Spain through the looking glass

Archive for December 2013

Other Spains: Bilbao

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I’ve always had a bit of a thing for second tier cities — the sorts of unglamorous places you make a detour to if your holidays are a little longer than usual fortnight, or that you visit if you just happen to be in the area, but which otherwise drop off the list.

Perhaps I like these places so much because my own home town of Melbourne, Australia is such a perfect example. Melbourne always plays second fiddle to Sydney: it’s Australia without the good weather, without the opera house, and without the stunning ocean beaches. Everyone is dying to go to Sydney, but very few people have died wishing they’d visited its less pretty sister.

My home town befuddles tourists; they wander around and take photos of our ‘sights’ —a clock made of flowers!  a lane with cool graffiti! — and puzzle over why the locals seem so damn cheerful all the time. “A great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit” is my standard line when people ask me about Melbourne. And the same could probably be said for all sort of overlooked places around the world, cities like Indianapolis or Nanning or pretty much any town in the Low Countries which isn’t Amsterdam.

Spain’s Bilbao is another proud member of this second city club. While this Basque city isn’t exactly a secret, especially since the Guggenheim Foundation decided to plonk a massive architectural flight of fantasy here, Bilbao is still some way down the Spanish tourism food chain. Poor Bilbao has to compete not just with limelight stealers Madrid and Barcelona but also with heavyweights like Salamanca and Seville and Santiago de Compostela.


No one in Bilbao seems particularly worried about their secondary status, though. Indeed, on a preternaturally bright weekend in early December, the city has its chest well and truly puffed out. The banks of the river brim with cheery dogwalkers and the usual mass of families with their glamorous mothers and heavyset but happy menfolk.


I know I am in the Basque Country here, and I am therefore in one of the other ‘Spains’. For there is no one single Spain, or even the “two Spains” (left versus right, for example, or monarchist versus republican) so beloved of Spaniards. Instead this country sometimes feels as stitched together and ill-fitting as any post-imperialist nation in Africa. Spain’s 1812 constitution even reflected this plurality by calling the country ‘Spains’ and it wasn’t until the 1876 constitution that the founding padres settled on the singular form.


But even in this country of contrasts, the Basques are notoriously different. To begin with, they live in a very un-Spanish and fairytale-like landscape of steep wooded slopes and misty valleys. Then there is their character. They are typically portrayed as dour and hardworking, traits you don’t associate with this country. Strangest of all, though, is the Basque language. Full of jagged ‘x’s and ‘k’s, it appears to be related to no other language at all. How exciting. On a Saturday afternoon in Bilbao though, I have to say my predominant feeling is one of being still very much in Spain. I am just an ignorant tourist of course, but the differences all feel cosmetic.

Arriving here from Madrid reminds me, say, of travelling from the German-speaking part of Switzerland into the French part. Crossing that border in Switzerland, suddenly you are hit by the fact that the signs are in a different language, or that the sausages are fatter (or thinner), and the people greet you with different words. But at the same time the architecture is still pretty much the same, people shop in the same supermarket chains and there is the identical Swiss politeness about the business of living.


In Bilbao, these superficial differences are: the occasional distinctive green, red and white Ikurriña, or Basque flag; old men in black berets, and the pincho-style tapas. There is the geography too. The city crawls discretely up a succession of greener than green hills, again making me feel like I am back in The North.

But I don’t feel I’ve left Spain. Rather, seeing Bilbao is expanding my idea of what this country is, and makes it seem even more amazing. Though of course my perception is distorted, because this is a holiday weekend and many of the people on the streets of Bilbao right now are tourists. Also, I really know very little about the city, and certainly not enough to know whether or not it is fundamentally different from the Spain I think I know.  My Swiss comparison isn’t really fair either. Switzerland has had almost a millennium to work out how to live with its many contradictions, and there have been plenty of wars along the way, while modern Spain is a 40-year-old democracy with a very recent civil war to come to terms with. Franco did this country few favours, and in the case of the Basques, even less. By trying to oppress the language and the regional culture — as invented as much of this may be — he gave rise to ETA.


Bilbao seems to have stepped away from this history though. The city has experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years, thanks to the arrival of the Guggenheim museum, yes, but also thanks to its mayor Iñaki Azkuna, who currently holds the title of the World’s Best Mayor. There are urban renewal projects everywhere. The place feels well cared for, and the people seem to have reached a happy comprise with nature. In short, I left Bilbao with a positive feeling about Spain, something which hasn’t happened a lot recently.


Written by georgemills25

December 29, 2013 at 10:51

Posted in España, society, Spain, travel