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!”