By Paul Shoul
Standing at the bar of Gatz, located at Santa Maria 10 in the old quarter of Bilbao Spain, I reverently picked up another “pintxo,” a small bite-sized appetizer, that was spread out on the many colorful plates before me.
Like a box of fine chocolates, you know that whichever one you choose it’s going to be great.
You are just looking for that special one to tickle your taste buds in a particular way before moving on to the next: Iberico ham covered a piece of soft Brie cheese on a bed of roasted red peppers and a piece of crusty bread, fried to a crisp in olive oil.
Washing it down with a sip of the house red, the combination was… glorious, perfect.
I turned to the gentleman standing near me, after a slight raise of my hand he reached over to light the cigarette I had promised myself I wouldn’t smoke.
Everybody smokes here in the Tapas bars. The good food, good cheer, great wine — heck, I knew I was going to cave in as soon as I walked in the door.
“I’m falling in love with Bilbao,” I said.
He smiled back as if we were talking about a woman we both knew. “But of course,” he said. “How could you not?”
Located in northern Spain, Bilbao is the capital of Vizcaya, one of three provinces that make up the autonomous community known as Basque country. It boasts of its own language and culture, unique to the rest of Spain.
More than one million people live in this province; of that, about 30% call Bilbao their home. It is the cultural and financial engine that powers the region.
Once known as “El Bocho”, or the whole, Bilbao has undergone an amazing transformation during the past 20 years. It was a polluted, soot-covered, industrial center full of foundries and shipyards, some employing over 20,000 workers. Even Shakespeare gave reference to the quality of its steel. In Hamlet, the prince carries a dagger called Bilbao.
No More Foundries
During the 1980s, the foundries became obsolete. Many were dismantled, and by the end of the decade, unemployment was over 30%. Desperate, and in search of a new future, the provincial government came up with a plan to revitalize the city as an artistic and tourism center.
Many of the “Bilbainos,” as the residents call themselves, thought they were crazy. As our guide said to me. It may be the first time when the politicians were totally right, and the people were totally wrong.”
An array of projects were undertaken, aided by some of the worlds finest architects.
A new metro system designed by Sir Norman Foster was constructed and it’s convenient, cheap, and clean. The new international airport designed by Santiago Calatrava is spectacular.
The Euskalduna music and convention center includes an auditorium built of cherry that seats 2200 people for opera and other events, such as the Bilbao symphonic orchestra.
Most importantly, it was the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank O. Gehry and completed in 1997, that put Bilbao on the map.
The Guggenheim is just as much a piece of art as the incredible works that it holds inside its 36,000 feet (11,000 meters) of exhibition space. Rising up like a giant piece of titanium origami, it is a many-petaled flower of a structure reflected in the waters of the Nervion Estuary it borders.
Surrounded by walkways, sculptures, fountains, a giant flower dog and occasional fog displays and light shows, it is breathtaking. It’s worth the trek to Bilbao to see this modern marvel.
The museum is located at Avada Abandoria, 2. Tel: 94 423 90 00, open Tuesday – Sunday: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.) Guided tours are offered and tickets are a maximum price of 12 Eros, but prices change according to how many galleries are open and may be cheaper.
Aside from the permanent collections drawn from the whole Guggenheim empire and a growing collection specific to Bilbao, there are the traveling temporary exhibitions.
In the largest of the exhibition spaces, the Arcelor gallery, a 430-foot long room, is Richard Serras, “The matter of time,” a permanent installation of eight monumental steel sculptures. It is the “largest site-specific sculptural commission in modern history,” and definitely blew my mind.
Viewed from above, the scale of the whole thing is awe-inspiring. Eight different pieces of circular twisting bands of steel sheets, some 30 feet high, take on a different dimension when you venture to walk through them.
I became dizzy and a little anxious moving through the first piece, the sounds of invisible people echoing around me.
I was wondering how I would get out of the iron canyon if I couldn’t find the exit, delighted when I did, and eager to go through the next one.
The museum has an extensive gift shop, book store, and coffee shop and a world-class restaurant where I was fortunate enough to eat. It is well laid out, comfortable, and has a great view of the river.
Dining in Bilbao
Chef Josen Alija is in charge and created a sumptuous meal of cod candied in garlic oil, a glazed veal cheek with polenta and sun-dried tomatoes, Of special note was the roast vine tomato stuffed with baby squid on a black risotto made with squid ink and fresh cream. The flavor of the baby squid was intense, creamy, salty and satisfying.
Food is a central part of Basque life. Bilbao and the region have earned their status as a culinary destination point. The area is home to some innovative up-scale restaurants pushing the creative limits of international fine dining, but they all rest upon and incorporate a foundation of superior local products, historic recipes, and Basque traditions.
Food bonds their world together and is a ritual of love and community. In the old section of Bilbao we took a tour of La Ribera Market: (Ribera 20, Bajo Bilbao 48005), and then headed out to sample some of the local tapas bars.
The market has three floors devoted to seafood, meat, vegetables, and fruit. It claims to be the world’s largest covered market. It is a busy, fun place to visit.
The freshness and variety of the food were amazing — mounds of giant shrimp, and fish of all kinds so fresh they seem to be still swimming.
Rows of cured meats and hanging sausages, fresh rabbits and birds. Even the pig’s heads displayed at one vendor’s stall seemed to maintain their dignity.
I love markets: the colors and smells of the food, the clamoring chorus of vendors and shoppers. You can get a real feel for people. It is the heart of any culture.
The Bilbainos are friendly, classy, comfortable in their skin, and seem to have an almost religious reverence for food. This is their temple. It was a good place to go before having lunch because I was starving after spending an hour there.
Seeing the Old City
There is much to see in the old section of the city. This is where Bilbao was founded in 1300 and expanded from. Thin cobblestone streets are lined by tall historic buildings, shops, street musicians, and a parade of passersby.
It is a maze that I wished I’d had time to get lost in, but we were on a mission: We were there to eat. Lunch might be the best food bargain in Spain if you’re going for a sit-down meal.
Obligated by law, every restaurant has to offer an affordable multi-course “menu del dia.” They range in price from $7.5E and up and include a soup or salad, meat or fish, a glass of wine and a dessert.
For me, the tapas bars were my favorite way to sample all the foods of the region, and to meet and mingle with the locals. Simply put, tapas bars are the best social, drinking, eating scene I have ever experienced.
Tapas, as they are called in the rest of Spain, are small one-two bite appetizers. The name evolved from the verb tapar (to cover). Apparently, they would cover their sherry glasses with a piece of ham to keep the flies out. In Bilbao, they call them “pintxos,” which came from the Spanish word pinchar (to prick) and essentially means “stuck with a toothpick.”
This is how it works. Spread out down the length of the bar are plate after plate of different pintxos such as: lightly fried whole Piquillo peppers with salt, blood sausage topped off with a quail egg, my favorite, the famous Gilda, an olive, a guindilla hot pepper, an onion, a piece of cod or anchovy drenched in olive oil and vinegar, small croquets of bechamel sauce and cod, slices of Iberico ham, considered the best in the world.
They call the pig it derives from an “olive tree on four feet.”
They are raised on wild acorns; the fat is good for you and it is melt-in-your-mouth amazing. Puff pastries. Goat cheese on roasted red pepper, or tuna and sun-dried tomatoes, and on and on… the variety is staggering. Each bar seems to have a specialty, and they are all fabulous.
Bar-Hopping for Tapas
We had lunch at a few of the bars in the old section, and then went out on a Friday night tour near the Guggenheim. To my delight, the entire town bar-hops. Like last call in a college town, everybody crams in together.
This is an all-ages crowd and a relief compared to the age segregation of the States. All kinds of people seem to like to be near each other.
The atmosphere and energy is fantastic. The tradition is that you eat a few pinchos, have a wine or a beer or two, say hello to everyone, smoke half a pack of cigarettes, crowd around the entrance outside for a while, and then move on to the next place.
Although the bartenders keep a loose tab, it’s basically all run on trust. You eat what you want, then you tell them what you had. They vary in price from one to two euros.
One bar we found later in the old port town of Bermeo was Kafe Loidxie. We had 3 beers, 7 pinchos and 3 coffees for a total of 13 euros — not bad for some of the best food you will ever have! After hitting four or five places, the Bilbainos move on yet again; it’s time for dinner, which can last over three hours. You’ve got to love this place.
Bilbao’s Finest Restaurants
We had the chance to dine at some of the area’s finest restaurants, each of which deserves mention. That evening we were honored to try chef Daniel Garcia’s “Art Kitchen,” restaurant Zortziko, located in the heart of Bilbao at Alameda de Mazarredo, 17 48001.
Chef Garcia is internationally recognized; he’s got a star from the Michelin guide. His establishment has a variety of dining rooms of different motifs, such as the British and Versailles salons.
We ate in the Exhibition Room, a modern space that includes a full-sized kitchen, and were treated to a cooking demonstration by Daniel before we sat down to eat.
Producing an obscenely large foie gras (goose liver), he proceeded to slice it, and then sear it at high heat. To our surprise, he put it in a blender and reduced it to a thick sauce.
In an ice bath, he cooled it down to exactly 13 degrees, when it became thick and moose-like. Mixed with crunchy sea salt, he served it in a glass containing caramelized pears, topped off with Tempranillo grape gelee. Wow.
This was just the appetizer; the rest of the meal of oysters, young pigeon (28 days old), a loin of hake fish with clam sauce, and a dessert that included liver ice cream, was equally spellbinding. This guy is a master, and if, like me, you usually can only spring for one good meal on a vacation, he is well worth your consideration.
The Night at the Symphony
The next night we went out to the Bilbao Symphony at the Eskalduna Music and Convention Center, with dinner afterward at restaurant Etxanobe, located on the top floor, to experience the cooking of another star-rated Chef, Fernando Canales.
This is a cozy space; the ceiling is draped in fabric, the walls are hung with beautiful artwork. It is classy yet comfortable. Chef Canales is a delightful man, skilled and obviously devoted. He had a child-like delight when he made the rounds of his guests tables describing the different methods he uses to cook his specialties.
We started with two little twin towers of exactly 22 pieces of spaghetti (we counted them) wrapped around sheep’s milk cheese topped with Beluga caviar, standing in a saffron mussel juice.
Then, crawfish carpaccio, a lasagna of anchovies and tomato, a succulent piece of pork fat with leek and cinnamon, the traditional salt cod with pil pil sauce, and finally a boneless suckling lamb with a potato cloud.
The lamb was perfect, but the simple cloud stole the show. Thin, flat, translucent, and crunchy, he slow-cooked a baked potato mixture spread into a thin film for 4 hours at 113 degrees F (45 degrees C) to evaporate, then fried it in olive oil. This level of attention was applied to the smallest details of the whole dining experience.
About nine miles (15 km) down the river from the center of Bilbao is the Viscaya Transporter Bridge. Built in 1893, two metal towers rise 150 feet in the air on either side of the estuary of the river Nervion that divides the town.
Connected at the top so you can walk across, a gondola is suspended down to street level and ferries people and cars across 24 hours a day. The view of the port from above is expansive. The neighborhood is historic, and according to a friend has a lot of bars that really hop on a Friday night. This is an exclusive area of Bilbao with many huge old mansions that are being renovated.
One of the older local establishments is the restaurant Jolastoki: Avda. de los Chopos, Leioako 24 48990 Neguri-Getxo. Surrounded by outside patios and gardens, the chalet-style restaurant is entered through a very English style sitting room with lots of knickknacks, a large fireplace, big comfortable chairs, and a bar table full of the world’s best liquors and a fine selection of Cuban cigars.
All dark oak and cluttered, it reeked of history. Besides the large dining areas and private rooms, there is a porch adorned with colorful platters collected from around the world by the restaurant’s owner.
Down the Coast
My final day in the Basque country was spent on a trip down the coast 19 miles (30 km) from Bilbao on route BI 6313 to the port town of Bermeo. Hourly trains and buses also service this route. The road travels along the steep rocky coast and through the lush forests of the Urdaibai biosphere reserve.
Passing through the surfer’s paradise town of Bakio and then by the tiny Isle of San Gaztelugatxe with its lonely monastery perched on top of its wave-pounded shores. Coming to the town of Gernika you have entered the spiritual capital of Basque country.
Picasso’s Famous Painting ‘Guernica’
Destroyed by the Nazis in 1937 with saturation bombing against civilians, the event was immortalized by Picasso in his famous tortured painting, which is titled “Guernica.”
Basque democratic history dates back to the middle ages and was admired by John Adams, who came here to learn from them in 1779. The Gernika parliament building is a must-see. It is part of the ongoing democratic history of the world.
While there, you must pay homage to the oak tree of Gernika that is the symbol of Basque freedom. It is depicted in a beautiful stained glass ceiling and the remaining ancient trunk is enshrined in the courtyard.
Bermeo has the largest fishing fleet in Spain and is renowned for its catch of tuna. The old section has the classic feeling of an ancient seafaring town.
Steep stairs wind through skinny cobblestone streets, laundry flutters in the wind as herb boxes teeter on window sills. Groups of old men walk slowly through the park, arguing, laughing, as streams of schoolgirls flow around them.
Wooden boats in the port knock together in rhythm with the sea. Walking to the overlook of the old port of Portu Zahara, we got into a discussion with some gentleman about where to find the best pinchos. By chance, they were members of the many private, men-only cooking clubs in Spain called Sociedades Gastronomicas.
Men Love to Cook in Spain
They invited us in for a look around. Men love to cook in Spain. It is their obsessive national hobby. This was a small club, just a bar, and a few tables. One table was surrounded by a small group of guys playing cards, drinking coffee and wine.
The adjoining kitchen was alive with a large stock pot simmering on the stove. Plates of fresh anchovies marinated in olive oil, bowls of clams and thick cuts of beef waited for their final preparation. A storage room was filled with wine. These guys have it down. I want to join up.
By the time we arrived at Bodega de Txacoli in Larrabetzu for our scheduled wine tasting, we were running four hours late. They have an impressive new establishment and a fine restaurant that was filled with a couple of hundred Germans gorging on dinner and drinking copious amounts of their fine wines that will soon be available in the States.
We were late because none of us could drag ourselves away from the exquisite lunch at the restaurant Baserri Maitea in Gernika.
The restaurant is owned by Antonio Zaluda, a former goalkeeper for Bilbao’s soccer team. He is a gentle giant of a man. His restaurant is an old but elegant cathedral ceiling farmhouse, with lots of exposed wood, large posts and beams, and a roaring fireplace.
The atmosphere is warm and enchanting. Kings and queens have dined here, but there is no pretension. It felt like the country home I wish I had been born into. Zaluda greeted us like family.
Starting with a blood sausage in red pepper sauce, we then had local clams with asparagus cream and garlic. Then cod with mushrooms, mustard and Iberian ham in pil pil sauce served on a custard.
Cod cheeks, swim bladders and tripe in red pepper sauce followed and then grilled squid with potatoes and onion. Hake fish with melon and tomato led the way to our final dish of local grass-fed beef that was grilled slightly on one side and served with a shooter of spicy tomato sauce.
The almost raw beef was tender and amazing. Zaluda appeared with a large cut of it at our table to show off its quality and freshness. The dessert was grilled bread with eucalyptus ice cream in vanilla sauce. Except for the swim bladders that were just too weird for my taste, this was perhaps my favorite restaurant.
More Ships Coming In
Although there is a timeless feel to Bilbao and the Basque country, a sense of living history that melds past and present through the people and customs, and the combination of old and new architecture, the time to go there is now.
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there through his work in the Valley Advocate. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.