by Leander Milbrecht
Those who expect tapas, flamenco and sangria during a visit to the harbour city Bilbao in the north of Spain are pretty wrong. The biggest city of the Basque Country surprises with its very own culture, cuisine and magnificent landscapes in the immediate vicinity.
22 years ago everything changed for the Basque city of Bilbao – practically overnight. The eye of the world was caught by the city on the Bay of Biscay, the previously unknown branch of tourism flourished there, a total of 10,000 new jobs were created. And all of this through just one building: the Guggenheim Museum. Besides Venice with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Bilbao offers the only Guggenheim Museum in Europe. The first, original Guggenheim Museum was founded in New York in 1939 and is located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The current fourth worldwide is planned in Abu Dhabi. The museums will mainly exhibit contemporary art from the 20th century. In 1997, the Guggenheim in Bilbao was opened after four years of construction on the banks of the Nervión River. The deconstructivist architectural style of the museum immediately attracted attention. Already firmly integrated into the cityscape is the impressive sculpture “Puppy” by Jeff Koons, covered with flowers, which is located at the back of the building. The area, which twenty years ago was still grubby and run-down, is now considered a figurehead and tourist magnet of Bilbao. The term “Bilbao Effect” was subsequently coined: it refers to the enhancement of a city or region through spectacular architectural constructions. But Bilbao and its surroundings have much more to offer.
The pride of the Basques
On the one hand you are in Spain – but on the other hand you are not. Bilbao is located in Biscay, one of the three provinces of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country. This refers only to the Spanish part of the culturally defined Basque Country, which also covers parts of southern France. Political autonomy has existed since 1978 and also includes fiscal independence. The Basque Country suffered less from the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 than the rest of Spain: in 2015 the region was among the Spanish leaders in terms of economic growth and per capita GDP. The unemployment rate and public debt were also well below the Spanish average.
The Basques are considered a proud people. They are proud of their history, their origin, their traditions – and above all: their language. Under Franco’s dictatorship, the speaking and teaching of Basque was forbidden – as a result the language almost disappeared completely. But support programmes have ensured that more than 700,000 people in the Basque Country now fluently speak Basque again. The language is considered Europe’s oldest still spoken language and is not related to any other language in Europe – its origins are still being researched.
Sergio Iriarte, a gay tourist guide from Bilbao, is a certified guide for the Guggenheim, but also offers tours that show Bilbao from a completely different perspective: “I know that we live in Spain – but historically, culturally and linguistically, we have more in common with people from the south of France. We share history, language and sport with them.” Speaking of sport: pelota is the name of the sport exported from the Basque Country to parts of Latin America. Anyone who likes to see muscular young men in tight jerseys bouncing balls against a wall should definitely watch a game.
For Sergio, the way of thinking and living of the Basques and Spaniards also differ significantly from each other. “We don’t drink sangria, we don’t know flamenco,” the guide continues. Many tourists come to the city, go to a bar and order sangria. But they are at the wrong address, as Sergio reports laughing: “We hate sangria. I mean it’s disgusting: wine with sugar and Fanta. We don’t drink that.” And if someone is looking for flamenco, Sergio just looks at him and says: “Honey, this is the Basque Country. It’s not Spain.”
In general, Bilbao and the Basque Country have many Michelin-starred restaurants and refined cuisine. However, food is always something special for the Basques, it is celebrated – not only in expensive top restaurants. Especially recommended is an evening pintxo tour through the old town. Pintxos? Someone who wants to make fun of all Basques would probably compare pintxos and tapas. Pintxos (Spanish: Pinchos means spit) is the Basques’ term for appetizers that you can choose from in one of the many pintxo bars for beer, wine or long drink. Most of the times, as the name reveals, they are skewers. All kinds of different mediterranean delicacies are skewered: olives, sardines, bacon, shrimps and much more. There are no limits to the imagination. A wonderfully crackling atmosphere reigns in the old town in the evening. A pintxo tour from bar to bar should not be missed here.
There is no real gay district in Bilbao. “In Bilbao gays no longer meet only in certain neighbourhoods”, says Sergio. Since homosexuality is considered normal here, you can meet gays almost everywhere. “In the old town, however, there are particularly many bars, cafés and two clubs that gays like to visit,” says the tourist guide. The city consists of many interesting districts. Sergio’s tours focus mainly on the hip, upcoming districts. One of them is Bilbao La Vieja – the quarter was founded in 1300 and is therefore even older than the old town. It is located in the fifth district on the left bank of the river. “It’s a modern, trendy quarter with lots of new bars that attract young people – and very moderate prices,” says Sergio. The walls are covered with graffiti and works of art. La Vieja is also the former red light district of Bilbao. “Of course, there are still a few corners where things are still going well,” laughs the Basque native. The party life differs from that of German cities. From 8 p.m. people here visit the pintxo bars, eat snacks and drink beer. Around midnight people move on to music bars. In summer, however, people spend most of their time on the street in front of the bar and chat with each other. The doors are open until 3 am. Then the streets of Bilbao are quiet at night and those who are not tired yet move on to the nightclubs. A very popular club among gays is “El Balcon de la Lola” – electronic music is played here.
Trips to the countryside
From Bilbao you can make many day trips through the Basque Country. If nature, wine and tranquillity attract you, a trip to the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve is recommended. A wine tasting in the Bodega Berroja with a view of the vineyards decelerates. The landlord talks about his wine with sparkling eyes – his absolute heart’s project. But there is no getting around the traditional Basque white wine “Bizkaiko Txakolina” anywhere else in the region.
And it is not far to France. The journey to the small, charming coastal town of Biarritz takes just one and a half hours. The former fishing village developed into an elegant seaside and spa resort after Napoleon had built a residence there for his wife in 1854. Between Biarritz and Bilbao lies San Sebastián – in Basque the city is called Donostia. The place on the Atlantic coast is very popular among gays. Here the density of Michelin-starred restaurants is particularly high and Donostia-San Sebastián also has a lot to offer culturally: The town is especially famous for the film festival that takes place every September and during which the prize “The Golden Mussel” is awarded – the bay on which the town is situated is called “The Mussel” in Basque because of its picturesque shape. The best view is from the nearby hill Monte Igueldo.
For gays, however, the little town has a lot to offer during the rest of the year: There are several gay bars and a sauna. But the best thing about the city is its beach next to the promenade. So if you want to dive into the waves of the Atlantic Ocean right after eating or shopping, you should visit Donostia-San Sebastián.
There are also beaches near Bilbao. It only takes twenty minutes by metro to the Sopelana region. There are several beaches, the most popular among gays is “La Salbaje”. It is a nudist beach where many surfers also hang out. The atmosphere is always relaxed and entertaining, says Sergio. “The groups accept each other, joke with each other. One moment you see a naked man, the next moment a handsome surfer, and suddenly a gay man with an extravagant, bright yellow swimming trunks. It’s all mixed.” Surfing is, even if it sounds surprising, one of the main attractions of the region. In the past, surfing had a rather heterosexual connotation, reports Sergio. But today the surfing scene has become very gay. “Good weather and trained, tanned bodies – the gays don’t stay away for long,” he laughs. The Bay of Biscay has many surfing hotspots, the area is one of the best for surfers in Europe. From April to November, even beginners can ride the waves here. The surf school “Pukas” offers courses for example. What is good for surfers can be annoying for tourists: The weather in Bilbao is unpredictable. You can’t rely on the forecasts, because everything is possible in Bilbao, which is situated between the ocean and the mountains. Therefore, the inhabitants recommend to always pack something long-sleeved – even in midsummer. The good thing is that even on an actually grey day you can be surprised by sudden sunshine.
Anything is possible
Legendary is the Bilbao Summer Festival, which is always held in the third week of August. Sergio raves: “It’s wonderful – with an incredible gay scene”. For ten days everything is allowed here, day and night, non-stop. The festival takes place in the park at the top of the Kobeta hill, overlooking Bilbao. A total of fifty groups and organisations are responsible for the schedule, each one can decide what they want to contribute. Many of the organisations are queer, says Sergio. “People work voluntarily, they don’t get any money. That’s why everything at the festival is very cheap – the organizers don’t care about profit.”
Bilbao is a city of friendly, tolerant people – and of surprises. According to Sergio, too, many tourists say that whatever they expected, it wasn’t. In Bilbao you discover things you never knew existed. And when you have to leave, you ask yourself how to survive without pintxo bars in the future. Fortunately one can return.
Vueling Airlines flies several times a week from Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover and Düsseldorf to Bilbao via its Barcelona hub. www.vueling.com
The Designhotel Tayko is located directly in Bilbao’s old town. The restaurant and bar are run by Martín Berasategui, who has more Michelin stars than any other top Spanish chef. www.taykohotels.com
- Bildschirmfoto 2020-03-09 um 11.42.55: Credit: Bilbao Bizkaia Tourist Office
- Bildschirmfoto 2020-03-09 um 11.42.42: Credit: Bilbao Bizkaia Tourist Office
- Bildschirmfoto 2020-03-09 um 11.41.31: By: Bilbao Bizkaia Tourist Office
A ridiculous amount of coffee was consumed in the process of building this project. Add some fuel if you'd like to keep us going!