Bar hopping in Bilbao

Bilbao, in the heart of Spain’s Basque country.

I took a short trip to Basque Country to mark the end of Berlin summer with a week of overindulgence in what’s been called the foodie capital of Europe.

The Basque people claim to be the oldest group to inhabit the European peninsula. No one knows exactly where they came from, but their presence in the region straddling the northern border of Spain and France seems to predate the earliest known migrations.

The Basque language is the only surviving language isolate in Europe — meaning it’s unrelated to any other existing language — lending some credence to their claim.

Bilbao would prove to be the pleasant surprise of the trip.

The guidebooks described it as ‘industrial’ and ‘physically ugly’, but I found its old town more interesting than the touristy towns to the east. What Bilbao lacks in curving film-star-quality beach it makes up for with its vibrant bars and welcoming drinkers.

For the food obsessed — ie. my wife — bar hopping will be the focus of your visit. Not to drink, necessarily, but to eat pintxos.

One of these people is food-obsessed. The other is drinking wine.

A close relative of the ever-present Spanish tapas, pintxos are served in individual portions, with elaborate toppings ‘spiked’ to a round piece of bread with a toothpick (hence the name, which in Spanish means ‘thorn’ or ‘spike’).

Eaten standing up at the bar or a nearby table, they’re the cornerstone of local culture and society in Basque country. No one would dream of spending the evening in a single taverna sampling every morsel on their counter. Instead, you should choose one or two, accompanied by a small drink, before moving on to another establishment in what will quickly become a gastronomically-sophisticated pub crawl.

We began our first Bilbao evening in the elegant arcaded 19th century Plaza Nueva at Gure Toki, a traditional bar known for adding more ‘modern’ pintxos to its menu. It was elbow-room only in the tiny establishment, thanks to its 2017 designation as Best Pintxos Bar.

I squeezed up to the bar and ordered randomly, pointing at whatever looked good: a croquette topped with a fried egg, bacalao smothered in cheese, and the humble Gilda, a traditional pintxo made with olive, pepper and anchovy.

A glass of Txakoli and a humble Gilda on the Plaza Nueva.

To drink? It could only be Txakoli, the light white wine produced in the region. It’s low alcohol and high acidity makes this crisp, slightly sparking wine the perfect match to olives, cheese, cured meats and seafood.

We took our plates outside and sat on a low stone wall watching the surge and flow in the square.

Anyone who has travelled with Japanese friends won’t be surprised to learn that my wife had a list of bars whose pintxo specialities she was determined to try. As luck would have it, the next bar was right next door. 

Sorginzulo is one of the most traditional bars in the old town, serving simple dishes done exceptionally well, chief among them their house speciality anchovy pintxo. We washed down its delicious saltiness with cold glasses of draft beer.

Pintxos at Sorginzulo on the Plaza Nueva.

Half an hour later, it was pintxos again on the other side of the square at La Olla de la Plaza Nueva, accompanied by another perfectly chilled glass of Txakoli.

More pintxos at La Olla de la Plaza Nueva.

And that was about all I could manage after an early flight and long layover. But we were bar hopping again the following evening after a drive to Asturias.

We’d seen stages going up the evening before, and that second night in Bilbao would reveal what they were for. We’d stumbled upon Aste Nagusia — the Big Week — a nine day long summer festival that celebrates the city, Basque culture, and for some, independence.

Hanging out with the drinkers at Taberna Basaras.

This information was helpfully relayed to me by a rather intoxicated man at the crowded Taberna Basaras, a bar we’d wandered into at random because it looked suitably old, and it wasn’t blaring hip hop, rap or the mechanized drone of techno.

Pintxos and draft beer at Taberna Basaras.

The streets were a roar of conversation as we made our way through the alleys of the old town, looking in windows, looking away from drunken street-pissers, and searching for something else to eat.

Stumbled into Bilbao in time for Aste Nagusia, a nine day long summer festival.
The streets roared with conversation

Our steps led us by some strange magnetism back to the Plaza Nueva, where we found Iturriza Taberna serving pintxos with tissue-thin slices of Iberico ham, washed down with glasses of Rioja, that noble Spanish blend of Tempranillo with grape varieties including Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturana.

Pintxos at the Iturriza Taberna.

A small table outside the bar’s entrance was the perfect place to watch the fireworks that marked the festival’s opening night.

The perfect place to watch the fireworks on Aste Nagusia’s opening night.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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