Not many years ago Bilbao, Spain was the heartland of the Basque independence movement, a no-go zone where few outsiders dared to venture.
ETA, the independence movement, killed hundreds of people in its fight for a Basque homeland and was particularly active under the authoritarian Franco regime. But when Franco died the Basque country was given a reprieve, plenty of privileges, a certain level of autonomy – and the population was tired of bombs. So over the years, with stops and starts, ETA moved away from violence.
Today, in the thriving and lively streets of downtown Bilbao, you’d never know this society had been torn apart at its roots just a few short years ago.
Before we visit Bilbao’s stunning architecture I’d like to spend a bit of time on eating here because the Basque country has some of the best food and products in the world.
I managed to eat two extraordinary meals in Bilbao (not bad considering I was there under 48 hours).
At Victor Montes Restaurant in the old town my first course was an array of pintxos (pronounced pin-choes), similar to Spanish tapas. The word comes from the verb pinchar or pinched, because of the toothpick that often holds the garnish to the thin slice of Spanish-style baguette underneath.
Other typical Basque pintxos? Any type of cod. Baby eel. Seafood. Anchovies. Iberian ham. Sometimes both together. Salmon, egg, prawn and anchovy. Individually or combined. Red peppers, tuna salad and mushrooms. In other words there’s very little you can’t put on a pintxo. The flavors have to marry well, and it has to look pretty. I’d say they’re a type of art form.
A last word about pintxos: they’re not usually eaten at a sit-down meal, as I did. This is finger food at the bar. Usually you push your way through the crowd and order – or in many places you just help yourself and settle up later. Better yet, gang up with a bunch of friends and head off for a txikiteo, the pintxo version of a pub crawl, from bar to bar, stopping off in each for a specialty (and a little drink). And to think that some people sit down for dinner after this extravaganza.
Once is not enough
Next day, still full from the previous evening, I was confronted with the Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao, whose more formal sister restaurant, Nerua, has a Michelin star but whose kitchen is also run by Nerua’s chef, Joseán Martínez Alija.
I ordered roast boned lamb and here’s what arrived.
In panic I almost sent it back, thinking they’d forgotten my main meal and brought me a dessert brownie instead. False alarm. This was pressed deboned lamb, possibly one of the most exquisite lamb dishes I’ve ever tasted. And those lovely nutlike sprinkles on top are chickpeas.
Bilbao, Spain: it’s also a feast for the eyes
With this kind of eating activity going on, walking is the only antidote and this is a great walking city.
There’s something about Bilbao, a certain contemporary nonchalance that casually throws up ultramodern structures in the midst of classical monuments. And it works. Bilbao is one of the most visually stimulating cities I’ve visited in Spain, not because of its utter beauty – it’s more attractive than beautiful – but because of the contrasts and the corners.
First, the contrasts.
And now the corners. In a city that is now catching its stride, striking spaces surprise you when you least expect it.
Despite its cultural and culinary wealth, most tourists come to Bilbao for one reason: the Guggenheim Museum.
I, unfortunately, managed to miss the museum (despite my lunch there). I was in Bilbao on business and lunch was part of it. I excused myself to take a peek but there wasn’t much I could see. That means… a return trip.
I was literally blown away by Bilbao, because of its warmth and architecture and food of course but also because landing at the seaside airport is a bit like taking a blind run at a wall, bouncing off it sideways, and then slipping on an oil slick. It is known as a windy airstrip but on that particular day even local spectators admitted they could see the plane rock at a distance.
Because I plan on doing it again.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- Victor Montes Restaurant is an essential stop – but you should be in a meat mood to enjoy it to its fullest.
- When you visit the Guggenheim Museum – and you must (if only so you can tell me about it) try having lunch at the Bistró.
- If you’re keen on making your own pintxos, Gerald Hirigoyen’s book of the same name will show you how (I promise you’ll get so hungry you might start eating the book!)
- Bilbao is on the coast of northern Spain. Roads aren’t that speedy and even the train from Madrid takes five hours. Iberia has hourly flights from Madrid (and also flies from elsewhere in Spain), and EasyJet has cheap flights from London and Geneva.