In this edition of the Euroculture City Guide, Chingyz Jumakeyev (Kazakhstani) tells you all about life in the city of Bilbao, where he spent his second semester at the University of Deusto as part of the Euroculture programme, after his first semester in Göttingen.
The City Guide Project is led by Paola Gosio and Felix Lengers
Euroculturer Magazine (EM): Why did you choose to study and live in this particular city?
Chingyz Jumakeyev (CJ): I have always dreamed of living at least for a short period of time in Spain and even when searching for MA programmes, I always kept that idea in mind. Because of this, it was very easy for me to put the University of Deusto on the list of my preferred study destinations for three simple reasons. First, when applying for the Euroculture programme, I had already acquired a decent level of the Spanish language. Second, I really did not want to lose a chance to live and study next to the ocean (I think Deusto is the only university in the Euroculture programme that can give you that opportunity). Third, Spanish football! Being a fan of Spanish football I was eager to experience Spanish football culture and Bilbao is the perfect destination for that. You can literally feel how Bilbao’s identity is merged with its football club and players. Fun fact: Athletic Bilbao is the only Spanish team that is loyal to its local talents, which means every player of Athletic is required to have Basque heritage!
EM: What are the aspects you appreciate the most about the city and which ones are those that you like less?
CJ: Despite being a relatively small city, Bilbao offers a variety of activities. The best thing about it is that you have mountains for hiking, a river for paddling, an ocean for surfing, amazing weather, and of course you have a huge variety of bars and local food. Also, I would highlight the city’s well-developed infrastructure that allows you to travel not only Bilbao but the whole Biscay region very easily. Besides all of that, the city has much culture as well, which can be found in its famous Guggenheim Museum, the cultural area of the San Francisco neighborhood, Casco Viejo (Old town), and the renovated parts of the city like Moyua and Abando. The only thing that I appreciated less are the high prices which are typical for the Basque Country.
EM: Was it easy to communicate with the locals or did you encounter any issues ? Do you have any tips on how to deal with the language barrier?
CJ: Well, some might say that Basque locals are very closed and even sometimes considered rude. I think it depends on where you are from and how you interpret the situation. Based on my experience, I have never encountered any issues. I found it easy to interact with local people despite having limited speaking-Spanish skills. I was always understood and supported, even in difficult situations like dealing with local bureaucracy, obtaining a residence card (laughing), or visiting hospitals. I would say I have even managed to establish very positive relationships with all of my landlords throughout the entire year. I wish I had spent more time with local people but when you do not speak much Spanish, this can be quite difficult. As for the tips on how to learn faster Spanish and to meet local people, I would suggest abandoning the Euroculture-student or international-student bubbles and stop speaking English!
EM: If you were in the city for 1 day as a tourist, what would you certainly do?
CJ: Taking into account the well-developed public transport and the size of Bilbao, there are 3 places that I would visit for sure. First, I would start my day, of course, from the Guggenheim Museum (BGM) which stands right in front of the University of Deusto, on the other side of the river. In my opinion, BGM is must-do #1 since it is very symbolic of the city of Bilbao and its industrial history. To fully and thoroughly explore Guggenheim would probably take you about 4 hours. The next place would be Sopelana Beach, which takes about 25 minutes by subway. Most of the tourists spend most of their time in the city, but there are also many fun things to do and find just outside Bilbao. The Bay of Biscay is full of spectacular views and landscapes. Lastly, in the evening, I would definitely recommend discovering Bilbao from another angle. The best way to do so is to visit Mount Artxanda (Mirador de Artxanda) which stands above the city and allows you to enjoy both sunset and the city view.
EM: Do you have recommendations on nice places in the surroundings of the city to take day trips to?
CJ: If the weather is on your side (which in Bilbao can change with the day), you should go to places such as Gaztelugatxe (where they filmed Game of Thrones), Plentzia Beach, Mundaka, Sopelana Beach, Bakio Beach, Bermeo, Guernica, Lekeitio, Mirador Arraiz, Mirador de Berriz, Pagasarri, and Gorbeia mountain. I would also like to share my favorite place which is not very touristic because of its location. There is a small but beautiful city in the Cantabria region, the neighboring region of Basque Country, named Castro Urdiales. I strongly suggest visiting it because of its underwater caves, blue water, and landscapes. Plus, it will take you a maximum of 30 minutes to get there by bus.
EM: What would you consider the best local dishes and which places serve them best?
CJ: Truly speaking, I have never gone to the restaurants in Bilbao to eat local dishes but I am sure you can definitely try local small appetizers named pintxo (Pincho). Pintxo is a small snack served on top of the bread with seafood, cheese, and many more depending on the place. More typical appetizers, however, include tortillas, croquetas and alike. These typically can be found in any bar and are very popular in the Basque Country. The best places to embrace the culture of pintxos are located in Casco Viejo (Old Town) and Indautxu (Business Area), the same stands for local traditional food.
EM: Do you have some recommendations of good restaurants for vegans and vegetarians and other special diets?
CJ: Unfortunately, it is in general quite difficult to be vegan or vegetarian in Spain and the Basque Country since the local diet is full of meat, fish, and oily food which means that most of the time you have to precook if you are vegan or vegetarian. Fortunately, fresh fruits and veggies are not a problem in Bilbao and you can always find fresh watermelon already in March. Moreover, you can always find two types of local tortilla de patata for both vegans and vegetarians (usually can be found in Lidl and Mercadona stores). Lastly, you can go and embrace Indian or Chinese cuisines that give you an option to order food without meat.
EM: Where would you go to have a drink or on a night out with friends?
CJ: Casco Viejo (Old Town) is definitely the place to go. It is the nicest, most cultural and vibrant area of Bilbao where most young people gather in the evenings. This place definitely has its own vibe with its narrow and crowded streets full of bars and cafes.
Extra tip from Felix Lengers: Besides Casco Viejo, there are plenty of bars to be found in practically every other neighbourhood, such as Indautxu, Abando and Deusto (the university neighbourhood) where you can have many kalimotxos, a local drink consisting of cheap red wine mixed with Coca Cola, way more tasty than it sounds! Furthermore, post-Covid, there will be many clubs to listen to your favorite reggaeton hits as well!
EM: How do the prices of the city compare with the one you were in for your other semester? What were some of the cheaper goods and what were some of the more expensive goods? (e.g food, museums, public transport)
CJ: Well, as I already mentioned Bilbao is a bit bitey on prices. If you compare it with the small university town of Gottingen then Gottingen was cheaper in many ways (food, free public transport, accommodation, etc.). Bilbao is quite a touristic and business-oriented city. So, if you want to save some money I would suggest forgetting to eat at the university canteen which is extremely expensive (a meal ~15 euro). I was most of the time going home for lunch or taking food with me. The other important thing is to know where to buy food. Here, I would suggest doing your groceries in Lidl and Mercadona and avoid spending money in BM or Eroski chains. If you want to do clothes shopping, I suggest going to Barakaldo, which is a bit further from Bilbao but you will have a more diverse choice of clothes and better prices. In regard to travels, public transport is pretty affordable and local subway or regional trains can basically get you anywhere inside of the Basque Country.
EM: Which websites/sources did you use to find an apartment in the city and what tips would you give to someone moving in the city?
CJ: Usually, the University of Deusto provides students their own website with an interactive map of all available apartments, including the information regarding the pictures, price, utilities, WiFi, etc. I found it very user-friendly and helpful in finding a place to stay. You basically choose an apartment, book or register it, fill the papers, and then you move in. You always have the choice to first see the apartment and only pay after. The median rent price is about 300-350 euro, with utilities and wifi (my Gottingen room in a dorm was 220 euro).
In short, to whom would you recommend choosing your city as an Euroculture semester destination?
CJ: Well, if you like mountains, beaches, the ocean, surfing, culture of bars and traveling a lot, then Bilbao is the perfect destination for you! I can say living in Bilbao has changed my entire life and the whole perspective about the Euroculture programme and Europe.
Picture Credits: Personal Pictures