Early last Sunday, we were contemplating the week ahead. We expected a pleasant enough few days, entirely devoid of incident.
By late lunchtime, we’d planned the makings of an adventure to Bilbao.
There’s a local information exchange service here for English-speaking residents of the area, and last Sunday, looking through emails, one from the group caught my eye. A woman called Jenny, going to a conference in Bilbao, found that at the eleventh hour, her friend and co-delegate was unable to go. Would anybody like to share her car journey and a small flat in Bilbao for the duration? Well, why not? An email or two, a few phone calls, and the deal was done. Monday morning saw our journey begin with a quick stop-over in the French Basque country.
We hit it off with Jenny from the first, and whenever she wasn’t out at her conference we loved spending time with her. The events there enabled her to meet fellow professionals throughout Europe, as she develops her own future plans here in France. Everyone there was enthusiastic to use woods and forests as an educational resource (such as this one that Jenny’s still involved with back in the UK): but it didn’t give her much time in Bilbao itself. So Jenny, these postcards are for you. If others enjoy looking at them too, so much the better.
Bilbao’s a large city, and quite confusing to get into by car. Its history as a port soon becomes clear, though it went through many years as a heavily industrialised city, attracting workers from throughout Spain, thanks to the locally available iron ore. As in so many other steel-making towns of the western world, those days are largely over. Partly thanks to the Guggenheim Museum, of which more in a later blog, and partly thanks to a burgeoning service industry, Bilbao is reinventing itself.
We were happy to stroll round the centre in the warm sunshine, soaking up the sights and helplessly trying to decode any signs and posters we saw in – to us – unintelligible Euskara, the Basque language. There were the old narrow streets of the Casco Viejo: though the 19th century is represented too, in the elegant square courtyard which is the Plaza Nueva. We enjoyed the later developments along the river and on the other side of the original town. Our flat was on the same bank as the old centre, but so steep are the streets there that we needed the frequent travellators and escalators to help with the climb. Best of all was our journey up on the funicular: a 750 m, but almost vertical-seeming three-minute journey way above the city, to enjoy the views over Bilbao and surrounding countryside.
It’s the Alhóndiga I particularly want to share with you though.
Built in 1909 as a wine warehouse, it fell out of use in the 1970’s. Eventually, Philippe Starck was charged with its re-invention. Wow. The interior has been transformed into an atmospheric, dynamic and exciting space. An internal building, almost Romanesque in its severe simplicity houses, amongst other things, a mediatheque and a sports complex. That’s on the top floor. Glance upwards and you can see the eerie outlines of the swimmers ploughing up and down the pool. This interior edifice is supported by 43 squat columns, each different from the other: some are decorative, others reminiscent of ceramic vases, others of Gothic churches… and so on. You’ll want to examine each one. And then enjoy a meal at the restaurant. High quality cooking at modest prices in a cheerful and slightly quirky environment is a fine way to finish your tour.
Bilbao seems to be a confident city, proud of what it offers. Street and park cleaners (goodness, they even wash the bus shelters) work far into the evening to keep the streets tidy and smart. As night falls, you’ll want to join the locals strolling the streets, stopping at some cheerful bar for a drink and a selection of pintxos (tapas). And eventually you’ll drift off to bed, to sleep off the effects of your busy day and recharge your batteries for the next