A sunnier life of cervezas, fiestas and siestas tempts many to up sticks and set off for Spanish shores. But one city that often escapes expats’ notice is Bilbao. Located in northern Spain on a rugged coastline overlooking the Atlantic ocean, the city may not boast as many hours of sunlight as its more well-known cousins, Barcelona or Madrid - nor, in fact, would it particularly like being referred to as Spanish - but this Basque city is fast becoming a popular choice for those seeking a new home abroad. Read on to see why.
Spain has tapas, the Basque Country has pintxos. And pintxos - well, they’re a whole other gastronomic ball game. Your standard Spanish croqueta crumbles in the presence of the mighty pintxo, which is more of a culinary work of art. A total reinvention of the humble bar-snack, pintxos are intricate creations with unique flavours, displayed in bars across the region in a dazzling array of edible treasures. Dates with bacon, honey, cheese and figs, black pudding with a quails egg on top - often all assembled on a toothpick. Hop from bar to bar picking out pintxos as you go and pair these skewered wonders of the foodie world with a txikito - a small glass of wine - or a beer. You pay by the toothpick so just sit back and watch them stack up.
2. Basque culture
The Basque people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe, and also one of the toughest, surviving invasions from the Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, French and Spanish. Today, vascos are still known for their hardiness and down-to-earth no-nonsense approach to life - stone-lifting and log-chopping are traditional Basque sports, for example, as well as pelote, a cross between handball and squash, played at neck-breaking speeds.
The Basque people take their culture seriously. Brutally repressed under Franco, they are now fiercely proud of their heritage and the region’s lively pro-independence movement - attested to by the almost ubiquitous Euskadi flags - lends the Basque country a rare political dynamism and energy.
Basque culture is also ahead of the curve gender-politics-wise. According to their rather feminist folklore, there are no gods, only goddesses, and women have always been accorded a lot of independence, inheriting and controlling property as well as officiating in churches. Although one exception to this might be the txokos, secret gastronomic societies for men to escape their wives. These still exist today - with women now permitted (thanks guys) - and historic sexual discrimination aside, it has to be said they’re a great idea. Because eating is more fun when it’s in secret and as part of a society, right?
Then there’s the Basque language, a ‘language isolate’ with no relationship to any other in the world. It’s one of the oldest languages spoken today yet no one is sure where it came from. Some say it’s the remnant of a hunter-gatherer language, others say aliens from a faraway galaxy planted it here. Even more bizarrely, there are 5 different Basque dialects, each so different even Basque speakers can’t understand each other. This all makes euskera strangely compelling to listen to - even if you haven’t a clue what’s being said.
3. Beaches and surfing
The Bilbao area is home to some first class waves - including the world famous Mundaka, and Punta Galea, a stop on the Big Waves World Tour. You’d think that as a result, Basque Country beaches would be swamped with surfers. Somehow, they’re not. In winter, especially, you may well have these soaring cliffs, gold sands and pristine surf to yourself. Professional or novice, it doesn’t matter - there are plenty of schools offering classes. And if you’d rather just watch, find one of the many bars with a view of the ocean and trade surf barrels for those of the beer variety.
Bilbao is a city built against a backdrop of lush green mountains and one of the most popular is the 671 metre Pagasarri. Ascending and descending this mountain at speed is a morning workout for the strapping and sporty locals. A morning workout with a quick mid-way stop in the bar at the top, that is. Cerveza in hand, you can enjoy spectacular vistas of the city and beyond. There aren’t many mountains you can ascend in 2.5 hours, city-centre to summit, or many that offer you a drink at the top. But then again, this is a city where champagne is known as agua de Bilbao - so maybe it all makes sense.
5. The cost of living
Bilbao and the Basque country are reputed to be more expensive than elsewhere in Spain but compared to other cultural and business centres in Europe, prices here are more than affordable. Renting a one bedroom apartment in the centre will set you back around €700 and prices decrease as you move away from the city-centre. Then we’re talking around €3 for a pint, pintxos for €1-3, and 3-course meal for €10.
During Semana Grande - or Aste Nagusia - the whole of Bilbao transforms into a week-long party. A street party to rival all street parties, this is the biggest festival in northern Spain and a celebration of Basque culture on an epic scale. For nine days in August, more than 100,000 people descend on the city to enjoy music, fireworks, bullfights, regattas, Strongman competitions, and a giant egg and flour fight. Everywhere you will see the plump figure of Marijaia, the icon of the festivities, with her hands in air, showing us all how to party, as well as txosnas, large booths playing music and selling food and drink, run by groups of families and friends. This is a week where the entire city has had one too many - equating to some serious hearty Basque-style fun.
So, what’s your verdict? Is the insanely good food, intriguing culture, language derived from aliens, striking mountains, stunning beaches, low living costs, and the annual giant party enough to convince you to relocate to Bilbao?
If you enjoyed reading this, check out some of our other articles:
Top 5 Neighbourhoods to Live in Bilbao
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The Most Romantic Neighbourhoods of 6 Spanish Cities
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10 Signs You’ve Been Living in Madrid for Too Long