We first visited Bilbao in Bizkaia back in 2011 when the Vuelta stopped and started in the Basque country for the first time in 33 years. No prizes for guessing why the Vuelta had avoided the area for a while. Fittingly, that stage was won by (former) Euskaltel rider, Igor Anton. We stayed in a small hotel overlooking the town which, by chance, was next to two great restaurants. I had thought of staying in the town this time around but my beloved preferred to stay outside since it would be easier to ride from there. He was right – and I don’t get to say that very often!
Although we’ve visited Bilbao a number of times, I don’t think we’ve seen most of the town. It’s one of the most prosperous parts of Spain largely thanks to its port and industrial heritage from its iron ore deposits. Though it’s now more reliant on the services sector and better known for its Guggenheim museum, on the Nervion river and fronted by Jeff Kroon’s flower strewn puppy, which was opened in 1997 as part of the city’s attempts to revitalize it. I’d say they’ve succeeded.
We left Gijon early on Thursday morning, right after breakfast, and headed to our new hotel to drop off the bikes and luggage before heading back into town to watch the conclusion of stage 12. The hotel was another converted Palace – I could get used to this – situated on a golf course with all the amenities you could want or need. We had a light, spacious room at the rear of the property overlooking the golf course with a patio garden- perfect.
After a delicious press buffet lunch in the NH Hotel, I interviewed Ashley House of Eurosport for VeloVoices. I first met him back in 2012 when I spent a few days with the Eurosport team at the Tour. We’ve bumped into one another on a regular basis at most of the Grand Tours, so an interview was long overdue. He didn’t disappoint.
We then bade the Vuelta a fond farewell and spent the last two days of our holiday enjoying the beach and riding around the incredibly undulating countryside. Friday evening, we ate in nearby Gernika-Lumo which was full of families enjoying themselves in the warm late evening. The sun was starting to go down which is why I’ve resorted to photos from Getty Images, mine were too dark and my beloved’s are still languishing in his camera! I’m sure he’ll download them eventually. In his defence, he’s been on a lengthy business trip ever since our return from vacation.
After a leisurely stroll around the town famously bombed and destroyed by the Germans with Franco’s blessing in April 1937 – I found what looked like a great bar and restaurant. I wasn’t wrong, the diners on the next table confirmed it was the best in town. My father taught me well, I can sniff out a great restaurant at 50 paces. And, yes, I did eat more octopus!
Saturday evening, we returned to Bilbao to investigate another part of town. We followed a similar strategy to the previous evening until I espied a small restaurant (20 covers) at the rear of a wine shop and deli. The maitre’d explained there was only a 7-course tasting menu. My face fell as I explained my dietary restrictions but he assured me that chef would cook me something within those guidelines. He did, and it was absolutely delicious, and a fitting end to our wonderful vacation.
I can’t recommend northern Spain more highly for a fabulous, inexpensive vacation to suit everyone’s tastes. I haven’t recommended restaurants or hotels because those things are very personal and, frankly, it’s much more fun to find these yourself. I rarely book restaurants in advance unless it’s one where I know I’ll have problems booking a table. And, even in August, it’s possible to find hotel vacancies at short notice as we (thankfully) discovered in Asturias. Also my idea of heaven is another’s idea of hell. For example, I do appreciate that octopus – like oysters – is an acquired taste but I’d urge you to try it – just forget about those suckers and dive in.