Spain Trip 2016 Part Two – A Weekend In Bilbao With Iñigo And Alin

12 Oct

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I had been in contact with Iñigo for some years now but we had never met in person, so visiting Spain, I decided to travel up to Bilbao and meet this very likeable man and tobacconist.

Another reason for my visit was to re-visit the city near Bilbao where I had lived and went to school for almost 4 years before finally leaving for Germany at age 17.

I had not been to Bilbao for over 40 years now and had been reading and hearing how completely the city and the area has changed.

My memories were of an ugly, dirty old industrial city full of smoke stacks, shipbuilding, coal …. not really very attractive at all.

So I was extremely keen on seeing the change – and believe me, it has been dramatic !

But first it was back to Madrid airport to take a very comfortable bus from there that took me in 4 hrs through the Castille plains driving up to almost 1700 metres before coming down again near the coast.

Entering the Basque country the landscape changed dramatically with lots of forests, greenery, small villages and farmhouses, very much different from the arid, dry plains.

Iñigo and Alin were waiting for me at the station and they took me right away down memory lane.

Driving on modern highways and passing stylish bridges we moved to the right side of the Ria, the Nervion river that streams all the way from the harbour to the inner city of Bilbao.

We stopped next to the imposing, 120 year old steel hanging bridge, the Puente Colgante as I remembered it or Bizkaia bridge.

I remembered crossing that bridge so many times going from the, more industrial and poorer left side over to the more prosperous right side that had the best beaches. And from spending the summer months working at a nearby restaurant for some pocket money a few yards away …

We climbed the bridge ( by elevator ) and walked across the top of it. Iñigo explaining how this monumental piece of Eiffel-like architecture has been changed and renovated. Indeed it has. It’s more like a tourist attraction now while still ferrying cars and people across the river.

Looking over El Abra, the harbour bay, offers magnificent views towards my old town of Santurce ( Santurtzi now ), the rocky coastline and the incredibly enlarged harbour.

Everything I saw was larger than in my memory – and cleaner too, Iñigo telling me about fishing in the Nervion river, unthinkable back in the 60’s … and indeed the water looked clean and green.

We took the elevator down at the other side in Portugalete and sat at the Grand Hotel’s terrace for a few hours smoking cigars, drinking and exchanging memories of my years there as well as on our trips to Cuba and his to the Dominican Republic where Alin, his lovely girlfriend and a highly regarded cigar roller herself, hails from.

I felt extremely elated, relaxed and fully at home in the company of these great people.
More so when we drove back passing Bilbao and the new and luxurious looking suburbs and came to Arrigorriaga, Iñigos home village, a small town the size of my German village – but here the streets were full of people and children, drinking outside the bars at a time of night that would be deserted in my village … lovely.

I was introduced to Joseba and Marivi, Iñigos brother and wife and we all went to the private and male only cooking society that they are members of. A very Basque tradition, many male cooking societies exist in every village and woman may assist and eat but are not allowed to enter the kitchen which is male territory only.

Iñigo and Joseba prepared a lovely dinner that consisted of Chistorras ( small spicy sausages ), Iberico ham, Cecina which is air cured horsemeat slices, asparagus salad, Langostinos ( prawns ) followed by very tender Kokotxas ( the softest part of the codfish ) and topped up with filets of grilled Bonito tuna … all washed down with a fantastic Txakoli from Guetaria, the regional Basque white wine that has a great reputation for its crispness and green taste. I was quite happy he didn’t open the bottles of Riesling I had brought him.

But I was very happy that he and Alin enjoyed some special cigars from my collection and we finished another big stick at the Txoko ( as the cooking society’s venue is called ) before leaving at midnight … for some more drinks outside the bar next to his tobacconist store where we encountered a dozen of his friends and relatives all enjoying the mild weather, good fun and more drinks and cigars.

It had been a monumental dinner and a fantastic time shared with genuinely interested and extremely friendly people that treated me like a long lost family member because I happened to know Iñigo.
Truly heart warming !

It was a very happy Nino that went to bed at 03 a.m. ….

After a short sleep I was up very early and had a cafe con leche and a small sandwich at one of the standing only bars before taking the early train to Bilbao and its beautiful station, 15 minutes away and changing into another train to Santurce, another 30 minutes passing all the old docks and industries that line the riverside.

I arrived at Santurce and crossed the street to find the old main square with the bandstand where music was played on weekends for dancing. Memories.

Then I turned left up the street and found my old school, the cinema where I’d go see movies and the house we lived in in the Txixarra neighbourhood. Good memories.

I walked back down to the fishing harbour and the smell of saltwater, ships and fish immediately took me back 40 years.

This is where I spent a lot of hours, fishing by the quay, watching the ships, dreaming of foreign countries and travelling to them one day … and eating the best fried sardines on earth as well as the best Marmitako.

The Robusto I smoked and the reflections of the hour I sat by the harbour are priceless and made me happy to have finally made the trip…

The return train took me past the Nautical Academy where I wanted to have studied but instead ended up in Germany.

It was early afternoon in Bilbao, too early for lunch so I walked the streets of Bilbao that were still familiar to me after all these years.

Iñigo had recommended the roof terrace of the Hotel Domine for the best views over the Guggenheim museum ( THE place that has changed Bilbao’s image ), the Ria and the old Deusto University where I received a diploma in German … and right he was.

Stunning views – and I had all the terrace to myself as, despite being 1:30 p.m., I was the only guest ( and therefore ignored until I ordered a coffee … )

Another well spent hour and another Robusto gone up in smoky memories.

I continued my tour of Bilbao passing the lovely villa that houses Athletic Bilbao’s board of directors and came to the old part of town, the Plaza Nueva and the so-called Siete Calles, home to the best Pintxo (Tapas) bars. But it was Saturday, sunny, 3 p.m. and lunchtime so it was too crowded for my taste.

I went back to Plaza Albia, a quiet square across the Justice palace where I has earlier passed Bar Plaza Albia, a place with an incredible selection of fresh Pintxos. There I had my favourite Pintxos and another relaxing hour with a very good Partagas 898 from the Spain Vintage jar.

Interesting as the city is, I was tired and the enormous walking in Madrid the day before and now in Bilbao was taking its toll.

And by now I was completely certain I will go back. So no need to take all in in a day …

After a long late 90 minute Siesta I was fit again and sat having a cafe con leche and a cigar at Arrigorriaga’s crowded main square when Iñigo and Alin came to pick me up around 8:30 p.m.

It was a long conversation on cigars and Cuba trips while looking at some interesting pieces in Iñigo’s collection before we again found ourselves back at the same bar with mostly the same folks, friends and relatives and once again ended the night around 3 a.m after lots of drinks, pintxos and cigars.

No wonder I got up at 10 a.m. for a light breakfast of cafe, pintxos and a RASCC in the sun with Iñigo and some of his friends.

It was time to pack and say Eskarriak asko and Agur, thank you and bye, to Iñigo and Alin ( who put two bottles of Txakoli Txomin Etxaniz 2015 in my suitcase ).

I am sure I will return to the Basque country, soon and for a longer trip to enjoy the scenery, the best food in Spain and certainly some of the best  and warmest people around and a great pair of friends – Iñigo and Alin … plus many others !

I guess it was not a funny coincidence that the Lufthansa A-321 that flew me back to Frankfurt came painted in the 60’s vintage colours retro look … this week-end had been my very personal “retro-look” … 🙂


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