food / travel

The Story Of Bilbao: Clean A River, Save The City

Architectural and planning innovations have given new life to Bilbao, Spain, transforming it from a grey post-industrial city into a trendy tourist destination.

Bilbao's Guggenheim museum
Bilbao's Guggenheim museum
Berto González Montaner


BILBAO When our small group from Buenos Aires stopped a couple of Basque men in mid-jog to ask about this city, one of them told us emphatically, "We've even got fish now!" He was referring to the Nervion River that flows through his hometown of Bilbao in northern Spain. We too have a river in our city, the Riachuelo, though it may have more in common with the Nervion's dirtier past than its current incarnation.

In a matter of decades, Bilbao has earned an international reputation for its high quality of life. Because my wife is of Basque ancestry, our first task on the visit was to systematically visit the Basque Country seeking information about her grandparents, one of whom was from the lower Abaurrea, the other from Zumárraga.

But I insisted on expanding this particular plan by adding stops in Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Barcelona. If you're ever there, don't miss Seville's cathedral and its Giralda tower, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada, and the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona's art nouveau basilica.

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Bilbao cityscape — Photo: Cata

But we returned to the Artxanda hill in Bilbao where we had bumped into the Basque joggers. Down ahead of us was the Guggenheim Museum shining over the river bank. To the right were the Abandoibarra park and the city's only tower, designed by an Italian. A little further were the city's Congress and Music Hall, covered with a metal shell that recalls the shipyards that used to be here. On the other side of the Guggenheim, another pedestrian bridge ties the two banks together. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, it leads to two shortish tower blocks built by Arata Izosaki. And beyond these are the charming old quarter, the cathedral of Saint James and the little shops around its base.

It's when our new friends began to offer details about how Bilbao has changed that the similarities emerged with our own Matanza-Riachuelo basin.

"This used to be all filth," they recalled of the area. "All the industrial and sewage waste ended up in the river, which was completely polluted and gave off an unbearable stench. When it rained a lot and the sea rose, the waters of the Nervion could not be evacuated, so there was flooding. All the way to the Arriaga theater at the gates of the old quarter there were up to four meters of water!"

But when they took the polluting factories out of town, created the treatment plant and cleaned the river, everything changed.

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Factory on the Nervion River, near Bilbao — Photo: ukberri

The Plan Ría 2000 brought everything to this city that has given it new life: the Guggenheim, the parks, the Metro designed by Norman Foster, Rafael Moneo's university library. "But the good thing," said the younger jogger, "is that this isn't stopping." He indicated some of the latest public projects, such as Philippe Starck's conversion of the Old Municipal Corn Exchange. It's all part of the Guggenheim effect, as they say here, reconverting the industrial infrastructure into quality architecture to prepare the city for the tourism and culture economy.

The Nervion of yore had so much in common with our Riachuelo, even the "hanging ferry" facilities at its mouth, similar to one in La Boca. The ferry structure in Bilbao's Portugalete district was the first of its kind anywhere, and it still works. A lift will also take you onto the top of the supporting structure so you can stare down at the Nervion from its 61-meter height.

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