The Bridges of Bilbao

A bridge seems an apt metaphor for the events of the past week. Before leaving the Basque Country to start our month in Madrid, we went to see Bilbao and revel in its river crossings.

San Anton closeup

San Antón Bridge on the Nervión River

Bilbao is the biggest city in the Basque Country. Formerly a declining industrial center of dilapidated shipyards and run-down steel mills, it is now a bright and revitalized city. Meandering through Bilbao is the once-polluted Nervión River, now remediated and crossed by a series inspiring bridges.

San Anton and market

Mercado de la Ribera, largest covered market in Europe

We started at Bilbao’s oldest bridge, the 13th century San Anton Bridge, for centuries the city’s only river crossing. From its medieval arch, the juxtaposition of the old San Antón church alongside the modern Ribera Market illustrates the span of Bilbao’s history and the progress of its revival.

Ribera.jpg

San Francisco Bridge

From here, we followed a wide pedestrian esplanade downstream to see the city and behold the rest of its brilliant bridges. Next in line was the pedestrian-only San Francisco Bridge. In contrast to the weighty stone construction of the San Anton Bridge, its delicate arch swept effortlessly over the glassy waterway.

Merced creatures

Lucky Winged Creature on the Mercy Bridge

From the top of the rounded span, we could see the Mercy Bridge and its eight foundry lanterns. According to legend, rubbing the winged creatures at the base of its lampposts brings love and good luck. I felt silly patting this inanimate beast on the forehead, but complied before taking account of my many blessings.

Calatrava closer

Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri Bridge

From here, we strolled on to the Zubizuri Bridge, a tied arch footbridge designed by the famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Painted white, the curved walkway supported by steel suspension cables has become a symbol of Bilbao’s renewal.

Gugg with boat

Guggenheim Museum and La Salve Bridge

Bilbao’s rebirth was really conceived in 1997 with the opening of the gorgeous Guggenheim Museum. By far Bilbao’s biggest tourist attraction, this titanium clad contemporary art museum attracts a million visitors a year, and has become a case study in urban renewal known as the “Bilbao Effect”.

Gugg

Guggenheim Museum from La Salve Bridge

For an excellent elevated view of the Guggenheim, we scaled the La Salve Bridge, the first cable-stayed bridge in Spain. While going gaga for the Guggenheim, we also admired the bridge’s great red gate installed during the 10th anniversary of the museum.

Red crane

Shipyard Crane and Dry Docks from Euskalduna Bridge

From the Guggenheim we passed a footbridge made with Brazilian wood decking, a drawbridge formerly used for shipyard operations, and the Euskalduna Bridge overlooking the dry docks. All of the bridges we walked past in Bilbao were unique, functional and beautiful, but the best was still to come.

Vizcaya.jpg

Vizcaya Bridge

To reach our final bridge in Bilbao, we boarded the city subway and traveled downstream to where the Nervión River flows into Abra Bay. Here, we found the Vizcaya Bridge, and paid a mere 40 cents to cross the river on a hanging segment of roadway.

Vizcaya close 2

Crossing the Nervión River on the Vizcaya Transporter Bridge

Completed in 1893, it was the first bridge in the world to carry people and traffic on a suspended gondola. With fewer than two dozen ever built, this rare transporter bridge designed by Eiffel disciple Alberto Palacio, still makes the 90-second crossing over one hundred times a day.

Calatrava night

Reflections of the Zubizuri Bridge

After crossing the Nervión River one last time, we have now moved on to Madrid. With all the fun and interesting adventures this past month in the Basque Country, it is fitting that we captured our finishing reflections from the bridges of Bilbao.

Gugg and bridge night

Guggenheim Museum and the Great Red Gate of the La Salve Bridge

11 thoughts on “The Bridges of Bilbao

    • It is a stunning sight indeed, Gilda. We did not venture inside, but viewed the exterior architecture from every conceivable angle. I didn’t try to count them all, but exactly 42,875 titanium panels make up the surface of the building. As the sun shines on them through the day, the museum becomes its own changing work of art.

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    • We had a lot of fun in Bilbao walking from bridge to bridge, Moira. Each bridge had its own history, artistry, and function. Since Bilbao was built on the river, the bridges also offered nice vantage points for viewing the other sights of the city. We absolutely loved the Basque Country, and are now adjusting to the big city life of Madrid. We are really enjoying the IG pictures of your European adventures. Glad you are having such a great time, Joe & Es

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  1. We have a number of bridges in our city, but apart from two or three they don’t approach the coolness factor of those bridges in Bilbao. That gondola bridge is particularly interesting, I had no idea there was such a thing. Maybe not the most efficient idea, but major points for novelty.

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    • UNESCO thinks the Vizcaya Bridge is pretty cool too. In 2006, they included it in their list of World Heritage Sites. It was the first bridge of its kind, a model for future bridges like it, and still operates like it did the day it opened 125 years ago. You are right that it seems cumbersome and uneconomical, but it provides a vital river crossing without obstructing shipping traffic. Absolutely the best bridge in Bilbao.

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  2. Great photos, Joe. Those bridges probably enhance Bilbao’s vistas from all the various lookout points you visited. I’ll never forget visiting Pittsburgh for the first time and being overwhelmed by the number of bridges I saw. For some cities, their bridges really are part of the lore. – Marty

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    • Thanks, Marty. We had beautiful weather for our photos of Bilbao. I’m glad you mentioned Pittsburgh, as it is a sister city with Bilbao. Both cities had major iron and steel industries, and worked hard to clean up the air and water pollution in the aftermath of the 1970s steel business collapse. I too was awestruck on my first visit to Pittsburgh. It is another great city of bridges. – Joe

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