Bilbao, Land of Food and Art

Sixth in a series of trip posts about Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

On March 28, we flew over remote towns nestled between the snow-dusted mountains of Basque Country and landed in Bilbao.

After arriving at our lodging – a sleek, contemporary and comfortable seven story hotel on the Nervión river – we strode for ten minutes down the broad river promenade to the Casco Viejo, or Old Town. There we found the Victor Montes restaurant tucked into a corner of the Plaza Nueva (reminiscent of Piazza San Marco though far smaller).

In glass cases were stacks of interesting looking pintxos – the Basque version of tapas. A few customers – men – leaned on the bar or perched on bar stools in their rumpled corduroy jackets, talking and sipping glasses of wine.

Inside Victor Montes

We weren’t sure how to order. The proprietor behind the bar helpfully described the pintxos in English. We opted to sit outside on the terrasa after pointing out our choices. My goat cheese, ham and grilled-parmesan-encrusted tomato pintxo was excellent, especially when accompanied by a cold crisp txakoli, a bone dry, slightly effervescent white wine.

Tomato/goat cheese and tuna pintxos at Victor Montes

Tomato/goat cheese and tuna pintxos at Victor Montes

As we relaxed on the terrance, a group of college-aged students started singing a folk song in the plaza, accompanied by the Basque version of an accordion called a “trikitixa.” Another student tapped out a brisk rhythm on a tambourine. Here and there on the square, dogs greeted one another and hopped up on the strategically located planters to do what dogs do.

Plaza Nueva Bilbao

Bilbao had already begun to captivate us with its range of experiences and attractiveness. We had come to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim, but there was so much more to the town. As our taxi wound down the hill and landed at the lip of the river, we saw that it was stitched every quarter mile or so with bridges new and old. The people were attractive, too, dark and handsome, fashionably, even edgily dressed.

After Victor Montes, we continued deeper into Casco Viejo, past the old Cathedral, which is a monster, parts of it very old; the oldest section predates the town, which was founded in 1300. In the lane behind the Cathedral, Collette stopped for a txokolat, a local specialty (also known as hot chocolate, but particularly rich and delicious). We later learned in the folk museum that the tradition of chocolate-making, along with shepherding, fishing and weaving, is a long-established tradition in Basque country. (The Museo Vasco has no English labels or literature, so it’s a less than satisfying attraction. It does, however, house the “Mikeldi,” an Iron Age II sculpture of a hog holding beneath its belly a round disc. It is believed to have been an idol with magical or religious significance.)

While Collette rested, I walked to the Guggenheim to purchase advance tickets for the following day. Half the fun of this architectural sculpture is the way people interact with it, horsing around, taking selfies, etc. I then walked on the Guggenheim side of the river toward the restaurant the front desk had recommended for dinner, Nicolas, located on a pedestrian street chockablock with bars and eateries.

Guggenheim, Bilbao

Maman by Louise Bourgeois, next to the Guggenheim

Maman by Louise Bourgeois, next to the Guggenheim

Back in Casco Viejo, I found a set of steep stairs leading up from a plaza to the crest of the hill. Passing through the entrance of the old cemetery (which must have been relocated), I saw dozens of locals enjoying the pleasant spring weather: men and boys playing some kind of board game on small green tables, old men arguing in a club bocce court, children trying to capture a recalcitrant dog who was busy leading another pair of dogs in a grand game of chase-me, a prone couple, and a dozen or so older couples taking their pre-dinner stroll.

Later, at Nicolas, we were initially stumped by the layout of the restaurant. It was too cold to sit outside in the café, and the bar was small and appeared to be meant for standing room only. Where was the restaurant? We had to push through the swinging doors in the back of the bar to find it; it was dark and empty. “Hello,” we offered. After a minute or two, the proprietor came out of the kitchen and turned on the lights, then led us to the table with a “reserved” card. He fetched his son, who spoke great English. We later learned the son had studied in Ireland. Though relatively expensive (98 Euros), the food was regional, fresh and delicious.

Out came an “amuse bouche” of green croquettes (spinach?), white asparagus tips that had been cooked and marinated (served with a traditional side of vinegar and sweet peppers), mezluna (hake, a white fish) with crab gratin, squid in its own ink with rice, and for dessert, carrot cake and licorice ice cream with orange sauce. All accompanied by a bottle of txakoli, of course, made by Seniorio Deotxaran.

From our waiter, we learned that there are three regions that produce txakoli (pronounced cha-ko-lee), which was rapidly on its way to become our favorite wine. (Or at least our favorite outside of the Penedes/Barcelona area, where it is cava, of course.)  Txakoli is produced near San Sebastian (Getariako), in the region surrounding Vitoria-Guittez (Alava) and here, near Bilbao (Bizkaiko). The one we sampled at Nicolas, naturally, was from the Bizkaiko region.

Txakoli (sometimes called txakolina) isn’t a grape, it turns out. Its made from hondarrabi zuri grapes (zuri means “white” in Basque), the predominant grape grown in Basque Country. Whatever it is, it’s delicious.


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