Beyond the Guggenheim in the Basque valley of iron

Philip Sweeney explores a green and mountainous land ravaged by industry
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

First impressions are often true, and in the Spanish Basque country, the view from the ferry arriving at Bilbao says it all. Lush green hills and a dramatic coastline are dotted with undisguised factories and the most uncompromisingly brutal high-rise housing.

First impressions are often true, and in the Spanish Basque country, the view from the ferry arriving at Bilbao says it all. Lush green hills and a dramatic coastline are dotted with undisguised factories and the most uncompromisingly brutal high-rise housing.

The Basque country may be green and mountainous, ancient and distinctive of culture and language, but its mines, steelworks and paper factories made it the industrial centre of the country. You have to appreciate a bit of texture to enjoy this place. Unlike the rural French Basque lands, this is a region pocketed with gritty outcrops of real industry.

Arriving at Bilbao's port of Santurzi, the smartest route to the Guggenheim Museum is by way of the waterfront and the strange, Eiffel Tower-like girders spanning the estuary. This is the Puente Bizkaia, the world's oldest transporter bridge, built in 1893, which glides a hanging tray of vehicles across to the suburbs of Getxo.

Half an hour after leaving the ferry we are in the Café El Puente, admiring the waterfront view over a tortilla sandwich and a superb coffee, and deciding on accommodation for the night, before embarking on the next cute transport move, the Metro into Bilbao.

Quiet, spacious and gleamingly new, the Metro puts the rambling conurbation of Getxo within easy reach of downtown Bilbao. We checked into a pension two minutes from the Puente and went sightseeing. Getxo might seem an odd destination, but then, before the Guggenheim, so was Bilbao.

Getxo has three beaches, a marina, an old white-walled, steep-alleyed fishing village, and a grid-plan of shops, offices and churches. But, above all, it has a remarkable series of early-20th-century mansions and villas built in an opulent mix of Swiss, Tudor, Nordic and Baroque styles for the newly wealthy bourgeoisie of Bilbao - the bankers, shipowners and industrialists.

After a day of wandering and a hake supper, we headed west through Getxo's endless suburbs. Up in the forested hills we made a brief detour to the Gormenghast-like movie-set castle of Butron. The coast road is high and wild, with pine wood giving way to amazing cliff-top views of beaches and rocks and waves far below. After a stop at a hill tavern, we rounded an outcrop to find a great concrete-domed plant surrounded by razor wire and electric pylons in the prettiest cove on the coast. It is so audaciously hideous, so Chernobyl-like, as to be almost exciting.

We headed inland, past Gernica, the ancient Basque centre made famous by Picasso's depiction of the Fascist air attack during the Civil War, and Durango, a grey industrial town still mourning the murder two days earlier by ETA of a local councillor. We climbed gently on an almost empty road through pastures of wild flowers and beech woods. By the time we reached the lakes and marshes around the glorious little village of Ullivarri, the sun was beating down on picnickers.

We drove on to the Basque provincial capital. Vitoria was recently voted the second most desirable urban environment in Spain. It was also - until the Guggenheim overspill effect - the country's second-least touristed city. Built around a semi-walled medieval centre of Renaissance palaces, the town expands via a grand columned 18th-century square, like Madrid's Plaça Mayor, to reach its loveliest feature, a system of connected avenues, gardens and squares known as the Green South Route. This begins with the Parque Florida, next to the Basque parliament. There are flowerbeds, fountains, an ornate bandstand, a boules pitch and glass-sided cafés, all beneath a canopy of 100-year-old plane trees.

Leaving Parque Florida, alleys lined with trees, ornate mansions, chapels, statues and parks, lead to the old village of Armentia, where another park with a 13th-century basilica and an open-air cider tavern awaits. We didn't want to leave, but different alcohol called.

South of Vitoria, the Basque border overlaps the start of red-wine territory. On a half-hour drive through rolling farmland studded with church belltowers, the road climbs into wooded sierra and then dives down the dramatic escarpment of the Balcon de la Rioja. From here, as from an aircraft, the landscape unfurls - a patchwork of vineyards and the beautiful medieval town of Laguardia.

The walled town has no cars but remarkably preserved 12th-century buildings and is honeycombed with wine cellars. There are two excellent hotel-restaurants, posing the agonising dilemma of whether to go for grilled local veal and stuffed chard at the Posada Mayor de Migueloa, or local snail and chorizo stew washed down with Senorio Araco at Marixa.

Fortified, we headed back to the coast at San Sebastian. This is an iron-mining area, with beautiful old buildings, hayricks and clear streams close to jaw-dropping industrial blight. At Onati, we arrived at another glorious complex of Gothic and Renaissance squares and buildings. At the heart is the university, the Basques' oldest, with a façade ornamented by great three-storey carved obelisks.

Back in Getxo, we pored over the excellent tourist brochures the Basque country produces. The Valley of Iron - Come and Enjoy It! said one. Maybe next time. The Basque country has much to see, but a slight image problem. The clever thing about the Guggenheim is that it gets you there in the first place.