In Search of a Better Spain: Bewildered in Bilbao!

Arriving in Bilbao was much like falling out of a nightclub in Camden at 6 a.m.; at least it was around by my hostel. The early bus ride from Santander had been a dozy, slightly hungover, one after my night out in Santander, but by the time we pulled up in the Termibus station, I was upbeat and ready to explore.

I was a bit of a trek away from the city centre, so I caught the metro. Being on such a modern, clean and fresh smelling metro reminded me of the one in Bangkok. Soon I was in the centre at Abando, a short walk away from the River Nervión.

Centre of Bilbao, rather spacious, don't you think? Photo by gatogrunge

Centre of Bilbao, rather spacious, don’t you think?
Photo by gatogrunge

I had been expecting a small, cramped city centre, much like the back streets of Sevilla, but there was so much space about. The roads and bridges were all wide and lack of people meant there was plenty of personal space. Once over the bridge I sat down on the steps in Arriaga plaza and gazed around at the beautiful buildings and green hills in the background. Bilbao had made a great first impression.

Then the adventure began. I strolled along the river until I came to the next bridge and crossed back over heading towards my hostel. Once in the back streets I felt as if I’d been teleported into a different city. A group of skinhead lads stumbled out of an all night disco while bassy trance music polluted the air. By the state of their eyes and sweaty faces I guessed they’d been on more than just a few beers. As I passed, I noticed a couple of young ladies sitting in a doorway sharing a joint. When I heard the skinheads shouting out, I kept my head down and picked up the pace.

I was relieved to find the hostel, but the tranquillity didn’t last long. Once inside I chucked my bag down and lay on the lumpy mattress. Then I heard some dogs barking followed by a loud bang. I dared to peer out the window onto a plaza. A family of gypsy women were gathered on a bench clapping and singing flamenco while a couple of dogs dashed about. It was quite bizarre; not one of those classy flamenco shows you see in Sevilla. There were no elegant flamenco dancers or smart guitarists, but a group of five tubby gypsy women letting it all hang out as the pranced about clapping and stamping their feet. I was so glad that my girlfriend wasn’t with me; she would have demanded we find another place overlooking the river with green hills in the backdrop, not of a dodgy council estate in Camden. It didn’t bother me that much; I thought it was quite funny and reminded me of my adventurous travelling days. I had more important things to worry about anyway.

What better way to get my bearings in a new city than by trying to find an Irish bar. I know what you’re thinking, how cultured, but Spurs were playing Arsenal in about three hours and a derby is a derby. I could have chosen to go check out an art museum or another Spanish church, but I didn’t want to run the risk of missing that all time classic when we trounced the scum in their own backyard.

As I sprinted back to the centre, avoiding the skinhead disco, and strolled the streets, I realised I was staying in the dodgiest, most run-down place in the centre. Bilbao was such a lovely, modern, and clean city. Walking up the pretty Gran Via de Don Diego, with its tall trees and wide avenues, reminded me of Oxford Street a bit. I cruised about in the posh part, stopping to grab some food from El Corte Inglés, asking strangers if they knew where an Irish bar was. Most smirked as they shook their heads, probably thinking I was a typical bloody tourist, which I was at that point, but no one could (or wanted to) help.

I was doomed; I’d spent the morning walking round Bilbao, but I was no closer to finding an Irish bar and began to ignore the surroundings. There was only one thing for it. Back near the centre, over the other side of the river was an internet café. I sat in there for two hours, paying to watch Spurs get thrashed 3 v 1. I should have gone on a church crawl.

Not a bad place for a stroll. River Nervion. Photo by esti

Not a bad place for a stroll. River Nervion.
Photo by esti

Instead of drowning in my sorrows, I went for walk up the river towards the Guggenheim. Maybe Bilbao would be a decent place to live, I thought to myself. I couldn’t get over how spacious the place was. I’d really expected a small town but Bilbao had a lot going for it. The architecture was stunning and the views along the river were splendido, there were even butterflies fluttering about. I’d soon forgotten about the game, especially when I reached the Guggenheim.

I’d often taught my students about the Guggenheim in class. There was a vocabulary activity about Frank Gehry, the guy who designed it, and said he was jogging by the river in Bilbao when he saw a derelict area and just had a flash of genius. Well, it certainly was. I was more taken in by the actual building than what was inside, so much so that I didn’t bother going in (a main part of the museum was shut but they were still charging €20). I preferred to chill out in the surrounding parks while marvelling at the amazing shiny silver curved building anyway.

Puppy or bear? Photo by juantiagues

Puppy or bear?
Photo by juantiagues

The giant flowery puppy, which looks more like a bear to me, at the front was impressive too. Such a work of art. I wondered how they maintained it though, especially in the cold winter months. Something like that in the centre of Sevilla would soon get left abandoned, chopped up, or graffitied on by chavs.

It was approaching the early evening, so I nipped back to the hostel to leave my camera for fear of getting robbed late at night when I returned from tapas. The skinheads and gypsies had disappeared, for the moment. I went for dinner in the Casco Viejo, which had an excellent vibe. There were loads of bars and young people out enjoying the night. I loved the food too, pintxos, Bilbao’s equivalent of the Andalucían tapas. I was knackered though, and wanted to return safely so I called it a night.

Luckily, I arrived intact, but the gypsies were at it again, wailing and shouting out flamenco classics. I presumed they were classics because that’s what people normally sing when they’ve drank buckets of whisky. Mixed in with the noisy dogs barking didn’t help me get much sleep. Needless to say I was a tad tired the next day, which might have been one of the reasons why I almost foolishly got arrested.

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