As we passed Bilbao’s state-of-the art structures, juxtaposed with timeless buildings flashing Old World flair, I had a hard time imagining what the Basque Country’s largest city was like before the Guggenheim Museum sparked its economic renaissance in the late 1990s. Still new to Bilbao, I was also fascinated with what constituted a Basque identity – what makes the Basque people unique from others in Spain. Our host, Marta, would help me better understand both as we explored the northern Spanish city’s highlights.
“Bilbao used to be grey and sad,” Marta said, as we began our day together. “It was dirty and industrial. There were political problems and high unemployment. People used to always say ‘I’ll go through Bilbao, but I don’t want to step foot there.'”
On this summer day, however, the aesthetics of Bilbao were a treat for the senses, because it was so different from other European cities we’d explored.
From the Alhóndiga, a former wine warehouse-turned-cultural center, complete with a glass-bottomed pool and state-of-the-art library, to the shimmering Guggenheim Museum holding court at the sight of a once-unsightly wharf, we found Bilbao to be lively, well-organized, and forward thinking. Abstract sculptures dotted street corners beside an old cathedral, and a red Torii – a traditional Japanese gate, welcomed visitors to the grounds of the city’s Fine Arts Museum.
As we walked in the once-industrial district revitalized by the Guggenheim Museum, the ever-smiling Marta recalled the excitement she felt when the first wave of tourists started trickling into Bilbao.
“Not long after the Guggenheim was opened, I remember seeing a visitor from Asia. He was taking pictures, and I thought to myself ‘what is he doing in Bilbao?’ There were many Bilbao residents who thought the Guggenheim Museum was too modern and not a good fit for our city. Even my friends and family asked me why I would choose to study tourism. I told them, ‘someday (tourism) will grow here.'”
Marta’s words turned out to be prophetic. “Today, I still sometimes feel like a tourist. Everything is so new, even for me. It’s fantastic!”
In the Casco Viejo, over a filling spread of tapas (Marta suggested we opt out of the Basque Country’s ubiquitous pintxos to more easily avoid gluten) and a bottle of Txakolina wine, we learned that Marta’s family roots are actually in southern Spain, but that she identifies more with her Basque personality traits, having grown up in the heart of Spanish Basque Country. I found this fascinating. A Basque identity wasn’t purely ethnicity-based; it was also something one could adopt.
“I am universal, but I feel more Basque. I was born here, I take in this air, and my feet walk these streets.”
Marta continued, attempting to paint a picture of what it’s like to live in Bilbao.
“Basque people are well educated and they highly value knowledge and the arts. In Bilbao, we have access to the theater, cinema, libraries, musical performances and art galleries. We like mixing tradition and innovation, and friends and family are very important.”
Our rich conversation about Basque Country also included: the importance of family meals, all-male gastronomic societies, Bilbao’s geographic position at the bottom of a valley which has led to the nickname of el Botxo (the hole), the Basque penchant for exploration and discovery, and a respect for their roots.
“There’s a certain energy that comes from living in Bilbao. Bilbao residents, or Bilbainos, joke that they stay in ‘the Botxo.’ Indeed, it’s hard to get away.”