Category Archives: Bizkaia

4 years later…an update on 2010 post, “Places in Bilbao I Like That You May Also Like”

  • Menéame0

Time surely goes fast…I still remember when the Guggenheim was being built and when we took pictures of tourists, awed at the fact that there were actually people visiting Bilbao!! Well, things have changed a lot since then: Bilbao has turned into a wonderful, livable, lively town, great for foodies and a must-see from an architectural point of view. My favorite places have also changed, and so I also have new likes and dislikes. Let´s talk about 9 places that I love and that you may miss as a tourist, as they´re a bit off-the-beaten-path:

1) Mercado de la Ribera, the biggest covered market in Europe, completely re-built, and where my guests love to take pics of the fresh fish at the fishmongers´, of the Ibérico ham hanging from the ceilings, of the wide range of local cheeses and of the farmers that offer their locally produced vegetables (without any “organic” label on them…no need for this kind of marketing)…

2) Alhóndiga, the former wine warehouse located on the very center of Bilbao, now a public cultural and leisure center. Its interior has been singularly designed by acclaimed designer Philippe Starck, and it has a great rooftop bar where you can enjoy great music and views.Alhóndiga rooftop bar

3) Diputación Street, right behind the beautiful building of the provincial government or Diputación, in the Gran Vía (main street). Great pintxos in El Globo, good cocktails at El Embrujo, wonderful ibérico ham at La Viña, excellent steaks at Santa Rosalía…

4) Henao and Heros streets area, close to renovated Jado square (the one with the lions fountain in the center), where new bars have added life to this beautiful resident area. Mr Wonderful, Coppola pizzeria (in Barrainkua st), Singular, Residence, El Txoko de Gabi, Las Cepas…excellent pintxos and wine route, as well as good live music.

5) Bacaicoa bar, in Unamuno square, Old Town…the best pintxo of grilled mushrooms in town.

6) A ride on the Begoña or Iturribide public elevators, in the Old Town, for the very best views of the Old Town of Bilbao from above. Very cheap and a great experience as a local.View from Iturribide elevator, Old Town

7) A ride on the Funicular of Artxanda, from Castaños street…definitely the best views of the whole city from above…just turn left when you get up to get to the view point.

8) Santa María street in the Old Town on a Friday evening, for alternative pintxos bars and restaurants and great street atmosphere (we love having pintxos outside bars, rather than inside)

9) Doña Casilda Park, or “park of the ducks”, as we used to name it when kids…lovely public gardens in Bilbao, right behind the Meliá hotel. Perfect place to relax and enjoy the coolness of its shady trees and pond.Doña Casilda Park

Zenarruza, A Hidden Thousand-Year-Old Monastery

  • Menéame0

This monastery is located near the town of Bolibar (yes, Simón Bolivar the liberator of the Spanish colonies in South America had his ancestors here), belonging to Markina-Xemein (a beautiful but unknown town, where the University of Jai-Alai-Basque pelota- is located). The building is not magnificent, I´d say it´s humble and appropriate for praying and silence…but it is surrounded by a most beautiful scenery, green meadows and valleys, one after the other, and by the magnificent mountains of the Basque Country. It´s open to visitors and it´s also a hospice, where you can rest and share the meditative life of the monks. For more info, http://monasteriozenarruza.net/, available in English and other languages.

The Province of Bizkaia, in a lapse

  • Menéame0

A beautiful and original 3´ video on the highlights of the province of Bizkaia, where I live…hope you like it. Please click on the link below.

Bizkaia in a lapse

The Basilica of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits

  • Menéame0

You have surely heard of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, as they are present all over the world. But I´m sure you didn´t know that the founder was born in 1491 in the heart of the Basque Country, in Azpeitia. Iñigo de Loyola (born Iñigo, a Basque name, that he changed later to Ignacio), of a noble family and educated in the best manner, soon became a soldier serving the King of Castile. In 1521 he was injured while battling in Pamplona, and retired to his fortress in the valley of Loiola, near Azpeitia and Azkoitia. During his long recovery he got used to reading religious books, that made him rethink his whole life. Once recovered, he started a life of sanctity that led him to the foundation of the Jesuit order, probably the most influential in the history of the Catholic church.

The 18th century basilica is located in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a park full of trees and by the Urola river that flows through the mountainous scenery. As you can see by the pictures, it´s a magnificent but at the same time a modest building, with a great dome covered in baroque paintings and designs. On its left hand side you can visit the birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola, a.k.a. Iñigo de Loyola, that has been beautifully restored to its original state. You can visit both buildings, and in the fortress tower you can see the rooms as they were in the 16th century.

Right by the Basilica (or Sanctuary) there´s a nice, cozy hotel and some rural housings, as well as fine restaurants, in an atmosphere surprisingly almost tourist free. The valley offers very interesting visits, like the Ferrería de Mirandaola (Ironmongery) in the Iron Valley or the town of Idiazabal, where the world famous Idiazabal sheep cheese is made (also, the Cheese Museum deserves a visit).

 

Holy Week…not so Holy anymore, but still beautiful

  • Menéame0

As you probably know, Holy Week is celebrated all over Spain with processions and a wide variety of rites related to suffering and pain. While the most extended idea is that Holy Week is just celebrated in Seville, the truth is that it´s a period of religious passion in many other places. Not so many years ago all tv channels (well, we had just two when I was a kid) broadcasted religious movies, radio stations played just religious music, cinemas and bars were closed on Holy Thursday, Friday and Saturday, people ate very lightly as a penance and mainly fish, and there was not much to do except attending the local processions.

It´s not like that any more. Now the religious sense of the Holy Week has been practically lost and it´s a time for holidays. But processions are still there, and in Bilbao they are on the streets for a whole week. They are breathtaking: the sound of trumpets, the penants wearing those high coned hats and covered faces, the rhythm of dozens of drums, the overwhelming silence, the images that are rythmically carried by at least 12 men at an endless pace…It´s really something unique and I love going to see them…of course bars and cinemas and everything is open now, so…yes, we do enjoy a glass of wine and a pintxo afterwards.

In Balmaseda, west of the Basque Country, in the province of Bizkaia, they celebrate the most famous Live Passion, where the inhabitants of this beautiful town hold a religious show in the open air recreating the Passion of Christ. Breathtaking, real…it takes place at night and hundreds of families and visitors gather for a religious show that has been represented for the past three centuries and always with town locals, that play their roles as real professionals. www.viacrucisbalmaseda.com, part of it in English.

There´s a Museum of the Basque Beret (Txapela), and It´s Fun!!

  • Menéame0

101_6283Last Saturday I went to visit the Museo de la Boina La Encartada - Museum of the Beret (or “txapela”, in Basque), in Balmaseda, Bizkaia. It´s on the former factory that has been making berets for exactly 100 years (1892-1992). The museum - a classic , beautiful XIX century Industrial Revolution building- , surrounded by well kept gardens and a river, has been recently opened  and offers a very comprehensive and thorough visit (available in English on demand).

They show the whole process, as some of the machinery is still in good working condition. All the machinery has been restored and, as the power they use to make them work comes from just WATER (thrusted from a turbine moved by the force of the water of the river), it´s constantly in motion. A very good guide shows you how  wool is converted through a series of processes into a classic Basque beret, there´s a very instructive video (well, there are two, one is for kids and the other is for adults) and you also visit the home of the owners, kept as it was in early XX century. Entrance fee is very small and they offer berets for sale, at very reasonable prices. Nearby, the beautiful village of Balmaseda, full of beautiful churches, convents and a marvellous mediaeval bridge. A different kind of visit.101_6293

The web page is www.laencartadamuseoa.com, it´s just 30 kms from Bilbao and it´s off the beaten path, but worth the visit.  Not far from Ferrería (ironmongery) El Pobal and the Rolls Royce Museum.

101_6302

And this is me with the txapela I bought that day…

Castles in the Basque Country I. Castle of Butrón

  • Menéame0

The castle of Butrón corresponds to the romantic idea of a castle. Located in Gatika, 20 miles from Bilbao, it was a mediaeval fortress built on the XIII century, that served as defensive tower in the fights that took place for centuries between Oñacinos and Gamboinos, the two big families that dominated the Basque Country in the Middle Ages. On the XVI century another castle was built on its place, and then it was abandoned for many years until the Marqués de Cubas recontructed and gave its present shape on the XIX century.butrón 1

At present, it belongs to a private company, it has served as restaurant for some years but it´s currently closed for visits. In any case, the views and the pictures you can take are spectacular. It is surrounded by a luxurious tree garden, with exotic species, and the visit is really worth it.

San Miguel de Arretxinaga, a very peculiar church

  • Menéame0

san miguel arretxinaga1Located in Markina-Xemein, the town considered the University of Jai-Alai (Basque ball game), this is a very odd church. It´s part of my childhood memories, when it was a place just known to locals and you had to ask for the key to the lady living in the caserío (Basque farm) next door. The present church is relatively new, XVIII century, and has no particular artistic value. The interest comes from within the church, a natural megalitic construction formed by three huge stones that are the remains of a mountain of the tertiary period. People in the area thought that the Basajauns (Lords of the Forest, according to Basque mithology) had brought these huge stones to this place, and considered it a magical place, where they performed pagan ceremonies. Later, when the Basque country was christianized, they built a church (not the present one) and dedicated it to San Miguel, and placed a statue beneath the arch formed by the three stones. It´s now the main altar. In summer, and thanks to the great sonority of the place, they held music festivals inside the church.

A Pintxo is not a Tapa…and a Tapa is not a Ración…

  • Menéame0

pintxos BilbaoMany potential visitors to the Basque Country tend to ask about The Best Tapas Bars in town. Well, I normally answer telling them that, first of all, there´s no such thing as Tapas Bars. Most bars offer tapas or pintxos. And also, that a Tapa is not a Pintxo. To make it more complicated, a Pintxo is not a Tapa and a Tapa is not a Ración and Pintxos can be divided into Banderillas and The Rest while The Rest may have another subdivision, Pintxos You Eat With Your Hand and Pintxos Served On A Plate…it seems a bit complicated, uh?pintxos Donostia

Let´s start by the very beginning: Pintxos (or pinchos) were (and still are) small portions of food that are placed on the counter and you pick them with your hand. The classic one is the Spanish Omelette, served on a piece of bread. You get into the bar, order your drink, and grab the pintxo with your hand. There´s normally a big selection of pintxos on the counter, you can have as many as you want, but the local custom is to have just one with a “zurito” (half a beer) or a glass of wine or cider. In some selected places, mainly located in the Donostia-San Sebastián area, they also offer Pintxos made on order, more elaborate, more expensive, and that are nomally eaten using a fork.

Tapas are not Pintxos. Tapas are complimentary served in many parts of Spain, for free, to go with your drink. They are more basic than a pintxo, and may also be smaller. In some places they call Tapas to Raciones. A Ración is something that is served hot, you have it seated, in an informal way, and normally share several with your friends. And is not free. You may order A Ración of Calamares, of Patatas Bravas (spicy potatoes), of Albóndigas (meatballs), Champis (mushrooms), etc…pintxo ganador

One of the effects of the Pintxos becoming more and more popular is that  in many bars in San Sebastián they give you a plate and tell you to place your pintxos on it, then they charge you for them. That is an outrage!! Pintxos and drinks are always paid when you finish and should NEVER be eaten on a plate. It´s not our way and it should never be, pintxos are eaten with your hand and the etiquette says that they are paid based on an honor system: the waiter asks how many you´ve had, and you tell him the truth. No need to count…

Every year we hold a Pintxos Championship. The winner bar will be famous forever and customer will flock in to taste his small culinary preparations…For more info, a useful web is www.todopintxos.com.

Enkarterriak/Encartaciones, the Western Valleys

  • Menéame0

On the west of Bizkaia there exists the land known as Encartaciones, “The Chartered Towns”, a succession of green and mountainous valleys that hide beautiful places with a long mediaeval tradition, and that have always been a “different” part of Bizkaia. They had their own Casa de Juntas de Avellaneda, an ancient way of ruling themselves, parallel to the one in Gernika, and still there. But, once again, you will see no tourists at all on this area, probably the least visited in Bizkaia, despite its enormous offer of interesting attractions for those that seek the “untouched” areas. Basque is hardly spoken on this area.

Among its several attractions, the town of Balmaseda, with its mediaeval bridge  and the amazing church of Saint Severino. They hold a magnificent live recreation of the Passion of Christ on Easter (Holy Week). Not far, the best and biggest Rolls Royce museum in the world, already mentioned on this blog. Also, the Ferrería del Pobal, a faithful recreation of how ironworks were made in the past centuries, using just the force of watermills and fire. This land used to be full of iron mines and has a long tradition of ironworks, as most of the Basque Country. In Karrantza you have the Pozalagua Caves, the biggest cave in the world in its part known as Torca del Carlista (500 mt long, 240mt wide and 135mt high), with the highest concentration on earth of unique excentric stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes, even the weirdest ones.

For fun, Karpin Abentura, www.karpinabentura.com, a place where wild animals are treated from injuries and live  in its spacious areas and also where kids will enjoy the “live” dinosaurs. Also, a great place for families is Sopuerta Abentura, http://www.sopuerta-abentura.com/, fun in the trees…

Regarding food and accommodation, I can recommend Hotel Amalurra (www.amalurra.com), a different experience, it offers a complete Spa service and great food in its nice restaurant. Perfect for relax and to enjoy nature, it has huge gardens and children are most welcome. Also, the very new Hotel Ibaia, luxuriously located on an ancient convent in Gordexola, beautiful town full of palaces and manor houses (and where my grandpa was born, by the way), www.hotelibaia.es. Also, a very special place is www.casavicentepallotti.com, a balneary run by the Palotinos Fathers, Catholic priests, for those that look for relax and meditation in a romantic scenery. And almost any restaurant in the area of good, honest food at unbeatable prices.

Useful info on the area on www.enkartur.net and www.karrantza.com.