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As our two-and-a-half hour trainride rolled between Burgos and Bilbao, we discussed the topic of food. Basque Country has become an epicenter of global cuisine, and is considered one of the prime destinations for foodies, up there with New York, Hong Kong, and Paris. BUT, we had a problem -- after nearly three weeks of pure Spanish food, we were getting a little maxed out. Fortunately, part of what makes Bilbao so interesting as a dining destination is the idea of fusion, and bringing together some of the flavors we'd been missing, particularly Asian. So we decided to take a two-pronged approach to food in Bilbao to change things up: 1) Pintxos, of course, and 2) lunches in restaurants that brought out more diverse flavors beyond what might be deemed traditional. Dinner remained light and cooked in our apartment rental.
The first test of our new strategy was PAM&KO, an innovative sushi restaurant just across from Old Town. Their gastronomic and playful approach to sushi was delicious. A multicourse tasting menu was exactly what we needed -- light, refreshing, but full of interesting flavors. But we were in Basque County after all. So that evening, we set out to begin testing our chops when it came to Bilbao's pintxos. We found a trio that we dubbed "meat, fish, and cheese," because that's what we enjoyed at each: fantastic meatballs at Baster; grilled cuttlefish at Bar SantaMaria; and a cheese plate of outstanding Spanish cheeses at Taska Beltz -- each washed down with an excellent glass of white wine.
Normally, we wouldn't race out of town just after we arrived, but the next day was perfect and the sea was beckoning. One of the great features of Bilbao is the transit system, including how far afield it goes. The Euskotrens are amazing, and a unified fare card provides access to trains, trams, and buses (at least in Bilbao). We rode out to Mundaka, gasping at the first glimpses of the sea. Mundaka is known worldwide to surfers, and it was easy to see why. Huge swells gathered out on the horizon, only to throw themselves onto the rocks near our overlooks. The Hermitage of Santa Catalina sits on the edge of town and provides a breathtaking vista. From there we walked to Bermeo, a classic Basque fishing village dating to the 1200s, also with amazing views. After some breakfast refreshment gazing out on the harbor, we were ready to head inland to the town of Durango, nestled within site of Mount Anboto. Honestly, this stop is pretty niche, and probably won't make it onto most itineraries. But we had a lead on an up-and-coming restaurant that might even be gunning for Michelin consideration. Iruku has sushi at its core, but branches out into multiple fusions, pulling together flavors from Thailand, Korea, Peru, Mexico, and more. As delicious as PAM&KO had been the day before, Iruku blew us away.
The next day we had beautiful light on the iconic Guggenheim building (we planned to go inside later), so a bit of a photo shoot ensued. Afterwards we headed to Bilbao's Museum of Fine Arts. Sighhhhhhhh.... This was such a disappointing visit. Somewhere in the planning of their current expansion, the museum decided to strip their galleries of their world-class collection (including El Greco) and reduce the spaces to a series of "contrasts" between a masterwork and modern art. I know this approach can work, but here it was strained and reductive. On top of that, they've given over 10 whole galleries (ten, TEN rooms!!) to an installation called Thirteen to Centaurus. Think Hefty trashbags filled with air. Seriously. That's it. Needless to say, we were not fans of this new direction for the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
Trip report continued in comments...