We arrived in Bilbao on a Sunday, expecting to find the city deserted, its inhabitants still sitting at their lunch tables or enjoying a siesta. The views from the , airport bus seemed to confirm this, for all we could see were neat, tree-lined roads where few cars roamed and even fewer pedestrians walked about. But then we moved in the Casco Viejo, the Old Town, a collection of tiny roads huddled on a spur along the Nervión, well, it seemed that the entire town had decided to congregate there.
The roads were packed with throngs of locals dedicated to the sacred rites of drinking, gossiping and, in general, having a merry good time. Every hand clutched a glass of white wine, every lip curved in smiles or expressions of surprise, the sinuous Spanish bounced in echoes across the stone walls, intertwined with the more cryptic sounds of Euskara, the enigmatic language spoken in this mountains and valleys since, probably, before everyone else migrated into Europe from India.
As if guided by the rays of an invisible beacon, we followed the rest of the populace to the Plaza Nueva, a rectangle of stone framed by a neoclassic, porticoed building that was quintessentially Spanish, albeit the slightly nordic settings of the hills around Bilbao. Bells from an invisible church tower boomed in the distance, but their tolls were scarcely heard through the white noise generated by thousands of voices chatting, chanting, screaming in a joyous choir.
As we circled the square, a sort of ordering principle started unraveling before our eyes: under the porticoes, in the relative shade of this cloudy day, a market for collectible was in full swing, with hands feverishly sifting through stacks of books, or coins, or records. Outside, the fringes of the square were occupied by the al fresco tables of the many bars and cafes that did good business in the plaza, frequented by smartly attired bilbaínos tucking in pintxos. The main stage, the centre of the square, was instead dominated by kids, playing with yo-yos, elaborated wooden spins and the occasional ball tossed from corner to corner.
We, too, joined the crowds and sat down at a table, ordering pintxos and glasses of txakoli. Around us life went on: a mother playing with her daughter, two elderly man demolishing a mountain of fried battered calamari, a group of friends speaking animately in Basque. It was Sunday, and it felt so natural that it seemed we had always done this, every single weekend.