THE RAIN IN SPAIN STAYED MAINLY IN BILBAO THAT WEEKEND, stopping only for mere minutes every hour or so. While I struggled to sightsee, dragging the boyfriend out for snap-second snapshots, the locals seemed unaffected by the downpour, going about their leisurely business as if it were a sunny day. Sure, some Carnival festivities were interrupted, but on went the get-togethers, the park runs, the museum visits and the txikiteo; the last being the Basque version of a pub crawl.
Smokers out front, dripping umbrellas by the door. It was 1pm on a Saturday and we gobbled pintxos over wine at Gatz, in one of Casco Viejo's seven streets. Mingling crowds came and went in waves as we stood by the bar, obvious tourists reluctant to step back out into the rain. Txikiteo was followed by lunch at Victor Montes, where veteran waiters serve traditional Basque, in traditional, steroid-sized portions. "Todo es grande en País Vasco." explained one waiter. Indeed, the plates came dauntingly large.
Creative restaurants are fortunately more sensible with portions, though what they skip in size, they make up for with elaborate preparation and increased dish count. Nerua at the Guggenheim served some of the most intense ocean flavors I've tasted in my life, and birthday night's Azurmendi presented over 13 courses of edible creativity. To single out any one aspect of the meal wouldn't do it justice so allow me to leave it at: Vasco-gastronomic hedonism.
Food is an acclaimed facet of Basque culture but equally regarded in Bilbao are the icons of de-industrialization that have reinvented the cityscape since the 90s. Frank Gehry's mercurial Guggenheim is a masterpiece deserving of its hype, while Santiago Calatrava's Zubizuri and Daniel Buren's La Salve bridges are graphic wonders along the river Nervion. Other marvels include Jeff Koons's 43-foot flower Puppy, Louise Bourgeois's 30-foot spider Maman, and Norman Foster's caterpillar-like subway entrances, dubbed Fosteritos, after their designer.
For such a rainy, industrial city, Bilbao invigorated my 30th birthday weekend with such big flavors and fantastic sights. Having lived perhaps a third of my lifetime now, it feels only appropriate to learn a thing or two from the 700-year-old city, about balancing re-invention with preservation.
It is possible to refresh one's identity without watering it down.
Zubizuri, Cafe Iruña, Hotel Meliá Bilbao, Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Azurmendi and Bilbao Abando. Photos by Lady San Pedro and Jaime Sese.