I was lucky enough to marry into an apartment in Marbella so Spanish holidays for me generally equate to ice cream on the beach and reading a good book by the pool; lazy sunshine fun. But of course there's so much more going on behind the beaches, sunshine and Sangria that a two-week sun holiday just can't account for. Barcelona and Madrid steal a lot of the city break spotlight in Spain, however, after my recent visit to Bilbao I know which one I'll be going back to.
Going away for a long weekend break I never check in luggage, time is too precious on these trips to stand waiting at a carousel for your bag to eventually bundle out. When you've only got three or four days every second counts, so I was delighted to discover that our transfer from the airport to Bilbao city centre was a mere 15 minutes. Score!
The first thing that struck me on our short drive from the airport was how green Bilbao is. When I think of Spain, a dry arid landscape usually comes to mind, but here in northern Spain there are lush green rolling hills in all directions.
The impressive sight of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum is one of the first things you see as you cross the bridge into Bilbao, which is quite appropriate as it is very much the proud symbol of new Bilbao. From any distance or angle even, it is quite a sight to behold. Sitting on the edge of the river, its several thousand individual titanium plates on the exterior reflect the sun-light bouncing up from the water to create a stunning effect.
We stayed at the plush, five-star Hotel Melia in the heart of the business district. Beautiful inside with a really unique "Mexican desert" feel throughout with highly comfortable and spacious rooms. The business district may sound a bit dull, and although it was quiet at night, the cultural hub of Bilbao is right on your doorstep. The Guggenheim, the Fine Art Museum and the Maritime Museum are just a short stroll away. And in fact you can easily get around the whole of Bilbao on foot without breaking too much of a sweat. And if walking isn't your thing, there are trams, buses and a metro system.
As with most people who visit Bilbao, the Guggenheim is bound to be on your hit list of things to do, and it most certainly should be. A truly incredible structure from near or far, inside and out, the building itself could be the sole attraction. So imposing and grand in concept and scale, it sometimes dwarfs the relevance of the artwork inside and in some rooms it feels as though this is done deliberately. The art itself is mainly of the modern variety and quite touch and go for a philistine like me I'm afraid. However, I would recommend everyone and anyone to pay the museum a visit. The Fine Art museum is another must for culture vultures, it's a more traditional museum space with a superb collection of works from the Romanesque and Gothic era all the way up to Contemporary.
After a busy day of culture we were more than ready to tuck into some local delicacies, and, thankfully, delicious options are easily found. Bilbao has a wonderful food culture with a fantastic variety of eateries to choose from, including, of course, traditional Basque cuisine. To give you an idea of how serious they are about their food, the city has a total of eight Michelin Star restaurants with ten stars between them – that's one more than Dublin and all with a population of only 350,000. There is also just one McDonalds in the whole city – apparently other fast food chains have tried and failed as it seems everybody in Bilbao wants to eat slow.
We were lucky enough to eat in one of the city's Michelin Star restaurants, Etxanobe, which was conveniently located beside our hotel above the convention centre. The extremely affable restaurant owner and chef Fernando Canales introduced each course. After getting to know him a bit better by the third or fourth course it turned out he had spent many years in Dublin plying his trade in Patrick Guilbaud's. He says "hello".
The highlight of the meal for me was the anchovy lasagna served on a bed of cold tomato soup, and the squid which was incredibly tender and juicy, accompanied on the plate with two dollops of the ink of the squid as a sauce. Dessert was a rice cake. Not the kind of rice cakes we're used to though, it was more like a baked cheese cake with ice cream. Simply delicious and not wildly expensive either with set menus that start at around €60.
Another stop on the gastro trail was to the traditional Basque restaurant Guria, one of the oldest in the city situated on Bilbao's main shopping street, Gran Via de Don Diego Lopez de Haro. Here we sampled a gluttonous mix of local specialities including Iberian ham and salami, a vegetable cake of egg, spinach and potato topped with salmon, delicious creamy croquets and fresh shrimps. And that was all before the beef tenderloin! I'm not a drinker but I tried a local Basque wine here as well, Txakoli. A crisp, fresh and drinkable wine which seemed to go very well with everything. The one other local delicacy to definitely try while you're there are the "Pintxos", the Basque region equivalent of Tapas. More of a lunchtime thing, we stumbled upon some of the best selections in Casco Viejo, or "the old town" to you and me. They are essentially a baguette base with endless combinations of toppings. Highlights were the brie, red berries, quince jam and sundried tomatoes, and the goats' cheese, shiitake mushrooms, ham with a drizzle of cranberry. Berton and Cafe Bilbao on the square are two places to find good Pintxos.
The old town was probably my favourite part of Bilbao. Rambling through the pedestrian streets and dusty lanes you get a true sense of the history and spirit of the place. Stone cathedrals, food markets and beautiful old buildings and shops everywhere you look, it reminded me of a calmer, more relaxed version of Barcelona's old town. I would come back to Bilbao for the old town alone and I think I will, however, there is so much more to see and do in this city where the old meets the new.
For more information about holidays in Bilbao please visit the Bilbao Tourist Board website, www.bilbao.net/bilbaoturismo.com/ and the Spanish Tourist Board website, www.tourspain.es