I came to Portugalete on a crisp, cold December afternoon, the type of day when you don't really want to spend hours and hours sitting out of doors. Still, the muelle (quay) was very pretty, and it seemed like it had been revitalized to be more like a boardwalk from the turn of the century than a quay of an industrial town. There were plenty of cafés, bars, restaurants and ice cream shops here, and it seemed like the perfect place, weather permitting, to escape from the bustle of Bilbao for a few hours and enjoy some txurroak eta txokolatea.
The Monument to Don Víctor Chávarri is probably the best indicator of what elevated Portugalete from a small town to an important industrial centre that likely rivalled Bilbao at some point in its history. Chávarri was born in the Portugalete in 1854 and became its foremost capitalist. In the late 19th century he founded la Vizcaya, the processing centre for the Altos Hornos de Vizcaya or Vizcaya Smelters. He is reputed to be the most influential figure in the Basque industrial revolution of the late 19th century and one of the most important personalities in the development of the Basque Country during that time. After his death in 1900, sculptor Miguel Blay created the monument to Chávarri (1903), which won the gold medal at the International Exposition in Paris in 1905. The monument features a bust of Chávarri, a huge block of granite as well as sculptures of an iron worker and mine worker.
The Basílica de Santa María de Portugalete is an unassuming church that overlooks the river and the quay of the city of Portugalete. It was constructed on the site of an earlier church, which was erected in the 14th century. The interior contains the chapels of various noble families and the plan of the church is a standard one followed by many builders of basilicas. The main altar of the church is the main draw (it was constructed between 1533 and 1550) as it contains a remarkable relief of Santiago. The organ was added to the church in 1903.
High above the water, just beside the Basilica de Santa Maria de Portugalete, is a small park with a life-size statue of Lope García de Salazar. García de Salazar was born in 1399 and quickly became a controversial figure, killing many of his enemies in his struggle to achieve control of Portugalete and its surrounding area. He was, despite his Castillian heritage, a fierce opponent of the central government's control over Vizcaya (ostensibly because it limited his own power) and was exiled for three years for opposing the King's choice of governor for the province. He was, however, allowed to return and, in 1470, wrote "Historia de las buenas andanças y fortunas", considered by some to be the first history of Vizcaya. His statue is interesting, as it commemorates him for his historical works (he is sculpted with a book in his hand) rather than his bloodlust.
The Casa Consistorial is also the Ayuntamiento or City hall of the town of Portugalete. It was constructed in 1883 and designed in Neoclassical style by the architect Anduiza. The building isn't open to the public for tourist visits, but its grand architecture help add to the atmosphere of a bygone era of entertainment and leisure on the Muelle.
Ok, this is a bit nerdy, but I was impressed by it when I got off the RENFE train to Portugalete. There's a bridge that connects the old and new parts of the town that actually ferries passengers from one side to the next. The cost is less than a euro and its really only impressive to those who have a bit of geeky fascination with engineering.
The 15th century Basilica of Santa María is prominent in Portugalete. It offers fine architecture, and a good viewing point over the river. There is also a playpark at the back!
The church lies on the Camino de Santiago (coastal route).
Take a trip across the Puente Colgante. This transporter bridge is over 100 years old, and a car (and passenger) ferry is suspended from a frame by wires attached to wheels on tracks above the cabin and moves from one side of the River Nervión to the other via a traction system. This bridge has been declared a World Heritage Site on 13 July 2006. The cost is less than a Euro, and is worth the trip.
The reason for this type of bridge? To let the big ships pass.
There is a small boat ferry that crosses from Portugalete to Las Arenas. It costs 25 cents and takes less than 2 minutes.
This gives you the feel of the size of the river that has been the entrance and exit of Bilbao (and Spain's) industrial wealth
Portugalete has a pleasant old quarter located on the steep descent down to the river. In the old quarter are ancient buildings and defences, tight alleyways, and bars to discover. The area is pedestrianised, so children play in the street on Sunday lunchtime, when everyone comes out to have a pre-lunch drink.
Portugalete has a very pleasant river front that can be walked along. Get off at Portugalete station and follow the (still working) river to the sea. This walk is along the Muelle Churruca.
Along by the bank of the river towards the Puente Colgante are a number of bars where drinks and pintxos can be taken sitting outside in the sun. Amongst the bars are Akelarre and Bar Siglo XX.