Watch Me Bilbao: Basque-ing in the fun
After almost 4 weeks, our Spanish & Portuguese tour was coming to an end and the last leg was in Bilbao, capital of the Basque Country (País Vasco in Spanish or Euskadi in the Basque tongue).
For a little bit of context: at this stage, we’ve been inside what feels like enough Catholic cathedrals in Spain to make us holy saints, we’ve explored all of Porto & Lisbon by foot (which basically means you’ve conquered Everest and climbed back down again) and our Spanish language is being stretched to its very humble limits.
There was enough left in the ‘tourist tank’ to really appreciate Bilbao for the unique part of Spain that it is.
We stayed there 4 days and we didn’t pack a full itinerary or cram to see things. We missed the infamous Guggenheim Museum (I mean, you can’t actually miss seeing the huge, oddly-misshapen solar panels that form the exterior of the museum but we didn’t go inside). I’m sure we missed a lot of the new centre. We also missed a Ricky Martin concert in Bilbao Arena on the last night (tickets were sold out….daaammmmnnn!).
Bilbao is really cool and its good just to feel like a local here. The people are very intriguing and probably some of the nicest from what we encountered on our Spanish journey. Obviously, there’s a proud, separatist undercurrent to their personality but thats probably what makes them so interesting and edgy!
Just quickly on the separatist thing: There was a kind of demonstration going on every day whereby a lady was repeatedly shouting to a crowd of supporters, “Borrokan!” and they seemed to appreciate this chant. We took a tour on our last day and our guide explained to us that this group wanted to form an offical political party so they could then demand a referendum whereby Basque Country citizens could vote on secession from ‘Spain proper’.
Our second day we drove into La Rioja, the home of all that is good and wine. Seriously, a beautiful part of Spain and thats before you put the liquid to your lips. Amazing scenery and that’s not the wine talking. Please check out fellow traveller and wine enthusiast @mariaroaming’s much more entertaining and in-depth post about our La Rioja trip!
Third day was supposed to be the best weather (the whole week prior had been windy and cold) and so I researched beaches near Bilbao. We still had a car for 2 more days so let’s make the most of it.
After some quick blog reading, Sopelana was the obvious choice. And when I told our AirBnB host that we are planning for the beach, he asked immediately, “Sopelana?” So I felt like our first foray into Spanish beaches wouldn’t be a complete disaster……(remembering that we are from Australia so…I don’t mean to brag but we have high beach expectations!)
The beach you will want is Playa Arrietara, because there’s another one nearby in Sopelana but its apparently a totally nude beach. Although, having said that, there was still plenty of nudity at Arrietara! That didn’t stop us from taking some photos and videos of the beach and the surrounding cliffs, which make for a great backdrop to your beach outing.
That night, we ventured into Bilbao’s alternative, ‘depressed’ neighbourhood of San Francisco (depressed was the adjective used by the tour guide) and we found a free music festival, Hirian, dominating all the neighbourhood streets. Let me tell you…it felt anything but depressed!
San Francisco was literally overflowing with people all with a drink (or several) in hand and you couldn’t tell which bar they bought their drinks from. Every bar seemed to have live music inside but there were also proper stages set up at different points of the neighbourhood, one of them on the river.
Despite Bilbao receiving my nomination for the Spanish capital of fun, it also doesn’t lack for an interesting cultural story, amazing architecture and of course, great tapas bars. I was curious about the Basque language because its written everywhere on street signs but almost never spoken by locals. Our tour guide said 80% of subjects in public schools are taught in Basque and the minimum teaching for private schools is 50%. So obviously Basque citizens know the language but she said the business language in Bilbao is most definitely Spanish.
After the music festival on Saturday night, we spent Sunday in lazy mode: listening to some free jazz in La Ribera, an extremely fancy-looking restaurant on the river. We luckily weren’t turned off by the outside appearance – this place is pretty relaxed and has some decent tapas options.
After 4 days, I felt like Bilbao is a city for anyone; beaches, live music, crazy hipster street parties, jazz, great food and lovely people. Bilbao – I would love to meet again soon!
Tip #1: If you’re trekking to the beaches in Bilbao, don’t be like us and forget to buy beer and snacks beforehand. You can still buy these necessities on the beach but for like 4 x the normal price.
Tip #2: Even without a music festival, my bet is San Francisco is where you want to party in Bilbao. Its like a huge house party that spills onto the streets. Find any bar, order your drink and wander back outside to get swept up by the crowds!
Tip #3: Try Plaza Nueva for tapas bars. Its a favourite spot for the locals, where they usually sidle up to the bar and choose from tapas options including fried cod, different cheeses mixed with cured meats and amazing octopus-inspired morsels.
Tip #4: There is a guided tour of Bilbao offered by the tourist office at Plaza Circular on Saturdays and Sundays. The old city tour costs €4.50pp and goes for about 1.5 hours. Well worth it for the stories and some local knowledge.
Tip #5: The Bilbao Musem of Fine Arts (Museo de Bellas Artes) normally costs €9 but is free on Sundays between 3pm and 8pm and Wednesdays from 10am – 3pm.
Watch Me Bilbao: Basque-ing in the fun