The heart of the Basque County is also its largest city, situated on the Nervion River. When it was founded as a modern city in the 14th century, it was as if its only raison d’etre was just to move forward and blaze new trails on the horizon. And move forward and upward it has done – overcoming bloody sieges in its territory and economic crises on the national front, growing in size and in wealth as propelled by commercial trading and iron mining industries.
Bilbao has been at the heart of all economic activities in the Basque County since it was named its capital and this has translated to a city that is equipped with the entire modern infrastructure – a busy airport, well-connected transport network and an ever-expanding residential and commercial area. Thankfully, however, all that industrialization has not overshadowed its cultural and artistic side. The vibrant and ever-innovative spirit of the Bilbainos – as the locals call themselves – shows up in facets such as the eclectic mix of historic and modern architecture, its earthy and homey cuisine and in its lively and colorful fiestas.
Architecture of Bilbao
A most striking proof of Bilbao as a modern and global city is that one of its main crowd-drawers is the colossal Museo Guggenheim. Designed by world-renowned American architect Frank Gehry and completed in 1927, the unique structure celebrates everything that is Bilbao – the titanium façade is made to resemble a ship cast in the graceful waters, steel-strong yet magnificently beautiful. While the building itself is a work of art that continually draws scores of visitors to Bilbao annually, the exhibits on display inside are also worth visiting. For those who would want to explore more of Bilbao’s historical and classical side, there is the Museo de Bellas Artes with its extensive collection of fine art from the 12th century.
There are a number of interesting historic structures in Bilbao as well. From churches like the 16th century Basilica de Begona and the 14th century Gothic style Cathedral of Saint James, fortresses like the Castillo de Butron Playas de Gorliz Gatika and bridges like the Puente Viejo de Balmaseda de Bilbao which is even immortalized in the Vizcayan coat of arms.
Bilbainos are also proud of their traditional cuisine and rightfully so – the food in the Basque county is known for their rustic and natural flavors brought out from the freshest catch and produce. Seafood such as codfish, squid, eel and crabs features prominently in Bilbao dishes but so do meats and vegetables – Chorizo de Bilbao is one pork sausage that has become known around the world. Tapas, or pintxos as they are called in the Basque Country is also a well-loved food in the capital and the locals go for a “txikiteo” or tapas bar-hopping to sample as much of this small, savoury plates.
Other dishes that reflect Bilbao’s proud culinary heritage include bacalao al pil-pil which is salted and cured cod cooked in oil and garlic, ensalada de angulas or a salad with baby eels and lubina a la pimiento verde which is sea bass cooked with green peppers.