When I arrived in the small Bilbao airport, there were no customs or passport control to check through and I picked up my checked-in luggage in a snap. I didn’t see my daughter Lauren at first but then she appeared with her pack slung on her back like a light blue turtle. I was so happy to see her, even though Skyping once a week helped me to feel like I had recently seen her, it was go so good to embrace her and to see her in person. She had figured out the bus to take to our hotel and it was already waiting there when we stepped outside. We boarded the bus and off we went, ten minutes later we were in the City of Bilbao, and without notice the Guggenheim loomed on my right.
My nose to the window I gaped at the unusual undulating shapes of what I perceived to be more of a sculpture than a building. It was definitely a statement of something I’d never seen before and I twisted around in my seat to get a full view as we passed by while waves of some unexplained emotion swept over me. The many photos I had seen of the Guggenheim could not really capture its essence as it was so much more than I expected. It was jolting and inspite of not sleeping for 24 hours I was very awake. I had arrived. My son, whom visited Lauren last year, had told me that I would be too excited to sleep when I arrived and he was right. The bus dropped us off down town just a few blocks away from the museum and right away it felt like Europe to me.
We walked about four blocks to our hotel passing right next to the Guggenheim, so close that I could almost reach out and touch the titanium panels. It didn’t seem real, I had made it and I was going to stay for 14 days. It felt magical from my first moment in Spain.
We checked into the Hotel Hesperia, located on the Nervion River, where we could easily see the Guggenheim as well as the Zubizuri Footbridge. Our room was smaller than I expected but it was sufficient, quiet and clean. It was a modern hotel with an American style bar and the front desk was very helpful and friendly. We stayed at the Hesperia four nights as it was so well situated and allowed us to take two day trips while having a cozy, convenient home base.
After settling in Lauren and I headed out to Casco Viejo (old town) which was only a 20 minute walk along the river in the opposite direction from the Guggenheim. On the way we crossed over the Zubizuri Bridge (Basque for “white bridge”). We would walk over this beautiful footbridge at least once a day during our stay in Bilbao.
Most of the cities in Basque Spain have a Casco Viejo, it’s the older, quaint part of town, where popular bar/ restaurants and shops are located, as well as the main plaza (plaza major).
The plaza major is where kids play, cafes have outdoor seating and where events are held. It’s like a gathering place in the city, and a landmark as we always knew we were when we ran into the plaza. In all of the cities we visited there was a plaza like this.
Lauren showed me around Casco Viejo while we waited for the restaurants to open. It was a beautiful evening, families were out in the plaza, children kicking balls while their parents drank wine with friends nearby, teens gathered in small groups and grandparents walked arm in arm around the bustling plaza. The multi-generational presence was very noticeable and heart warming in an unexplicable way that had me longing for something similar back home.
At 8 pm, when the restaurants bring out their delicacies, we began our search for a pinxto bar. Lauren led the way and shortly we walked inside a small busy place. Pinxto bars serve wine and a vast variety of small dishes (called pinxtos- pronounced “peenchos”) which are displayed on the bar so that customers can easily choose what looks appetizing. It was early so we found a table but often we would sit or stand at the bar, squeezing in between patrons to claim a few inches to place our wine and whatever culinary delight we had selected.
In Bilbao most of the pinxtos consist of small open-faced sandwiches with an assortment of toppings that usually include Jamon (ham) and occasionally cod, shrimp, or anchovies. There seemed to be a heavy focus on meat, which I knew in advance, and since I eat mostly vegetarian at home it was tough finding something that appealed to me at first. But I had decided ahead time that this would be an “out of my comfort zone” trip and I was open to trying just about anything.
One vegetarian option was tortilla de patatas which is a Basque specialty that is served throughout the day, often placed on the pinxto bar steaming hot directly from the stove. It’s a delicious potato and egg “omelet” which I ate for breakfast a few times while my appetite adjusted. Variations of this dish have added mushrooms, peppers or jamon.
It’s common to visit more than one pinxto bar in an evening, commonly known as pinxto-hopping. Lauren is a self-proclaimed foodie and when we finished our wine she was eager to check out what other places had to offer. It was a Friday night and people spilled out of the crowded bars drinking wine in the narrow streets. Our next stop was a larger place, a party happening in the front; lots of couples, families and tourists like us squeezing into check out what tasty pinxtos they had to offer.
I fell in love with Bilbao, and the Basque region of Spain, that very first day. Someone had told me that Bilbao is an industrial town, and not the prettiest place, but since the Guggenheim was built many lovely things have been added to Bilbao. I found the City to be charming, the old mixed in with the modern, and it gave me a wonderful first impression of Spain.
Read more: The Unexpected in Bilbao