The approach by road to some Spanish cities appears to be as much of an experience as being in the cities themselves – sweeping along the Autovía del Noroeste towards Madrid, for example (until it started reminding me of the A3 through south-west London, that is). Now I most certainly can’t claim to have been to all the cities in Spain, but I’d most definitely give my ‘most impressive city entrance’ vote to Bilbao if such a contest ever existed!
Puente de La Salve
Having driven west from Zarautz, we disappeared into the Artxanda Tunnel and then, upon exiting, we were hit with a view and sights that should live long in the memory for anyone. Driving across the distinctive red-arched Puente de La Salve, with the river underneath and the iconic Guggenheim Museum rising up to the right; it was welcome to Bilbao alright. We visited during an extended jaunt around Europe in our caravan. If you ever do such a thing, and perhaps have your family’s bikes on a car roof rack, please do remember to take them off before you try to find somewhere to park in any major city. Most of the parking is naturally underground, with on-street spaces hard to come by. When you finally find somewhere, you might then forget to make a note of where you’ve parked, get lost trying to find it later and have your mobile phone battery run out at the same time. I hope no-one ever repeats our foolishness…
But the trip was worth the minor hiccup. We were there a month before Christmas, so our strolls through the city streets and main shopping areas came with the added spice of a festive feeling in the air, decorations and lights all around, and giant Christmas trees to be found – perfect for the kids. If you do happen to visit Bilbao at this most wonderful time of the year, then the sparkling tree-like structure at Plaza Indautxu is one to check out.
The Azkuna Zentroa
, built in an old wine warehouse, is a good place to pop your head into while you’re in the city centre. Opened in 2010, it’s described as a Society and Contemporary Culture Centre (or multi-purpose venue), featuring a cinema, art installations and exhibitions, concerts and performances, a multimedia library, swimming pool, gymnasium and sun terrace. If you’re not at the centre to make use of the facilities or partake in any events, you can count your way round all 43 of the squat columns which hold up the three buildings above. They are made from various materials and have all been uniquely crafted. The Chinese designs particularly stand out for their vibrant colours – why not have a quick (and safe!) race to find the dragon’s foot while you’re there? Azkuna Zentroa is located in the Ensanche de Albia quarter, part of the city expansion areas created when Bilbao spread across the river estuary from the narrower streets of the old quarter during the 19th century. Be sure to look up and around you for some architectural wonders – the domed station with its spectacular stained glass window, the atrium of what is now Bilbao Tourist Office and the columned frontage of the Bank of Spain building.
Guggenheim and Puppy
The architecture in these surroundings is of course in stark contrast to the world-renowned Guggenheim Museum on the river bank. Browsing the Guggenheim collections won’t necessarily spark the same interest for youngsters as seeing large animals in a natural history museum, for example. However, there are children’s workshops, baby art, playful architecture courses and book sessions available
. Nonetheless, seeing the Guggenheim’s design with your own eyes is of course an absolute must for any Bilbao visitor. While exploring the exterior you also get the added bonus of ‘Puppy’ (a great photo opportunity for the kids, with a 12.4m-tall floral statue of a West Highland Terrier), the bright and colourful stainless steel ‘Tulips’ sculpture, plus the terrifying 9m-high ‘Maman’ spider (get your camera ready again!).
By this time, grown-ups might be in need of sitting down and relaxing for a while with a coffee. Handily, the large children’s playground next to the Guggenheim has all the standard facilities you’d expect, as well as a really good extra area full of net climbing frames to challenge your own little spiders.
Take a walk along the river, thrust your hands into your pockets and mimic the bronze sculpture of Spanish socialist politician Ramón Rubial as he walks towards the Gate of the Honourable structure with a large hole for him to pass through, at which you might stop to consider all manner of thoughts about size, perspective and direction. This route takes you towards the Zubizuri, a tied-arch footbridge, which is as good a way as any to cross the Nervion over to the old town, or Casco Viejo as it is known – just beware of the glass bricks on the walkway which can become slippery during wet weather.
Mercado de la Ribera
Once you’re on the other side of the river, you can wander the compact and narrow streets with their tall buildings rising up either side, browsing the many shops as you go. We found a great place for an evening meal as well. Go up the escalator outside the Mercado de la Ribera and enter a world of food and drink heaven, with literally dozens of individual outlets all on one floor and generous seating in the centre. The traditional pintxos – slices of bread with the toppings typically held in place with a cocktail stick or skewer – come in all types, shapes and sizes here, with ingredients ranging from meats, fish, cheese and beyond. You’ll certainly be well fed and ready for bed at the end of your day. PS: for any fans of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, do make sure to look out for any Bilbobus stops, signs or the vehicles themselves, for that ‘amusing’ photo opportunity to post on Facebook or Instagram. Just don’t get your hairy hobbit feet out for the picture, right!