What springs to mind when you think of Spain?
It might be the barren, rolling plains of Castilla. Or perhaps the expanses of gnarled olive groves and clusters of white villages in Andalucia. For many, alas, it is the beaches of the Costa del Sol, laden with the reddening flesh of Northern holidaymakers (usually Brits).
You’ll even be forgiven for picturing a man in impossibly tight trousers and a twinkly jacket doing unspeakable things to a bull.
But it is unlikely that you’ll think of the soft green hills, alpine villages or wild craggy mountains of the North. Which is something all together different.
Here the rain falls liberally, bagpipes can be heard at surprisingly regular intervals, and Celtic symbols abound. This is the land of mining, quarrying, fishing, and, yes, Zara (which originated in Galicia). Seafood is unparalleled, the weather unpredictable and the wine aplenty.
Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country, Navarra, Aragon, Catalonia… There is just so much to see and do. 6 weeks of walking the Camino de Santiago and you are still barely scratching the surface.
So where do you go when you only have 4 days?
Here’s a little roadtrip for you:
Industrial epicentre and home of the once-notorious separatist group ETA, Bilbao packs some punch. But it is easy to overlook. Especially when on a pilgrimage to the food mecca that is San Sebastian.
But it is well worth a second look. Green rolling hills help to soften the otherwise gritty backdrop of derelict factories and power stations which surround the city. And a ton of money has been pumped into the renovation of its North bank, which bristles with architectural self-expression.
Most famous is the Guggenheim, which helped to put the city on the map in the late 90s. This shiny, curvy, totally mad building hits you square in the face as you drive into the city from the west.
A giant shoe? A wonky ship? Whatever. It is has made a name for itself as one of the most admired works of contemporary architecture. In an almost unheard of act of unity, critics, academics and the general public all declared it to be a marvel.
The problem of a building of such outstanding scale and critical acclaim, is that it has a tendency to upstage the art inside. You have to be pretty damn impressive to hold your own on those vast white walls. Or even begin to compete with the interior space with its walkways, curved shafts of marble and tantalizing glimpses the river from between a latticework of steel. In fact, if you can tear yourself away from the enormous ‘serpentine ribbons of hot rolled steel’ that comprise Richard Serra’s Matter of Time on the ground floor, I applaud you.
But let’s leave the Guggenheim for now. And, for that matter, the good the bad and the downright fugly that makes up Bilbao’s modern skyline.
The Casco Viejo (old quarter) is the perfect spot to base yourself. Surrounding the Plaza Nueva is a network of cobbled, pedestrianized streets and old houses. Here you will find Bilbao’s original seven streets, Las Siete Calles, which date from the 1400s, and no shortage of bars. The perfect place from which to kick off your tapas crawl (or txikiteo in Basque).
This is the region of the pintxo. So go forth and get stuck in. The Plaza Nueva is a good place to start. A good friend assured me that Gure Toki is as good as it gets, but I leave that to you to decide (order the ham hock). Another great spot is Culmen, where the tortilla is as soft and caramelized as you could hope for. Hop from bar to bar and choose whatever takes your fancy from the delights piled high on platters in front of you. Wash it all down with txakoli, a sharp, very dry white wine, which you drink from large tumblers. Or ask for an Estrella Galicia if beer’s more your bag.
Once you’ve eaten your fill, while away some hours in a brightly lit local bar. Punk is a prevalent theme, which is hardly surprising when you think that deindustrialization hit the region hard in the 70s and 80s. Plus, these guys had independence on their minds (they still do) so anti-establishment comes with the territory.
Sleep that off and breakfast the next day on croissant a la plancha at Café Bar Bilbao. Then you’re ready to pick up your car, get impossibly lost in the one-way system of central Bilbao, and head for Cantabria.