Christmas celebrations in Bilbao
Christmas celebrations in Bilbao really only start to kick off when a large, well-known department store in the city centre decorates its windows with Christmas lights and figures and the street lights (tiny typically-Bilbao-blue lights) are switched on. Christmas is a time of hope and secrets just waiting to be discovered, when shops and streets on and around Gran Vía and the Old Quarter or Casco Viejo look the best they have done all year as they attract eager customers and display their most tantalising goods.
Maybe we’re exaggerating (only ever so slightly though!) when we say that our Advent markets are just as good as the ones found in London and other European cities, but, since we’re from Bilbao, we’re going to say they are anyway! The Advent market in Bailén Street, the one in the Arriaga Square, yet another in Doctor Areilza Street and other, smaller markets scattered all over the city are all extremely popular with the city’s inhabitants and visitors alike. If you look hard enough, we’re sure you’ll find the perfect gift for that special person in your life in one of our markets. You’ll find hand-made articles by true craftsmen, ceramics, pottery, jewellery – and, of course, everything connected with our world-famous Basque gastronomy, all lovingly displayed to the delight of enthusiastic shoppers.
Until just a few years ago, everyone in Bilbao – and I mean EVERYONE in Bilbao – would flock to the cloister of the impressive Santiago Cathedral at this time of the year to admire the annual exhibition of Nativities put on by the Nativity Association of Biscay. Recently, however, the exhibition venue has changed and has been moved to a little-known building that’s also in the Old Quarter of the city: the Museo de Pasos de Semana Santa. Finding the building is rather like discovering a secret in itself, it’s so well-hidden. However, it is well worth the effort and we highly recommended you to find it. There visitors can admire more than 10 Nativities from previous years that are on display, creations that are pure art in themselves.
Lovingly-assembled Nativities with their shepherds, mangers, animals, washerwomen, rivers, waterfalls and, of the course, the stable in Bethlehem can also be seen in the Museo Vasco de Bilbao (Basque Museum of Bilbao), the Museo Marítimo (Maritime Museum) and the Mercado de La Ribera (the Ribera Market).
Naturally enough, people from Bilbao never seem to stop talking about food and gastronomy: back in the past, the tenants of rural farmhouses in some of the more remote spots of the Province of Biscay used to come to Bilbao on the 21st of December to pay their annual rent to the property owners. And, given this time of the year, these baserritarras or homesteaders would make the most of their visit to the capital to buy food to take back home with them in readiness for their special Christmas menus and, of course, marketplaces were just teeming with all the very best food money could buy: vegetables, fruit, bantams and even pigs, all of which would later appear on the tables of the wealthier inhabitants of Bilbao.
From the XIX century, the most important gastronomic festival in Bilbao has always been celebrated on the 21st of December, St. Thomas’s Day. From the crack of dawn, farmers flock into the capital to sell their wares in the more than 200 stalls located in Arenal Square and the Plaza Nueva or New Square in the city centre. And what excellent produce it is too!! Cheese, honey, apples, pears, beans, spicy sausages made with peppers, cabbages and Brussel sprouts are just some of the delicacies to be found. If we had to choose just two typical things that are eaten and drunk by thousands of people on St. Thomas’s Day, however, they must surely be talo con txorizo or a sort of unleavened corn bread with spicy sausage washed down with a glass of excellent cider or txakoli (a young Basque white wine). Delicious!!
But Bilbao also hides more secrets these days. We from Bilbao usually go out for a drink with our group of close friends(known as a “cuadrilla”) before having dinner on the 24th and 31st of December and before sitting down to lunch on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day: this tradition of ours usually comes as quite a surprise to visitors, but what better way to kick the celebrations and festivities off than raising a glass of something nice in a toast (or two or three???) with your best friends???
Waiting for us at home, we’ve got such traditional dishes as shellfish, fish soup, bream, snails, cod and even baby goat. You know, just thinking about all this delicious food is starting to male me drool in anticipation……!!!
Did you think I’d stopped talking about the kind of food we eat at Christmas? Sorry…. What about deserts?? The appearance of stewed apples, Felipe II shortbreads and intxaursaltsa (creamy desert made of nuts, cinnamon, sugar and milk) on our tables is just as essential as a large platter containing a variety of nougats (turrons) among which is always the typical turrón de Sokonusko, a nougat made from hand-made chocolate that’s very typical – and exclusive – to Bilbao and whose recipe originally came from southern Mexico, believe it or not!! Yup! Even the nougat from Bilbao is born where it feels like!!
Why don’t you visit Bilbao at Christmas and discover lots more of our secrets with Secret Bilbao??
Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year! Eguberri eta urte berri on!