The Nervión Estuary looked on intently at the future of Bilbao and at last, the city is looking back on the estuary forever. These were my thoughts as I headed off to rent a canoe to paddle along the estuary.
The trip started next to the Maritime Museum, where we learnt about the safety regulations and how to paddle the canoe, a relatively simple operation as I found out once I was in the water. I took the group tour, with a guide who told us about the history of Bilbao at multiple stops and pointed out the most important buildings, while feeding us anecdotes about the construction of each one, and about how the city has gradually changed into the modern beauty we see today, without losing the slightest bit of its mature flavour. We all admired the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum from our canoes. We cheered as we passed San Mamés, the stadium of Athletic Club, the city's football club.
We went under beautiful bridges and discovered their metal undersides. Below Deusto Bridge we got a close-up view of the two tunnels full of pulleys that were used to open the bridge for the large cargo ships. We also saw true seafaring districts inside the city. I think about how much this industrial city has changed, now transformed into a tourist gem.
There is no way to describe our feelings as we went down through the dark waters of the estuary which now shine brightly thanks to an environmental recovery plan that allows us to even have a swim at the end of the tour, splashing like kids. The trip can also be taken at night, and is another interesting way of admiring the capital of Bizkaia.
Bilbao Old Town, or the Seven Streets, is the place where it all started.
This is where the city was born, and even today it has all the flavour of History written with a capital letter on its walls. There are numerous historic buildings in the area: Santiago Cathedral, the Church of San Anton, the Basque Museum of Archaeology, Ethnography and History, the Bidebarrieta City Library and Plaza Nueva, where the famous Sunday market and Santo Tomás fair are held.
But where the Old Town really starts to get fun is the pintxo bars, mostly in Plaza Nueva, Calle del Perro or Somera, although there are also some very interesting ones scattered around the area. I got ready to become a txikitera for a day, visiting bars and taverns, going from pintxo to pintxo looking for the most delicious one, always washed down with a glass of wine, cider, txakoli, kalimotxo or a zurito (small beer).
I strongly recommend the pintxos of octopus, tiger mussels, mushroom, cod, pepper and omelette. The flavours are out of this world. I am amazed at how such an extensive cuisine fits in such a tiny bite. I ended up ordering 'agua de Bilbao' (Bilbao water), in other words, a glass of cava as it is known by the locals because, according to the saying 'here champagne is drunk like water'. I raised my glass to this historic centre, as pretty as it is lively – and keep on partying.
The Suspension Bridge is the bridge with a thousand names. Bizkaia, Getxo, Portugalete, Bilbao and even Palacio Bridge, in honour of the architect who designed the project, Alberto de Palacio y Elissague. Bizkaiko Zubia, in Euskera.
This impressive hulk, so dense yet light-weight at the same time depending on how you look at it, is one of the landmarks of the city of Bilbao. Originally painted black, this absorbed too much heat, and so the colour was changed to the reddish haematite iron oxide visible today. An upper walkway, reached by two lifts, allows you to walk across. The views are impressive. No wonder it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, noted for its innovative use of braided steel cables and considered one of the most important works of architecture using iron in the Industrial Revolution.
Transporters link the two banks of the estuary every eight minutes, in a journey that takes just a minute and a half. The bridge is alive, and as well as being admired by visitors, it regularly used by the locals from Bilbao to get about. While a guide explained the secrets of its construction from the high-up walkways, we watched the sun set across the Nervión. An unforgettable sight.
In Bilbao it is possible to follow the course of recent history through its buildings, which have transformed the dark industrial city into a sparkling city that attracts visitors from all over the world. Some of the most renowned architects in the world have left their print on the city.
The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum by Frank O. Gehry opened the season of change with its huge volume and fish scales, becoming the emblem of a city to which its fate is bound. But it is not the only one. Bilbao International Airport La Paloma, designed by Santiago Calatrava is an investment in modern architecture for visitors to Bilbao arriving by plane. Those taking the metro to get around the city can enjoy the creation of Sir Norman Foster and his team; the project won the Brunel Railway Architecture Award for the overall design and in particular for Sarriko station. Other works include Euskalduna Palace – selected as the best Congress Centre in the World in 2003 – by Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacio, the Zubi Zuri bridge, also by Calatrava, known as the white bridge, linking Paseo de Campo Volantín to Paseo de Uribitarte and which surprises you because of its apparent lightness (incidentally, it is a fantastic place for taking photos with an artistic touch!) or the Iberdrola Tower, by César Pelli, Bilbao's lighthouse.
Also impressive is the beautiful New Library at Deusto University, by Rafael Moneo, and the seven buildings of Isozaki Atea, by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Another must for lovers of architecture and design is the Alhóndiga, a former wine warehouse of modern design, the work of architect Ricardo Bastida, whose renovation project, designed by Philippe Starck, has converted it into a spectacular cultural centre with 15,000 square metres intended for leisure purposes. And just to prove it is more alive than ever, Bilbao is planning an expansion designed by architect Zaha Hadid which, in the space of 20 years, will convert Zorrozaurre peninsula into an island, joined to the two banks of the estuary by numerous bridges. Ultramodern residential buildings will be the proof of what is already a reality: Bilbao is committed to the future. As early as 400 BC, Plato spoke of the benefits to humans who lived surrounded by beauty; the people of Bilbao, then, are lucky.