EN VOYAGE – Bilbao Revisited – PART ONE

02 Mar 2004

At one time you reached Bilbao by the river.
River estuaries were places, where cities grew up. From them it was possible to control navigable routes inland, routes that were safe and convenient, avoiding the snares and discomforts of an often slow, unsafe land journey. They allowed sailors to reach shelter through calm waters, mooring away from rough tides and stormy seas.

When most goods were still being transported by sea, a river port meant trade and prosperity for a city’s inhabitants. Cities that grew up from or on rivers all have a history characterized by trade and an open attitude to the world. And they all boast rich culinary traditions, the fruit of a melting-pot of ingredients from the land, the sea and far-away countries.

Bilbao’s river is called the Nerbiòn. The city developed on both banks. The river makes a bend at a certain point and, as they turned it, mariners sailing up-river would see the church of the Virgen de Begoña (the patron saint of Biscay) and would give thanks to the Madonna for seeing them to safety. Just behind this bend, a bridge —el Puente de la Salve—was built. It was an important spot. Today this is where the Guggenheim Museum, the symbol of the new, post-modernist city, is situated.

In the 16th century the Basque countries had an important role in trade with the Americas since they formed an intermediate stopping off point between the New Continent and the ports of Northern Europe. Goods from all over Castille bound for Bruges or Nantes were assembled on Bilbao’s quays, and here ships would take on supplies before sailing to the Azores, the last European stop on the trade-winds route. The Real Compañia Guiputzcoana de Caracas (Guipuzkoa is one of the three Spanish regions in the Basque countries, the others being Alava and Bizkaia) owned 50 ships and had the exclusive rights for the cocoa trade with Venezuela.

But Bilbao had more than just its river. Set in an area of vast beech forests, it had firewood, wood for construction and wood for charcoal. It also had iron, and the mines here were already being exploited back in Roman times. In the middle of the 19th century, the first blast furnaces were constructed: iron plus coal (then imported from Great Britain) equals steel and Bilbao became an industrial city. On the left bank of the rìa, iron and steel works sprang up, as did docks, factory chimneys and slag heaps. Bilbao thus became a gray, polluted city.

Today you arrive in Bilbao from the sky. You land at an airport that looks like the white wing of a seagull spreading over the ground, ready to quiver and rise up at the first gust of wind. It was designed by leading Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who was also behind the Zubizuri bridge over the Nerbiòn.

Anyone returning there today after a decade’s absence and heading for the river will experience amazement and a great sense of strangeness: “My, how this city has changed!” The outline of the Guggenheim, the work of Frank O. Gehry, rises from the river like a dazzling, scintillating mass of titanium chimneys. The metro stations emerge from the viscera of the earth with telescopic structures designed by Norman Foster. In place of the Euskalduna shipyards, there is now an auditorium and convention center.

The area suffered badly at the time of the industrial crisis, but at the beginning of the 1990s Bilbao’s managerial class started to invest in urban diversification and renewal, bringing in leading architects and regenerating the old center on the right bank of the river, where a large number of restaurants now invite you to explore the exuberant offerings of the local cuisine. This has a tradition of high quality, so much so that alla bilbaina is synonymous with culinary inventiveness of indisputable quality. And young cooks continue to open new premises in the restored part of the city at a breathless pace, while the habit of going from bar to bar to take a drink, the traditional poteo or txikiteo, is alive and thriving. The Gran Via and the new Ensanche commercial zone (the 19th century part of the city) are where to go for the bars famous for pintxos, nicknamed ‘miniature cookery’, nibbles from the bar in all shapes and sizes.

The center of Bilbao has around 300,000 inhabitants. Gran Bilbao, or Greater Bilbao, reaches 1,000,000. The two banks of the Nerbiòn from the city center down to the estuary have become completely urbanized throughout the years. The left bank, the industrial side, is also undergoing conversion with shopping malls and a Museo de la Minerìa under construction. Opposite, you can still see the depressing built-up public housing areas, small gray houses cheek by jowl, built during the Franco regime when people arrived in Bilbao to work in its factories from all over Spain. All along the river, small boats used to transport the workers from one side to the other, from home to the factory and back again, while fishing boats and large transport ships plied up and down.

The right bank of the Nerbiòn, the side closer to the sea, is distinctly residential, housing the most luxurious buildings of the Biscay aristocracy. In the new tourist harbor at Getxco, the masts of craft at anchor form the backdrop to elegant eateries. At the Cubita Kaia restaurant, for example, (Muelle de Arriluce 10-11, Puerto Deportivo de Getxo) you can try haute cuisine that does not scorn tradition, refined dishes and flavors that don’t fall into the trap of vacuous novelty or useless frills and furbelows. The menu includes scampi in a Idiazabel cheese sauce with algae tempura; sautéed shrimp with goat cheese sauce; salt cod with rice and spinach sauce; roast lamb on a carrot crème. All in glorification of that land-sea marriage that is the paradigm of Basque cookery. Paola Nano works at the Slow Food Press Office.

Adapted by Maureen Ashley

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