The Basque Country: Bilbao

We’ve probably spent less time in Bilbao than in its fellow Basque cities of San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gasteiz and our visits have always been prompted by watching stages in either the Vuelta al Pais Vasco or the Vuelta a Espana. That said, it’s a fascinating city largely because of its historical significance and its architecture, including the emblematic Guggenheim Museum.

Bilbao lies along the mouth of the Nervión River, 11km (7 miles) inland from the Bay of Biscay and it’s the largest city in the Basque Country. It started life as a settlement of seafaring folk whose inhabitants began to export both the iron ore found in large quantities along the river’s eastern bank and the products of their ironworks, which became well known throughout Europe. In 1300 the lord of the province of Vizcaya, Don Diego López de Haro, lord of Biscay, granted it permission to become a town and an independent municipality.

Bilbao’s port was also the centre for the export of wool from Burgos to Flanders. In 1511 the city obtained the right, like that of Burgos, to its own commercial tribunal enabling it to issue laws in the form of ordinances. The last of these, promulgated in 1737, formed the basis of the first Spanish commercial code in 1829.

During the 18th century Bilbao derived great prosperity from intensive trade with the American colonies of Spain. In the following century, the city was sacked by French troops in the Peninsular War (1808–14) and was besieged four times during the Carlist wars. These struggles produced a strong communal spirit that after 1874 directed itself toward industrialisation.

Bilbao is divided into two distinct areas: the left (eastern) bank of the Nervión River, which includes factories and working-class neighbourhoods, and the right (western) bank, including commercial, historic and residential areas. The old part of Bilbao lies on the right bank, its nucleus formed by the Siete Calles (“Seven Streets”), a series of parallel streets leading to the riverbank.

The old city’s notable landmarks include the Gothic-style Cathedral of Santiago (14th century), the Plaza Nueva (early 19th century), and the Renaissance-style churches of San Antonio, Santos Juanes and San Nicholas. Several towns on the left bank of the river were annexed to the municipality after 1890, forming the modern extension of the city. This section is a banking and commercial centre and is the site of the provincial government’s offices. Nine bridges, including Calatrava’s earily skeletal bridge, cross the Nervión to link the old and new parts of the city.

Bilbao is the one of the most important ports in Spain. Beginning in the 1870s, Bilbao experienced rapid industrialisation based on the export of iron ore and the development of the iron, steel and shipbuilding industries. The growth of industry drew workers from other parts of Spain, and their presence soon provoked a reaction in the form of Basque nationalism.

The good times stalled in the 20th century, as demand (and output) declined. The Civil War hit the city hard and, after the Republican surrender, Franco made it clear he wasn’t going to easily forgive the Basques for siding against him. The dictator’s death sparked a massive reflowering of Basque culture, symbolised by bold moves to revitalise the city.

Tourism and services have grown in importance since the decline of the steel and shipbuilding industries in the 1960s and ’70s. The opening in 1997 of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by American architect Frank Gehry in curving, titanium-clad shapes, has attracted large numbers of tourists. Also in the 1990s, city redevelopment projects included a subway system, upgrading of the airport and harbour, construction of a conference centre and concert hall (1999: home of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra), cleanup of the river, and a waterfront development near the Guggenheim that replaced former shipyards with a cultural and business centre. By the early 21st century, income from tourism had alleviated the effects of the decline in heavy industry, and Bilbao’s metropolitan area, which contains nearly half the total population of the autonomous community, continues to expand.

My favourite area, aside from the riverside, is Bilbao’s Old Town (Casco Viejo), tucked into a bend in the river, it’s easily the most charming part of the city, the oldest of which is the Siete Callles, the Seven Streets lined with bars and quirky shops, and some very attractive architecture. Now, I know I have some more photographs but can I find them on Dropbox?  Sorting out my photos must go on my “To Do List!”

Missing Itzulia

This week sees the 59th running of the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco) and we’re not there, again! We’ve watched this stage race continuously from 2011 but were forced to miss the last two years’ because of issues with my beloved’s hip. It’s now happily mended but sadly pressure of work has prevented the resumption of our visits. To console myself, I thought I’d write a bit about this year’s race which started today.

La Concha beach San Sebastian regularly voted best in class

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scatter across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soar high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines share the waves. The dazzling architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao modern-art museum and the glittering resort of San Sebastian draw enthusiastic crowds, while traditional small towns, such as Lekeitio and Hondarribia, are also thriving, making the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

The race route (in red above) typically covers a significant part of the Spanish Basque Country visiting some old favourites, such as its capital Vitoria-Gasteiz and the climb to Arrate from Eibar. But none of it’s ever too far away so it’s possible to base yourself in one hotel and travel daily to each of the start and finish lines.

To watch the race, we’ve peviously stayed in some lovely locations such as Getaria, a small fishing resort on the coast not far from San Sebastian.

Getaria

And we’ve stayed inland among those dark satanic hills.

Home from home

But, wherever we’ve stayed, Basque hospitality has been delightful, plentiful and very reasonably priced!

This year’s race kicks off in Zumarraga, as it did back in 2011, so it’s a place we’ve visited a few times. In the town centre, there’s the charming arcaded square in the middle of which is a bronze statue dedicated to Miguel López de Legazpi, conqueror of the Philippines. Those Basques sailed everywhere! Plus, there’s a 19th century neo-classical town hall, the Itarte and Uzkanga houses, and a16th century Gothic church, Santa María de la Asunción. 

Interestingly, this year’s race begins (rather than concludes) with an individual time-trial which will be short (11.3km) but intense because the final  2.3km has an average gradient of 9.7%, reaching a maximum of 21% in the final 100 meters. This is pretty typical of climbs in the Basque Country, short but rarely sweet!

As is customary, the second stage starts where the first one leaves off in Zumarraga, finishing 150km or so later in Gorraiz after 4,800 metres of climbing. There are hardly any flat roads in the Basque Country – I speak from bitter experience. Gorraiz is in Navarra, not too far from its main town of Pamplona.

Typically, the parcours visits all the autonomous community of the Basque Country plus the Foral one of Navarra. We’ve never visited Gorraiz but I suspect it has been included on the parcours to showcase its its recently rebuilt 16th century palace and church of San Esteban (pictured above right).

Day three starts at one of yesterday’s sprint points, the ancient town of Sarrigurenat which is now home to an EcoCity dedicated to preserving the ecological habitat of its surrounding plains. It’s the longest stage of the race with an undulating 191km finishing at 12th century Romanesque Estibaliz Sanctuary (above), dedicated to the patron saint of Álava. We’ve not previously visited either of these towns, although we’ve cycled around Navarra, watched the start of the Vuelta a Espana in Pamplona and seen the GP Miguel Indurrain in Estella several times.

The fourth stage starts in the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz which has a simply lovely Old Town with some of the best preserved medieval streets and plazas in the region, plus two cathedrals. The stage, another undulating one, finishes in Arrigorriaga, a small town just outside of Bilbao, which has a parish church dating back to 9th century. While, we’re very familiar with Vitoria-Gasteiz, I don’t recollect ever visiting the finish town.

The event now starts to hot up with what is often its race defining penultimate stage, finishing in Arrate. Just look at the snaggle-toothed race profile, those boys are going to have weary legs! We’re back on very familiar  territory [to us]. The entire final climb will be lined with enthusiastic and knowledgable Basque cycling fans, most of whom will have ridden up the ascent. I have to hold my hand up here and admit we always drive up!

I can still remember Samu Sanchez winning here in 2012, his third consecutive win on this climb, before going on to lift the overall.

Though possibly the most entertaining victor at Arrate was Diego Rosa who in 2016 lifted his bike aloft before soloing across the line on foot!

The final day has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

So, there you have it: 784kms over six stages which include an individual time-trial and tackle 22 summits. I’ve no idea who’s going to win this year’s race. It’ll have its usual sprinkling of mountain goats and Basque riders. The locals will be hoping that one of the latter manages to climb atop the podium, preferably onto the top step. It’s a race much prized for its tough parcours and ability to get riders to peak for the Ardennes Classics or in form for the Giro d’Italia. I have friends riding so I’ll be watching the race every day on the television and cheering them on – aupa!

Postcard from the Vuelta III: Bizkaia

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.

biz2

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