"Athletic Club" Bilbao Travelogue by vichatherly
Bilbao Travel Guide: 850 reviews and 2,215 photos
My first visit to the colourful, friendly Spanish city of Bilbao was in March 2012.
Manchester United had failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League for the season 2011/12, and so dropped down to the other UEFA competition, the Europa League. In the first knockout round I had a very jolly excursion to Amsterdam, where United beat AFC Ajax.
The next tie, which had already been drawn prior to the round, was either Athletic Club or Lokomotive Moscow. Fortunately, for me, Athletic overcame Lokomotive and this meant a pleasant trip to Bilbao rather than an arduous and rather expensive one to Moscow. To be honest, I probably would have given the Moscow trip a miss.
And so off to Bilbao it was. A trip to watch Manchester United play Athletic Bilbao, although they do like to be just called Athletic Club. It was a UEFA Europa League KO16 2nd leg match, with United being 3-2 down from the first leg in Manchester.
I left my planning a bit late and so the direct flights to Bilbao had become a bit expensive. I went from London Stansted, hopped to Madrid, and then hopped to Bilbao. All this was arranged by using the rather handy www.skyscanner.com website.
I arrived at London Stansted for the 8:20 Ryanair flight to Madrid. After a quick coffee and a sandwich at the Madrid airport, it was all aboard the 14:10 Easyjet flight to Bilbao. All rather simple, and at a pretty reasonable cost.
Some friends were taking a direct flight from London Heathrow, which was due to land about the same time as me. However, on arrival at Bilbao I noticed that their flight had been delayed, and so rather than hang around the rather uninteresting airport, I caught the local bus into the city centre. The bus into Plaza Moyua was a bargain at 1.30 Euros for the twenty minute ride. I then checked out where the hotel was and settled down, back in the Plaza Moyua, to enjoy the sunshine and the fountain, whilst finishing off my latest book.
I, along with my rather tardy mates, was booked into the 4 star Hotel Abando. We had worked out a three in a room deal. The rooms were large enough for us so it all worked out well. I choose the middle bed which, on reflection, maybe was the wrong choice, as there was nowhere to hide from the alcohol fuelled snoring of the two wildebeests either side of me.
My first impression of Bilbao was of a clean, modern city. There was plenty of dazzling architecture and tall buildings. These were separated by pretty parks, plazas and fountains. There were also plenty of park benches to sit on, giving you the chance to people watch and enjoy the sun, or the shade.
The colours of red and white were everywhere, in preparation for the big game the next day. There were red and white flags at my hotel, kids were wearing red and white football shirts, women were wearing red and white silk scarves, the cake shops had red and white cakes in their window, the manikins in shop windows had red and white scarves on, most flats had red and white flags hanging from their balconies and I even saw a red and white cement mixer.
The story of the club colours goes back to 1909. A Basque student was asked to get some more blue and white football jerseys, the team colours back then, whilst he was over in England. On his way back to Spain, he realised that he still hadn’t got any shirts. In those days the transport back to Spain was by boat. The boat left from Southampton, and so he picked up 50 shirts from the local Southampton team, who play in red and white. Back in Spain, the club officials liked the new red and white colours so much that they decided to adopt them for Athletic Club. Half of the shirts were also sent to Madrid, where the other Basque team was playing, and so Athletic Madrid now also plays in red and white.
After checking in, we decided to head out and see what the Bilbao nightlife had to offer and so set off on the usual first night bar crawl. This was made relatively simple due to the numerous small bar cafes in the surrounding area. When the hunger for decent food began to set in, we even managed to find a decent late night restaurant. The waiter told us that the one and only Bobby Charlton had dined there only the very night before and so we were in good company indeed. Steaks all round apart from my local hake.
Then it was off to a few more local bars, which were quiet but friendly. We went into El Galeón, on Alameda Mazarredo, where the barman showed us his “famous” Athletic Club drinking bottle. Then it was off to the Terra Rock bar, on Telesforo Aranzadi, where the barman produced the biggest and coldest Gin and Tonic I’d ever seen. Part of his space-age technique was to fill the glass with ice and then chill it by putting in under what can only be described as something like a hairdresser’s ladies hairdryer, which produced an amazing effect with dry ice. By the way I wasn’t drinking the Gin & Tonics and they weren’t cheap. Good fun though.
Off to bed at 02:00, should have brought the ear plugs!
Up for a decent breakfast at about 09:00 and then left the others in bed as I took a stroll towards the river across a couple of bridges, spanning the river and along to the Guggenheim Museum. I couldn't really do the visit to the Guggenheim the justice of buying a ticket to go inside, and so just enjoyed the marvellous building itself. As I was heading around to the huge puppy, which seems to guard the entrance of the museum, the peace of the stroll was somewhat disturbed by bumping into the Man Utd team squad, led by the iPod zoned Rio Ferdinand. My cool European citizen disposition went out of window for a while and I regressed back to my younger autograph hunting days and so ended up taking a couple of photos and having a injury update chat with star defender, and local Kent lad, Chris Smalling. The team did a very quick circuit around the park and then headed back to their hotel, for lunch I presume. Rio might need to be a bit more careful on these types of walks, as the local police had a job to keep up with him and just about prevented a local tram from doing some pre match injury damage.
I then strolled back to the hotel to see if the lads had surfaced from their slumbers at about 11:45. As is becoming the norm these days in Europe, we had to meet Man United officials in a local hotel to pick up our match tickets. A leisurely bar crawl to the pick-up spot seemed to be the best plan. The ground was not too far away and was easily within walking range.
Tickets for the match were wildly expensive at 90 Euros each, and it was with great surprise that one of them even came with the warning that it had a restricted view. Not that we really stick to the seating plans at these types of matches. It’s usually a case of get into the ground and look for a space.
We spent a lovely afternoon in a few local bars chatting with the locals, swapping phone numbers in some cases. Then we set off for the short walk to the San Mamés stadium. The scarf stalls were doing a roaring trade and I managed to get a decent looking one to add to my growing collection. Entry into the stadium was simple enough and we found ourselves low down, behind one of the goals; an ideal spot to watch the match.
The stadium, in keeping with the rest of the city, was awash with red and white stripes. Huge red and white flags were everywhere. The match itself was a disappointment, as Man Utd were outplayed again by Athletic and lost 2-1 on the night and 5-3 on aggregate. The Europa League adventure was over.
The Athletic fans couldn’t have been any friendlier. They seemed to be so pleased that we were there and that their team had played so well. Ryan Giggs was given a standing ovation by the whole ground when he was substituted during the match. At the final whistle, both sets of fans clapped each other as though they were long lost brothers. Scarves were thrown in both directions.
We were kept in the ground, as is the norm, to allow the home fans to disperse. Then something happened that I had not seen before. As we left the ground there was still hundreds of Athletic fans around and they gave us another huge round of applause. It was more like a guard of honour. As I said before, they couldn’t have been friendlier. Not what we are used to at all. So we decided that rather than head to back into the city centre bars we’d just join in the celebrations in the numerous local bars around the stadium. This turned out to be one of our better ideas.
We started off I think at the Bar Aliron, which has some great vintage football pictures adorning its walls. Drinks were being bought by everyone. We left, when the bar closed and went the short distance to El Huero Berria, with its great display of Athletic team shirts. More drinks were still coming our way as well as some of the local sandwiches. Every time I saw my friend Noodles, he had another Athletic souvenir. He started off in the ground where he was thrown a scarf, which he wore for the rest of the evening. Then I saw him with some kind of neckerchief, which he was given in one of the bars. He’s a friendly lad and so didn’t run short of beers. He was trying to by a drink at the bar and the barman wouldn’t take his money; he just let him have the beer.
More bars were frequented, of which I forget the names. But it was getting late for me now and so I decided to head back to the hotel and let the others see out the small hours of the morning. Some of my friends were staying on, but for others it seemed it was well past their bedtime and so rather than having them sleep in another bar I volunteered to take one back in a cab. I made sure he got back to his room safe and sound, although by the time the his roommates arrived back, rather than sleeping on the bed, he was half dressed, sleeping on the floor in front of the door. They tripped over him, and obviously put the photos straight onto Facebook.
I made it up for breakfast again the following morning, but only two out of the six did. Afterwards I went for a quick stroll with Nibbo to pick up the post match newspapers and a gift for the Mrs. I went down to the river again and then passed the bandstand, the Teatro Arriaga and then onto the ornate main railway station.
I circled back to the hotel for about noon to try and rouse the others. They had still to check out. Three were still fast asleep in bed. They were on an earlier flight home than me. I had an evening flight back to London and so had the day to explore Bilbao a bit further. My friends were on an earlier flight and so I put them back on the bus at Plaza Moyua and waved them off back to the airport.
I decided to go down to the river again and explore some of the old town. I walked down behind the railway station. I hit the river at Puente de la Merced and then continued onto and over the old bridge Puente San Anton.
The old town streets of Bilbao are tall and narrow and on this day they were still decorated with red and white. I enjoyed just wandering around not knowing what was around the next corner. I discovered churches and quiet squares. I ended up back in the city centre and decided to take another look at the fabulous Guggenheim building before heading home. I climbed up the stairs of the nearby La Salve bridge and took a few more photos of the Frank Gehry’s magnificent building. I also got close up and personal with the puppy, and bought a couple of fridge magnets from the nearby souvenir shop.
On the way to the bus stop, which would take me back to the airport, I passed the Athletic Club shop. I popped in, on the lookout for a small pin badge for a mate back home. They did have one in the shop. However, when the sales assistant brought it out, she had a sheepish look on her face. It turned out to be on sale for 36 Euros. “You were looking for something a little less expensive” she said. I nodded, and although my mate is a good mate back home, it was too expensive for me.
All in all I had a great trip to Bilbao. The people I met were really friendly. The city was abuzz with excitement for the Athletic v Man Utd match. Even the day after the game, everybody was in red and white. All the school kids wore their Athletic team shirts on the day after the game.
I was heading home, when I struck on the idea of a simple gesture of thanks to the locals.
I decided that, as the Manchester fans had been treated so well by the locals, that the next child I saw who had an Athletic shirt on would get a gift from Manchester. The kids were being picked up from school by their parents at this time of the day, and so it was not long before I turned the corner and put my plan into action. I bumped into two small children, along with their parents, coming out of a local bakers shop. The kids had Athletic Club team shirts on and so I stopped their parents, rummaged in my bag and gave the kids a Man Utd fridge magnet. “Something to remember Manchester United by, from a grateful visitor”, I said. “Thank you” they replied and seemed happy enough. It was a small gesture but worth doing none the less.
Hopefully we will get drawn to play in this delightful Spanish city again sometime soon.
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