My first introduction to Bilbao happened in my aunt’s home, more specifically in the kitchen where I thought my grandmother reigned (and she also seemed to think she did). In fact, it was my sweet and unassuming aunt who ran the kitchen and seamlessly produced the best ever home cooked meals I remember to this very day. Customarily, preparation of our extended family’s Sunday lunch was a joint effort amongst the ladies… my aunts, my mother and their maids. At some stage, the younger girls like me were expected to pitch in. This regular event was a happy one, always chaotic though enjoyable. Amidst the cacophony of pots and pans banging, the mingling aroma of sautéing onions in olive oil, crushed garlic cloves resting on the mortar and boiling chicken stock, my grandmother sat in a kitchen chair directing each one of the designated cooks and helpers what to do…how to slice, julienne or dice the vegetables, how to gut and clean the fish and always, her incessant lectures on the importance of quality and freshness of produce. She had a walking cane used to dramatic effect. If she wanted to call anyone’s attention, she readily pounded this cane producing a staccato crack and at the top of her imperious voice she would remind everyone to make sure that the chorizo de Bilbao was included in the stew. “This is expensive so use it sparingly,” she bellowed. In her kitchen, Bilbao was synonymous to the ever-present Spanish chorizo, which, according to her is important .Her so called secret ingredient to callos (the Madrileño stew of tripe). These were words, stories I remember as a child and I never really knew what Bilbao was until years later when I made my first trip to Europe. Needless to say, my fascination of Bilbao remained. Growing up, I learned a great deal more about this 14th century Basque municipality made famous for its titanium covered Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry and the city’s vibrant arts and cultural scene. The trip we made in northern Spain on the luxurious El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo was partly inspired by my curiosity about this city, with my ultimate quest being to find out what my grandmother’s chorizo from Bilbao was all about.
Travelling in the well-appointed comfort of our train, on day 7 of the tour, from Santander station we slowly made our way to Bilbao, the largest of three major cities in the Basque country. An industrial town, its re-invention formally began in late 1992, which resulted to an economic regeneration, beckoning thousands of Spaniards looking for work. These migrants now call this thriving city, home. One major appeal El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo had for me was a stop at Bilbao and the visit to the Guggenheim museum. I recall that day vividly and my anticipation must have been contagious as everyone in the dining car was in animated discussion of the Basque country, the evolution and transformation of Bilbao from a declining industrial town to a modern, thriving city, its politics and history with ETA, abbreviation of Basque Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty), the fierce nationalist and separatist group known to have caused havoc in this region, killing hundreds of people. A lovely gentleman in our group , a distinguished professor from León assured us though that as recent as October 20, 2011, ETA announced a “definitive cessation of its armed activity”. We should feel safe and must acquaint ourselves with the many interesting sites and unique culture of the Basques.
Ah, the Basques… by all accounts, the origins of the Basques are still an enigma. Shrouded in mystery, this indigenous group, said to have existed in pre-Roman times is regarded as the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe. The tribe then that inhabited the foothills of the Pyrenees were proud and feisty, had its own culture and spoke a strange language known as Euskara. Despite the dominance of the Spanish language, Euskara has survived to present times in its purest form. For some reason, the Romans never made an effort to conquer the Basques and thus, untouched by Roman influences, the Basques are the only non-Romanised people in Western Europe.
“We will soon pull into the station so get your cameras ready. The first building that you will see is the Estación de Abando Indalecio Prieto, also known as Bilbao-Abando. This is the main station that our narrow gauge train station is connected to. One of the most photographed by visitors to Bilbao is the station’s stained glass window made by artisans from the nearby town of Irun. I think it is quite special and a very pretty sight”. Our El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo tour guide informed us and whipped us into action in her usual informative and efficient manner.
A brief escorted walk to the church of Santiago (St James) followed. “How many churches have we seen?” I have lost count but each church has its unique history, legend and architecture and I think, worth the visits. But then, the shops beckoned and it was time to look for grandma’s chorizo.
Attaching myself to our young travelling companions, we were going to head off and explore the shopping scene, with a mission to find a delicatessen and the chorizo. My husband, always weary of shopping with me chose to sit with a fellow train traveller, our train expert, the bearded Englishman who by now had to quench his thirst with a mid-morning aperitif at a bar by the square.
“See those holes on the building across?” He pointed. “Those were from bullets during the scuffles between ETA and the Spanish government. The 70s and 80s here were notoriously dangerous”. The square no doubt, was a silent witness to violence but one wouldn’t have guessed it during that fine and sunny morning in Bilbao, where the sun was so bright, it dazzled.
The limited time I had searching for the green tin of chorizos ended in frustration and disappointment. In fact, I was crushed! In every deli we went to, there was the usual perplexed look on the shopkeepers’ faces when I enquired “Venden chorizo de Bilbao?” I soon found out that my grandmother’s secret ingredient was unheard of in Bilbao. How can this be? Months later, I encountered a celebrity chef in Manila who informed me that my romantic notion of this chorizo was based on marketing rather than fact and that I was grossly misinformed. The chorizo de Bilbao is in fact a brand name made by a food manufacturer in the USA, but for some reason is famous in the Philippines. Nursing my disappointment to this very day, I would like to think that regardless of the origin of this special chorizo, hand in hand with Frank Gehry’s museum, it was an impetus for wanting to visit Bilbao and consequently experiencing El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo.
Finally, it was time to visit Bilbao’s renowned Guggenheim modern museum. So much to see… so little time. Modern art is not one of my favourites but my interest in Frank Gehry’s renowned building was a driving force in the selection of the west to east route. We allocated some time to mosey inside and view the exhibits. The verdict? I dare say, the contemporary art exhibits paled in comparison to the building that housed these works of art. The imposing modern building, thought to have instigated the reinvention of Bilbao is breath taking and is indeed worth the stop.
Gastronomy features in the trip and although our daily breakfast on the train never failed to deliver, my husband and I were looking forward to the only meal on board El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo.
Lunch served in the train’s dining lounge was simple but superb! Another 3-course meal to savour while we once again enjoyed the scenery as we headed to Villasana de Mena, where our train would remain for the night.
More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203