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Bilbao For Foodies

Xanthi Barker eats her way through Spain and lives to tell the tale

Written by . Published on October 7th 2011.


Bilbao For Foodies

THERE is no dining experience more philosophically suspect than an all-you-can-eat buffet. What kind of eating establishment leaves a large proportion of its customers in physical agony? Or allows, even encourages, its greedy, ignorant customers to mix flavours and ingredients to their own, stomach-churning recipe? Who wants to spend the evening as an eating machine? I am terrified by the mere mention of them. Perhaps because I am a delicate, ladylike creature that does not go in for such things. Or perhaps because the first time I entered one, I ended up eating ten plates of deep-fried-anything in a bid to win the respect of three men I’d just met who did this regularly. Who knows?

Saying, “I’m a vegetarian” in a pintxo bar is the quickest way to make the sometimes-surly barmen collapse into giggles.

A simple solution would be – don’t go to buffets. But that dipping your finger, tasting everything, wide-eyed gluttony is often difficult to shake. A better solution then would be – go to Bilbao. Every street is lined with bars selling the Basque specialty – pintxos. Each bar top shows off its own collection of immaculately assembled edible sculptures, which can be yours for around a euro. There are no red bowls or dripping sauces like you’d find in Spanish tapas bars. (The Basques are pointedly separate. Reminders of this range from the stylised mullets and ripped jeans to the vehemently flag-infested bars and protests.) Fish and seafood are the main ingredients – deep-fried squids and tentacles wrapped around each other, skewered onto a cheese selection to rival a Frenchman’s, all served on hamster-sized slices of bread. Bacalao is everywhere; the humble cod has found its kingdom. Jamon is as inescapable as butter. 

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Saying, “I’m a vegetarian” in a pintxo bar is the quickest way to make the sometimes-surly barmen collapse into giggles. In the more modern (usually more colourful, mismatched looking) pintxo places though, mushrooms, eggs and cheese rival animal flesh for the title of most gymnastic ingredient. After three days in Bilbao, I saw (and possibly also ate) enough different types of mushrooms to furnish a grey-scale florist.

Although pintxos are easier to find in Bilbao than cigarettes, one street glows in my memory like Mecca itself – Calle de Maestro Garcia Rivero, in Indautxu. Even though the old town, Casco Viejo, was rammed from eight o’clock onwards with teenagers, punks and shrieking old ladies, it was still possible to eat pintxo after pintxo without shouting, queuing or fighting. On Maestro Garcia, however, you need every elbow and Basque exclamation you’ve got to fight your way to satiety. But the scramble is worth it. If the standard pintxo is impressive enough to be described as gymnastic, the pintxos here are world-class ballerinas. Every doorway, pavement, and inch of road is swallowed up by the guzzling crowd, which, although older and more groomed, is still made up of taste-junkies.

When you have pintxo-binged yourself to satisfaction, you can stop staring lustfully into every bar window and begin to notice the tumbledown, Burtonesque, three-dimensional jigsaw that is the rest of the city. The river Nervión runs through it like a crooked spine, with different districts spinning off all around. Casco Viejo snuggles into its armpit – a maze of tiny, stone streets leading into each other and all around the Cathedral de Santiago. Crossing the bridge from here and walking straight, you hit the Gran Via Don Diego, where shops, buskers and a giant baby’s head can absorb you for an afternoon. South of here is Indautxu and the Alhondiga cultural center, which is another level of 3D jigsaw architecture; four buildings are built inside a larger one, each suspended on elaborate, individually designed totem poles. The ceiling is the glass floor of a swimming pool that belongs to the top floor gym. Apparently, it gets a little awkward on aqua aerobics days.

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With such an expanse of river, Bilbao has room for a power team of cartoon bridges. One appears to have been made out of Duplo (perhaps by a baby giant, swollen in proportions and intellect from eating pintxos and growing up bilingual). Another looks like the skeleton of a broken umbrella, discarded and stuck in the riverbed. Walking west along the river you eventually make it to the shiny triceratops itself – the Guggenheim Bilbao. On a sunny day, it can blind you, or so the legend goes, which may help you to appreciate the contents. The Tate Modern Spider’s cousin looks blind enough, hanging out in front with his twitchy, bronze legs.

Once you are thoroughly modernised by the metallic shimmer of the Guggenheim, you can refill yourself with God-made nature (sort of) by wondering further along the river (and a little bit inland) to the Casilda Iturrizar park. At the centre, there is a pond where you can find not one, not ‘a few’, but nearly forty different breeds of duck, hanging out, casually, nothing-to-see-here, even though half of them look like a Bilbao-an designer might’ve had a hand in their creation.

Bilbao is a city of collections – pintxos, bridges, ducks – picking one subject and exploring every angle of it. Dogs are another subject; it’s like The Encyclopedia of Dogs was required reading when growing up here. Possibly there is a psychic dog connection to that great seventy-foot beast, standing at the foot of the Guggenheim, who never ages or dies, and sprouts flowers instead of fur. Each street is a catwalk of show dog glamour - puffy little shufflers rub shoulders with siren-like salukis. In one pintxo bar, a Great Dane/Basset Hound crossbreed, as tall as his owner on his hind legs, chose his own pintxos and loped around the bar like he was the hired entertainment. With paws that big, who could resist him?

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Another interesting collection – and as far as I know, Bilbao is the only collector of these – is outdoor elevation devices. By which I mean steps, escalators, lifts, tow-carts – anything that gets you up a steep hill without mountain boots and a pick axe (better names on a postcard). The city is right down in the valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains, so inevitably the outer districts have crept up into the steep rock. Sometimes a road stops at a little hut and you think you are in The Truman Show and have reached the end of the set (that is why everything looks so cartoon-like!), but actually, the hut is a lift and out the other side nothing unusual has taken place. For some reason, I find this the most pleasing aspect of the city (sorry Guggenheim – your dinosaur scales just don’t cut it in the face of outdoor escalators). Perhaps it is the eternal attraction of domesticities in the wild – an armchair in the forest, anyone? You get that strange sense of secret orchestration, like some hidden force has snuck in and fixed things up, been here before, befriended the landscape. Some kind God has gone “aww, look at those little guys, with their weensy little legs, let’s put an escalator in there, help ‘em out”, which is a whole lot better, you have to agree, than the ones who invented all-you-can-eat buffets, functional architecture and bar closing times. But thankfully, in Bilbao, those aren’t the Gods people believe in.

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