Basque Country Food Photography Spain Travel

Basque hunting in Bilbao, País Vasco

April 2, 2013

Easter week, in Spain, is known as ‘Semana Santa’. Much like at Christmas time, the emphasis veers away from the commercial side of things; there’re no eggs – chocolate or decorative, hard-boiled ones – and no kitschy shop-window displays of Easter bunnies who are supposed to have somehow laid them.

For most, it presents the opportunity to take part in or simply observe a historic and deep-rooted Spanish tradition that is as much a social ritual as an ancient religious practice. For others, it’s a week of going out, getting drunk and staying in bed. For me, it’s a time to travel. I’ve seen Semana Santa once before, and forty-five minute journeys on foot that ordinarily take just five become a little wearisome after the fifth or sixth time.

This year, I travelled north to País Vasco, an area of Spain I have long since wanted to explore, given its interminable tide of rave reviews and my unswerving curiosity for all things where peculiar languages are concerned.

My trip started in Bilbao, the largest and most densely populated city of the region, which, since the construction of the famous Guggenheim Museum in 1997, has seen itself go from a relatively uninteresting port city to a thriving, trendy and avant-garde tourist hub.

Thanks to a couple of very informative posts from the likes of Young Adventuress and Liz en España, I was easily able to draw up a rough plan of what I was going to do keep me busy. Two nights seemed about right.

I arrived at the airport Saturday afternoon and boarded the Bizkaibus to the city centre. My ears were pricked, ready to ingest all those baffling Basque words, but everybody on the bus seemed to be speaking Castellano. ‘They’re just regular Spanish-speaking people on holiday’ I thought, ‘I’ll be drowning in it soon enough’. I turned my attention to what was happening outside the bus. The difference between what I was seeing and the Spain I was used to was incredible, in almost every sense. It wasn’t just the lush, green meadows filled with cows and sheep that struck me as different; it was the smell as well. I breathed in the pungent scent of freshly cut grass, more evocative of the peak district where I grew up in England, when my nostrils were abruptly hijacked by the equally as powerful aroma of freshly laid horse manure. I gagged loudly. Rough with the smooth and all that I suppose.

Bilbao, Spain, spring, pintxos

Plaza de Miguel de Unamuno

Not long afterwards I was looking out onto Plaza de Miguel de Unamuno, instantly enamored with the place. Luckily, I had managed to secure accommodation in this old part of town, El Casco Viejo, via couchsurfing, so everything I wanted to see was right on my doorstep. Before finding my host’s apartment, I went out in search of some Euskara (the official term for the Basque language) as I still hadn’t heard any, and was at a loss as to why. I decided to home in on old people. Surely they would speak it, proud as they are of their roots and regional identity. Two old ladies approached on my left flank. I slowed my pace, and listened intently…

Nothing. NADA. Why on earth was nobody speaking this mysterious language? Weren’t they proud to be able to speak it? Was I actually in Bilbao?

Bilbao, Spain, spring, pintxos

Plaza Nueva

I soon found my host’s apartment, where my questions were duly answered. Apparently, people tend not to speak Euskera in the cities of País Vasco, and a surprising amount of Basque-born natives speak relatively little of the language, knowing only useful words and phrases for the rare times they should ever need them. If you want to hear Euskera spoken fluently and liberally, you have to head out to the smaller towns in between the three main cities, Bilbao, San Sebastián and Vitoria-Gasteiz. This came as a surprise to me. Clearly, I hadn’t read Liz’s post on ‘5 Things You Need To Know When Visiting Basque Country’ closely enough. I inevitably began to draw comparisons with Catalan, a language that is spoken anywhere and everywhere in all of Catalonia, in cities big or small. Why wasn’t it the same here?

I spent the rest of the day wandering the elegant Casco Viejo, which exuded a perfectly balanced mingling of things both old and new. I was completely sold.

Bilbao, Spain, spring, pintxos

Catedral de Bilbao

Bilbao, Spain, spring, pintxos

Space Invader!

Space Invader!

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

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Always love a bit of street art...

Always love a bit of street art…

Later that evening, I met my host’s housemate, Tania, who, although not a native herself, offered me her thoughts on why Euskera is less common to hear in País Vasco than Catalan in Catalonia. I was shocked. According to Tania, many Basque natives choose not to speak Euskera as abundantly as they could do for fear of being associated with the now abdicated ETA terrorist organization. This explanation seemed a little radical to me, but I could see some sense in what she was saying.

Understandably, it’s still a very touchy subject, ETA. While few supporters of the organization remain, there is still a well-backed call for the transfer of all Basque prisoners, currently serving life sentences for acts of terrorism, to Basque prisons, where their families would be able to visit them without the cost of travelling elsewhere in Spain. Earlier this year thousands of people marched in downtown Bilbao to give voice to the cause, and each week, family members stand outside the city council in silent protest. The movement for complete separation from the state is still very much alive in Bilbao. Spain’s World Cup win in 2010, for instance, triggered a number of street fights, after those that openly celebrated the victory were set upon by separatists out looking to make a point.

The following day, I visited El Mercado de Ribera, explored more of the old town and went to the Guggenheim. Here is what I saw:

Mercado de Ribera



Mercado de Ribera

Mercado de Ribera

Fruta, Mercado de Ribera

Fruta, Mercado de Ribera

The Guggenheim

The Guggenheim Spider

The Guggenheim Spider

The Guggenheim Cat

The Guggenheim Dog

Elevator inside the Guggenheim

Elevator inside the Guggenheim

Metalic flowers, The Guggenheim

Metalic flowers, The Guggenheim

'The Matter Of Time' room, The Guggenheim (didn't realise that I wasn't allowed to take this one but still got away with it...)

‘The Matter Of Time’ room, The Guggenheim (didn’t realise that I wasn’t allowed to take this one but still got away with it…)

Balls, The Guggenheim

Balls, The Guggenheim

IMG_0830 copy

That evening, I had my first pinxto tour. I started with an aubergine and goat’s cheese topped tostada, then went on to a jamon and breadcrumbed chicken baguette and finished with a colossal helping of tortilla:

Pintxo de lomo y tortilla

Pintxo de bernjena y queso de cabra

More pintxos

More pintxos

Humungous tortilla

Humungous tortilla

They were all delicious, but not a scratch on what I was about to discover in my next port of call – San Sebastián.

I didn’t hear one single conversation in Euskera whilst in Bilbao, but I did pick up and attempt to learn one or two phrases from the people I met. Here are some of them:

Kaixo  – Hello

Zer moduz – How are you?

Garargado bat – One beer

Bi garagardo – Two beers

Mezedez – Please

Eskerrik asko  – Thank you (incredible, I know)

Ez dago zergaitik – You’re welcome (even more incredible)

Agur – Goodbye (unsurprisingly easier)

Despite the disappointing realization that there wasn’t much Euskera to be heard in Bilbao, I still loved my time there, and certainly hadn’t predicted that I’d be so mesmerized by the city. I ended up staying three nights it was that good.



Have you been to Bilbao before? What did you think of it? Would you go back?

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  • Vicki Taylor April 2, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Since it opened in Bilbao I’ve wanted to vist the Guggenheim and now I know that I have to go sooooon! Very inspirational blog. Thanks Josh

  • Mike April 2, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    I never heard Basque spoken was I was in Bilbao either. The city though was great! A lot different from anything in Andalucía, much more modern and industrial. The Basque Country was actualy one of my favorite places I visited in Spain. I listed it as a regional preference on my application to teach in Spain for next year, so I may be living there!

    • Josh April 7, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      It’s the only place I’ve visited in Spain so far that’s made me question whether I want to continue living in Granada! However, now that the sun’s just donned its dusty hat, I’m beginning to feel far less inclined to go anywhere else. You should definitely live in the casco viejo if you are placed there. It’s stunning!

      • Mike April 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm

        Ahhh yes, once the sun comes out in Granada it can be hard to leave. I’ll keep you updated on where I end up teaching (should know in about a month). I’ll definitely keep casco viejo in mind if I’m placed there, and I’d welcome a visit. We should meet up in Spain once I’m there, assuming you’ll still be in Spain.

  • Julia April 2, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    This is such a great post! The image I’ve always gotten of Bilbao is a bunch of separatists making a point to show their identity with Euskera, like it is in Cataluña. Maybe that’s a bit ignorant…but now I know! It’d be interesting to find out if people really do avoid the language because of ETA; I’d think that the basque people would want to take back their language and create a positive connotation, but it seems I’m wrong again.

    I love the Guggenheim here in NYC, but visiting her sister museum in Bilbao is at the top of my list. From your pictures it seems much more avant-garde than the one here.

    Also, the image of you following around old ladies on the street gave me a good laugh haha

    • Morroi April 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm

      Linking language (thus culture) to politics is going down a very dangerous path. All the basque speakers I know (and most of the people I know in Donosti are born basque speakers) are totally against ETA, like a huge majority of the Basque people. Some of them would like the independence from Spain (there are several political parties in Spain that promote Basque -or Catalan- independence through peaceful means), and some others don’t… but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be proud of their heritage, culture and language.

    • Josh April 7, 2013 at 5:31 pm

      I very much doubt that everybody avoids using Euskera because of that affiliation. It’s probably just one of a whole bunch of reasons. Interesting though.

      Glad you liked the Guggenheim pics – I wasn’t allowed to photograph most of it!

  • Marcela Cava Balsa April 2, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    El paraiso

  • Morroi April 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    As a Catalan -married to a Scottish girl- and who is now living in the Basque Country, I can’t help but to answer some issue that you point out.

    First of all I wouldn’t call Bilbao representative of the Basque Country. It is its largest city, and a very nice one indeed, but at the same time it is much less Basque than, for instance, Donosti-San Sebastián. Why is that? Because of the immigration: Bilbao has a very recent industrial past, specially in the 60s and 70s, when lots of workers from other parts of Spain moved to the greater Bilbao looking for work; and settled down thereafter. The same thing happened in Barcelona you might point out, and so it was. The difference being than Catalan (language) is a fairly easy language to learn for a Spanish-speaker; same as Portuguese, Italian or French… being all Latin languages and sharing lots of properties. But Basque (language) is not a Latin language and shares nothing at all with any of them. It is so hard to learn that there is even a word for later-in-life learners: “euskaldun berri”, which means “new basque speaker”.

    So while all the non-catalan workers who moved to the greater Barcelona managed to pick up catalan fairly easily just by being exposed to it, it was not the same in the Basque Country. And they couldn’t learn it either, as from 1939 to 1975 neither Catalan nor Basque were taught anywhere as the whole of Spain was under the fascist dictatorship of a small man with a ridiculous moustache: Franco. And with Franco only Spanish was to be taught in the hope of killing the other languages forever. So for 30 somthing years these languages (Catalan, Basque and Galician) were only learnt within the family or in secret and unofficial schools. Or, as we saw in the case of Catalunya, by being exposed to it because it was fairly easy to pick up …at least orally.

    Obviously that doesn’t mean that some people, nowadays, choose not to speak Basque because of other reasons, political or not, such as the one they told you… although it’s the first time I’ve heard it. But what made Bilbao so big (the industries) is also what made it so difficult for the Basque language to survive. On the other hand in Donosti-San Sebastián you will hear a lot of Basque being spoken in the streets… and in the little villages of Gipuzkoa or northern Navarra you will hardly hear any Spanish at all.

    Linking language (thus culture) to politics is going down a very dangerous path. All the basque speakers I know (and most of the people I know in Donosti are born basque speakers) are totally against ETA, like a huge majority of the Basque people. Some of them would like the independence from Spain (there are several political parties in Spain that promote Basque -or Catalan- independence through peaceful means), and some others don’t… but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be proud of their heritage, culture and language.

    Next time you want to visit the Basque Country let me know and …get out of Bilbao!

    • Josh April 7, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      Hi Morroi

      Thanks for commenting, and for filling me in on all the history about immigrants in Bilbao and drawing comparisons to Catalan. It certainly explains a lot! Like I said in the post, I felt that that view was a decidedly radical one – perhaps even naïve – but certainly not the only one by a long stretch. It was interesting to me so I wanted to write about it. I actually met a couple of fluent Basque speakers in Pamplona later in the week who pretty much summed it up in the same way you have!

      Loved my time there and I will definitely be back so I’ll be in touch!

  • almabotxera April 7, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    I’m from Bilbao and I’m agree Morroi’s comments. This is totally true. Thank you for coming to my city. I hope you liked it. I’m very proud of it. Guggenheim give us an increase visit of tourists.

    Eskerrik asko etortzeagatik, agur.

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