Meet the revamped Bilbao la Vieja

Meet the revamped Bilbao la Vieja

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Culture moves in where used to be a hotbed of drugs, crime, prostitution and dilapidated buildings in Bilbao.

More than a decade after the opening of the city's Guggenheim museum, Bilbao continues to change and reinvent itself.

If a visitor has not been back for some time, the best question to ask the locals is: "What's new?" And the answer, at least among young people, will be: "Take a stroll in Bilbao la Vieja."

It is a surprising piece of advice because Bilbao la Vieja was once the most deteriorated part of town - a hotbed of drugs, crime, prostitution, illegal immigration and buildings in ruins.

Bilbao La Vieja. Photo by volante.

Some people simply refused to set foot in the area, and any great night out took on legendary status if it ended there.

What happened in the last few years?
First, an efficient restoration programme, which began in 2005, will end this year, having won a European Commission award for most creative and innovative business project. So far, around 30 business premises have been restored and occupied by art groups, new technology firms and various cultural concerns.

Secondly, the resulting influx of human capital as these firms are mostly run by young people who make use of institutional funding to open their own businesses. It is a change that is already being compared to what happened in Barcelona's once-depressed Raval area, now a thriving part of the Catalan capital.

But Bilbao la Vieja is still steeped in its blue-collar, industrial and mining past. This blend of old and new, modernity and decadence, the marginal and the traditional, lends the area real character.

There are people who have lived here all their lives, newly-arrived youngsters and many immigrants, whose presence is especially notable in the food stores and restaurants, including the excellent Berebar (San Francisco street, 65).

Church that rocks
The best way to reach Bilbao la Vieja is by crossing one of the bridges in the historical part of town, such as Puente de la Merced, Puente de la Ribera or Puente de San Antón. These are also good vantage points from which to gaze out at the docks of Marzana and La Merced, whose buildings droop over the river estuary as reminders of industrial Bilbao.

The Church of La Merced has been converted into a performing arts space called BilboRock, a venue with an intense cultural agenda including the pop-rock contest Villa de Bilbao. BilboArte, an art production centre that sponsors 22 artists yearly, has encouraged a host of creators to open workshops in the area.

For more information on tourism in Bilbao, click here.

text: Ines Garcia-Albi / El Pais / Expatica

photos credit: volante, maltman23, Eneko30.



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