A Stroll Through El Ensanche de BILBAO

Bright sunshine highlighted the museum again the next morning, signaling another brilliant winter day in Bilbao and we decided to take a stroll to the Cultural Community Center called Azkuna Zentroa in the Ensanche district.

Before we start on our walk, let’s set the stage by stepping back a few millennia to gain a historical perspective of the Basque Country region. The caves of Altamira with their stone-age parietal art document human habitation in this area of northern Spain since the Upper Paleolithic time period, going back about 36K years. Slightly closer to our modern times, local tribes sided with Hannibal and his elephants during the Second Punic War around 218 BCE, while a few years on, both Gaius Plinius Secundus and Claudius Ptolemaeus mentioned specific settlements along the Cantabrian coast of the Bay of Biscay during the first century of the Common Era. Following the eventual Christianisation of Basque, Gascon, and Navarre tribes, farming communities developed in clusters around rural churches. Each one of these collectives, called Elizate in the Basque region, was independently governed by the heads of the families belonging to the parish.

In the Year of the Lord 1300, on June 15, the third Lord of Biscay and the fifth of his Name, Don Diego López V de Haro founded Bilbao in the former Elizate of Begoña located on the right bank of the Nervión estuary, some miles distant from the coast. The Castillian king confirmed Don Diego’s Municipal Charter for Bilbao six months later. The rights and privileges of the new town were bestowed through Fueros, fundamental constitutional rights. A decade later, the very first Lady of Biscay and first of her Name, Doña María Díaz I de Haro augmented the original municipal charter of Bilbao significantly. All trade destined for shipping from the Cantabrian coast had to cross the bridge of San Antón in Bilbao, paying tolls into the town’s and Doña María’s coffers. Finally, in 1372, King Juan I of Castile and León named Bilbao a Free Port with special privileges for the trade of the locally mined iron ore to Flanders and Britain. Bilbao was thus set for the next 600 years of continued growth and prosperity, excepting wars and political adversity.

During the second half of the 19th century, the mushrooming of population centers during the Industrial Revolution necessitated a rapid expansion of Bilboa, similar to that of Barcelona and Madrid. From the agricultural lands surrounding these cities, newly developed neighborhoods emerged, laid out in a grid pattern with broad, straight avenues lined with 4 to 5-story townhouses equipped with all mod cons as the Brits say, like planned sanitation systems connected to sewers and potable water piped into every household. The planning included large parks and plazas to balance the density of residents with green spaces and recreational venues. These newly designed neighborhoods were called Ensanche, meaning expansion.

To build the Ensanche of Bilbao, the Elizate communities of the Abando area on the estuary’s left bank were annexed into the city over a period of 20 years beginning in 1870. The Ensanche was to become the commercial heart of Bilbao containing the headquarters of banks, mining, and shipping companies. But it also became an architectural destination for the bourgeoisie to show off their new wealth through magnificent mansions.

Now we can go.

To explore the Ensanche, we walked south, more or less, along Iparraguirre Kalea toward Plaza San José.

The square is named after the Church of San José in all of its brilliantly white glory. It was built between 1908-18 and designed by Basque architect José María Basterra for an Augustinian convent. The Basterra-designed spire wasn’t added till 1931.



San José Plaza is the home of three over-sized bronze sculptures, the creations of Basque artist Vicente Larrea. The works were commissioned by the City Council and they were installed between 2003 & 2005. These sculptures made of bend and folded sheets of metal resembling natural rock inclusions pay homage to the men responsible for the design and execution of El Ensanche de Bilbao, the team of city planners composed of architect Severino de Achúcarro, and the engineers Pablo de Alzola & Ernesto de Hoffmeyer, plus the iconic municipal architect Ricardo Bastida as well as the engineer Evaristo de Churruca Brunet 1ro Conde Motrico who was in charge of updating the Port of Bilbao along the banks of the Nervión estuary and also building the high-capacity modern harbor in the mouth of the estuary. Although Churruca was Navarrese, he came to adore the Bizkaia culture and even learned Euskera, the Basque language in which he wrote several highly regarded essays.

In the background behind the sculpture, one notices a rather colorful house that formes the northern boundary of a roughly pie-shaped compound the size of a city block. In this enclosure resides the Representation of the Central Government of Spain in the Basque Autonomous Community. Since the Euskal Autonomia Erkidegoa has nationality status in the constitution of the Kingdom of Spain, this administrative office is comparable to an embassy of Spain to the Basque Country within Spain itself, weird but true. The fueros first granted in the 14th century are to this day irrefutable intangible rights of the Basque Nation. There is an old saying applied to the former Kingdom of Navarre, essentially the Basque country: “en Navarra hubo antes Leyes que Reyes”. Meaning the fueros come before kings, with the implication that those fundamental rights were more important than kings and existed prior to kingdoms. US President John Adams agreed with this stance, considering the Fueros of Bizkaia a paradigm for the US constitution.  

View from Elcano street across the fenced garden of the Spanish Representation to the rear façade of the main building with, possibly, a spiral staircase in the central tower.
View from Iparraguirre street over the rear and sides of the nearly horseshoe-shaped building.
The angled main façade of the Spanish Representation. It fronts both Plaza de Don Federico Moyúa, the elliptical main square of el Ensanche, and Gran Vía.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves in our stroll through the area. We’ll come back to the plaza later. For now, we’ll continue south on Iparraguirre Kalea to the main drag, la Gran Vía of the Ensanche district. Its full name is:

Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro, honoring the founder of Bilbao.

Walking along this magnificent boulevard for just a couple of blocks, we came across several pretty impressive mansions which for the most part are still used in their original configuration. The taller groundfloor levels were originally and still are dedicated to commercial use, while the upper floors are residential. These days, however, they are not only used as family apartments but also for law and doctor’s offices, IT consultations, architect’s studios, and so forth.

I enjoyed observing the elegant gentleman in his camel coat and polished loafers, the way he inclines his head to signal his attention in conversation, and the care he shows in holding the cigarette behind his back as to not inconvenience his companion. ¡Muy Gran Vía! The lady in her second-best fur is also clearly a local resident.
The main entrance of the Sota Building surmounted by the family crest.
The immense ‘Las Casas de Ramón de la Sota’. This apartment building covers an entire block. It was designed by Manuel María Smith Ibarra ca. 1919.
Next door, the Lezama Leguizamón House of 1922 is no less impressive. It was designed by Ricardo Bastida & José María Basterra.

Leaving the Gran Vía behind, we made our way further south along busy sidewalks and pedestrian zones.

Close to our destination, we hit an intersection where a peculiar sight caught my eye.

The 2006 Edificio Plaza Bizkaia – Administrative Headquarters of the Basque Government, avant-garde design by Federico Soriano.

No, not the imposing presence of the curvy glass-fronted Plaza Bizkaia building. I was more curious about the equally shiny but oddly angular structure further up the busy side street.

Version 2

Foreground right: Bilbao Chamber of Commerce – Background: Department of Health
The Headquarters of the Health & Human Services Department of the Basque Government.
Polyhedral origami-like glass and steel construction designed in 2008 by architect Juan Coll-Barreu

The new headquarters of the Health Services is not only an ever-changing reflective feast for the eye, but it also represents the newest in conservation and sustainability technologies. The Ensanche is full of such surprises! And sometimes a laugh:

The distinctive and unmistakable outline of the Lonestar State!

Just around the corner from this pseudo-Texan chicken shed which is officially named ‘Ribs – True American Barbecue’ but is nevertheless a Spanish BBQ chain, we finally caught our first glimpse of the Alhóndiga Bilbao, the former Corn Exchange, and oil & wine warehouse, designed in 1909 by, who else, Ricardo Bastida. A hundred years later, it became known as the Azkuna Zentroa of Philippe Starck fame.

The main entrance to the Zentroa across the landscaped Arriquíbar Plaza

The Azkuna Zentroa is dedicated to the memory of the beloved late mayor of Bilbao, “World Mayor” Dr.med. Iñaki Azkuna Urreta, who was instrumental in revitalizing the city’s declining economy by reinventing it as an international center of culture and tourism.

Looking back over the gardens … The pretty residential building across from the Alhóndiga was designed in 1927 by native son Manuel Ignacio Galíndez Zabala, later a proponent of rationalism in his architectural work. As a student, Manuel played defense for the soccer team Atlético de Madrid for 2 seasons.
… walking toward the center …
… and entering into the Atrium of Culture.

The exterior of La Alhóndiga was faithfully restored while the interior was completely gutted and rebuilt in 2010 according to plans by interior designer Philippe Starck and graphic designer Thibaut Mathieu which transformed the former warehouse into a formidable Culture and Leisure Center.

For us as tourists, the “Starck Columns”, rather more appropriately the “Baraldi Columns” in the atrium are the main attraction, plus, of course, the gift shop loaded with regional crafts, art, books, and tchotchkes! But for citizens, the Azkuna Zentroa is a veritable haven for fun and learning with events and activities for all ages, including music, dance, theater, and cinema. The center also includes library facilities, and it offers workshops and lectures ranging from the arts to science and technology. Another aspect of the center is dedicated to wellness and sport, including a huge pool, and a fitness center. There are restaurants, bars, and a roof terrace, and numerous services dedicated to the preservation of the Basque culture and history.


Inside the Atrium of Culture, which is enclosed by the outer skin of Bastida’s Alhóndiga, three multi-story brick cubes supported by 43 structural pillars sunk into the foundation contain the entire infrastructure of the Zentroa. To transmogrify those pillars from prosaïc loadbearing structures into a magical forest of columns inviting play and storytelling, Starck commissioned the renowned Italian cinematic set designer Lorenzo Baraldi to develop a “script” to dress the pillars in period costumes, as it were, because in the movies one can hide behind columns, fall in love, kiss … behind columns, one can spy, kill, or have a meeting. [from a Starck interview: ” … derrière les colonnes, on se cache, on tombe amoureux, on embrasse … derrière les colonnes, on épie, on tue, un rendez-vous … “] After detailed research into the history of columns, 800 sketches emerged from Baraldi’s sketchbook out of which 43 were chosen and subsequently realized in nine different materials. Four of them were traditional materials, namely marble, wood, bronze, and brick. Three were modern substances, cement, steel, and aluminum, and lastly, two ancient yet practically unknown materials were also chosen, Lecce Stone and Tuscan enameled terracotta. It took 120 Italian and Spanish craftsmen five months to create the columns, each weighing from just under one to nearly 10 tons [~22K US lbs].

L to R: ‘Renaissance’ [Carrera marble] by Silvio di Santini; ‘Cave Art’ [Lecce Stone] by Pi. Mar SRL; ‘Renaissance’ [Terracotta, natural finish] by Ceramica D’arte La Torre
‘Chinese’ [wood]

Chicken or Dragon?
carved by R.C.Scenografía
Version 2
As a tribute to Bilbao’s iron ore industry past, this Neoclassical Bronze column was caste by the Basque Art Foundry Alfa Arte SA
L to R: ‘700’ [Cement] by Tecnostyle SNC; Lecce Stone ‘Renaissance’ & ‘Cave Art’, and the Terracotta ‘Renaissance’, details see above
The molded cement ‘Renaissance’ column

Starck directed that some of the column designs should be produced in different materials to create variations in textures and discernment.

The carved Lecce Stone ‘Renaissance’ column

Lecce is a type of very fine-grained limestone from Apulia in southern Italy that has been used for millennia to carve sculptures and building materials alike. To make the porous stone less sensitive to humidity and pollution, sculptors and masons in the olden days used to soak Lecce stone in milk which gave it a protective “skin”.

‘Baroque’ Lecce Stone carving by Pi. Mar SRL, which is the same design as the ‘Della Robbia’ Tuscan enameled terracotta column shown below.
L to R: ‘Della Robbia’ Tuscan enameled terracotta by Ceramica D’arte La Torre; ‘Medieval’ brick by FMB; ‘Baroque’ Lecce, see above; ‘Art Deco’ cement by Tecnostyle SNC; ‘Chinese’ wood, see above; ‘Modern’ enameled terracotta by Ceramica D’arte La Torre; ‘Renaissance’ cement, see above
‘Renaissance’ Carrera marble by Scultura de Santini
Detail: ‘Modern’ bronze by Alfa Arte SA


After an extensive visit to the gift shop, it was time to go and settle down somewhere for some rest and pintxos! We didn’t have to search very long, finding a bar just across from the Zentroa to revive our tired spirits.

The Basque tortilla in the San Marcos Bar & Kitchen hit the spot perfectly!

Soon it was time to perambulate home, stopping often to absorb the urban scenery of el Ensanche.

Are those eagles, way up there?
Yep, they are.

Returning to Plaza Moyúa, we passed by the famous 5* Hotel Carlton. It was the first hotel in all of Spain with en-suite bathrooms in every guest room. During the Spanish Civil War, the hotel served as the seat of the Basque government, even providing a bunker for the members of parliament.

The famous Beaux-Arts-style Hotel Carlton, designed by Basque-Irish architect Manuel María Smith Ibarra, it opened in 1926.
The Ministry of Finance for Bizkaia, a subdivision of the Department of the Treachery of the Kingdom of Spain. It also houses the Special Delegation for Economy and Finance in Bizkaia, the Electoral and Census Offices of Bizkaia; Customs & Excise, as well as 3 offices only identified by initial … ¡Departamentos muy secretos! Note the same ‘curl’ in the flowerbed and on the roof.

And here we look one more time, and surely with an open mouth in bafflement, at the Palacio Chávarri currently serving as the Spanish Mission, as we discussed earlier. This modest 🙃 family townhouse was commissioned by Víctor Francisco de Chávarri Salazar, an engineer, an industrialist, and a most respected member of the Basque Parliament who died of a stroke at age 45 while on a business trip in Marseille, France. Both Víctor and his brother Benigno studied extensively in Bruges and Antwerp in Belgium, where Víctor, presumably, fell in love with Flemish Renaissance architecture. Back home in Bilbao, he fell in love with Soledad Anduiza y Goicoechea whom he married in 1887. With their first child on the way, Víctor asked the Belgian architect Paul Hankar to design a home for him and his family. Apparently, Hankar, who became known as one of the most outstanding representatives of Jugendstil [Art Nouveau] architecture in Belgium, designed this neo-Flemish revival – dare I say it – horror for his client. Personal opinions aside, this mansion has several unusual features. The main façade toward the plaza is not only concave to follow the curve of the plaza, but it is bi-laterally chamfered with wings alongside two different streets radiating off Plaza Moyúa. The most surprising characteristic of this house is the fact that each and every one of the dozens of sets of windows differs from the others. Someone surely went hog wild with his window design! But that’s not all. I read that several rooms in the Chávarri palace were decorated by the Basque painter Jose Etxenagusia Errazkin [in Spanish José Echenagusía Errazquin] aka Echena. Echena was a classically trained artist who spurned the modern styles of painting practiced in Paris, like that dreaded impressionism. He turned his back on France and moved to Italy to focus on Old Masters. He became popular enough in his home country to be asked to execute two paintings for El Palacio de la Diputación Foral de Vizcaya, otherwise known as the House of Parliament of the Executive Branch of the Basque Government in Bilbao, and, well, a few frescoes in the Flemish Palacio as well. Oh those Chávarris, they were powerful alright!

El Palacio Chávarri, front façade facing Plaza Moyúa

Also in that Plaza named after former mayor Don Federico Moyúa, we saw our very first “fosterito”. That is the nickname for the entrances to subway stations in Bilbao.

Entering a fosterito and riding down toward a platform.
Poured concrete, steel, and glass,

those were the three building blocks used by Norman Foster for the Bilbao Metro. We were, by the way, very impressed by the multi-lingual helpfulness of the charming Metro employees who immediately rushed to our aid when we looked around in apparent helplessness!

From Plaza Moyúa we followed la Gran Vía east for an encounter with the much-lauded ever-so-slightly over the top Palacio de la Diputación Foral de Vizcaya, the provincial parliament building, created by architect Marcelino Luis Aladrén Mendivil between 1890 and 1900 in the beloved Basque eclectic style of the turn of the century.


Just a few blocks from here one finds the Montero House, equally special but for a very different reason. It is the one and only residential structure finished in a pure Modernisme architectural style in all of Bilbao. It’s nicknamed Casa Gaudí – can you see it? Should you need a little refresher of Antoni Gaudí’s designs, you might check THESE posts about our time in Barcelona in 2016. [There are 3 posts going forward for Gaudí’s residential designs and 2 or 3 going backward regarding the Basílica de la Sagrada Família]


The apartment building commissioned by Don Pedro Montero in 1901 was originally the work of the above-mentioned architect Marcelino Luis de Aladrén Mendívil, famed designer of the Provincial Government Palace or Palacio de la Diputación in Gran Via we just saw. Comparing those pictures, you might agree that it appears quite incongruous that the same man designed these two buildings. It is commonly understood that the architect and modernist designer Jean Batiste Darroguy, an employee in the Aladrén Studio since 1890, continued the work on Casa Montero after Aladrén’s death in 1902. It was he, it is said, who changed Aladrén’s “conventional” exterior of the building to its modernist appearance. Although Darroguy was also Basque, he hailed from the wrong side of the border. He was born in the French Basque Country, in the beautiful seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where King Louis XIV of France married the Spanish Infanta María Teresa in 1660. Since Darroguy was a foreigner, he may not have been allowed to lead the commission, because a well established and highly regarded Spanish Basque architect, Atanasio de Anduiza officially took over the Montero construction site. Only, Don Atanasio had long since retired. The Montero House was finished in 1903, and shortly thereafter a Chávarri-Anduiza enterprise moved into an apartment at the Casa Montero and one remembers that Don Víctor was married to a certain Soledad Anduiza … circles within Basque circles … what does a Frenchman matter? Nevertheless, it is reasonably certain that Darroguy was indeed the actual author of the exquisite façade in the Catalan style à la Gaudí. He may have had help from a mysterious person named Gardoqui who, as I read in one report “added the final touches to the project”. I couldn’t find any further information about this person, but his family name is certainly familiar to Americans through its connection to the American War of Independence. The Kingdom of Spain which at the time controlled the Louisiana Territory loaned the colonists money through the Basque Banking House of José Gardoqui and Sons, which supplied the patriots with 215 bronze cannons, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 51,314 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents [Wikipedia]. One of the banker’s sons, Diego María de Gardoqui y Arriquíbar, was appointed the first ambassador of Spain to the new United States of America. Don Diego praised George Washington’s inaugural address as eloquent, and with John Jay, he negotiated a never ratified US-Spanish agreement concerning Mississipi shipping rights. And of course, we remember the name Arriquíbar from the Plaza of the same name in front of the Alhóndiga aka Azkuna Zentroa. Bilbao, such a close-knit community!


Moving right along, we soon stumbled across yet another humongous apartment building, this one designed by architect Gregorio Ibarretxe [usually spelled Ibarreche in Spanish] y Ugarte in the locally favored eclectic building style. Ibarretxe was at that time one of the major home-grown architects of the Ensanche building boom in the late 19th through early 20th century in Bilbao. He most famously designed the Palacio Ibaigane [no photo], the palatial residence of the family of Sir Ramón de la Sota y Llano KBE, currently used as the headquarters of the Bilbao Athletic Club. We’ve come across Don Ramón’s investment property on la Gran Vía, las Casas de Sota, in pictures above. Sota, who was knighted by the British king, was a lawyer and self-made industrialist, ultimately one of the richest men in Spain, and a staunch Basque nationalist for which his family paid dearly during the Civil War. Although Don Ramón had died in 1936, the fascists hated him so much that they confiscated all the family’s assets after the fall of Bilbao in June of 1937. Two years after his death Don Ramón was further sanctioned with a one hundred million pesetas fine. I don’t know if it was ever paid and who might have done so.

1919 Apartment building in the Basque eclectic style by Gregorio Ibarretxe y Ugarte
Neo-baroque roofline, complete with dragon weathervanes

The building overlooks a pretty neighborhood square, guarded by lions rather than dragons.

The renewal of Jado Square in 2007 included the creation of a park with a marble fountain as its centerpiece.

To demonstrate what might be entailed in a renovation of one of these classic buildings in the Ensanche, here is a complete gut-job in progress. One can literally look through the shell toward the houses across the street one block over.

To get our bearings for our anniversary dinner that evening, we looked up the location for the Atelier Etxanobe with its distinctive window art,

before continuing our stroll through the Ensanche.

And just steps from these painted ladies with their exuberant decorations, an oasis of tranquility completes the neighborhood.

Saint Vincent-the-Martyr church and garden

The neighborhood church has been around since the 9th century in its earliest incarnation as a village chapel, a millennium before the urbanization around it was even a dream in the hearts of the Ensanche developers. Around the 12th century the chapel was enlarged by order of one of the Lords of Ayala Galíndez, possibly the “headstrong” one, Sancho Galíndez “El Cabezudo” V Señor de Ayala Garci de Salcedo. Following further renovation over the centuries, the church tower was added by Ensanche architect José María Basterra using materials from a former town hall. Even the name Galíndez is still connected to Bilbao … thinking of the fútbol playing architect Manuel Galíndez we met earlier in Arriquíbar Plaza.

A little closer to home, we saw this industrious fellow in an undertaker’s window, reminding us that even the greatest artisans start modestly, considering that honored architect Don Luis Aladrén began his illustrious career designing funeral chapels.

Passing by the back entrance of our hotel, we advanced toward the corner around which one captures the best views of everybody’s beloved puppy.

Right under the puppy’s nose, the newly renovated façade of our hotel reflects the Guggenheim as a jigsaw puzzle in its angeled, golden-tinted window panes mimicking deep-space satellite panels.
Puppy toes

Past the pup,


one can descend to the river level,


and enjoy the outdoor art displayed between the museum and the estuary. It’s a lively area, filled with tourists, local musicians, and street vendors.


One of the museum’s art installations there is not easily identified as art by the average layperson and I am not referring to the over-sized spider-mama we see in the background. No, it’s the fog. The fog is the art. Fog Sculpture #08025 (F.O.G.) was created by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya in 1998. Ms. Nakaya has focused for some time on natural phenomena that form and dissolve themselves repeatedly, like clouds, for example. She is the first, and as far as I know, the only artist who utilizes fog as a medium. F.O.G. stands for Frank Owen Gehry.


The appearance, movement, and density of the billowing fog depend on the ambient temperature, humidity, time of day, the season, and similar factors beyond human control. Therefore it isn’t molded or shaped by the artist but self-shapes through its interface with nature and with the materials surrounding it, like titanium or water or assorted works of art, or even the general public observing the fog.

Fog and ‘Tall Tree and the Eye’ by Sir Anish Kapoor, 2009
Fog and ‘Tulips’ by Jeff Koons, 1995-2004
Fog over water against shimmering titanium

The spider, on the other hand, is very much a fixed presence like any mother is in her children’s world. The French-American Louise Joséphine Bourgeois, 1911-2010, created her immense steel and bronze spiders [Height >9m/30ft] during the last decades of her life as an expression of love and respect for her mother. “Like a spider” Bourgeois said in an interview, “my mother was a weaver … Like spiders, my mother was very clever … spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother”. As an artist, Bourgeois has been most closely affiliated with the genres of surrealism and feminism, but she always rejected the idea of being pigeonholed into any particular artistic category.

Fog and ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois, 1999



And lastly, no fog, just billowing titanium. The beautiful curves of Gehry’s enfolding titanium frock.


P.S. One last look out the window before leaving Bilbao revealed a fun surprise. A gardener was busy with puppy maintenance!


One thought on “A Stroll Through El Ensanche de BILBAO

  1. Hello.

    Wow. What a stunning post you offered us. Thank you. We have not been there, but it seems absolutely worth for a visit. Your post proves it.

    Have a nice day!


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