Bilbao has been in the throes of a renaissance and is fast becoming Spain’s best kept secret. Nestled along the stunning Bay of Biscay coastline, sweeping from Biarritz to Santander, Bilbao is perfect for soaking up some Basque culture. Aer Lingus operate daily direct flights from Dublin, taking me and my two teenagers there in less than two hours.
The airport is a short 20 minutes from the city centre and in no time we were checking-in to the Gran Hotel Domine, set across the road from the glorious Guggenheim Art Museum. Our room enjoys a great view of the magnificent Puppy, a massive doggy sculpture covered in flowers outside the gallery.
We spent the first day cycling around the city on the well-planned bike lanes − with no fear of hitting traffic. Our tour guide, George, from the bike shop Tourne, spoke perfect English and he made it especially interesting for my son with details about the football team Athletic Bilbao. The club insists that all of its players are Basque and it sports the colours of Sunderland FC in homage to the English steelworkers who brought the sport over. We enjoyed the stories about the city’s characters, like Carola, who has a large red industrial crane named after her. She was a pretty woman, who turned the heads of the dock workers each morning as she crossed the river in a boat. The story goes that the owner of the shipyard offered to pay her taxi fare over the bridge, so that his workers wouldn’t grind to a halt to catch a glimpse of her beauty. Apparently she declined his offer!
George’s personal enthusiasm made the three hour excursion pass too quickly and as we reach the old town and the pretty square of Plaza Nueva we had found our bearings. We took a break at a bar, to sample the Pintxos − a different kind of tapas to the usual you will find around Spain. Many are served on small portions of bread with shrimps, crab or meat on top. Traditionally they were introduced to accompany the local wine delicious white wine, Xocolata. At a little over one euro per glass it is a massive hit with tourists.
The Gran Via, or main street, is dotted with all the department stores that my daughter adores, H&M and Bershka being big favourites. We put in a couple of hours shopping then found a delightful place to eat near our hotel called La Mutua with a great mix of gourmet hamburgers for my son and pintxos for us girls. Prices are reasonable in most eateries, which is important with two hungry teens. The Basque country is credited with more Michelin star restaurants than any other area in the world and every person we spoke to reminded us how important food is to the Basques.
Next morning we wake to enjoy breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel. The Gran Hotel Domine has arguably the best view in the city. With the puppy, La Salva Bridge and shiny roof of the Guggenheim reflecting in the sunshine it’s easy to feel on top of the world.
We have plans to sight-see from an unusual perspective. The Bilbao Ria was once the most polluted river in Europe but today it is spotless and full of fish after a massive cleaning that cost the city millions. The kids can’t wait to have fun kayaking with Bilbobentura and we pass the Museo de Maritime along the way. It is well worth a visit − even just to see the photographs of the incredible changes Bilbao has been through. In the seventies many of the ugly industrial buildings that hugged the river were demolished and the infra structure was developed to a high aesthetic with so much green that even the trams run on lush grass-covered-tracks. The entire region is much greener than the rest of Spain, getting 100 days of rain each year.
Our guide at Bilbobenture is Erik, a school teacher, with a wealth of knowledge about his city. Under the summer sunshine he tells us about the Rivero Market and the many restaurants that locals have in their houses where people can pop in and cook their own purchases from the market. A novel idea indeed!
But I much prefer to be served my dinner so we take a tram to the old town which is brimming with restaurants and especially nice gelato shops. On every corner a busker performs creating a wonderful atmosphere. The yearly BBK music festival brings music lovers from all over Europe to enjoy and Fiesta time is at the end of August which runs for eight days and brings thousands to the streets to join in the frolics.
We finally make some time to pop into the Guggenheim Museum, which stands as a monument to man’s great architectural abilities. With a mix of permanent and visiting exhibits, the atrium alone is spectacular in the same way as a cathedral or a grand opera house. Apparently the Guggenheim foundation didn’t believe the Spanish could construct the remarkable building with snake-like curves and shiny edifices − but they were proved very wrong.
Bilbao is a very walkable city but has an easy and efficient transport system. We paid €3 return to go to Getxo beach. The metro line passes a plethora of beaches that vary in size and isolation with Plentzia being the most spectacular. We got off at Algorta to explore the old fishing port and narrow Basque streets with pretty bars and shops − typical in style others found along this stretch of coast all the way to Biarritz. With plenty of places to eat and a sun bed for €6 we were all set. Getxo has the feel of a beach in a French impressionist painting.
The kids were delighted to hit the water because there is a dearth of swimming options in Bilbao. The Azkuna Zentroa in the centre of the city has a rooftop public swimming pool which is very busy and seems to be the only pool for locals or visitors. It is cheap and has great views of the city but too noisy for sunbathing.
The park is a better option with fountains for kids to run in and out of and stretches of grass where they can relax. While lazing there we met a group of Irish visitors who had completed their third stage of the Camino de Santiago and they were already planning what stage they will do next year. They agreed that Bilbao is a good city to commence or end a stage of the pilgrimage.
Our final excursion was to the Mad Mansion which stretched our brains to the limit. It’s a great way to put in an hour with the kids and not too far from the old town. We were locked into room and had to solve all sorts of problems to try and escape. Even though we didn’t answer all the clues and were timed out, my two gave it the thumbs up. Bilbao is a perfect destination for a weekend break this autumn, with or without the kids.
Aer Lingus operates a daily service from Dublin to Bilbao with up to two flights on Saturday. One-way fares including taxes and charges start from €49.99 including taxes and charges. For further information visit www.aerlingus.com. Aer Lingus’ Family First is aimed at giving even greater value to families offering half price on checked baggage and advance seat selection for children aged 2 to 11 years, travelling on short haul flights.
Gran Hotel Domine www.hoteldominebilbao.com
Rates of rooms are from 150.00€ room /night. (VAT Included).
For more information about Bilbao see http://www.spain.info/en_IE or visit www.bilbaoturismo.net
Bike tours with Tourne, including English speaking-guide can be found at http://tournebilbao.com/en/
Kayaking on the estuary of Bilbao see http://www.bilbobentura.com/ prices start at €20 with equipment
For details of The Guggenheim Gallery see www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/en/
To experience a fun adventure that will challenge you and the kids see www.madmansion.es