Eschewing Modern Bilbao for Old Bilbao

It was cold and damp when I got into Bilbao, about 6:30 in the evening. The taxi had maneuvered through the tight corridors of the Casco Viejo and dropped me off in front of what I would later find out to be Catedral de Santiago (or Saint James Cathedral). I distinctly remember the first image I had in my mind was seeing the soft lights of the restaurants and stores reflecting on the puddles of water on the cobblestone streets, the raindrops rippling across the surface. I had no idea which way was which, and after a long flight to get to the city, my mind wasn’t actually in working condition.

I asked the driver where the hotel was. Down there a little, he said, in a heavy Basque accent. He looked at Google Maps on his phone–he wasn’t even sure himself and pointed down a narrow street, dimly lit with a few people scattered about. Dorre Kalea. To me, coming from the US, going down any dimly lit street was a highly questionable proposition. But I was here and it didn’t seem like he was willing to go any further.

With a sigh, I got my things and huffed through the drizzle, wondering how the hell I would find the hotel along Dorre Kalea, or Torre Calle in Spanish. Tower Street. But, lo and behold, the taxi driver wasn’t bullshitting me and, just a few minutes later, I did find the entrance to the Basque Boutique, a door with little fanfare or branding, and really, truly started my trip through Bilbao and San Sebastian.

There isn’t much more that I can write about Bilbao that hasn’t already been written by more able people. The amazing food; the cultural heart of Spanish Basque Country; the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; the near-impossible words (to my tongue) filled with z, x, k, tx, and tz. That said, visitors tend to just gloss over the Casco Viejo, or Old Town, which is probably the most exciting part of the city.

It’s safe to say that I spent more time in the Casco Viejo than most people that would travel through Bilbao. Most would probably spend just a few hours to experience the novelty of the medieval remnants of the city, before heading to the parks and museums, shopping along Don Diego López Haroko Kale Nagusia, or catching an Atletíco Bilbao match at San Mamés in modern Bilbao. However, I was staying there so, every day, I had to meander in and out to go to any other part of the city. After some–well, a lot–of getting turned around and lost wandering disguised as “exploring,” I eventually became a bit more familiar with the interweaving streets, and the cafés, pintxos bars, and storefronts that lined them.

The Casco Viejo in Bilbao certainly isn’t as labyrinthian and claustrophobic as the Barri Gòtic in Barcelona, but someone can easily get lost among the corridors and offshoot alleys that look fairly similar to one another. And really, what better way to get to know and feel a neighborhood than to wander? While the city center of Bilbao is as modern and cosmopolitan as any major European city, I found the Old Town to have a dynamism that other neighborhoods did not.

There are always people in Casco Viejo–going to school, going to church, going to eat, going to shop–mainly residents. Sure there are visitors like me, but most don’t actually stay in the neighborhood and will come in the late afternoon, after siesta. But, like any part of Spain, it was post-8 p.m. that things come to life, and in the enveloping cacophony of the structures so close to one another, the music and chatter pulsed and echoed late into the night, rain or no. There is a constant vibrancy in the area that doesn’t die down when the work day ends. But there is also an intimacy to the neighborhood, because of how close knit–literally and figuratively–everything and everyone is, something I came to really appreciate during my time there.

I spent nearly six days in the Casco Viejo and Bilbao; most visitors would stay only a couple of days, mainly to see the Guggenheim Museum, before heading to San Sebastián. I recommend staying an extra day or two to absorb the feeling and flavor of what makes the Old Town so unique.

Place to stay:
Basque Boutique. A nine-room hotel, tucked deep within the Casco Viejo. Each room is inspired by a cultural or artistic icon of Basque Country or Spain. Mine was inspired by the Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso. Yeah, the bull staring at me with its wild eyes and screaming figures were kind of creepy, but the concept is cool. The exposed brick and wood beams in the rooms give it a worn, industrial vibe, mixed with modern amenities. And perhaps the best part of the hotel is that it’s smack in the middle of a stretch of pintxos bars and restaurants, so finding a tasty bite to eat is always easy.

Places to eat: Speaking of food, there’s no shortage of good places to eat and drink in the Casco Viejo, but in my wanderings, these are the ones I found myself going back to visit over the period I was there.
Cafe 91 Bilbao. A small, old-school café next to Catedral de Santiago. Simple, cozy, tasty food, friendly owner, with really good hot chocolate and churros. What more do you want? Best part–it’s one of the few cafés that’s open before 9 a.m.
Charamel Gozotegia. A hip coffeehouse offering a full array of hot, caffeinated libations and house-made pastries in a cool decor. If there is one gathering point for hipsters in the Casco Viejo, this is it.
Río-Oja Restaurante. An old-school, Basque restaurant that was recommended to me by the hotel staff. The interior is a bit drab and the server is a quirky guy, but what matters is the damn food, and it’s pretty amazing. They serve very traditional Basque cuisine. Definitely try the bacalao al pil-pil and the chipirones en su tinta.
Kapikua. Where as Río-Oja is traditional, Kapikua is definitely trendy. The interior is a modern mix of iron, wood, and stone, and there is a thrum of popular music. More importantly, the pintxos are great. The location in the Casco Viejo (there’s also one in Plaza Euskadi, in the central city) is right at the busy corner of Viktor Kalea and Bidebarrieta Kalea, the perfect location to have a glass of wine while you people watch.

A store you have to stop by: Sombreros Gorostiaga. A hat shop around the corner from Kapikua Casco Viejo. Stop by and pick up a traditional Basque beret, and look like an old-school local. The txapelas are more circular than the typical Parisian French one, and has a wider brim, giving it a look that is distinctly Basque. I saw a website call it “chic”–I wouldn’t go that far yet, as mostly old dudes wear it, but I did see some stylish young women sporting it, tilted to one side, of course.

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