After Barcelona, we took a quick flight up to into Basque country and landed in Bilbao. I didn't know too much about Bilbao at first, and really only knew it for the Guggenheim. Guidebooks on the country don't help much: most have a quick paragraph about Bilbao and move onto the bigger cities. We weren't expecting much else, and planned for a quick trip in and out: land, go to the Guggenheim, have dinner, wake up and leave.
For the most part, our trip pretty much went as such, given the short amount of time we had, but Bilbao ended up being one of my favorite points of our whole trip. The city's picturesque, an old port town that, when in need of an upgrade, went to the ends of the spectrum and became an architecture wet dream. When your city's main tourist feature is the Guggenheim, that has its effects, and the city seemed like the perfect mix of quaint and modern.
Case in point: the picture above is a good overview of what central Bilbao looks like. A grand river flowing through, with downtown and the Guggenheim on one side and the more historic part of the city on the other, with one of the main bridges designed by Calatrava (who also did the airport, one of the prettiest I've ever been in) and the other framed by the museum. Smattered around the city were these tile pieces by famed French graffiti artist Invader.
We stayed in a little boutique hotel at the edge of Casco Viejo, the historic quarter. At the heart of Casco Viejo lies Plaza Nuevo, which is a giant square courtyard with various tapas restaurants lining the perimeter. In contrast with Madrid's Plaza Mayor, which is a tourist nightmare (when we were there, various Disney mascots were baking in the 35C plus weather), Plaza Nuevo feels like a local heartbeat, certainly what one would imagine when "public space" or "communal space" gets bountied about by urban planners. Heck, the only thing missing were accordion players.
One of these restaurants is Victor Montes, a classy old traditional Basque joint that exemplifies all that is good in an old, established neighbourhood bar/restaurant that has stuck to its guns for eons.
For that added touch of familiarity, the 'decor' at Victor Montes worked wonderfully. Generally, the whole place is lined with aged wines and spirits of all kinds; this picture is only one small fraction of the whole place. The only area of wall space that didn't have shelves of bottles had legs of jamon hanging against them.
We stumbled into Victor Montes early in the morning, which in Spain is about 11am. The main bartender/manager was busy slicing jamon for the day, but gave us a warm invite and asked us to help ourselves to a slice of tortilla, a Spanish omelette. Instead of the Spanish omelette you might find in diners here (ie an omelette with peppers), the tortilla is more of a deep dish affair, with layers of potatoes baked in egg. I ate a lot of these in Spain (thanks, hotels with free breakfast!), but this one was the best: seasoned perfectly, with just the right amount of savory playing against the natural sweetness of a good egg, and topped with a slice of jamon.
Later that night, we tried out other tapas (or pintxos, as they're referred to in Basque) places, including Wallpaper's pick Irrintzi (just okay). Most Basque places simply leave them lining the bar: grab what you want, and they count the toothpicks stuck in each tapa afterwards. This system works fantastic, because it basically felt like a glutton's dream come true - an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord with little guilt involved. Afterawhile, we found ourselves back at Victor Montes. For starters, we really just wanted to go to a great bar, and this place was an easy pick. In most places, when you order a glass of wine, your choices are basically just red, white or rose if you don't speak any Spanish. Our fave bartender was kind enough to give us different pours of wines from Rioja, explaining each one despite the place being packed to the gills. Also, based on the tortilla, we figured they would have great classic tapas.
We weren't wrong: Victor Montes had some of the best classic tapas we had in Spain. We had every combination of small bun/croissant, jamon, baby eel, cheese, sardine, anchovy, crab, egg, you could think of. My fave was the one that looks like a sunny side egg in the picture; instead, it was cheese with a fig paste and bits of jamon sprinkled on top, playing on the egg appearance. If the tapas aren't enough, there's a full restaurant as well, and an offshoot deli/wine store located at the other end of the square.
For the most part, I knew enough not to get too sour grapes in comparing all the grand features of Spain to the limits of home. There's no sense in bitching about the relative lack of street life in Vancouver (I won't even begin to think about Calgary), because there's just not the same type of population density or history...let's wait another hundred years before we compare. But these tapas places really do put our after-work drinks places to shame, don't they?