Bilbao

 

If you like food, architecture, art and nice people you should check your agenda and see if you have time for a weekend break in Bilbao. This city in Northen Spain will captivate you with its countless bars that offer the best tapas and wines in the world and one of the most beautiful museums of the world: Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by the North American architect Frank O. Gehry. It is a unique Museum built on a 32,500 square meter site in the center of Bilbao.

The flower puppy, a distinctive feature of modern Bilbao, in front of the Guggenheim Museum

The building itself is an extraordinary combination of interconnecting shapes. Orthogonal blocks in limestone contrast with curved and bent forms covered in titanium. Glass curtain walls provide the building with the light and transparency it needs. Owing to their mathematical complexity, the sinuous stone, glass, and titanium curves were designed with the aid of computers. The glass walls were made and installed to protect the works of art from heat and radiation. The half-millimeter thick “fish-scale” titanium panels covering most of the building are guaranteed to last one hundred years. As a whole, Gehry’s design creates a spectacular, eminently visible structure that has the presence of a huge sculpture set against the backdrop of the city.

You don’t even need to leave the museum to enjoy a wonderful lunch. The Guggenheim’s restaurant is equally well regarded and is staffed by some of the best Basque chefs. However, I opted for a more local scene, that of pintxo bars in the Casco Viejo (Old Town) of Bilbao.

The old town also boasts artisanal shops, from cheese to cured hams and much more.

My first stop was at Xukela, a local tavern/bar frequented by locals and tourists. Simple but delicious pintxos.

Zucchini topped with foie gras; Bacalao with green and red pepper

My second stop was the highlight of the trip for me. Only frequented by elderly folks, you knew it had to be good once you entered.

Mostly serving raciones it gave a good insight into Basque cuisine. Rio Oja specialises in cazuelitas, delicious stews served in tapas-sized portions.

Txipirones en su tinto (Squid with black ink)

Pata de Cerdo (Pig’s foot)

Caracoles y Chorizo (Snails and chorizo sausage). This picture doesn’t do justice, the tomato sauce came bursting out of the plate.

Rabo (Oxtail)

We were also recommended two small joints in Plaza Nueva.

The first was Cafe-Bar Bilbao, a historical bar and famous for its pintxos.

Mousse of foie gras with jelly

Croqueta de Jamon

3 cheeses with raspberry sauce

Bacalao al pil-pil (Codfish with pil-pil sauce codfish stock with olive oil)

Croqueta de Chipiron (Squid croqueta)

The second, was another place we came across called Gyre-Toki, serving modern style pintxos, with a very friendly staff.

Chorizo en sidra (Chorizo sausage cooked in cider)

Carpaccio de Avestrus (Ostrich carpaccio) – So lean yet so tasty – wow.

Vieira a la plancha (Grilled scallops with Chip of Blood sausage)

Risotto de Hongos (Mushroom risotto)


Croqueta de toro (Croquette of bull). The best croquet I have ever had. 

Fried blood sausage

Shrimp tempura with parsley drink

Foie a la plancha y Pedro Ximenez (Grilled foie gras with reduced Ximenez sauce – similar to Porto)

Finally, the trip ended with a visit to Cafe Iruña. Established in 1903, the Iruña is one of Bilbao’s most famous bars. Located opposite the Jardines de Albia, it has an unexpectedly Andalucían decor, with colourful Alhambra tiles. 

Chorizo al sidra (once more)

Pulpo (Octopus)

 

To end on a final sweet note, I visited Nossi-Be, a local (and probably best) ice-cream parlor in Bilbao featuring some distinctive and unique flavors.
One of them was squid ink. I got to try a spoonful but opted for something more ‘normal’ like Rum Raisin, Hazelnut and a refreshing kiwi ice-cream.
Despite the monumental and intimidating structure of the Guggenheim that might overshadow more traditional architecture of Bilbao, the food here is equally an art. Another short getaway from San Sebastian; a much bigger city that reminded me of Paris and made me a bit nostalgic but a great city to visit, full of energy that will pull tourists and local Spaniards alike.
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