The city of Bilbao is divided into eight districts, but we get a better picture of the true topography if we keep in mind that the city is divided by la ría del Nervión (the Nervión estuary) into two halves.
To get to District 1, called Deusto, we have to cross either the recently-built Puente (bridge) de Euskalduna or the older Puente de Deusto, which up till a few years ago still used to be raised to let big boats pass under. Walk along the Ribera (bank) de Deusto to get a glimpse of how one part of the estuary flows through city life. While here, a must-see is the Universidad de Deusto. Established in the 19th century and run by Jesuits, this university has been the alma mater of such luminaries as the banker Mario Conde, the politician Arzalluz or the former president (“Lehendakari”) of the Basque government, Garaikoetxea. All in all, the neighborhood has a rather student-like feeling and is filled with bars, cafés, restaurants, etc. If you’ve been out partying all evening, this is a great place to pass the very last hours of the night.
Still on the same side of the estuary, use either the Calatrava footbridge or the Puente del Ayuntamiento to get to District 2, called Uribarri. Take a stroll in Campo Volantín or get a closer peek at the Ayuntamiento de Bilbao (City Hall). From here we can take the Funicular de Artxanda to the top of Archanda Hill, from where we can enjoy the fantastic views and the fresh air, or have a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants.
From here it’s straight over to District 4, Begoña, where we find the Basílica de Begoña, the “Amatxo” (mother) of Bilbao. Walk to the church along the Calzadas de Mallona, which begins in the Casco Viejo, or if you’re the lazy type, there’s always the elevator or the metro.
We’ve arrived in District 5, the Casco Viejo. It’s clear how one spends the time in this lively neighborhood — eating or drinking (or both) in one of the numerous establishments, listening to the street musicians, and doing a bit of shopping. But before diving into the sensual delights of the Casco Viejo there’s a few other things you could see, such as the Edificio de la Bolsa (the stock exchange building). Or try and sneak into la Sociedad Bilbaína, one of the old-established and most elegant cultural and recreational societies in Spain. Or if you’re the gaming type you can try your luck at the Casino Nervión. Or for more high culture, cross the Puente del Arenal to visit the Teatro Arriaga and the San Nicolás de Bari church. Once there we can slowly make our way to Siete Calles by way of the Ribera, taking in the Puente de La Merced on the way to the Iglesia de San Antón (but don’t forget to stop in the Mercado de la Ribera and admire the amazing selection of vegetables, fish and meat!). Finally we’ve gotten to the heart of the Casco Viejo, and just like a pilgrim tracing the route of the Camino de Santiago, let’s make our final stop here at the Catedral de Santiago.
Time to hop over to the other side of the estuary, to Abando, District 6. Beginning at the monument on the Plaza del Sagrado Corazón, stroll down the Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro. Measuring one-and-a-half kilometers, this avenue is lined with houses with charming façades — keep an eye out especially for the Edificio Sota and the Edificio de la Diputación. A stroll down the Gran Vía will take you along the relaxing Parque de Doña Casilda Iturrizar with its Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) de Bilbao. Halfway down the Gran Vía we come to the quaint Plaza Moyúa, on which are located the Palacio del Gobierno Civil and the Hotel Carlton. At the far end of the Gran Vía we come to the Plaza Circular with a monument in honor of the founder of the town. Other places worth checking out in this area are the Palacio de Justicia, the Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir (a church in 12th-century Basque Gothic style), the Plaza de Albia and the Mercado del Ensanche. As well, we’re not far from two streets that are very popular for bar hopping, Ledesma and Licenciado Poza. From here we can see the city’s “other” cathedral, that is to say, the Estadio de Fútbol de San Mamés, which may not be quite as spiritual as the Catedral de Santiago, but you can be sure there are many citizens of this town that consider the city’s soccer team, the Athletic de Bilbao, to be sacred! Real soccer funs should come all the way to Mazarredo street and visit the little palace that houses the headquarters of the Athlétic. The area around Mazarredo is another very popular night haunt, as are the pubs found in the Urquijo galerías (passageways). And for lovers of a bloodier sport, we’re not far from the Plaza de Toros de Vista Alegre (whose name ironically means “Happy View Bullfighting Ring”) and its bullfighting museum, the Museo Taurino. There’s a lot of other places to visit in this district, such as the Museo Guggenheim, the Palacio Euskalduna, the Estación de Abando (a.k.a. Estación del Norte) with it’s magnificent stained-glass windows, the Santa Casa de Misericordia, and the Alhóndiga.
The last district, District 7, called Rekalde, is reached by crossing the highway to Larrasquitu. This is a popular excursion for people wanting to scale the Pagasarri hill. At the top there is a little refuge from where one gets some splendid views of the south side of the “botxo” (the pit). If you don’t know already why Bilbao is known affectionately by this name, you will once you see it from here!
History of Bilbao
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!