Why Bilbao is the PERFECT place for a FOODIE weekend getaway

23 02 2015

Barra Irrintzi 1http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2955811/Basque-brilliance-Bilbao-perfect-city-Spanish-foodie-weekend-convince-wife-eat-fish-is.html Everything at hand, a very convenient city, medium-sized, excellent public transport, great food, extremely safe, beautiful surroundings….what else can you ask for? 101_7484 The Transporter Bridgepintxos counter





8 days on a Basque Gastro Tour and in good company…beat it! – Part One

26 11 2014

I´ve had the great pleasure to enjoy a gastronomic tour in the Basque Country with a couple of Hong Kong friends…and moreover when the weather at the end of November has been incredibly warm and sunny 7 of the 8 days. Regrettably, some of the restaurants we had chosen as a first option were closed for holidays, but having a great meal has never been a problem in the Basque Country.

Just an hour after arrival, we arrived in Asador Etxebarri, one Michelin star, in the beautiful town of Axpe. The tasting menu consists of a wide array of dishes, all based on the mastering of the grill by Bittor Arginzoniz, the cook and owner. He has develop his own grilling technique and instruments, and so he´s able to grill an oyster, baby eels or a boneless steak. Product is mostly local or from his own garden. Service is friendly, close and very efficient. Two and a half hours of wonders in your mouth, at a reasonable price for a Michelin star if we compare it to those in the US or France, for example. Some pics:

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Next day we went to a very special place in the slopes of the hills surrounding Bilbao, the Kate Zaharra (in Basque, the Old Chain). A classic in Bilbao, it probably has the best views of town. When you enter, they offer you to visit the cellar, where you can choose your wine and enjoy some fresh cut ibérico ham, as well as some anchovies or other delicacies. Then you go upstairs to your table, where you can taste great grilled fish, clams, the freshest seafood…Product, product and product, and a lovely aftermeal upstairs where you can enjoy a drink of your favorite spirit and awesome views of the city.

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A visit to a medieval castle in the outskirts of Bilbao as well as to the amazing Old Town marked a perfect day for the three of us…

More to come…





Some Funny Questions From Visitors to The Basque Country

23 10 2014

It´s been a few years now working as a guide in the Basque Country, and I have to say that 99.99% of my guests have always been very nice and polite. With some of them I´ve made friends and we exchange emails regularly (Hi Barb!) and with some others I´ve had the pleasure to see they return again to this beautiful region. Most of my visitors are foreigners, mainly from English speaking countries (US, Australia, Canada, Britain,…) and sometimes the information they have about our way of life and culture is not very comprehensive. So I´ve received a lot of questions about the Basque Country, and some of them have been very funny:

1- “I do know that marriages in the Basque Country have always been arranged by the parents, but do you still keep this habit? Your marriage was also arranged, young man?”

My answer was: “No madam, it was only until we joined the European Union, then they prohibited this ancient custom, much to our regret”.

2- (On a wine tasting experience, when tasting red wine): “Oh my God, mine is not sweet!!, I must have taken the wrong glass”

3- More on wine tasting in the Rioja region: “Oh, so you don´t offer California wine here?”

4- (asking for a coffee with milk -café con leche- in a cafeteria in San Sebastián): “Do you pasteurize your milk?” And on seeing my puzzled face..”Hum, you may not know what “pasteurizing” means, sorry” . And then she explained it to me.
5- “So this is an anchovie, look Diane, it´s actually a FISH!!!”, on looking at a spectacular anchovie pintxo with a real anchovie on it (he thought of them as that weird thing they put on pizzas.
6- “Do you pay taxes or is everything government owned and paid?”
7- “I can pay with US Dollars everywhere, right?”
8-“Do kids go to school every day?” (a very kind lady, I answered “yes, except on weekends, summer and Christmas….”)
9- “I´d like to see the running of the bulls”…”Yes sir, but that is in Pamplona on July and it´s September”. “Oh, I thought they ran all year round…”

10- “On Mondays (day when many restaurants are closed), you don´t go to work because you can´t eat anywhere, right?”

11- “Why can´t I pay a glass of wine with a VISA?” (most bars in Spain don´t accept credit cards, and you never ever leave your visa to the bartender in case they do…trust is the word). Important to know that a glass of wine in Spain just costs 1.50eur approx…

12- “How come there´re so many kids on the street? Shouldn´t they be home watching TV?”

13- “Wow, a glass of water with no ice on it!! How can you drink it?” (or a Coke, mostly served with just an ice cube or two)

14-  “I can´t eat cheese” “Well, you should have told me earlier, you just had two pieces of Idiazabal sheep cheese” “Wow, that was cheese?? I meant pizza cheese, I didn´t know there was hard cheese!”.

And so many others that make this job a very exciting and interesting one!

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The Funicular of Artxanda, 99 years of history for the best views of Bilbao

25 09 2014

Next year we will celebrate 100 years of the first trip of the Funicular of Artxanda, one of the two cable trains that exist in Bizkaia (the other one is in Trapagaran, ascending to Larreineta mountains for the best views of the estuary of the river of Bilbao). It runs every 15min from 07:15am to 10:00pm, the trip takes roughly three minutes and it leaves you on top of Artxanda hill, a very popular destination for all Bilbao citizens when they want to enjoy nature, restaurants and some relax. Once you get to the top, turn left on exit and walk for about 200m…you´ll arrive to the best viewing point of Bilbao, with wonderful views that embrace the whole city. A must on your visit to Bilbao.

A short video on the way up:

http://www.bilbao.net/cs/Satellite/funicularArtxanda/Subida-Virtual/es/100001152/Contenido?idVideo=100023561

funi artxandafuni artxanda2

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The One and Only Transporter Bridge of Portugalete

25 07 2014

This is one of the most pleasant  surprises for most of my guests when coming to the Basque Country. I tend not to inform in advance about what we are going to visit, this way I believe the visit has the added value of the unexpected. And so here it is…after a 2´drive from the cruise port, or just 20´from Bilbao, the unique Puente Colgante (officially named Puente Bizkaia) appears in front of us. At first sight, they don´t understand what´s going on: “OK, an iron bridge…what else?” and the look of disappointment is kind of worrying. But then the suspended barge starts crossing the river to get to the other side, and right there is when they open wide their eyes and start taking pictures and getting closer to the Bridge.The Transporter Bridge

It runs 365/24 and has already been used for over 650 million people in its 121 years of existence (inaugurated on 1893). Designed and patented by Alberto de Palacio, a local engineer (disciple of Eiffel), its main use was to link both margins of the river without interrupting the constant flow of ships transporting iron from the mines on the nearby mountains.

 

 

It allows the transport of passengers and 6 cars, apart from bikes and motorbikes. It´s been recently painted (color was chosen by popular vote) and a full maintenance work has been carried out to make sure that it´ll be running for another 100 years or more. Mainly used by locals and not designed as a tourist attraction, it has been awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Monument, a fact that has increased the number of visitors to this incredible bridge. There´s an elevator that takes you to the upper walkway, with great views and some explanations on the origins of the Bridge.The barge

A ship crossing under the bridgeA must on your visit to the Basque Country…and close to the beach of Ereaga and the beautiful old fishing port of Algorta…

 

 

 





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.





11 Must-Sees in the Basque Country

21 01 2010

The routes below are, in my opinion, those places that you should visit when coming to visit this so unknown country. Most are easily accessible on public transport and, except in high season, you shouldn´t worry too much about crowds.

1) DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIÁN, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (in the world?), views from Igeldo mountain, pintxos in the Old Town, Chillida-Leku open air museum (www.museochillidaleku.com), the picturesque fishing town of Hondarribia.

2) ZARAUTZ, GETARIA (wonderful promenade almost touching the sea linking both towns), grilled fish at any of the restaurants in Getaria, ZUMAIA and its beautiful church, LEKEITIO, its port, its island and the incredible retable inside its church.

3) ARANTZAZU Sanctuary (www.arantzazu.org) and OÑATI and its University(www.oinati.org).

4) SAINT JEAN DE LUZ, BIARRITZ, BAYONNE-BAIONA, in the French Basque Country (also Petit Bayonne, on the other side of the river), great chocolates and gateau basque, apart from picturesque villages.

5) BILBAO, Guggenheim Museum (this was obvious!), Old Town, Funicular train to Artxanda for spectacular views of the city.

6) HANGING BRIDGE (Puente Colgante) of Portugalete, a Unesco World Heritage Monument, unique in the world, over 110 years old and running 24 hours a day.

7) VITORIA, Old Quarter (jewish) and a visit to the spectacular restoration of its Old Cathedral (Ken Follets based its novel The Pillars of the Earth on this cathedral, so they made him a statue!)

8) ATXONDO valley, where silence can be heard, spectacular place with the mountains and sheep in the background. And several wonderful restaurants.

9) URDAIBAI Biosphere Reserve and the beaches of Laga, Laida, the town of Busturia, Mundaka (surfers´ paradise), the sea estuary, the caves of Santimamiñe and the PAINTED FOREST OF OMA. Also the steep fishing town of Elantxobe.

10) The walled towns of LAGUARDIA and LABASTIDA and the wine region of Rioja Alavesa. Not to miss the guided visits to the wine cellars underneath the town.

11) The POZALAGUA caves, in the Karrantza valley, a spectacular combination of rare stalactites and stalagmites, now specially prepared for visits with kids, http://www.karrantza.com/?seccion=cuevas3&idioma=es.

You will not find massive tourism or tourist traps at any of these places, and if you plan your visit in advance you will get a very good idea of this beautiful country.