Picos de Europa Prelude: Bilbao and getting to Espinama

Guggenheim Bilbao and the Nervion river

Bilbao made for a great stopover on the way to the Picos de Europa. We could recover from jet lag while wandering the riverside, exploring the Guggenheim Bilbao, and eating excellent food. Rental car pick up at the train station made it easy to head out toward the Picos the next day.

In late June 2017, we spent a week hiking in Spain’s spectacular Picos de Europa. This post covers our arrival in Bilbao and travel to Espinama. Additional posts cover our three-day hike on the Central Massif, a rainy trip to Covadonga, our time in Camarmeña and the Cares Gorge. We also share our notes on planning a trip to the Picos de Europa.


We arrived in Bilbao around mid-day. In contrast to so many airports designed as generic non-places, Bibao’s Santiago Calatrava-designed airport is a stunning mix of white concrete and glass. The airport has received criticism for is functionality and has had to be extensively modified, but as a place to arrive: wow.

From the airport, we took the bus to town. It was crowded but easy, and dropped us just a block from our hotel, NH Collection Villa de Bilbao (Booking.com). We checked in and learned that we had, somehow, reserved the “romantic package.” This meant we’d be getting fruit and wine later. We dropped our bags and headed out. Both of us had slept decently en route (me better than Kyle), and we’d also had a chance to shower in Madrid. This left us surprisingly energetic after a long trip.

We set out for the Nervion River, which has walkways along each side. While cloudy, we enjoyed exploring the riverfront, particularly the bridges. The Pedro Arrupe footbridge features various staircases that make for interesting approaches, while the Puente Zubizuri (also designed by Santiago Calatrava) arcs gracefully across the river. Puente Zubizuri was originally designed with a glass floor, but slips and falls led the city to add a rubber mat to the pedestrian path.

After our wandering, we visited the Guggenheim. As Seattleites, we’re no strangers to Gehry designed buildings. I have to say, though, that I enjoy the design and setting of the Guggenheim Bilbao much more than Seattle’s MoPop. Of the exhibits, I especially liked Jenny Holzer’s Installation for Bilbao and Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. Holzer’s piece features poetry in various languages scrolling by on LED signs in an otherwise dark space. Visitors can walk around the signs placed in the middle of the space.

The Serra exhibit was an excellent surprise for me. Serra created my favorite piece in the Olympic Sculpture Park: Wake. Filling an entire wing of the museum, The Matter of Time features several toruses that visitors can walk through. A separate wing showcases materials and techniques used by Serra. We spent close to an hour in this exhibit.

After the museum, we wandered to dinner. We enjoyed some good tapas and wine, and then headed back to our hotel. Here, an enormous platter of fruit and a bottle of wine awaited us. After making some modest progress on this food, we decided to call it a night.

In the morning, we enjoyed the hotel’s outstanding breakfast spread. It featured easily a dozen local meats and cheeses, various cereals and pastries, and small breakfast tapas including puddings and parfaits. After eating our fill and then some, we again wandered the river.

We made our way toward the Casco Viejo (old town). There, we stopped to buy a Vodafone SIM card so we could access navigation and weather on the go. From the old town, we walked to the train station, where we picked up our car from Europcar. Pickup was easy, and we had soon stopped back the hotel to collect our bags and check out. Then, we were on our way to Espinama and the Picos de Europa.

Bilbao to Espinama

After leaving Bilbao, the first part of our drive to Espinama was easy highway driving. We stopped briefly to explore San Vicente de la Barquera, which had a castle and long bridge in a scenic spot.

Shortly later, we turned south onto the N-621 and soon left the highway at Potes. From here, the route paralleled the Río Deva, at times passing through steep-walled, narrow gorges.

About three hours total of driving brought us to Espinama. Rather than stopping at our hotel, we drove a bit further to the cable car station at Fuente Dé for a brief stop and views. We then returned to our hotel, Posada Maximo (Booking.com), to check in. After being shown to a cozy room, we unpacked and then repacked for the next day’s hikes. Once settled, we checked for dinner recommendations before selecting the well-reviewed Vicente Campo.

Dinner at Vicente Campo was fantastic. We started with an amuse-bouche of cheese, honey, and cherries. From there, we moved on to cod stuffed peppers. For his main, Kyle ordered steak that he finished at the table on a hot stone. It came with padron peppers and excellent sauce. Guided by reviews, I ordered the baby goat. It was served with a slightly crispy outside. The insides melted in my mouth.

Read on for information on our three-day hike on the Central Massif of the Picos de Europa.

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