Fanfarronear. /fan.faʀ.o.ne.ˈaɹ/ V. Language: Spanish. Meaning: To brag, to boast. Bilbao has much to fanfarronear about: an epic coastline, pintxos, the strongest economy in Spain, cider, cheese, a famous modern art museum, a competitive futból team, and some good-looking gents, to name a few.
After nine months as an English teacher in Bilbao, I got to know the city pretty well. The good, the bad, and the ugly (Barrio Zorrozaurre, anyone?). Here is a my honest assessment of the humble city’s greatest bragging points, and the points I could live without. I’m splitting it into two posts, and I’ll start with a lighter tone, the Best of Bilbao—everyone game? Check back Tuesday for the less fortunate aspects of Basque Country’s largest city.
The Best of Bilbao
1. Natural and Man-Made Beauty
No one, not even a blind pessimist, can argue with me on this one. Sure, Bilbao had a gritty past. Its cranes and abandoned warehouses several miles down the river still point to that. But the center of the city is now nothing short of purty. Can you really find fault with a place that’s nestled between verdant rolling hills, perched along a river, and a few short miles from the Atlantic coast?
And that’s only Mother Nature’s work. What about the work of artists? Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Museum is not the only architectural marvel, although it’s certainly the showiest. The bridges, riverfront buildings, regal government offices surrounding Plaza Moyua; the delux apartments I would kill to rent along Gran Via; the bold and dignified Arriaga theater; the stately Abando train station. And I’m not going to say the metro entrances are beautiful, but they’re sure as hell cool. The architecture earns a well-deserved spot in the Best of Bilbao.
If you live to eat, you may want to move to Basque Country. It’s a place that specializes in love-handles and muffin-tops. And seafood and pork products. As a chronically indecisive person, restaurant menus present a challenge—ask me to choose just one thing, and I stress. But in Basque country, they conveniently stock the counters with bite-sized delicacies called pintxos (like tapas on toothpicks), so you can try them all. The real clincher? Most of them are served atop a slice of baguette. And we all know, bread’s ma thang.
3. Cultural Hub
I know I know, Bilbao isn’t Barcelona or Madrid. It’s smaller, people, and don’t you forget it. But for its size, it’s actually a very impressive cultural hub. There are lots of concerts going on, sometimes free. One of the largest music festivals in Spain, BBK Live, happens every summer in Bilbao, and this year featured artists like Jack Johnson, The Black Keys, Franz Ferdinand, MGMT and Band of Horses. I saw internationally renowned cartoonist R. Crumb speak in October (though that was sort of a fail. . . .) Mila Kunis was even filming her next movie while I was there. There are plenty of art exhibitions, and free museum days. The Bilbao city hall puts out a cultural calendar every month, and it’s chalk full of everything from Basque history movements to free talks and concerts. Thanks to the Guggenheim, Bilbao has been put on the radar, and the events just keep flooding in.
4. It’s Posh
The hipsters may hate me, but I like the fact that Bilbao is upscale, clean, even gentrified. It just feels like a faster-paced European city, moreso than in other parts of Spain. People dress nice. There are tea shops. Without saying more and risking offending Spaniards elsewhere, I love not stepping in dog shit every two feet.
5. Public Resources
Simply put, Bilbao is User Friendly. The buses come on time. The metro stays open all night on Saturday. The tram circles the city valiantly, even though, let’s admit, what is the point of a circular tram in a city as small as Bilbao? There is a bike rental system—all this on top of the fact that Bilbao is incredibly walkable. There is free wifi in a multitude of public spaces, including all public parks. There are trash cans literally every half block (correct use of literally in this case). Bilbogarbi, the city’s garbage service, must offer their employees crack-laced coffees so that they eagerly pick up every last cigarette butt and empty beer can at 3 a.m. (I’ve had Bilbogarbi employees brush around my feet—maybe do your job with a little less zeal next time?) The Alhóndiga is a massive winery-turned-community center smack in the middle of the city, which has cafés, a rooftop swimming pool, gym, library, study space, movie theater, and community space—most services free of charge. Oh, and free wifi, of course. It is truly a marvel how well Bilbao cares for its residents.
Have you been to Bilbao? What do you love about it? Stay tuned for Tuesday’s post, The Worst of Bilbao.