In case you haven’t been paying attention, I’ll say it again: Bilbao proved a little piece of heaven when it came to supplying a multitude of exciting grounds on which to wait, stand, walk, linger, skip and trot.
Among them all, nothing came closer to fulfilling my
obsession with quest for surfaces that are not only visually exciting but are tightly connected to the place than the ubiquitous Baldosa de Bilbao tiles*.
When I say ubiquitous, I really mean it: they could be seen literally everywhere. If you are walking around Bilbao and at any given moment you decide to look downwards, chances are that the ground beneath your feet will be paved with those particular baldosas. Virtually all the sidewalks were paved with some version of the recognizable rosette motif – its carved channels mostly serving a utilitarian purpose, which I will explain in a bit, though sometimes the flower design was simply stamped onto them with nothing but a decorative function.
The design is linked so strongly to Bilbao’s identity that museum and souvenir shops were stocked with ceramic mugs, posters, soaps, t-shirts, shoes, ties, towels, key chains, pastries and all other kinds of imaginable tourist tchotchkes, all featuring the rosette tile design. They even have a facebook page dedicated to them!!!
Initially, considering its iconic status, I thought the tile design was adopted from something else. But in fact, it is just, and always was, simply that: a tile design. The manufacture of the tiles started sometime during the first half of the twentieth century (some reports date their first production to the 1920s and 1930s, while others say they came about in the 1940s and 1950s). Their design was aimed at making pedestrians a little safer in Bilbao’s rainy climate (which I experienced first hand and which is captured in almost all the photos), by allowing the water to drain into the carved channels and away from the surface of the tile, thus making it less slippery. Initially, the baldosas were made using concrete and coarse sand, with a covering of iron shavings in a 15 x 15 cm format, though this kind of material didn’t adhere well to the ground and left many pedestrians who stepped on loose tiles soaked up to the waste in rain water (not unlike Sofia’s current residents). Nowadays, almost all of the old tiles have been removed and replaced with new ones that are manufactured with cement at a standard size of 30 x 30 cm, although other, both smaller and larger, formats can be seen occasionally.
Initially endemic to Bilbao, the tile design was eventually exported to many cities throughout Spain and some South American countries. In Barcelona, one of the more popular tile designs, although clearly outnumbered by the simpler square and circle tiles, looks quite similar. Upon closer inspection, however, it seems to be lacking the channels that drain the water away from the tile. But then again, Barcelona isn’t nearly as rainy as Bilbao (as testified by the dryness in the below photo).
*Note: The term baldosa, it turns out, doesn’t refer to this specific kind of Bilbao tile, but rather is the word for any kind of tile in Spanish, making the term ‘Baldosa de Bilbao tile’ somewhat superfluous.
I love good food, and all different kinds of it. I can’t resist France’s fatty foie gras, the umami that is Japanese miso soup, the freshness of a Bulgarian shopska salad, the light deliciousness of a Greek octopus, or even the heaviness of a good medium-cooked American hamburger and home-made fries.
But my absolute favorite food of all are the bite-sized pieces of deliciousness that are the Basque pintxos. Basically little snacks, pintxos consist of a head-dizzying array of mouth-watering delicacies flavored to perfection – anything from tuna/bonito, anchovies, shrimps, crabs, jamon, beef, mushrooms, stuffed or roasted peppers, eggs, tortillas or croquettes, usually in a combination, served on top of a little slice of bread and pierced through by a toothpick. (This method also gives them their name – from the Spanish pincho, meaning ‘spike’. The toothpicks are used not just to hold them together but also – as the serving system usually involves taking whatever you want from the bar counter, where they are beckoningly arranged, and paying later, as a way to show and pay for the number of pintxos eaten.)
The first time I was exposed to the glory of pintxos was about eight years ago in a Basque pintxos bar in Madrid, where I was shocked not just by the deliciousness of the snacks, but also by the fact that the bar’s floor was barely visible from the countless napkins strewn across it. (My efforts to daintily leave my napkin on the bar were countered by the unfaltering wait staff who swiftly brushed them off the counter top and onto the floor. I suppose, just as a crowded restaurant in many places is seen as a sign for the quality of its food, the napkins on the floor signaled a numerous and happy clientele. ) The toothpicks were presented to the cashier in the end and not one could be seen among the napkins, as getting rid of them was a grave offense punishable by a fine.
Since then, I used every chance I got – during subsequent trips to Barcelona and Madrid, to stuff my face senseless with the little morsels of heaven.
So, you can imagine my rapture when I ended up in Bilbao and pintxos were available at literally every street and every corner. During the two days I was there, not one opportunity to put some in my mouth was wasted – whether it be a few with my morning coffee, several to pass the time after ducking inside a bar to hide from the rain or the head-spinning dozen devoured after a long day spent at the Guggenheim (I’m all for feeding my soul and spirit, but my body just couldn’t resist.)
The last place is where the above picture was taken and, if you look closely, you’ll see some discarded toothpicks lying alongside the napkins on the floor. When I voiced my concern about how they would be able to charge us in the end, the man on the other side of the bar calmly assured us that we would just simply tell him how much we’ve had. And yes, I was tempted to lie, not because I wanted to pay less, but because I was slightly embarrassed by the whooping number twelve that I polished off, compared to the modest four or five everyone else seemed to be paying for.
Point is, once you start eating pintxos, it is very difficult to stop – they are the epitome of the word morish, used in reference to addictive food that makes you want to continue to eat more and more of it, which I learned, not incidentally, while stuffing my face with pintxos in Barcelona (thanks, Slave, for the vocab lessons!).
But in addition to not being able to stop once I start eating them, I am also pretty sure that – if I had to chose a single type of food to eat for the rest of my life, it would be pintxos. I could really have them every single day, numerous times a day.
But, in a way, it might be a good thing that I don’t have constant access to pintxos. Among other gastric challenges it would present, I believe that eating them everyday would surely lead to the demise of this blog, as my protruding belly would quickly make it impossible for me to see my own feet. I’ll just keep telling myself that, anyway. It’s the silver lining, people, the silver lining!
These two pictures were taken at Bilbao’s Arenal Bridge (in Spanish known as Puente del Arenal and in Basque as Areatzako zubia), within mere seconds of one another and while standing at exactly the same spot, without moving, not even by a centimeter, anything but the camera’s angle. Crazy, no?
Note: Next to me stands my endlessly entertaining friend and no less than perfect travel companion – Mariana, who was largely responsible for our spontaneous visit to Bilbao and heroically endured my constant lingering to take pictures of my feet not just throughout this trip, but during all of our many travels together – in Sarajevo, Serbia, Bratislava, Budapest, Balchik and most recently, Barcelona.
The subway system in Bilbao turned out to provide not just a super efficient and convenient way to get around the city, but it was also filled with visual feasts that suckers for good design and strange languages like me simply couldn’t pass up.
To my delight, warning signs in the wildly incomprehensible Basque, or Euskara, language abounded, whose meanings I could only guess imaginatively. Case in point: I assumed that the phrase above warned metro passengers to “mind the gap” or something to that extent, as they waited to board the train from the platform. But I can only guess. Even google translate fails miserably, providing the following unintelligible translation: ‘off the train into the’.
The metro signage, including the Rotis
font typeface, the colors and the logo in the photos above and below, was designed by German graphic designer Otl Aicher – the man behind the visual identity of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, who is also credited with paving the way for the ubiquitous stick figures currently used in public signs, which he initially employed as symbols for the various Olympic sports.
Although impossible to capture within the format of this blog, several other features of the subway system’s design also impressed me and are worth mentioning. Most obvious, perhaps, were the glass tunnels that cover the escalators or stairs leading in and out of the stations, which were designed by Norman Foster as part of the entire underground system’s structure, and which are endearingly referred to as ‘fosteritos‘ by Bilbao’s residents.
The concrete vaults that house the stations themselves, also designed by Foster, were quite impressive as well. About them, the architect was quoted as saying:
“A tunnel dug by man through earth and rock is a very special place. Its shape is a reaction to the forces of nature and the texture of its construction bears the seal of man. This must be respected, not covered up to make the place look like any other building. One must be able to feel being underground, and make it a good, special experience.”
And it is one indeed. Even without awareness of the impressive design that is behind Bilbao’s underground systems (various features – from the Sariko station to the seating systems, have received design awards), using the Bilbao metro was nothing short of a special experience in pleasure and efficiency – something that very few subway systems in the world could compete with. To their defense, however, it’s worth remembering that the Bilbao Metro is relatively new (its first line opened in 1995) and small in scale – currently consisting of only two lines and 45 stations.