Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Beyond Bilbao -- More Wow!

During our visit to Bilbao, Matthew's official film festival schedule luckily allowed us to explore several areas outside the city. One of them found us riding the Metro Line out to Portugalete, about 15 kilometers from the city centre.

The Metro system, designed by the distinguished English architect, Norman Foster, was completed by 2004. At street level, these curved glassy entrances -- known as "Fosteritos"! -- remind you of the underground tunnels themselves. Light and airy during daytime, they are lit up at night, like a beacon, so you always know where they are located. They are as unique to Bilbao as the Guimard Art Nouveau Metro entrances are here in Paris.

Down smooth escalators (surprisingly, totally free of advertising) the platforms are clean and very well lit. It all still looks very new!

Our destination was this bridge, officially called Vizcaya Bridge, but also known as El Puente Colgante (The Hanging Bridge). Straddling the mouth of the Ibaizabal estuary, west of Bilbao, the bridge was designed by the Basque architect Alberto de Palacio, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, and completed in 1893.  45-meters high and with a span of 160 meters, it links the town of Portugalete on one side with Las Arenas on the other. 

The first bridge in the world to carry people and traffic on a high suspended gondola, it merged 19th-century iron working traditions (many rivets!) with the then new lightweight technology of twisted steel ropes. The result is a delicate-looking, almost lacy structure. Most importantly, it allowed the two towns to be connected without disrupting the passage of the busy maritime traffic of the Port of Bilbao, which in those days, consisted of a lot of "Tall Ships"!

Except for a brief time during the Spanish Civil War, this oldest "transporter" bridge in the world has been in continuous use since its inauguration. Today the modern gondola goes back and forth throughout the day, ferrying cars and passengers (35 centimes for a one way ticket).

For those who are not afraid of heights, you can also ride an elevator to the top span and walk across! In 2006, the Bridge was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. We happily rode over and back in the gondola, not quite having the stomach for the high-wire walk!

Another day, we headed further west and into the mountains, to the medieval town of Balmaseda. Nestled into a lush valley some 30 kilometers from Bilbao, the 14th century arched bridge over the River Kadagua, links the two parts of the town for pedestrians.

With its lovely old church (we tried to ignore the unattactive modern flats next door!), the town was the perfect setting for the annual Medieval Fair, which turned out to be a Spanish version of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in California!

After having to hike down from the freeway (we had no idea the town would be so crowded that all exits off the highway would be closed!), we were greeted by the local coats of arms and a somewhat sleepy fellow behind the counter.

We made our way along the narrow streets, which seemed to get more and more crowded.

This elderly gentleman in his Basque beret doesn't seem too happy with any of it!

The crowd thinned out a bit when this fellow came along with his giant boa constrictor. Nobody wanted to get too close!

Several groups of musicians, in medieval garb, strolled through the town. The cheeks of these pipers are almost as big and round as the bags on their bagpipes!

Other musicians were intent on a more sinister purpose. To the somber beat of the drum, this "penitent" seems to be being led either to appear before the Inquisition, or to meet his maker at the scaffold! In either case, people hastily cleared a pathway for him.

Among the many stalls, which included a lot of the usual leather goods, jewellry, and lotions & potions, we especially liked this "bow and arrow" selection, and the owner's earnest sales pitch...

...this fierce looking knife and sword display...

...and these interesting herbal solutions for just about any problem!

There were also some nifty "pip-of-a-rig" gadgets being demonstrated, like this spidery back massage, made of distinctly non-medieval materials.

Of course, there were many eye-popping food stalls. This one seemed to cover all the important stuff -- sausage, spicy chili peppers and cheese...

 ...whilst this one turned meat on a spit, sending up clouds of fragrant smells -- lunchtime!

Somehow, though, we kept getting distracted with people watching -- this Senor, so well turned out in his 14th century costume, with his 21st century digital camera safely around his neck...

...more musicians, led by a sultry singer...

...this adorable little damsel, with her modern purse...

...and this future Queen, seriously spurning her eager suitor, his sword drawn, his love poem ready to recite!

By the time we got to buy lunch, all that was left was a dish of spicy octopus and potatoes. My first taste of this cephalopod, and to my surprise and delight, it turned out to be delicious. The chilled beer that accompanied it didn't hurt either!

We were certainly both fortified enough to make the hike back up the steep, steep hill to the freeway, where we climbed over the railing, walked carefully along the culvert, and found our car, thankfully still there, ready to ferry us back to Bilbao!

Another beautiful sunny day found us driving to the coast, into the autonomous region of Cantabria, and the lovely fishing port of Castro Urdiales. No longer in Basque country, all signage was suddenly only in Spanish.

Originally a Roman colony called Flaviobriga (there are Roman ruins still being excavated), the town centre is modern, but the port area dates back to the Middle Ages.

The interior of this buttressed 13th century Gothic Church, Santa María de la Asunción, has three naves, and the sunshine pouring through the stained glass windows bathed the whole space in wonderful warm tones.

The adjacent Castle of Santa Ana is today the lighthouse, with modern workings incorporated into the old castle walls.

The view from the lighthouse, along the harbor wall and looking up the coast, looked so peaceful the day we visited, belying the fact that this is the Bay of Biscay, famous for its wild storms and turbulent seas.

Turning inland, we drove back to Bilbao along quiet lanes and country roads, one of which brought us to this desolate, shuttered church and cemetery. Even in the bright afternoon sunlight, there was an eerie feel to the place. Many spirits abroad at night, I am sure!

The whole northern coast of Spain is littered with charming little fishing villages, most of them with an "old town" clustered around the harbor. We stopped at this one, Getaria, on our way to Bilbao, driving from Biarritz.

Here, we enjoyed lunch, overlooking the fishing boats. If there is one thing we did not lack on this whole trip, it was delicious food!

At the end of the Film Festival, we drove back to Biarritz, from where we took the super fast train to Paris, Gare Montparnasse. First, though, we spent a brief half a day in San Sebastiàn, the last town on the Spanish coast, across the  border from Biarritz.

Long enough, however, to know that we want to go back. Its famous beach was just one attraction. There are winding streets, leafy squares, a wonderful Basque history museum (San Telmo Museum), and, of course, more delightful restaurants.

The imposing City Hall was once a casino. Now, on a warm, sunny Saturday, it is the place to get married. Bridal parties were lining up, waiting their turn to plight their troth before the magistrate.

This happy couple had survived the ceremony, and were now looking forward to a happy married life. We saluted them, and all the warm, friendly, charming Spanish people we had met during our memorable days in Basque Country.

Zorionak!  Bizitza Luzea!

Felicitaciones!  Larga Vida!

À bientôt!


  1. Ederra zure blog….Pilo bat gustatu zait….. J´ai trop aimé votre blog

  2. Now I am more than determined to get myself back to Spain, what a great trip you both had! Susan

  3. That was so interesting and those large prawns looked so mouth watering xx

  4. Thanks for this, especially the El Puente Colgante. Wonderful solution to onramps using up land. The best bridge ever!

  5. Lovely post and wonderfull fotos, greeeting from Belgium

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, retriever from Belgium! I like your blog about WWI dogs!

  6. Those pipes look like the Gallician pipes ("gaita"). I wonder if the Basques have their own variation? A distinctly different sound from Irish uilleann pipes or the Highland pipes. good thing I read these while eating my lunch, or I would be famished! San Sebastian looks well worth revisiting. I am impressed with your hike to and from the medieval faire! cheers, Lyons