An Update on my 2010 post, “Some Places You Wouldn´t Go in Bilbao if Not Told”

8 07 2014

Time surely goes fast…I still remember when the Guggenheim was being built and when we took pictures of tourists, awed at the fact that there were actually people visiting Bilbao!! Well, things have changed a lot since then: Bilbao has turned into a wonderful, livable, lively town, great for foodies and a must-see from an architectural point of view. My favorite places have also changed from my 2010 post, and so I also have new likes and dislikes. Let´s talk about 9 places that I love and that you may miss as a tourist, as they´re a bit off-the-beaten-path:

1) Mercado de la Ribera, the biggest covered market in Europe, completely re-built, and where my guests love to take pics of the fresh fish at the fishmongers´, of the Ibérico ham hanging from the ceilings, of the wide range of local cheeses and of the farmers that offer their locally produced vegetables (without any “organic” label on them…no need for this kind of marketing)…

2) Alhóndiga, the former wine warehouse located on the very center of Bilbao, now a public cultural and leisure center. Its interior has been singularly designed by acclaimed designer Philippe Starck, and it has a great rooftop bar where you can enjoy great music and views.Alhóndiga rooftop bar

3) Diputación Street, right behind the beautiful building of the provincial government or Diputación, in the Gran Vía (main street). Great pintxos in El Globo, good cocktails at El Embrujo, wonderful ibérico ham at La Viña, excellent steaks at Santa Rosalía…

4) Henao and Heros streets area, close to renovated Jado square (the one with the lions fountain in the center), where new bars have added life to this beautiful resident area. Mr Wonderful, Coppola pizzeria (in Barrainkua st), Singular, Residence, El Txoko de Gabi, Las Cepas…excellent pintxos and wine route, as well as good live music.

5) Bacaicoa bar, in Unamuno square, Old Town…the best pintxo of grilled mushrooms in town.

6) A ride on the Begoña or Iturribide public elevators, in the Old Town, for the very best views of the Old Town of Bilbao from above. Very cheap and a great experience as a local.View from Iturribide elevator, Old Town

7) A ride on the Funicular of Artxanda, from Castaños street…definitely the best views of the whole city from above…just turn left when you get up to get to the view point.

8) Santa María street in the Old Town on a Friday evening, for alternative pintxos bars and restaurants and great street atmosphere (we love having pintxos outside bars, rather than inside)

9) Doña Casilda Park, or “park of the ducks”, as we used to name it when kids…lovely public gardens in Bilbao, right behind the Meliá hotel. Perfect place to relax and enjoy the coolness of its shady trees and pond.Doña Casilda Park





How To Eat Pintxos Like A Local in the Basque Country

23 06 2014

Given the increasing number of tourists (don´t worry, the Basque Country is still a heaven for those that feel comfortable far from the madding crowds) that come to this gourmet´s paradise in search of the best pintxos in the world, please find below a few suggestions on how to eat pintxos like a local. Having experienced and seen lots of guests on my pintxos tours at a loss when faced with a counter full of these delicacies, I feel this post as a must for those that want to do it right:

1) Peek into the bar and take a look at its counter. If you don´t like what´s shown there, just look for another bar. There´re plenty.Barra Irrintzi 1

2) Yes, I know that in your native country you don´t have as many bars as we do here, and you tend to spend your time and money in just one for the whole evening. No, we don´t do it that way. We visit as many bars as possible.

3) We like to have ONE pintxo per bar, maximum TWO, and ONE drink.Ham and tomato on bread

4) We don´t have pintxos meals or anything of the kind. It´s an appetizer and not a meal. It´s meant to dilute the amount of alcohol in blood and facilitate conversation while standing close to the counter.

5) STANDING, we have them standing, we don´t sit down for pintxos. Please. Stand. Talk. Enjoy. But don´t seat.

6) Never, ever, accept the plate handed by the waiter. We locals just grab them with our hand from the counter. Or order them from the list on the wall to have them made on order.

7) We pay based on an honour system, that is, we tell the waiter how many we´ve had and he believes us. We don´t lie, ever. The toothpick thing (counting toothpicks as a proof of how many pintxos you´ve had) is nowadays an urban legend.

8) ALL pintxos are good, all taste great. Ibérico ham is good for your health and great for your heart and arteries. And yes, those fresh looking things are real anchovies, not that thing you have on pizza.Pintxos

9) There´s no such thing as “pintxos bars”. 99% of bars offer pintxos, all bars are “pintxos bars”.

10) Order a “zurito” (a third of a glass of beer), a “rioja” (a glass of red wine), a “blanco” (white wine) or a “cider” (natural cider, not fizzy). Ignore Coke or any other sweet drinks, they are not meant for pintxos.

11) Enjoy the atmosphere, ask the waiter about the pintxos, talk to strangers, throw napkins on the floor (YES!!!), pay on leaving, try different things, get a bit tipsy, enjoy this wonderful pintxos culture…pintxos counter





Two days in Bilbao without a car-The Basics

8 02 2010

Right, you´ve come to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim. A city you´d never thought in your “to visit” list, but the museum is a “must-see” and you´ve read very good reports about the area. So you arrive at our new (small and convenient) airport, take a taxi to your hotel on the city centre (20 Euros, aprox.) or the bus (1,50, I think). There you are, 10AM and the full morning to see the museum.

Good, you´ve spent 4 hours inside it and you´re now hungry. I´d go to the Old Town (Casco Viejo) to have a drink and a couple of pintxos. You can either take the tram that leaves you in front of the Arriaga theatre in 5 minutes or walk along the promenade by the river. You´re now in the Plaza Nueva, if it´s nice sit outside and enjoy your drink. It´s 14:30, time to have lunch. I´d suggest to have a “menú del día”, where for 11-12 euros per person you will have a first, a second, a dessert, bread and wine or water. There´s a wide choice all over Bilbao, but as you´re in the Old Town I´d suggest Jardines Street or El Perro Street, and any of its restaurants. I particularly like Harrobia, in El Perro, www.harrobia.com.

16:00 and you´re feeling tired. You may take a nap in your hotel, and by six or so you may want to walk the Gran Vía and parallel streets, full of shops and interesting buildings. Or you may want to explore the Old Town, the cathedral and the 7 original streets of Bilbao, as well as take some pictures of the Arriaga theatre and the riverfront.

20:00 and you notice that there are lots of people on the streets, hanging around and socializing while having a drink. You may want to enter in Café Iruña, http://www.cafesdebilbao.net/cafes/caf_iru.php, serving drinks and food since 1903, together with its “brothers” Café La Granja and Café Boulevard (soon to re-open), and order a glass of wine (1,60 euros per glass) or a “zurito”, half a glass of beer. Next, at Ledesma st, you will find many other interesting bars, such as the Artajo or Taurino.

I´d go on a pintxos crawl for dinner on Bilbao city center, there will be people until 09:00PM or so. If tired, you may want to go back to your hotel. If not, you can walk to Licenciado Poza street where you will find more people and more bars open. I assume you´re not going clubbing tonight…correct?

Next morning, take the funicular train to Artxanda and enjoy the spectacular views of Bilbao, the Guggenheim, the mountains and the sea from above. http://www.bilbao.net/funicularArtxanda/jsp/home.jsp?idioma=9&color=rojo& Then, after all the pictures and maybe some exploring of the area, get down to town again and get the metro to Areeta-Las Arenas. From there you have a 5 minute walk to El Puente Colgante, the hanging bridge, a Unesco World Heritage Monument, one of a kind, over a 100 years old and running 365/24, as a public service. You may want to climb to the top for stunning views of Bilbao stuary and the beaches. www.puente-colgante.com. Walk then all the way to Ereaga beach and enjoy a meal at Tamarises restaurant or at the cozy fishing port of Algorta (google “puerto viejo algorta” for images).

From there you can take the elevator to Algorta city centre and then the metro back to Bilbao. Once in Bilbao, step off at Indautxu station and look for García Rivero street, and enter in El Huevo Frito, for great pintxos and a zurito. Or in the Okela, for more elaborate ones.

It´s getting late and you haven´t visited the Museum of Fine Arts, second to El Prado in importance in Spain. Well, maybe for next visit…

This itinerary is based on a medium budget, for those of you without a car and short of time. Of course, there are many alternatives, but this one may be a good option if you want to make the most of Bilbao in just a day and a half.





Some Places I Like As a Local In Bilbao-and where you probably wouldn´t go if not told

27 01 2010

As it happens in every city in the world, there´s an area that is visited by tourism, leaving apart other places that may be as interesting. With the arrival of tourism (the Guggenheim effect), the bars in the Old Town have risen prices and quality is…well, very good, but not quite the same.

What follows is a shortlist of places I like in Bilbao (ordered as they come to my mind), that you normally will not visit as a tourist (and at very fair prices):

1) Bar EME, http://www.baremebilbao.com,  absolutely the best sandwiches in the whole world (and I´m not exaggerating), locals flock in to buy them, you can have them at the bar or to take away, it´s amazing how many hundreds of them they sell every day. Made with a special bread and a secret sauce, they are a treat. At 2,20 euros each, a bargain!!

2) La tabernilla de Pozas (the small tavern), in Licenciado Poza street (known as “Pozas”), you´d never enter here because it doesn´t even have a name outside. There are no bars like this anymore. Wine in barrels or drunk in “porrón”, it´s popular to have (non peeled) peanuts and wonderful tuna sandwiches (real ones with good chunks of fish and real crusty bread), an ageless counter, unaltered premises for ages,…, and the legend says that the two brothers behind the counter haven´t talked to each other for years..

3) Melilla y Fez, in Iturribide street (Old Town), just entering the street on your left hand side, a huge variety of potato omelette (Spanish omelettes) served in big portions at very good prices.

4) Bar Estoril, in Plaza Campuzano (center), the best long drinks in your life, together with wonderful omelette pintxos.

5) Bar Rio Oja, in El Perro street, the best cazuelitas (tapas), Old Town.

6) Azak restaurant, in Pablo Alzola st, in the Basurto district, you can have selection of Iberic specialties and cheese for as less as 14 euros…and so big you´ll need to have another bottle of their extensive (and cheap) wine list. A rarity in this district. Huge selection of meals, appetizers and beers.

7) Taberna Taurina, in Ledesma (center), small but authentic with dozens of pictures of bulls and bullfighters.

8) Mina restaurant, in the Old Town. A bit pricey, but worth every cent spent at it.

More to follow, there are still many places worth visiting in Bilbao…





Txoko and Batzoki-II

19 01 2010

So you arrive into the Basque Country and notice that, unlike your country of origin, there are bars. Many bars, as in the rest of Spain (although our level of alcoholism is not higher to that of your country, paradoxically). Bars in Spain and in the Basque Country are places to socialize, to meet, to talk, to enjoy a small drink and a “pintxo” or “tapa”, but not to get drunk (at least, not their main target)…well, you already know this. So you enter in a bar, and find that there´s a lot of Basque memorabilia on it: flags, pictures of people in Basque berets and of traditional Basque sports, Basque symbols everywhere…welcome, you´re now in a “batzoki”, roughly translated, “the place to meet”. Batzokis belong to the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV-EAJ) and are everywhere…there´s one per town over 1000 people, at least. They serve as places where members of this party (over 100 years old and in power for 30 years, just until last year) like to have a drink and hold meetings. They are bars in the strictest sense of the word: entrance is public and you get the same as in every other bar. Famed for their excellent food, pintxos and low prices (not so low now), they are very popular, even among those that do not hold the same political views.

The new strategy of the PNV regarding batzokis is to modernize them with a mixture of traditional and very modern interior arquitecture, to offer excellent menus at very good prices and to win every pintxo contest held in the Basque Country. And a familiar atmosphere too.

The extreme left nationalist parties also have their “Herriko Tabernas” or “People´s Taverns”, much more radical in looks and many of them clearly supporting ETA violence (many are being closed now under the new laws that have ilegalize these parties). The socialist party has their “Casa del Pueblo”, “People´s Home”, also a bar but not as popular as batzokis.





Pintxos / Raciones / Tapas

24 11 2009

Or Pinchos, in their “correct” spelling, not the “basquised” one (it´s quite popular over here to change the Spanish “ch” for the Basque “tx” in Spanish words, like “txorizo” or “txuletón”…).

First of all, those marvellous pintxos you see now in San Sebastián, for example, are something new. The traditional pintxo has always been a slice of tortilla de patata (potato omelette, a very popular dish) on bread and the “gilda” (an olive, a guindilla-a kind of non spicy local chili-and an anchovie, on a toothpick), named after the film where Rita Hayworth was so hot…just like the pintxo. There were others as well, but none like what you find now on bars.

Another thing: almost any bar in Spain will have raciones or tapas or pintxos.  There´s no such thing as “tapas bars” or “pintxos bars”, although it´s true that some are famed because of their creations. Those new franchises you can find in Madrid or Barcelona are poor copies of the real thing, a kind of tourist trap, I think. In any case, a tapa is a tapa (never a pintxo), a pintxo is a pintxo (never a tapa) and a ración is a ración. But once again…I may not be totally right 🙂

What is a pintxo? Something you can “pinch” and get with your hands straight from the bar counter. Yes, the law says they must be covered and protected from smoke and spits of saliva…..Small, you should eat it in one or two bites. It normally has a piece of bread on it. Mushrooms, omelette, eggs, tuna, black sausage, chorizo (txorizo :):)), shrimp,…, hot or cold, some more elaborate than others. You pay as you leave, telling the bartender how many you´ve had. It´s based on an honour system: you tell him the truth and he believes you. (I didn´t always respect this when younger and short of money…). Mainly found in the Basque area (Navarra included) and Rioja region, and some neighbouring areas. Now you find very haute cuisine pintxos in many bars, almost half rations, that are like miniature dishes, of excellent quality and flavour. www.todopintxos.com, for more info.

A ración is offered in most of Spain, and you normally eat it with utensils (fork and knife), seated. It´s served hot (if required), and bigger than a pintxo or a tapa. It may be meatballs, or croquettes, or shrimp, or mushrooms, or fried squid (rabas in the North, calamares in the rest), or cheese, or serrano or iberic ham or chorizo, or…It´s shared (visitors have the odd habit of having one for each) by all seaters, and enjoyed with drinks (beer or wine). Very popular in central and southern Spain, and a good way to have a less copious dinner…You can order as many as you want, but always remember to ask about their size…

Mainly served in Madrid and Southern and Eastern Spain, a tapa should  normally be offered for free accompanying the drink, so it diminishes the effect of alcohol. The legend says that it´s called “tapa” (cover) to avoid flies from entering the glass of wine (it used to be a slice of bacon or cheese). Smaller than a pintxo, it may be some cheese, or a meatball, or a slice of ham with bread, or a little something. Now the word also designs “raciones” or “pintxos”. In many bars, you never know what you will be offered, it depends on the bartender. And remember, it´s free, so eat it at ease, normally standing by the counter.