These are notes of a brief trip to Bilbao and Logroño in October 2022. We flew from Málaga to Bilbao, spent just over 24 hours there, travelled by train to Logroño, stayed for 2 nights then returned to Malaga by train. The aims were to explore Bilbao more than we’d been able to do in the past and to add La Rioja (of which Logroño is the capital) to the regions of Spain which we have visited. As usual, the blog of the trip is followed by some practicalities, in this case including some basic information about the Basque Country and language.
We flew on a midday flight from Málaga with Volotea, which had plastered Quelle vue! (what a view!) over one of the engines, though most of the time the view was only of clouds. As we got closer to Bilbao they cleared and we could see the typical Basque Country landscape of mountain ridges, and river valleys with towns strung along the valley floors.
This landscape is of great benefit to the city of Bilbao – no matter where you are you can see green hills, which gives the impression of a much smaller and less urbanised place than it actually is. Even the ugliest blocks of flats look better framed by green hills. The city is strung out along the valley of the River Nervión – the airport is in a parallel valley, so the route into town dives through tunnels and provides good views as it enters the city proper. Bilbao’s current claim to fame is how it has reinvented itself from a centre of heavy industry into an attractive post-industrial city which now attracts many visitors such as ourselves.
We left the airport bus by Plaza Moyúa (pictured) – the centre of the modern city that developed in the nineteenth century. The broad streets and the buildings are elegant and it is clear that Bilbao is a major business centre – there were more men in suits than we are used to seeing in Spain. Ted and I had some time before we could check into our hotel so made our way to try our first pintxo (pincho in Spanish and pronounced the same). El Globo, nearby, was recommended by the Rough Guide so in we went.
That was the start of what became a foodie trip. Each bar serves a selection of pintxos – some very elaborate – and have their own specialities. They cost a couple of euros and you choose one or two with each caña of beer or glass of wine. Throughout the trip, apart from breakfast, we survived (happily) on pintxos in Bilbao and tapas in Logroño. The plus is the ability to choose, unlike those parts of Spain where you are automatically given a tapa – much easier for anyone fussy about their food (unlike myself who will eat anything and Ted who doesn’t have much of an appetite).
After a rest we made our way out to try (quite) a few more pintxos in the evening. This time we focussed on the old town – the Casco Viejo – across the river. There are too many places to mention them all – best to wander around and see where takes your fancy. The main concentrations of bars are in the parallel streets from Kalea Pilota to Kalea Erronda, the streets that connect them and, nearby, the large, arcaded Plaza Nueva. You’ll see from the photographs above and below some examples of the pintxos we ate – ingredients included truffle pate and cuttlefish ink.
In the morning I sorted out a transport pass (useful, cheap and essential as bus and tram drivers don’t take cash nor are there ticket machines at all tram stops). A single tram line runs from the Casco Viejo via the railway stations and along the riverside past the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, completed in 1997 and the beginning of the regeneration of Bilbao. This was our first stop.
It is an incredible building and is now the centrepiece of several sculptures – a spider called Maman by Louise Bourgeois and the Tall Tree and the Eye by Anish Kapoor, a column of glittering silver bubbles in a reflecting pool.
The most famous is Puppy by Jeff Koons, which has become an emblem of the city. Out of the main tourist season maintenance work meant the pool was drained and the Puppy was receiving some dog grooming to replace his flowery fur. The photos show him in 2022 and as he was on our first visit to Bilbao in 1998.
Nearby, new bridges and buildings complement the Guggenheim, with the one exception of the Iberdrola Tower, a typical work by an architect with a penis fixation.
A few minutes back towards the city centre is the impressive Zubizuri (white bridge) footbridge across the Rio Nervión by Santiago Calatrava. We walked across on our way to the Artxanda-ko Funikularra (Funicular de Artxanda).
En route we walked along some typical back streets of blocks of flats. At ground level there were plenty of little bars with a selection of pintxos for the locals to bar-hop between. The funicular was built to reach some of the hilltop suburbs but is now an attraction in its own right. At the top station is a park with views over the city the surrounding hills and the neighbouring airport valley. It’s a pity there wasn’t a bar in the park but we took the opportunity to try a couple close to the bottom station.
Back across the Zubizuri Bridge we caught the tram back to the Casco Viejo in time for a few more pintxos before it was time to head to the railway station and our mid-afternoon train to Logroño..
I’ve been to Bilbao before. Colin and I stayed for a night after getting off the ferry from Portsmouth to start a trip along the North coast of Spain. This was 1998 and, though the Guggenheim had recently opened, there was an edge to the place which didn’t feel welcoming. ETA was still active, and it reminded us of Belfast about the same time, with very few tourists around. It may be the case that we just didn’t crack the place. In 2009 I visited with a Great Rail Journeys tour group – this was a day trip from San Sebastian and all we saw was the Guggenheim. This time Ted and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. We could happily have spent more time in Bilbao – there’s more to see in the city and interesting places nearby in the Basque Country…maybe some other time.
The train journey from Bilbao Abando to Logroño (and onwards to Zaragoza) was totally new territory. The destination of our train was Barcelona, a journey of almost seven hours. Despite being the daily train a day it consists of only four coaches, though the journey means that announcements are in Basque, Spanish, Catalan and English.
The line follows the Rio Nervión, initially through industrial suburbs as far as Urduna, the terminus for suburban services. The line becomes single track and rises out of the valley by travelling almost in circles – one sees Urduna from several angles. We’re in the middle of nowhere for a while then enter the valley of the Rio Bayas, a tributary of the Ebro (Spain’s longest river). The line descends to the town of Mirando del Ebro where we briefly enter the region of Castilla y Leon and meet the main line between the French border and Madrid.
The railway then crosses the Ebro, leaves the main line, enters the region of La Rioja and follows the south bank of the river for the remainder of the journey. The river valley varies between narrow and wide, with low cliffs on either side. The cliffs are sometimes kilometres away, at other times the railway is cut into the cliff side. The rocks must be soft and prone to movement and rockfalls as there are plenty of speed restrictions. There is much evidence of the Rioja vineyards, particularly in the area around the town of Haro.
After 176km and 2.5 hours we arrive in Logroño, in a spanking new underground station which is far too large for the six train departures each day. We made our way to the hotel, midway between the station and the old town, check in and have a quiet evening, visiting one or two of the local bars, where the selection of tapas reminded us of the pintxo bars of Bilbao.
The following day we make our way into the city centre and the old town and have a good look round. Logroño is the capital of La Rioja region and has a population of 153,000. We looked at the cathedral, the main market, the church of Santiago el Real, the Parque del Ebro, and walked across the river on the Puente de Hierro (Iron Bridge) – not particularly spectacular but with good views back to the cathedral. Logroño is not a major tourist destination, though it is on one of the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, and there are a few serious walkers around. It was an enjoyable morning exploring a prosperous, typical regional capital.
By then places had opened for lunch. The glory of Logroño is its tapas/pincho bars and we had a lunchtime and an evening crawl round a few. In the old town there are streets which are lined with small bars each with a range of tapas and their own specialities – one included thistle stalks, which we reckon was cardoons. People wander from one to the other selecting a tapa and having a glass of Rioja or a caña of beer. Our evening visit was a Wednesday night the week after one of the main annual festivals. One would expect it to be quiet, but by nine o’clock the place was jumping, mainly with locals – goodness knows what it is like at weekend but we had a great time.
On Thursday afternoon it was time to head back to Málaga – we spent the morning getting to know the local area and trying the cafes and bars there before catching the train to Zaragoza to connect with the daily through service to Málaga. It is a two hour, 171km journey to Zaragoza, once more following the south bank of the Ebro through a series of small towns such as Castellon del Ebro and Tudela. A slight delay meant we had only five minutes to change at Zaragoza Delicias –the station staff were helpful and made sure that everyone changing reached the right platform. Four hours on the high speed train to Málaga followed by the local train to Arroyo de la Miel and we were home.
Note for Nerds:
Spain has 17 autonomous communities (regions), divided into 50 provinces, plus 2 autonomous cities (Ceuta and Melilla). On this trip we passed through Navarra for the first time, near Tudela, and stopped in La Rioja for the first time. My definition of stopped means having a couple of drinks in a bar (though in almost all cases it has involved staying the night). We have now passed through all 17 regions, all 50 provinces and 1 of the two cities (the exception is Melilla). We have now stopped in 15 of the regions (the exceptions are Murcia and Navarra), 40 of the provinces (the exceptions are Alava, Burgos, Castellon, Guadalajara, Huesca, Murcia, Navarra, Ourense, Palencia and Soria), and 1 of the two cities (the exception is Melilla). I stress that this is not deliberate tick-boxing stuff, (honest), just the way it’s turned out.
Practicalities – Bilbao
The Basque language is Euskara. The name for the Basque Country in Euskara is Euskal Herria. Note that this a historical term, not an administrative area and includes parts of Navarra and Southwest France. The Basque Country autonomous community (region) is Euskadi in Basque and País Vasco in Spanish,
The city of Bilbao (Spanish and English) is Bilbo in Basque. It is the capital of the province of Bizkaia (Basque), Vizcaya (Spanish), Biscay (English)
Note that street names are usually in Basque on signs, but on maps may be either in Basque (e.g. Google Maps) or in Spanish (eg maps in the Rough Guide). Kalea is the Basque word for street (Calle in Spanish) and zubia is the word for bridge (Puente in Spanish).
The major sights in Bilbao are walkable though, if required, there are buses, metro and a tram route. Note that drivers do not sell tickets nor are there machines at bus stops or all tram stops
The bus between the airport and the city centre is the no. 3247 which runs every 20 minutes and takes 20 minutes. There is a ticket booth in the arrivals hall by the exit to the bus stop. A single fare is €3.
It is useful (essential if using much public transport) to buy a Barik Card. This covers all public transport in Biskaia. It costs €3 and can be purchased and topped up at the ticket machines in metro stations. I believe it can also be purchased at the airport bus ticket booth. Tap in and out on the metro and buses, tap in only at tram stops and the funicular stations. The card substantially reduces the normal fare and, together with post-Covid reductions, fares are extremely cheap, including on the funicular. I have most of my €10 top up left on the card – but the credit remains on the card for seven years, which means we have to return to Bilbao.
The main railway station is Bilbao Abando Indalecio Prieto. Long distance train services are infrequent and at the time of writing there are two daily trains to Madrid and one daily to Barcelona via Logroño and Zaragoza. Nearby is Bilbao Concordia station (pictured below) for slow but scenic narrow gauge trains to Santander and Leon.
Food and Drink
As you have seen from the blog the food is great. Many of the pintxo bars also serve full meals, and the wine lists looked impressive. There are too many to choose from to mention any in particular. The main area in Bilbao is the Casco Viejo though nowhere in the city is far from a pintxo bar,
The Basque Country brews some good beer. Unfortunately we were a week early for the Bilbao Beer Festival and the main craft beer pubs were closed on a Monday.
We stayed at the Sercotel Coliseo, Urkixo Zumarkalea 13 (Basque), Alameda de Urquijo 13 (Spanish) in the new town though close to Abando station and the bridge to the Casco Viejo, which was fine.
For details of the Guggenheim Museum including admission tickets and temporary exhibitions visit www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus . The museum is open daily except Monday.
Practicalities – Logroño
There are local buses but everywhere is within walking distance.
There are four trains daily to Zaragoza, one of which continues to Barcelona, and daily trains to Bilbao and Madrid.
Note that the bus station (coach services are more frequent and there is also a regular service to Pamplona) will move imminently to a new location adjacent to the railway station, which may not appear on maps for some time.
Food and Drink
There are tapas / pincho bars throughout the city but the main concentrations are in the old town, particularly in Calle Laurel and Travesia de Laurel where every building is a bar, but also in Calle de San Juan, Calle de San Agustin and Calle Portales by the cathedral. Everywhere serves a good choice of Rioja wines at reasonable prices. We found one craft beer and rock and roll bar (Odeon in Calle Barriocepo) though all the bars sell beer as well as wine.
We stayed at the comfortable Hotel Ciudad de Logroño, C/ Menendez Pelayo 7, in a quiet location between the railway station and the old town.
Photos. The photographs are by Steve Gillon, with the exception of the following. The map of theBilbao area was scanned from Philip’s Atlas of the World, Paperback Edn, 1996. The map of the regions and provinces of Spain was sourced via Google Images and is by Travel Republic.
Copyright. Copyright (c) Steve Gillon, 2022.