03 May 2011

Bilbao Baggins and the Shire of España

Last weekend, I took a three day trip to Bilbao with my best friend in Madrid. In our eight months here in Spain, she and I have hung out countless times, going to lunch, dinner, ice cream, the movies, for walks. You name it, we have passed the time with it. But, during all of those adventures, we had never traveled together. When she realized that she had a coveted three-day weekend, a rarity for her because she does not have the same job as I, we decided to take advantage of the luxury and go on a little adventure.

A sideview of the Guggenheim Museum
Bilbao is a nice city of about 350,000 inhabitants. It is not a tiny one-horse town nor a sprawling metropolis, but a nice mix of fast paced with casual progression. Bilbao is known for a few things, two of which are not nightlife or excitement. Gastronomy is a big draw for the city, and many tourists come to the city simply to try its cuisine, something that proved to be pretty much out of our financial reach during our weekend visit. The Basque region, the region in which Bilbao is located and one of the most unique and unSpanish-like parts of Spain, is world renowned for its progressive culinary scene, drawing specific attention for its seafood offerings. Besides food, Bilbao is also known as the home of one of the best collections of modern art, housed in the Guggenheim Museum. Opened in 1997, the Guggenheim Bilbao is one of the most famous oddities of architecture in the past few decades. The exterior is likened to a mutilated tin can, and the inside follows the architectural flow of a human heart. Around a million visitors tour the museum each year, and in only 14 years, it has become one of the biggest draws in Europe for arts and culture.

To be honest, I didn't really "get" much of what is in the Guggenheim. I have never been an art aficionado, especially not when it comes to modern art, and while I did enjoy the museum and am glad that I was able to experience it, I did not walk away with my mouth open or my heart palpitating. My friend and I also visited a fine arts museum in Bilbao. I am not sure what classifies art as "fine," but the museum was nice enough, exhibiting some good old paintings and some nice newer stuff, as well. The featured temporary exhibit highlighting the works of Daniel Tamayo was good but weird. His paintings seemed to be like a series of incoherent LSD trips, strung together by the leftovers of his thoughts like a collage of confusing nightmares that were painted in his sleep.

While my friend and I were unable to really "eat" Bilbao like one should when he or she visits the gastronomical hot spot, we did take advantage of a new food culture, one that is different from our usual Madrid. In Madrid, when one orders a drink of any kind (water, beer, wine, coke, etc.), the waiter also provides a small plate of food. Sometimes this plate of food is just some peanuts or potato chips, and sometimes it is a plate full of croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, or jamon, all very traditional and very delicious Spanish tapas. This small plate of food comes with the drink that was previously ordered and is not charged to the customer's bill. In Bilbao, the system is a bit different. When my friend and I walked into the bars of Bilbao (FYI - every food establishment in Spain is a bar), we were surprised to see plates of food, mostly tostas topped with various goodies, covering the glass bar top. Even more surprising was that no one was being handed a tapa with his or her drink.

The pintxos selection at one of the bars that we visited
We ordered a drink at the first bar and sat down, expecting a pintxo to come with our drinks but not exactly sure what was going to happen (in northern Spain, tapas are referred to as pintxos). After a careful waiting and observation period, we figured out that the tostas on top of the bar were there for the taking. Anything that we wanted could be ours; we just had to grab it and eat it. The catch was that each one cost about 1.50€ and none of the tapas in Bilbao were free. My friend and I decided that this was a small price to pay, considering that the quality of the tapas was better than in Madrid and that we got to choose our every bite from a smorgasbord of Spanish goodness. Once we figured this out, we bounced from place to place trying the various foods and sipping on something wet. My friend being a vegetarian (a virtual shackling of the palate in terms of Spanish cuisine), I was left to be the adventurous one, eating the different concoctions of meat, cheese, and vegetables all nestled on top of a small piece of baguette. Bilbao's food scene (the poor man's food scene consisting of bar top delights not the wine and dine scene known around the world for its innovation and creativity) proved to be quite nice. I'm not intrigued by fancy, so our absence from the white clothed tables topped with tiny portions and large bills was fine by me.

Aside from eating and museum going, my friend and I did a lot of walking around the city, new and old, touring the streets of the growing metro center and the centuries-old "Siete Calles" known collectively as the Casco Viejo. We took a funicular to the top of a hill to get a panoramic view of the city, walked across beautiful pedestrian bridges spanning the Nervión River, got lost in the noticeably residential area of northern Bilbao, and saw two movies in Spanish as our nighttime activities.

One of the things that I most learned from my trip to Bilbao is how much I am going to miss my friend when I leave Madrid. If things pan out the way that I am hoping, I will be leaving here in about 2-3 months to restart my life in the States, and that means leaving (at least in the physical sense) my Spanish life behind. I have made several friends and will undoubtedly miss them all, but the friend with whom I shared my Bilbao experience will be the one whom I miss the most. She has become my best friend here and one of the best friends that I have ever had. Perhaps that is a strange development in the course of only eight months of knowing one another, but somehow that is how it has come to be. She is from England and I, America. She plans on going back to London at the end of this year, and I will probably be making my way across the pond to my homeland, as well. We met through mutual friends, and while in Madrid, we have spent an innumerable amount of time traipsing about the city, talking about our cultural differences, jabbering about Spanish life, and laying out our plans for the future. Most of our conversations consist of making fun of our respective accents or just making fun of each other, period. We spend a lot our time together trying to workout our existences here in Spain, often fighting with and dealing with the same quirks and idiosyncrasies that make life abroad both exciting and a constant challenge. We have connected in a way that seems to make little sense to even those with whom we are mutual friends, but somehow, it works. It makes me quite sad to think that in a few months we will not have readily available opportunities to spend time together anymore, but with effort, we will be able to keep in touch using the plethora of technologies that we all now have at our disposal. One of the highlights of my time here in Spain is having gotten to know her as well as I have, and I am glad that we got at least one chance to go off and explore a corner of Spain together.
A bird's eye view of Bilbao from atop a northeastern hill

Bilbao was a nice place for a weekend trip. In all honesty, it is not the most exciting place, and I would not recommend it as a top five "must see" in Spain, but its beautiful scenery and good food, along with the Guggenheim Museum, are reason enough to make the journey if given the chance. You can never go wrong with delicious food, impressive culture, and good company, and my weekend in Bilbao didn't lack any of these essentials.

Click here to see my pictures from Bilbao.