From San Sebastian, Spain we took a bus to Bilbao. This is an industrial and port town that, although it does have a small, historic, medieval Old Town, has never really made it into many tourist itineraries until it retained architect Frank Gehry to design a new branch of the Guggenheim museum. We visited the town primarily for the museum; secondarily as a base for a short, daytrip introduction to the Rioja winegrowing region—an areas whose wines we love, but have not before visited.
Bilbao Old Town, originally built in the 14th century, consists of a warren of streets around the arcaded Plaza Nueva, a large open square whose arcades are filled with pintxo bars. The streets themselves are filled with multi-story apartment buildings, most of which look similar to each other, with a number having stores–especially a wonderful butcher shop whose prosciutto, sausages and cheese cut into our appetite for pintxos. The most prominent and ornate buildings in the quarter include a theater/opera performance center and, as would be expected, churches and especially Cathedral Basilica de Santiago. The area also has a popular venue for theater and opera.
Although city has some grand buildings (such as the ornate Palacio de la Diputacion), a few museums, including a fine arts museum and one dedicated to Basque culture, the city fathers made a conscious decision to modernize the city’s staid, traditional architectural image with some very modern buildings and art pieces.
As mentioned, it also retained Frank Gehry to create a world-class museum that would attract visitors as much for the architecture and for the art. The city’s modern architecture bug has gone beyond Gehry. Sir Norman Foster, for example, was retained to redesign the city’s port and metro stations. The city’s soccer stadium, meanwhile, is surrounded by white louvers that provide a different appearance from different angles. Its new concert hall, meanwhile, is shaped like a ship to evoke the city’s seafaring heritage.
But more about the Guggenheim Museum in our next blog.
Although our time in Bibao was limited, we had to eat. And eat we did, primarily pintxos. Lunch consisted of stops at two new town restaurants:
- Busterri, where we had a mushroom tart and ham with egg and potatoes in mayo; and
- Sotera, where we enjoyed a number of dishes including deep-fried calamari, grilled octopus, stuffed crab, and prosciutto, camembert and walnuts atop a slice of bread.
Dinner was in Old Town, where we began dinner with an unplanned stop at a butcher shop where we had prosciutto, sausages and cheese. Then onto two Plaza Nueva pintxo bars for snacks:
- La Olla, for tuna topped with caviar atop a potato and tomato salad with mayo sauce; and
- Zaharra, for a ham, cheese and potato tortilla (which is actually more of an egg omelet), and a potato croquette wrapped in prosciutto.
Both were good—especially with glasses of wine at each. This being said, after visiting dozens and eating at eight pintxo bars over the last two days, the selections are getting rather predictable. It seems like it may be time to explore some more traditional restaurants.
And, after a very early morning (with an even earlier one coming up the next day), we wanted to dine before the 9:00 opening of the restaurants we would otherwise consider. So on a whim, we decided to look at our hotel restaurant, which we would have not normally considered. While the dishes sounded less than inspiring, we were convinced by the very compelling salad bar as we were craving greens.
- Le Bol Blanc’s salad bar fulfilled our expectations. Our main courses, somewhat less so. Tom had roasted duck breast with pear and plum cream sauce: Joyce had roasted hake with tomato sauce. Although neither were memorable, both were acceptable.
Our hotel was the NH Collection Villa de Bilbao Gran. Like most NH Collection hotels, it was very comfortable, with quality sheets, beds, pillows, bathrobes etc. And of course, the staff was first rate