Beautiful Bilbao: How to Basque in one of Spain's best city breaks
This bustling Basque city is far more than your average regional capital, writes Frank Coughlan...
Determined pilgrims weighed down with backpacks dangling seashells, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, could have made us feel guilty.
Set the mood
They were around every street corner in Bilbao and on a quest far more profound than ours. We, in contrast, were there to breathe in the sites and before idling in pintxo bars and soaking up Bilbao's atmosphere.
But these hordes of hikers do add colour and flavour - a reminder of this city's long and noble history. Squatting in a steep valley on either side of the often tempestuous Río Nervión, Bilbao is a picture-postcard place proud of its separatist identity, its language and prosperity built on shipbuilding.
The 350,000 inhabitants see their Basque home as something much more than a regional capital destined to be forever in the shadow of Madrid.
Bilbao is a neat and compact city, tucked snugly into surrounding hills that roll up steeply either side of the river. Getting around is easy and its must-sees are all within a decent ramble - though when the temperatures rise, I'd recommend the Euskotren Tranbia, the shiny caterpillar tram that runs on one line (even I couldn't get lost). It's a great way to catch everything through a series of fleeting vignettes for a €1.50 ticket.
Tranbia will take you past the Guggenheim (guggenheim-bilbao.eus). The, seductive modern titanium masterpiece, affectionately rechristened 'The Googen' by Bilbainos, has redefined this old city and is a must-wow. The tram then glides over to the medieval old quarter, Casco Viejo, where the locals shop for fresh fish, cheese and fruit.
We learned quickly that Bilbainos don't just go out for dinner but instead bar-hop, sampling small plates as they roam. On a residential street opposite the glorious Jardines de Albia, Café Iruña is not only a wonderful space steeped in tradition, but is as cheap as it is cheerful. Most memorable is the pintxo moruno, or lamb tapas (€2.50), which is teased on the grill before serving. We breakfasted there too and always got change from a humble tenner (cafeirunabilbao.net).
The Guggenheim (€16, above) may be tick-boxed by everyone, but the Museo Marítimo de Bilbao (€3.50), a 15 minute walk up the river on Ramón de la Sota Kaia, is easily overlooked. It's a fascinating way of tracing the city's economic and historic DNA (museomaritimobilbao.eus).
We sniffed and sipped some amazing Riojas (a neighbouring region) at Bilbobeer (bilbobeer.com), which is essentially a chic bar in a basement. Don't dare pay any more than €1.50 to €2 a glass because there is no need.
Bilbao has an endearing attachment to its Basque language. Street signs, transport maps and menus tend to give preference to it rather than the official national tongue. Those that haven't bothered to brush up on their Junior Cert Spanish will find wandering unfamiliar streets and ordering pintxos a bit perplexing. Don't expect them to have much English either. They don't. The few that might don't share it.
Get me there
We flew with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) direct from Dublin. Return flights in June for two came to €327.
We stayed at Hotel Abando (hotelabando.com) on Colón de Larreategui, not far from the old town across the river. Pristine, modern and with large, comfortable rooms, it cost us €330 for three nights. What it lacked in charm and atmosphere, it made up for in convenience and bang for our buck.
For more, see bilbaoturismo.net or spain.info.