2011 was an especially eventful year for me. As well as being caught up in the events that surrounded the last days of the Malayan railway through Singapore, I also had the opportunity to expand my experiences in exploring four different parts of the world, three of which I had visited for the first time. One, a journey to the north of Spain, was partly paid for through a stroke of good fortune – winning a Zuji blogger engagement effort for which I was generously rewarded.
I have long held a fascination for Spain, particularly its far north, fuelled by impressions I developed over the course of my childhood. I had known of the unique culture of the Basque country through my interactions with members of the Basque community here and read many tales of an ancient pilgrimage route, el Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. I also learnt that the northern coastline that stretched from the Basque country in the west to Galicia in the east, was one of diverse landscapes and cultures and of delectable gastronomic offerings – a region that I also knew to be one of immense natural beauty from the limited television coverage of one of the great European cycling races, the Vuelta a España.
It was with much anticipation that I started my journey, armed with a guidebook, as well as several guides and maps that I picked up from the very helpful Spanish Tourism Board’s office in Liat Towers, late on a Friday evening in mid October. The final leg of that journey to my entry point into the region, the Basque city of Bilbao, was via a connecting flight from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport and one that was truly magical – setting the tone perhaps for the magic of the rest of the trip. The drama of the colours of a wondrous sunrise that the flight took-off into, was one that was only surpassed by the sight out of the window that accompanied the descent into Bilbao, a heavenly sight as the flight first descended over and then in between the exposed peaks of the cloud shrouded mountains that surround the Basque city.
The sight of two of Bilbao’s icons, ones that perhaps define modern Bilbao – the very distinct Puente de la Salve and the very recognisable Guggenheim Bilbao, greeted my arrival to the city. It was to the calm of a Saturday morning that was bathed in the brilliant sunshine that was to accompany me on much of my journey that I alighted from the airport bus. In no time I found myself in the hotel and after freshening up and a short nap, I was ready to head out into the balmy autumn day.
With a day at my disposal before three of my travelling companions were to join me, I decided spend it taking a leisurely stroll to the historic Casco Viejo – the old town. Lying across the Río Nervión from the new town where I was putting up in, what seems like a labyrinth of streets that is the old town, is actually seven parallel streets – the Zazpikaleak or Las Siete Calles that date back to the 14th Century, intersected by several others. The maze of streets, some with names that reflect the traditional trades that once would have been found on them, is certainly worth losing oneself in, coming to life as the pre-siesta crowd fill the cafés and restaurants, spilling onto the streets.
Through the calles, one will also find several attractions including works of religious architecture, which speak of a time when all was dedicated to the greater glory of God. One which towers over the Casco Viejo is the very grand Gothic cathedral – the Catedral de Santiago situated at one corner of the Plazuela Santiago which itself dates back to the 14th Century and features a Neo-Gothic façade dating from the 19th Century which is the work of Severino de Achúcarro. Another wonderful piece of religious architecture is a church that lies on the fringe of the old town – the Iglesia San Nicolás de Bari, an 18th Century Baroque church laid on an octagonal plan. Its façade features the coat of arms of Bilbao.
A visit to the city would of course not be complete without stumbling into the Café Iruña or indulging in some tapas – or pintxos as they are known as in the Basque country. I did just that on my way back from my initial exploration of the Casco Viejo, attracted by its charming Mudéjar tiled interior and the healthy crowd as I passed by the Jardines de Albia. The café I was to discover is an institution of sorts in the city and dates back to 1903. After a glass of cerveza and some delicious pintxos, it was back to the hotel for a much-needed rest and to plot my next adventure in a city that I certainly was glad to find myself in.