The best of Bilbao Biscay with Asier Etxeandia and Melani Olivares
We cannot think of a better way to see and enjoy everything Bilbao Biscay has to offer than in the company of a friend who knows all its corners, its traditions and gastronomy.
So Melani Olivares has toured Bilbao Biscay with Asier Etxeandia as a guide. During this memorable trip, the actress has inevitably fallen in love with the region, proving Asier right when he affirms that Bilbao Biscay ‘becomes your home as soon as you have experienced it and got to know its people’.
There are thousands of different ways to get to know Bilbao Biscay and hundreds of places where you can have the best of experiences in our region. Regardless of your age and likes, whether on your own or in the company of your partner, your family or your friends, Bilbao Biscay never ceases to amaze us thanks to its rich and varied gastronomy, its breathtaking natural landscapes, its beautiful cliffs and beaches shaped by the untamed sea, its vibrant cities and the broad cultural and leisure offer we can find in them, without forgetting its deep-rooted traditions and festivals, which even today maintain the flavour of past times. Bilbao Biscay provides the ideal setting to have the time of your life.
Actress Melani Olivares, known for having played the role of Paz in the TV show Aida, feels lucky to have had the chance to visit Bilbao Biscay accompanied by a good friend of hers, who has gladly shown her around the region: the award-winning film, theatre and television actor–born and bred in Biscay–Asier Etxeandia.
As it could not be otherwise, Melani’s trip across Bilbao Biscay has begun at Casco Viejo in Bilbao, where she has experienced the ‘poteo’ first-hand and gone to several bars for something to drink (typically wine, beer, or txakoli) and to have a taste of the best ‘pintxos’ that the local pubs serve. ‘Bilbao’s holy poteo’ is the expression used by Asier to refer to this particular ritual. The historical city centre of the Biscayan capital is definitely one of the best places to try all sorts of ‘pintxos’. Among these small delicacies we can include ‘Gildas’, steamed mussels in tomato sauce called ‘tigres’, countless varieties of Spanish omelettes, pintxos made of cod or ‘txangurro’, or even leaks with eggs–everything you can imagine, ranging from the most innovative bite-size snacks to the most traditional ones.
What surprised Melani the most is that the ‘pintxos’ usually precede a hearty lunch or dinner. Our gastronomy is based on tradition, top-quality products and the know-how the chefs and cooks that work in the Biscayan restaurants possess. Baby squid in its own ink is without a doubt one of our star dishes, but our menus are highly diverse. Our culinary delights range from traditional dishes, such as cod with Pil-Pil sauce and ‘marmitako’ (tuna pot), to recipes conceived in the most imaginative kitchens. Eating in Bilbao Biscay is always a joy for the senses.
In order to go on with their visit, Asier has taken Melani on a bike ride along the River Nervión. Being once an industrial and port city, Bilbao has gone through a major transformation in the last few decades, and now the banks of its Estuary have been turned into leisure and culture areas. Standing on one of them is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the flagship landmark that ‘converted Bilbao into the city of the future’, as Asier has put it. In Abandoibarra–an open-air museum with walks, parks, stunning sculptures, and buildings borne out of the imagination of some of the most renown architects in the world–, we can see how this ‘new Bilbao’ coexists with its industrial heritage, which still today defines the character of the city.
The history of Bilbao can be felt around the Itsasmuseum, a place created to relate the story of the Estuary and the relationship between Biscay and the sea. Welcoming us are the imposing Carola Crane and the shipyards where the vessels that sailed the Estuary, filled with all kinds of goods and especially with iron ore, used to be repaired. Very near the crane, we can find the lively neighbourhood of Olabeaga, known as the ‘Little Norway’ due to its colourful fishermen’s style houses, and lying opposite is Zorrozaurre, the epicentre of the transformation that Bilbao is currently undergoing. This island is home to diverse alternative cultural activities, but it is also the place where the remains of the industrial and mining past of the city are and where some of the projects aimed to shape the future of Bilbao are centred right now.
Asier could not pass up the opportunity to accompany Melani on a visit to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, one of the most relevant art galleries in Biscay. You can ‘find in it all the classical art you can think of. This is a gem of a place’ that Asier, the same as any good local, loved visiting as a kid in the company of his mother. Surrounded by the lush Doña Casilda Park, the museum is a true cultural institution for the ‘Botxo’–the name affectionately given to Bilbao by its people for its location among hills. Reviving the memories of their performances in the Arriaga Theatre, another temple of culture in Bilbao, Asier and Malani have also walked through its museum. One of its peculiarities is that its huge collection has not been arranged according to times or styles, but to letters that represent monographic themes. So, here you can see how artists from different eras–form Medieval times to the present–have portrayed a wide range of different concepts, allowing us to see how some of them have changed with the years while others have remained unaltered.
On their route to discover the essence of Biscay, Asier and Melani have also embarked on a journey to the past. In Otxandio, a town in between Urkiola Natural Park and Gorbeia Nature Park that preserves a significant historical architecture, Melani and Asier have enjoyed the essence of the Basque traditions, which have been maintained for centuries and perfectly reflect the character of the people in Biscay. Melani has learned about goddess Mari and the Eguzkilore, ‘a distinctive symbol that brings good luck and protection’, as Asier explained to her, and about all the myths and legends of our ancestors that are still alive today.
In Otxandio’s pelota court, Asier has told Melani that the sound of balls made of wood, wool, and leather hitting against these ‘frontón’ walls is like the soundtrack of the life of the towns and villages all over Biscay. Basque pilota is here the king of sports. Dressed in traditional costumes, Melani and Asier have also had time to enjoy our Basque dances, present at almost every local festival, and to practice a little Basque, a thousand-year-old language shared by all Basque citizens, while they have fully understood how the whole region is capable of looking towards the future without losing any of their traditions and customs.
Asier and Melani continued their adventure in Bilbao Biscay by climbing Mount Gorbeia, the highest summit of the region with 1,481 metres and a place that has been awash with symbolism from time immemorial. During their ascent among pastures, beach trees, oaks, and crags, Melani and Asier had the chance to admire impressive views such as the Itxina Protected Biotope–a rocky formation that rises out of the mountain as if trying to reach the ski–, which is not only a feast for the eyes but also home to diverse ecosystems where many of our myths and legends live too.
Maintaining the climbing Biscayan tradition, Asier has prepared himself well for the outing and brought with him some Idiazabal cheese. This tasty cheese is made of ‘Latxa’ sheep milk, those ‘white sheep with black heads’ that Melani has seen grazing in the fields at Mount Gorbeia. The climb to the cross that tops the mountain has then been quite an experience for both as it has helped them unwind and, at the same time, it let them feel the real essence of our countryside.
The last stop on Melani and Asier’s trip is the Cantabrian Sea. There, they have followed the coast and come across some of the wonderful sandy and stony beaches that stretch at the bottom of its steep cliffs. They have discovered magical islands where myths and legends live in harmony, locations like San Juan de Gaztelugatxe–defined by Asier as ‘a large rock that comes out in the middle of the sea with a chapel on top, connected to mainland by a rocky passage’–or Garraitz. Likewise, they have been surprised by nature in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, a paradise for wildlife in general (and birds in particular) that is also a mecca for surfers due to its internationally famous left wave.
The Cantabrian Sea is both a natural border and an entry point to Bilbao Biscay. Hundreds of years ago, plenty of ships packed with adventurers and traders departed from the harbours that still dot our coastlines. Nowadays, harbours like the existing in Santurtzi, Algorta, Mundaka, Bermeo, Elantxobe, Lekeitio, and Ondarroa, continue welcoming those fishing boats replete with seafood that reach their shores guided by lighthouses such as the one in Matxitxako–the northernmost point in Biscay–, or Santa Catalina, the only lighthouse open to visitors in the Basque Country.
All these extraordinary places have certainly made a strong impression on Melani Olivares, who will have from now on a place for Bilbao Biscay in her heart. This is now your home too, Melani.