bit older and it's slightly more crowded with tourist groups pulling on the leashes of their variously nationaled guides but that's about it.
What both the old and new cities have in common is a open-friendliness and whilst there are some definite "tourist traps" most of the shops, bars and cafes are more geared for the local trade than they are for divesting the visitors of their Euros.
The only caveat is to avoid the places with multi-lingual signage except those that are in Basque, Catalan and Valenciano LOL ;)
Returning to street level, and the we'll retrace our steps back to the Puente Arenal, passing through the Park and Plazza Arriaga. with a quick look again at the Muelle del Arenal/ Paseo del Arenal.
The Paseo del Arenal is considered to be 'the Gateway' to the Casco Viejo (Alde Zarra in the Basque language)- the atmospheric old quarter of Bilbao.
Arenales means sandy areas (or beaches). In the Middle Ages, these areas formed in the estuary, and boats moored up here. The naval ships also docked here. Ship yards etc developed. By the beginning of the 18th Century, the area had become dried out, meaning that the Naval port, now became a park for leisure and relaxation. The promenade became the favourite place for Bilbainos to walk, meet up, and court!
I'm afraid that I missed out on seeing the Las Siete Calles (the Seven Streets) or Zazpikaleak in Basque - the original Casco Viejo - A good reason for me to re-visit Bilbao though!
Its name arises from there being 7 streets forming the neigbourhood- all built parallel to each other. Narrow alleys (cantons or kantoi ) connect the streets.
Somera (upper), Artekale (middle street) and Tendería (shopkeeper's) were the original 3 to be built, followed by Belostikale, Carnicería Vieja (old butchery or Slaughter, Barrenkale (lower street) and Barrenkale Barrena (lower lower street). Over time, the neighbourhood expanded, beyond its walls. (the walls were completely demolished at the end of the 19th century)
Ronda was the next street (the 8th street) as this was located just outside the walls it was the patrol street. Over the centuries the town developed, with the building of churches (San Antón, Santos Juanes, and San Nicolás), and the Cathedral, a market hall (Mercado de la Ribera), the Arriaga Theatre, a public library, the Academy of the Basque Language (Euskaltzaindia), A Public Square (Plaza Berria or Plaza Nueva (New Square) many shops and restaurants to serve the needs of the Bilbainos, and now the outsiders who come to visit.
Ribera, Santa María, Bidebarrieta, Correo, Askao, Arenales and Esperanza Street are now part of Casco Viejo too, although it is the area around the 7 Streets that is the attraction for many visitors and locals to enjoy a meal and drinks. This is a good place to experience pintxos (tapas) and maybe catch a traditional sight of Bilbao- Txikiteros - Folk groups (traditionally men) who embrace four of the main passions of the Bilbainos; food, txikitos, (small glasses of white wine), singing and friendship.
This area suffered considerable damage by flooding in August 1983 (45 people in the area were killed). The Arriaga Theatre was completely destroyed. It was re-built in 1985, along with a clean up and restoration of the old town.
Much as I wanted to explore more, I had a concert to go to in a few hours.....
The church of Saint Nicholas of Bari is one of the most impressive buildings on the Arenal. It was built in the fishermen district of Bilbao, of whom it was the patron. The present building was erected in the 18th on the grounds of a former smaller chapel.
The temple is Baroque, but not strident at all, presaging the Neo-classical style. The façade is decorated with the coat of arms of Bilbao, sculptures depicting Saint Nicholas and fishermen, and two twin towers. The façade has also a plaque indicating the level reached by the water during the flooding of 1983 (a height of 2.10 metres!) The octagonal interior is decorated with sculptures by Juan Pascual de Mena.
The church has been used as military barracks, as arsenal and even as ammunition factory.
The Arriaga Theatre (Arriaga Antzokia in Basque) is the symbol of the cultural splendour that the industrialisation brought to the city and one of the most impressive buildings in the Old Town.
The theatre has had a troubled history: Two successive buildings stood in the same place since the early 19th century, but they had to be replaced due to the continuous growth of population in Bilbao. A third building was designed by Joaquín Rucoba and was opened in the last decade of the century with a performance of La Gioconda by Ponchielli. Soon after, it was named after Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, a local music composer who died at the age of 20 and had obtained a lot of reknown thanks to his precocity (he was nicknamed the Bilbaino Mozart).
In 1914, the theatre suffered a terrible fire and had to be totally rebuilt according to the plans by Federico de Ugalde. The result of that reconstruction is what we can see today.
For many years, the Arriaga was used as a motion picture theatre, but, in 1978, it was purchased by the municipality, totally restored after the floods of the Summer of 1983, and since 1986 reopened to the public. Ever since, it belongs to the most significant theatres in Spain with occasional Opera representations.
The Saint Anton Bridge was the first to span the Nervión river and, being a toll bridge, for many centuries, the Bilbao authorities never allowed the construction of another bridge that would compete with this source of revenues: all the goods coming from Castille had to cross this bridge. It is considered that the original bridge already existed before the foundation of Bilbao in 1300.
The bridge, together with the church of Saint Anton, appears in the coat of arms of Bilbao and used to be a Gothic structure but looks very different now from the original construction. Very affected by floods and not very apt for the transit of vehicles, it was decided that it should be replaced by a new bridge in 1880. Subsequently, the Saint Anton Bridge was blown out during the Spanish Civil War and rebuilt 1937.
Before the Guggenheim Museum was built, the Saint Anton Church and bridge was the main landmark of Bilbao, and they even appear in the coat of arms of the city. The church stands on the grounds of the first fortress that defended the town of Bilbao, next to a Gothic Bridge that link the two towns of Bilbao (the Seven Streets and Bilbao the Old). It is at this very point that the estuary of the Nervión starts, as this is the limit of the tidal area.
The church was built in the 15th in late Gothic style. The main façade was, however, built in an ornate Renaissance style. The tower was built even later, in the Baroque style.
The composition of church and bridge from the banks of the river creates one of the most attractive perspectives in the old town of Bilbao.
A old town is very inviting. the people walk the streets late at night, where no cars are allowed. So it makes for a great people watching opportunity and also shopping.
This is one of the most genuine oldtowns i have seen. I thought i got lost in them, as it is quite big and the cobblestones begin where the oldtown begins, near the square and continues until it dumps you out onto the streets again somewhere else. lol
See in the photos:
1. The soccer team club bar - all basque players. if your looking for some action, go in there and say that the reason their team isnt doing good is because they dont have players from the rest of spain
2. The famous church.
3. the Cool Square which has a really good pinxtos bar (tapas in spanish) called Guri Toki. The server in there speaks english, and knew some friends in western Canada. There is all sorts of action in this square, from the south american or african guys from the dangerous areas of bilbao trying to sell cds to little kids. haha. that was funny.
4. The fish and produce market. Heres a chance to see the merchants of venice-like basque people. lol. It was really funny, cause they definately dont speak english, and the whole process was simply reduced to pointing at fruit and nuts.
Plaza Nueva is the main square in the old centre. There are many great cafe bars which sell typical food from Pais Vasco lining the square. When the weather is good you can sit out on a terrace and try some of Spain's best cuisine (Pais Vasco in renowned for it's food).
The most typical food are pintxos which are a kind of tapas which line all the bars here. you can get pintxos of meat, fish or tortilla for example.