Basque-ing in the Glory of Bilbao ~

By Andrew Hornick, API Bilbao Student, Fall 2010

Andrew and friends in Bilbao

Well hello there! I will lead of with the basics: My name is Andrew Hornick, and I’m a recently-turned 21 year old college junior from Centre College, in Danville, KY. I am spending the current fall 2010 semester studying abroad through Academic Programs International (from now on referred to as API) at the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain. I’m here to tell you about my city, my home for these three months, and the place that I have come to love.

I’ll be quite honest; my road to Bilbao is a little bit of an underdog story. Actually more than a little bit. Here is what I knew about Bilbao when my Spanish advisor told me that I would love it: Nothing. And when I started learning about it, I had no idea why she wanted me to go there. I’m a Spanish major; it’s in the Basque region, where a language that we call Basque, and the locals call Euskara, is widely spoken. Its major landmark is a giant, super-funky, modern art museum that is guarded by a 40 foot tall flower-encrusted puppy. It didn’t have FC Barcelona or Real Madrid. It sounded like a small Lord of the Rings character.

But she promised me it was green and beautiful, the people were genuine and there was a chance for full cultural immersion. I wanted off the beaten track. Why Bilbao? Why not Bilbao.

 

Hills around Bilbao

So, without the burden of preconceived notions, I prepared for my trip, went through API’s marvelous preparations for being abroad, and tried to learn what I could about the city I would be spending my first extended period overseas. This entailed heavy usage of Wikipedia, which proved largely fruitless, and reading about it in guidebooks, which generally showed pictures of the Guggenheim, and apart from that lumped Bilbao in with the rest of Spain’s Basque Country. Going in, I didn’t know what to expect.

Boy was I surprised.

API welcomed us to Spain magnificently, with a four day trip in Madrid which included several side excursions and ample free time to explore the city and acquaint ourselves with Spanish nightlife and our program-mates. Yet, all of a sudden, the four of us headed to Bilbao for Fall 2010 were hopping on a bus to the lush green valleys of Pais Vasco (Basque Country in Castellano) to start our great adventure, meet host families…it was about to get real.

 

Rugged Coastline of Basque Country

The first thing you notice about the Pais Vasco is that it is just…rugged (for lack of a better term). The hills grow steadily into mountains as you bus north from the plains of Madrid, and the landscape changes dramatically, and vividly to bright shades of green from the browns and olive hues of the plains scrub-land. The clouds fall dramatically close to the mountains, and all of a sudden, nestled in the hills, was Bilbao, the Guggenheim, the river.

We quickly adjusted to life with our host families (ahem, some live right in small beach towns a short metro ride from Bilbao; boy, what a tough life), or the residence halls, as the case might dictate, and began learning about life in Bilbao. Our API-appointed residence director, Andrea, who is sort of like our cool aunt, has helped greatly in getting to know the culture. For example, she takes us out to sample pintxos, a vocab word which is nearly impossible to pin down because it literally can be anything; but basically it is a specialty of the cuisine here and is the Basque version of a tapa, and to learn to potear, which is how the locals go about the business of sampling different pintxos at different pintxo bars. They do pintxos right, let me tell you, the combinations are literally endless and endlessly delicious.

Pinxtos - don't worry, they don't all look that weird 😉

The Guggenheim also is incredible. Though I had some reservations about delving into modern art, it is a fascinating building; what I might love even more is the way the city is set up around it. To be very brief in the history of Bilbao, it was formerly a drab (very very drab) industrial city, as recently as the early 90’s. When the iron and other industrial sectors started to decline, the city totally revamped into a more service and tourism centered economy, what they call the “Guggenheim effect.” The Gug, as we call it, lies right on the river, and is absolutely breathtaking at all times of year. They have constructed tree lined paths along the river in front of it, where local performers deliver music, and they spectacularly light it up every night. The city center also is nearby, filled with (from what the girls tell me) excellent shopping, excellent, and your standard Spanish issue six-story El Corte Ingles. Only a fifteen minute jaunt down the river is the Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s old town, which is filled with neat shops and the best Pintxos on this planet.

Beach near Bilbao

There was so much more that came as a pleasant surprise. The University of Deusto program is ideal for learning Spanish, and they provide multitudes of ways to meet and get to know both the Spanish students and students from other countries. Something we found out quickly: Beaches. Less than ten metro stops away, with incredible surfing. Something that I found incredibly important: Athletic Bilbao, the rojiblancos, a top ten La Liga team that’s roster is composed only of Basque-born players (this is a simply amazing feat). And the fact is, (this could be a whole different blog post), though fiercely proud of their culture, Castellano, or the Spanish we are taught in the U.S., is by far the dominant language. Only on some travels to the smallest villages in the Pais Vasco, which is literally stuffed with a lifetime’s worth of perfect weekend journeys, will you find more Basque spoken than Spanish.

University of Deusto

I could run on and on about it. I already have. I’m so glad that I fell into Bilbao. I already have made my plans to return again and again after my time abroad has finished this fall. You can’t help but be sucked in by the Basque’s love of their culture, and the incredible culture itself. I encourage you to choose this place. While you’re making the best decision of your life, I’m about to grab my copy of Harry Potter 7, the Spanish version, gifted to me by one of the very friendly Spanish students at our university, take a short trip out to the beach, and sit on a cliff to watch the sunset and read. What more can you ask for?

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