En route to Logroño earlier this summer (to start Stage 2 of the Camino de Santiago picking up from where I left off last year), it made the most sense for Neil and I to meet in Bilbao (since Air Canada flies there via Madrid and I was able to easily get there via train/ bus from Nérac). I also felt it was the perfect place to “fuel up” before starting the 7-day 130km stage we were about to embark on. Because, pintxos, right?
What are pintxos? TripSavvy has a nice explanation:
‘Pintxo‘ is a ‘Basque-ified’ take on the Spanish word ‘pincho‘, which itself comes from the verb ‘pinchar‘, which is ‘to pierce’. Pinchos are traditionally pierced with a cocktail stick to attach it to the piece of bread that they invariably came attached to. However, as Basque cuisine has evolved, the food is now less likely to be pierced to a piece of bread than before.
So, it’s a version of what we might know as tapas (though the usage of the two words is complicated too – in some parts of Spain, tapas is a “small portion” – sometimes served free with your drinks) but know that in the Basque country, you’ll see the word pintxos everywhere.
We spent one night in Bilbao (en route home from the first stage of the Camino) last year but didn’t get our act together re: researching good places for pintxos and on a Sunday night in the middle of the summer, we seemed to be a bit out of luck in terms of things being “exceptionally” closed. I see now we were actually not looking in the right areas but I’ll put that down to spending the 10 days prior to that focussing on a 190km walk 😉
THIS year, knowing that time was short, I simply Googled “Best pintxos in Bilbao” and came up with this article in The Guardian. which I used as a start – pinning things to a map to see what was a “do-able” route in our short time there (basically one afternoon and evening). I’d like to think this is a starting point (nowhere near exhaustive so please don’t judge that we didn’t get to this or that place in less than 24 hours!) for a quick trip to Bilbao that we will build on each time we return (it’s a good jumping off point for joining the Camino – good bus services from there to many places along the route).
But, before pintxos… helado.
Basically I figure when you’re walking the Camino you get to have a daily ice cream. And though I technically wasn’t walking the day I arrived in Bilbao, I felt I might need some practice in the art of the daily helado. Especially when I stumbled out of my little pensione post-siesta and found myself facing this:
Yeah so, um.. This was amazing. So good I went back the next day and had another. Neil ordered an Aperol Spritz ice cream (well I made him because I wanted to try) which was equally as good. And all those “interesting” flavours? The website says “Today, the ice cream parlor ‘Nossi – Bé is recognized both for the variety and originality of its ice cream flavors, such as the high quality of their product.” No kidding. I’ll be staying at the same pensione in Bilbao next trip just so I can be close to this place.
Tostadero Nossi-Bé (the “tostadero” is a nod to their origin as a coffee shop roasting their own coffee)
Calle Navarra 1
One of the first things I did when I knew I was spending at least one morning in Bilbao was to look for anywhere serving exceptional coffee (as I am wont to do). The place that kept coming up again and again in my searches was Café Iruña (yes, for the coffee but also for the decor…).
I wandered in here around 10am (though online it says it opens much earlier, don’t count on an early morning coffee!) and enjoyed a small croissant, coffee and an orange juice – I sat outside (facing in so I could see the beautiful decor) and read a book for an hour or so. As I was leaving I noted the expensive selection of pinxtos and planned on heading back later that evening for something savoury.
These lamb kebabs are cooked to order in the corner of the restaurant from 6pm onwards. The lamb is marinated in some spices (a touch of curry?) and served with a hefty squirt of lemon juice and a piece of bread to help you remove the meat from the stick (the “pinching” action!) and my taste tester (I was too busy with the jamón-based pintxos) pronounced them some of the best lamb kebabs he’s eaten. They are 2€50 each and you pay the guy cooking them directly (i.e. not at the bar with the rest of the food).
Colon de Larreategui, 13,
Bar El Globo
This one I’d read about in both The Guardian article (linked above) and in a couple of other articles I’d found and was pleased to see it was not far from our pensione. I scoped it out the day I arrived (too tired to go pintxo-hopping but needing a walk after a day on the train/ bus). It’s not that large but it has a huge selection of pintxos and a fairly large terrace space outside (though the night I walked by first, there were people spread all over the pedestrian plaza surrounding the restaurant eating and drinking with and without tables, such a nice atmosphere). The terrace fills up pretty quickly and seats inside are not easy to find either but there is a fair bit of bar space where you can prop yourself and your eats/ drinks up. Tip: find a place where you’re going to stand/ sit first then send someone to go and choose the food/ drinks. Wines/ beers are fairly easy to order (point at the wines if you can’t pronounce them!) and the food, as with most pintxo places, is point and be served. We chose a selection of four items that they will then heat up for you – so keep an eye out for your server so you can collect them when they are ready (though they have a remarkable way or remembering who ordered what!).
Bar El Globo
Calle Diputación 8
The original location of La Olla is just around the corner from El Globo so it’s convenient if you’re already in the area. This place is a little larger inside (they have a smaller terrace) and they have a long bar which is a comfortable place to perch and admire/choose your tapas and drinks.
Over the other side of the river from the area all the above places are located, the Plaza Nueva is the place we somehow missed on our last trip – not quite sure how. In any case, it’s a gorgeous old plaza lined with arcades filled with pintxo bars and restaurants and you could literally do a pintxo crawl without even leaving the square! We happened to be here too early (for us) to eat but enjoyed a a beer at Bar Restaurante Victor…
I couldn’t write about Bilbao without mentioning the excellent street snacks – namely this:
So there you go – pretty much what we did with an afternoon/ evening in Bilbao. Not a bad effort (considering one of us was jetlagged and one of us had just handed in a round of manuscript edits AND we had an early morning the following day!). Again, this list is NOT exhaustive by any stretch – it’ll likely be built on with each visit (she says hopefully!)
Have you ever visited Bilbao? What are your top picks for eats and drinks?