History of Bilbao

Mother Earth Travel > Spain > Bilbao > History

The sea and the estuary have always been of fundamental importance to Bilbao: they have been responsible for most of the city's transformations and developments and have been the true shapers of Bilbao's history. Long ago, Bilbao was just a village with a tiny port on the right bank of the estuary where there lived fishermen, farmers, and a noble family or two. Nevertheless, the village did enjoy a special status (that of being known as a "Villa"), bestowed upon it in 1300 by the Lord of Biscay Diego López de Haro, known as "the Intruder," in order to protect the port and its first commercial undertakings from the fighting going on among the rivaling lords. But one of the most important privileges given to the city came in 1315 when Alfonso XI had the Camino de Santiago redirected a bit so that Bilbao would fall along the route. From this point on the growth of the city really began to take off, as trading increased with ports in England, the Mediterranean and the North of Europe and the number of shipyards grew as well. By the middle of the fifteenth century Bilbao was flourishing and changing its topography; it was in 1483 when the city increased radically in size and El Arenal emerged.

Unfortunately, Bilbao has seen its share of fighting and war as well: the disturbances of 1631 caused by the state monopoly on salt; the "Matxinada," in 1717, riots caused by the attempt to establish customs houses in the Basque ports (which, thanks to local privilege, had been free of customs up till then); the French occupation; the War of Independence, with another occupation by the French; the First and Second Carlist Wars, where Bilbao (on the side of the liberals due to its business interests) becomes the prime objective; and of course, the Spanish Civil War of 1936.

With the arrival of industrialization in the mid-19th century, a new, none-too-poetic change begins to transform the city. It is reported that during the night one could see from a distance of many kilometers away the fires of the ovens that were forging iron into steel. Industrialization brought rapid growth to the city, both in terms of area and population, all of which resulted in the formation of what we now know as Greater Bilbao, the area encompassing the huge number of inhabitants living along the estuary. These inhabitants, many of which are immigrants from other parts of Spain, make up one of the largest centers of population in the Basque Lands. All of this meant that for a long time Bilbao was considered nothing but an industrial area with no touristic interest, a city of smoking chimneys and of an estuary where you could find anything except fish swimming in the water.

But despite everything Bilbao has always had a special charm and we can find plenty of traces of former magnificent times, such as the Teatro Arriaga, Hospital Civil de Basurto, the Alhóndiga or the mansions and palaces of Neguri. In the Parque de Doña Casilda, if we use our imagination, we might be able to see the faultless nannies pushing majestic baby carriages, taking their charges for their daily walk. Then there are the many well-known cultural societies, such as "la Bilbaína", or the prestigious Universidad y Escuela Comercial de Deusto. Bilbao has always been an open, cultured and elegant city, one which has blessed us with musicians like Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, authors such as Unamuno, and painters like Zuloaga.

But there's not really so much left of that poor gray Bilbao, abused by industry and ignored by tourists. The crisis of the 80's, which left the whole city depressed and without direction, had the positive effect of obliging the citizens of Bilbao to think of new directions for their town, away from industry and towards other kinds of services. The Bilbao of 2000 is growing in a new direction and, like the phoenix from the flames, it seems to be glowing with a new brilliance. The number of projects which have already been carried out or are currently in the making is astounding. Of course, the most spectacular to date has been the Guggenheim, designed by Frank O. Gehry and classified as one of the most fantastic pieces of avant-garde architecture of the 20th century. This museum, aside from bringing contemporary art right to our front door, has also brought a great number of visitors and tourists to the city. Another important project worth mentioning is the innovative metro line as conceived by Norman Foster. Other projects such as bridges, luxury hotels, trams, towers, and the cleaning of the estuary are the new face of a city in change, which is enlightening the spirit of Bilbao's inhabitants, who now see the future with new hope.

But to speak of Bilbao we must speak of its inhabitants. The troubles of the area have not affected the happy character of the locals. A favorite past time of the Bilbaínos, as the inhabitants of the city are called, is to get together in the "txokos," private gastronomic societies, to indulge in the typical dishes of the area, which are very diverse and absolutely exquisite. Don't be surprised if you hear singing coming from the bars, or roars of "¡GOOOOL!" when the pride of Bilbao, the local football team, scores. Bilbaínos are famous for their hospitality, and a visitor to their land is made to feel at home.

This year, the people have got one more reason to celebrate -- the 700-year anniversary of the founding of the Villa of Bilbao, which will be celebrated from June 2000 to June 2001. There will be a lot going on, making it a great moment to come and get to know this city!