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Bilbao Baggin'....

'Sat here in the Cafe Bar Bilbao, in Plaza Neuva, with a cold glass of white wine and a plate of pintxos (basically the local tapas) waiting to be eaten. Of all the superb bars in all of Bilbao that I tried this is the one I have liked best, atmospheric, a tiled masterpiece with excellent food and very friendly staff.' 

I had wanted to come to the city ever since I read about the opening of the Guggenheim Museum some years ago. A jaw-dropping design from Frank Nehry, it literally stopped me in my tracks when I finally set eyes on it. The building is essentially a massive sculpture, reminiscent in part of a huge ship. Clad in titanium, it shimmers and glimmers in the light. Walking around you catch another corner, another angle. Its setting, beside the Rio Nervion is superb, and is a stunning sight from wherever you see it. Even without going in to see the works of art contained within, you have seen something amazing. And then there is Jeff Koons' 'Puppy', flowers and all, which stands guard at the entrance, whilst at the back, on the riverside, a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois keeps watch. Inside there are works from the likes of Picasso, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Delauney, the list goes on. And there was a special exhibition from Louise Bourgeois as well, plus Andy Warhol's 'Shadows'. Even if you don't have an interest in modern art, I think you would find half a day at the Guggenheim an inspiring experience. And for me, it was another one off the bucket list!

The Guggenheim is very much a symbol of not just local but Basque pride. Built close to the old docks area, it is simply one of many new buildings. The city is an architectural exhibition, with confident, bold new buildings set alongside lovely traditional ones often painted in lovely warm colours. But this is no stuffy, up-itself type of place. The Bilbao people are extremely friendly, feet on the ground as befits what is still basically a working town in a working part of Spain.

Bilbao(or 'Bilbo' in Basque) is the biggest city in the Basque region, or Euskal Herria, as the locals call it. Like Catalunya and Galicia, this is an area with its own traditions and culture that are different from the rest of Spain. Indeed the Basques are a distinct people, with a different blood group distribution and a different origin from the rest of Spain and Europe. They also have their own language, Euskara, which bears no relation to any other, with over a million speakers and around 750,000 using it as their first language. No wonder then that many signs and street names show both Spanish and Euskaran names. The Basques sought independence for many years, following the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's, after which the Spanish government tried to crush the Basque culture. A resistance group, ETA, sprung up, which was determined to fight for independence and was responsible for over 800 deaths throughout Spain between 1968 and 2003. Gradually support for violence declined amongst the Basques though and a permanent ceasefire was declared in 2006.

Travelling through the region, with mile after mile of wooded hills and mountains, on modern roads, passing through tunnels and steep gorges, past lovely little villages, beautiful farmhouses, and with friendly people - who seemed to have no problem with my limited use of Spanish: basically 'Ola', point at what I wanted, 'gracias', and 'adios'! - that vision of violence is very hard to imagine.

I visited the elegant seaside resort of San Sebastian(Donostia in Basque), 100km east of Bilbao, and only 20km from the French border. Here the pintxos - so-called because the topping is 'pinched' (pierced by a cocktail stick) to a piece of bread - are even better than in Bilbao, the local chefs competing with each other, letting their imagination go wild. And here I tried sideri, the local cider, which as is the tradition around these parts was poured from the bottle from above head height into a wide glass. Pure theatre! The resort has 4 glorious beaches, but despite the crowds and bustle of the old town, this is a more genteel place than Bilbao. It takes around an hour and twenty five minutes on the bus from Bilbao, which drops you in the new underground bus station by the Puente de Santa Catalina. From there it is about 10-15 minutes walk to the old town.

And so back to Bilbao. I dropped lucky with my hotel, which was smack in the middle of the Casco Viejo ('old town'). I was close to a host of bars, restaurants, and shops, and it was handy for the tram, which runs through the town close to the river for most of its route. It really is easy to get around with the local Bilbo buses and regional Bizkaia buses also providing options. Walking is an option, a promenade hugs both sides of the river providing a great opportunity for joggers and cyclists as well. There is also a metro, which will take you out as far as the city's beaches, although I didn't get to use it. I checked out the wonderfully-decorated Estacion Santander, but found the trains stopped everywhere; a train to Santander, less than 100km away, takes around 3 hours. No thanks! The airport is 12km away, around 25 euros by taxi, but there are also plenty of buses as well.

The best way to appreciate the size and scale of the city is to take a trip up the Funicular de Artxanda, high into the hills above, which afford great views of its brilliant setting along the river surrounded by hills. All in all, one of the most interesting and enjoyable places I have visited. And I managed to bag one of my bucket list too....

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Cafe Bar Bilbao


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