A journey to the north of Spain: Bilbao and the Casco Viejo

22 06 2012

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.

The village of La Riera in the Picos de Europa in the Asturias. I made a journey last October to the north of Spain, a land of diverse cultures and landscapes.

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.

Flying over and into an area I have long held a fascination for – the northern region of Spain.

The north of Spain is where an ancient westward pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela – el Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James cuts through.

Thatch-roofed huts or pallozas in the village of O Cebreiro, Galicia, in the North of Spain.

The sun drenched hills at O Cebreiro a pilgrim village in Galicia close to its border with León.

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 dramatic sunrise over the tarmac of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Taking off into a magical sunrise.

The magic of the descent into Bilbao Airport.

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.

It was the sight of two of Bilbao’s modern icons that greeted my entry into the city.

Bilbao first impressions – the view as I stepped off the bus ….

Bilbao first impressions – Plaza Moyua.

Bilbao first impressions – seemed like I had eyes on me – lamps on a building’s façade.

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.

What seems like a labyrinth of narrow streets, the Casco Viejo – the old town is actually arranged around seven medieval streets – the Zazpikaleak or Las Siete Calles, that run somewhat parallel to each other.

A view through the shadows cast on a street in the Casco Viejo.

The streets of the Casco Viejo come alive in the pre and post Siesta hours.

The back of the Teatro Arriaga, Bilbao’s opera house at the edge of the Casco Viejo. The Neo-baroque style theatre was designed by architect Joaquín Rucoba in 1890.

The ‘del Perro’ (dog’s fountain) dating from the early 19th Century – named because three lion-heads at the end of its water pipes resemble the heads of dogs.

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.

Plazuela Santiago.

Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James)

Seeing the light inside the cathedral – a street lamp seen through a reflection on a glass panel shines over the sanctuary.

The façade of the Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari, dedicated to the parton saint of sailors. The coat of arms of Bilbao can be seen above the door.

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.

No trip to Bilbao would be complete with indulging in some pintxos (and cerveza).

The charming Mudéjar tiled interior of the Café Iruña.


Get out of the Dot!

15 06 2011

I have been asked to participate in a bloggers’ initiative organised by ZUJI to get Singaporeans out of the comfort zone which some of us know as the Little Red Dot, or the Dot for short, something that on the basis of Singaporeans’ penchant for travel, shouldn’t really be too difficult to do. But, wait a minute, I realised that I am to do it in a simple and fun way – eh, fun and simple as I am – that wasn’t going to be easy, but anyway here goes …

A compelling reason to get out of the Dot - the experience of a festival on the streets of Nepal.

Singapore is, whether looking at it from a map or even at street level is, without a doubt, a curious Dot. I know many will disagree with this, but we don’t have much of a life here, considering that our more popular leisure activities involve braving crowds, whether it is to seek the best shopping deal or add up the calories – something that (braving the crowds that is) we do five other days of the week. The stress of living in the confines of what is one of the more populated land masses in the world has certainly gotten to us. We are as they say, a nation of moaners – the social media has now become the latest outlet for our disaffection – something very evident during the recently concluded General Elections. A recent addition to our resident population that I met on Twitter was quick to observe how much we moan on platforms such as Twitter. What this all means is that we should get out of the Dot a lot more … and why shouldn’t we, when there is that whole world beyond the shopping malls and makan places that has become our life. The world is certainly out there to be discovered something that I often enjoy doing. There is really a myriad of things about it that is waiting to be discovered – too much to really talk about.

One of the reasons to get out of the Dot - to marvel at the beauty of the serene Lower Chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

One of the things I have been asked to do is to identify three people who should really get out of the Dot. Thinking hard … I thought maybe of identifying a few friends who I thought should have a life – but not wanting to risk destroying our friendships, I thought maybe I should look beyond that. The first that came to mind was our Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Mr Lim Swee Say and for his outrageous attempt at trying to look like Zorro, should really be sent out of the Dot to Hollywood for acting classes so that he can properly act the part. The second has to be another politician who is none other than the controversial Ms Tin Pei Ling, who between bouts of feet stamping and posing with a Kate Spade bag regretted not bringing her parents to Universal Studios. She should really be sent out of the Dot to spend a good few months with the tribes in the Amazon to realise that there is more to life than Kate Spade and Universal Studios that she should regret. The last of the three has got to be not a politician but perhaps a very hard working man Encik Atan, the Station Master at Bukit Timah Railway Station who has worked tirelessly over the last two years with hardly a day off, and his family on a luxurious train journey through Europe after he leaves on the 1st of July – just as a gesture of thanks for his efforts in keeping the many train passengers safe.

And yet another reason - the old school musical experience of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performing to a packed hall.

Or, maybe the experience of a Camarguaise bullfight inside a Roman built arena...