'Industrial' and 'gritty' are two adjectives travel writers commonly associate with Bilbao. And I'm sure some parts of it remain so, even post-Guggenheim regeneration, but my first glimpse of the city, nestling between the verdant hills of the Basque country, was definitely more beguiling than I'd been led to believe. My second glimpse, emerging from Casco Viejo metro station into Plaza Unamuno, whose cherry trees were already bearing blossom despite it being the end of February, made me think that Bilbao's reputation as a grim working city was undeserved.
Bilbao's casco viejo (old quarter) is a charming, well-preserved and atmospheric area – some, myself included, would even go so far as to call it beautiful. In town for the weekend to celebrate a wedding, eating and drinking were high on our list of priorities. After leaving our luggage at Bilbo Rooms, our pensión in the heart of the old town, we hit the nearby Plaza Nueva to discover whether what some say about Basque food – that it's the best in Spain, or even Europe – is actually true. The verdict, based on the two bars we tried, was that such grand claims were not as far-fetched as they initially seemed: Gure Toki in particular dished up a creative line of pintxos, definitely more appealing than the tortilla de patatas/jamón options all too common in my Madrid barrio: mini hamburgers stacked on a slice of baguette and topped qith a quail's egg, Asian-style vegetables and prawns wrapped in filo pastry... Delicious. Our quartet of British and American girls spent the rest of the evening exploring the casco viejo's bars and finding unwanted favour among Bilbao's elderly locals, one of whom expressed a fervent wish to marry a Basque girl, which was a rather lucky escape for us.
Although Friday night's tapas scored highly with my tastebuds, the culinary highlight of the weekend was still to come. After a busy morning's sightseeing taking in the rest of the old quarter and the hill-top Basilica de Begoña, we took a stroll down the regenerated riverside to that most famous of Bilbao's tourist attractions: the Guggenheim museum, an architectural wonder of a modern art gallery designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997. It's every bit as spectacular as it appears in photos; a gleaming, silver structure looming over the Ría de Bilbao. The area surrounding the museum is worth exploring: it boasts a vast sculpture of a spider allegedly representing maternal love (more likely to send children running than reaching for a hug, in my opinion), and Jeff Koons' flower-bedecked 'Puppy'. Inside the museum lay our real reason for visiting: the restaurant. Despite it being a Saturday, a 3 course menu in the bistro – with bread, an appetiser, water and a bottle of wine all thrown in – was a positively bargainous 19 euros. How very civilised. Under the creative direction of Josean Martínez Alija, a young Spanish maestro who was named 'best foreign chef' by the Italian Identita Golose guide in 2009, the Restaurante Guggenheim provided us with 3 slices of gastronomic heaven: first on my plate was a light salad of aubergine, mushroom, cheese and lettuce, followed by a bulgur wheat and squid risotto topped with mascarpone, with a mint sponge cake with coconut foam and chocolate ice cream for dessert. Surprisingly for an eaterie featuring 'foam' on the menu, the restaurant was unpretentious, with impeccable service and river views helping to make this the most memorable meal I've had since Alla Zucca in Venice (more of which to follow).
Fortified by 3 perfectly-proportioned courses and two-thirds of a bottle of wine between two of us, M. and I moved on to the Guggenheim's better-known draw – the art. Not being particular fans of modern (or is it contemporary?!) art and under the influence of the aforementioned wine, the 8 euro visit involved a quick audio-guided whip-round (or more accurately, weave-round) the architecturally impressive interior, eyeing up the permanent collection, which includes works by Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, and a temporary exhibition featuring mangled metal 'sculptures'.
A few hours later, it was time to get back on the wine as we headed out to the welcoming bars of Bilbao to celebrate our friend's wedding. But not before one more visit to the tapas bars of Plaza Nueva, of course. Sunday morning was spent taking a bracing walk on the beach before boarding the bus back to Madrid and hoping to return soon to the Basque city. Bilbao, those travel writers were wrong about you: a beautiful historic quarter, world-famous architecture, food to remember for all the right reasons and friendly locals definitely isn't grim in my opinion.