More Native Than The Natives is back! After a well deserved holiday, our editor has been inspired to share the delights of her new favorite city…
Trawling the internet for cheap holiday ideas during peak summer season, I stumbled across a gem in Northern Spain. My criteria for a holiday includes good food, nice wine, temperate weather and a smattering of culture thrown in. Bilbao fitted my series of requirements and had reasonably priced flights from Manchester on the dates required. While searching for accommodation however I realised that all of the hotels were booked up. What could be the reason behind this? After a little more digging I learned that during our time in this gem of the Basque Country it was the local fiesta week or Aste Nagusia in the local Basque language. This pushed us into booking an Airbnb right in the heart of the Old Town so that we could be in the middle of the action.
Aste Nagusia translates as Big Week and by Jove do they mean that! If you’ve ever read Hemmingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises then you may have an inkling of what goes on. If not, I don’t blame you the novel takes a while to get going! We arrived a day after the celebrations started and tried playing festive catch up throughout our five days in this fine city!
Along the banks of the Neviron river that splices the city into two halves there were pop up bars, food stands and stalls selling nationalist Basque T-shirts. To truly explore our first taste of the fiesta we decide to order a drink and wander through this cacophony of partying. I plumped for a local wine called txakoli which was served in a plastic cup emblazoned with the logos of the fiesta. During the week, we watched traditional Basque dancing in the main square, followed giant figurines as they paraded through the streets and danced the night away to a ska-punk flash mob that materialized outside a bar we were drinking in! If you have a chance to visit or would like to experience what the locals do during their time off then this is the place and time for you!
My main reason for wanting to visit Bilbao was to pay homage to the famous contemporary art museum, the Guggenheim. This Frank Gehry designed building has captivated me for a while now and the idea of having lots of the most famous sculptures dotted around the outside of the gallery gave this traditional city a beautiful avant-garde feel. My favourite piece was Richard Serre’s The Matter of Time which is the only permanent installation that not only celebrates the history of steel work in the region but has the feeling of the mythological labyrinth where time doesn’t matter. I won’t spoil it anymore as I truly believe it has to be experienced to be understood properly. This year, I have had my own mini-renaissance where I have rediscovered my love of art. I realized that not being the most knowledgeable about artists or art movements didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy experiencing art and my trip to Bilbao has definitely cemented that in my mind. We saw an incredible exhibition at the Bilbao Museum of Fine Art that is celebrating its 110th year with an exhibition of 110 works describing the history of Basque and Spanish art. We saw everything from medieval depictions of the Madonna to contemporary sculptural pieces and everything in between!
Feeling peckish? I am after reliving all of these wonderful experiences I have suddenly started craving some good Basque grub! You will most probably have heard of tapas but in this region of Spain pinchos are at the forefront of the culinary offering. Lined up along the counter of small long bars all over the city you order something alongside your beverage. We tried them all! From sandwiches of local jamon to skewers of olives, anchovies and spicy peppers, there is something for everyone. In fact, we loved this style of grazing that we didn’t sit down for a proper meal for our entire trip! We simply started at one end of the city at around lunchtime and meandered back to our apartment via the quirky little bars that line the streets. Our favorite eateries included the stalwart of the city, Café Iruna and the sublime Victor Montes on Plaza Nueva.
For a city of its size, Bilbao has an incredible amount to offer! The locals are so friendly and love for you to try and speak to them in Basque. The food is out of this world. The art moves you beyond belief. And finally, no one gets up until 11am so you’ll be well rested when you have to drag yourself away!