Our guide Aitor arrived promptly and was keen that we should experience all things Basque and from Bilbao. That we were visiting at the time of festival week brought added excitement. He explained that August is festival season, which originated with the celebration of the end of harvest. From the littlest mountain villages to the city of Bilbao at one million, the tradition continues all across Spain.
As we parked in what would be a series of very dimly lit parkades through the day, our guide explained the lack of illumination was a cost cutting measure in tough economic times. Our cycling guide had also spoken of towns where only every second street light was lit at night as another way to save money.
Feeling as though I wanted to don a headlamp to prevent breaking an ankle, I wondered if the savings for the electrical department would measure up against the increase in visits to the hospital emergency ward.
The day’s tour began with the festival tents scattered about down town. As the army of city crews hosed off and swept up from the night before it was clear there had been a party of immense proportions.
Our guide insisted we try his favorite coffee shops and treats, including the oldest eating establishment in the city. Blue tiles, like those we had seen at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul the year prior year, covered the walls.
Aitor explained such design showed the remaining influence of the Muslim Moors who dominated Spain for 700 years. Even though Christians ‘reconquered’ Spain in the late 1400s , many Muslim artists and architects remained.
First we were encouraged to try the sherry being drawn from a wooden barrel with a long ladle and poured with great flair and at a substantial height into a small glass.
Then Aitor turned to me and as though he was offering me the most amazing experience of a lifetime. “Would you like to eat some baby eels!?”
Speechless I believe my look conveyed, “I would rather pop out my eyeball and soak it in a tub of hot tar, but thank you. ” Dave saved me and said he would love to eat them. The man is a saint I tell you. Pour me another glass of sherry.
Throughout down town we went, stopping to watch a game of Basque pelota. Looking like it was being played in an over sized squash court, the four men rallied what our guide described as a golf ball against the walls.
The crowd was enthralled. Each time the ball was smacked by one of the open hands of the players my eyes watered with sympathetic limb pain. Aitor explained they develop calluses on their hands. You think?
One of the high points of our day, and for the last seventeen years the big tourist draw to this manufacturing city, was a visit to the Guggenheim Museum. Described as one of the world’s most striking and well known buildings, the architect Frank Gehry, attempted to blend the massive structure into the old city.
Sitting next to the river it’s towering curved metal and stone walls conjure up images of sails or waves. Inside it is as if the architect constantly plays with one’s mind as to what is curved or straight. Every inch of the building is in itself a work of art in the structure.
After two more stops to sample Aitor’s favorite treats, extra stops for special views of the city and a visit to a Bilbao’s Transporter Bridge and Ferry a UNESCO Heritage site where a ferry carry vehicles, bikes and pedestrians, hovering over the river moving via cables on a bridge above, we were delivered back to our hotel.
Dave and I rolled out of the car stuffed and exhausted. Our guide looked very pleased with himself as though the ultimate goal of the day had been achieved. The tour had been advertised as a 7 hour experience. We had been out for 12. Apparently this is the Basque way.
To find out more about experiencing Bilbao click here.
For other walks around the world click here.