Bilbao is a city that I had visited previously on a very short business trip. I had not spent any substantial time in that area of Spain so unlike other port stops, this region was relatively new to me. Consequently, I was looking forward to our port stop in Bilbao and I researched both the city and surrounding area to evaluate attractions of possible interest to me.
I dutifully read information from various open source data points such as the promotional websites of places within the city/region, read travel books and visited blogs of travel writers I follow. I then had a look at what shore excursions different cruise ships visiting that port were offering and created my own itinerary. I based my tour on what I thought would make an interesting day and be possible to see within the short time we had available to us while our cruise ship was in port.
Having decided on the itinerary, I set about checking on various touring companies which involved a fair amount of querying and verification of references. Once I found a company, I booked them but we ran into a little problem in that the company did not accept credit cards so they wanted a bank wire payment for the full costing of the trip. This payment had to be received in full, before the booking would be confirmed. This is not that unusual but I am not a huge fan of this type of booking. One of my upcoming blogs will visit this issue so I will not take up more time speaking about full pre-payment shore excursion scenarios.
I arranged the wire payment and ensured that the exact amount was sent. I subsequently received notification that I had to pay the tour company’s bank fees. They had not mentioned the fees in the original booking costs because “they did not know how much the bank fees would be until they received payment” and their bank in Spain applied the charges. In the very small print on the booking page was a footnote that bank fees must be paid by the client. I had read that but thought it referred to the bank fees I would have to pay in order to purchase and facilitate the wire payment. Consequently I balked at paying additional monies and I decided to cancel the booking with that company. I requested a full refund. The company decided to waive their bank fees rather than lose the booking so the tour was set. I later learned from other cruise ship passengers who also made their own bookings, that these added bank fees were common and that more and more touring companies were eschewing credit cards in favour of bank transfers with all costs paid by the consumer. Since they would not accept e-mail money payments, these types of transactions add to costs.
Our tour was to start at 9:30 and we would be disembarking on deck 5 as the port has facilities for ships to dock and they have a covered walkway marry up to the side of the ship. The usual departure point on our ship had been deck 2 and I knew that on that deck there was a lovely waiting area. In my mind the perfect meeting point, away from passenger congestion where we could wait in relative comfort. I wrote out cards to everyone who was on my tour and hand delivered them to their cabins to ensure everyone knew the meeting point was on deck #2 at 9am.
At 8:50 am my husband and I took the elevator down to deck 2 and arrived at the meeting point. The large cavernous area was devoid of any living soul. 9 am arrived and we remained the sole occupants of the area. Where were the others? Following a ten-minute grace period, Dan went off in search of them while I waited in case people were merely delayed.
Dan located the rest of our group all on deck 5 near the point of disembarkation. Apparently, some had tried to take the stairs down to deck 2 and were turned back by ship’s staff while the rest had assumed I had incorrectly written deck #2 when I should have written #5. One of our group came down to deck 2 to get me and we were able to head off on our shore excursion. Not the most auspicious start to the day. As we exited the large and modern terminal building, I picked up a free city map from the local tourist kiosk.
Our driver and the tour vehicle were waiting for us and all seemed well. The vehicle was as promised both in size and cleanliness. However, the driver/guide did not speak a lot of English nor did he speak any French. I later learned that he was a fill-in as the usual driver/guide had been unable to work that day. This lack of English and tour guide experience was to be a problem.
Bilbao is in the area known as Basque country and this industrial port city is considered the de facto capital of the Basque region. Given my love of history, we had arranged a half day trip outside of the city before returning to Bilbao and doing a walking tour of the old town. The Casco Viejo of Bilbao, is the area in which the seven old medieval streets are found. It is locally known as Zazpi Kaleak in Basque, or las 7 calles in Spanish. I had decided that I wanted to start our tour at the Plaza Nueva.
Our driver stopped on VDA de Epalza and indicated a time he would pick us up but when asked where we should walk from this drop off point, to get to the Plaza Nueva, he vaguely indicated a direction behind us. I asked him to show me on the city map I had picked up at the port, where we were but he seemed unsure, only indicating that we were near the Zazpi Kaleak area. Thinking that the city map may not have all the little streets on it, I opened my phone app and called up Plaza Nueva and asked him to point to our location. He shrugged and kept motioning to the area behind us. Time was wasting so map in hand we walked to the nearest church which ended up being San Nicolas. Built in 1756, this Baroque church was both an interesting building, and it was also our salvation as it allowed us to determine exactly where we were and in which direction we had to go to get to the plaza. A landmark and a free map did more than our “tour guide”.
About this time we met up with some friends from the ship who had made their own way from the port into the old town. They had taken a shuttle from the ship to Getxo and then caught the metro into Bibao. They described the journey into the city as “fairly easy”.
I had been told that Plaza Nueva is a good example of neoclassical architecture and it had been compared to San Marco square in Venice. When we eventually found it, it was not as I expected. Smaller than San Marco square, it has a number of restaurants and little shops. The center of the square was filled with some market stalls which were closed and there was not a great deal of shopping to be had. Some of our group stopped for drinks and others for food. The square is historical, having been built around 1821 and started life as a market center in 1851. It clearly is a gathering spot for both tourists and locals. We were there on a Friday and I understand that had we been there on the Sunday, the place would have been very busy with plenty of shopping on offer.
Leading from various locations in the square, are exits to main roads, two of which are streets located in the old town. We exited near the Headquarters of Euskaltzaindia (another neoclassical building circa 1849),and found ourselves on Sombrereria. From there we made our way to Correo and subsequently to the 600-year-old Santiago Cathedral. The cathedral dominates the center area of the old town so once you are close, you cannot miss it. It seemed we reached an intersection, looked to our right and there it was, large, imposing and historic.
Reported to be the most spectacular Gothic church in Biscay it was declared Spain’s Historical and Artistic National Heritage Site in 1931. There is a fee to enter but the cost was 4 euros per person and given that this cathedral was on my list of historical churches to visit, I was determined to see it. As mentioned in previous blogs, in medieval times, the church had the money/power to command the services of highly skilled artisans. As such, churches remain architectural gems with outstanding craftsmanship and artistic treasures. Clearly a major point of historical interest, the cathedral did not disappoint.
There are several other churches within easy walking distance of the cathedral. Of note are the Santos Juanes Church (a 17 century Baroque-Classical style building), and the San Anton Church (a 1433 Gothic style building). The streets of the old town were mostly for pedestrians and we passed many shops as we made our way to and from the cathedral. If we had more time we would have liked to stop and shop. On our next trip to this port, we will probably just head to the old town and spend our time examining what is on offer. Shopping for some and architectural gems for others.
We did not have a lot of time so we made our way back to where we were meeting our driver and headed to the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. An extraordinarily beautiful modern building, it is reported to have sparked revitalization of the city when it opened in 1997. I am an art museum junkie but modern art is not a great love of mine. However, this titanium-clad building is well worth a stop, even if just a photo op and I consider the building itself to be a gem.
Historical and modern Bilbao, Spain has a little something for everyone. I would be interested in hearing what others saw and did on this port stop.