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Bilbao: The Queer-friendly hub of Spain's Basque Country

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Photos by William Borden
Photos by William Borden

You won't find a "gayborhood" in Bilbao, but then again you won't need one. The Queer-friendly Basque Country in northern Spain, with its progressive culture and affirming laws, offers a respite in the often politically tumultuous world we live in. Queer life here is integrated into all aspects of the city.

Bilbao extends a welcoming embrace to Queer travelers and offers a supportive home to LGBTQ+ residents. It is common to see Queer partners walking hand in hand through the streets of the Old Town, sitting and smooching at a café, or staring romantically into each other's eyes over hot cafés con leche or a cold cerveza.

Much like the cultural tolerance and open doors the Queer community generally enjoys in the Seattle area, we celebrate and live freely in the Basque Country as well. As you enjoy Bilbao (or Bilbo as it's known in Euskera, the Basque language), do not hesitate to be yourself and show love in the ways that suit you.

Casco Viejo  

Bilbao highlights
Meander through the streets of the Casco Viejo neighborhood, the ancient center of Bilbao, which was built over 700 years ago, and take it all in. The Old Town branches out from the Siete Calles (Seven Streets), now pedestrian-only lanes except for morning deliveries of produce or perhaps a side of beef being carried on the shoulder of a deliveryman. You'll pass by ancient stone buildings with flower-bedecked balconies and a variety of street-level cafés, restaurants, and garden and clothes shops, plus a few tattoo parlors (so Seattle!).

The streets in the district were originally for specific commercial purposes and still bear those names, including Calle Carnicería Vieja (Old Butchery Street) and Calle Tendería (Merchant Street). Now the entire area is a tourist's dream, with friendly places to shop and eat — and many Gay establishments in the mix. My favorite Queer establishment — for its name alone — has to be the bar El Balcón de la Lola, Lola's Balcony. Who is Lola? No idea, but I'm sure she knows Mary.

San Anton and Teatro Arriaga  

The Nervión River, which cuts the city in half and makes its way through countless neighborhoods all the way out to the Bay of Biscay, borders the Old Town and passes by the Mercado de la Ribera, the biggest covered market in Europe, and the stately Iglesia de San Antón (Church of Saint Anthony the Great) built in the 15th century. Flowing around the Old Town, the river leads to the grand and glorious Teatro Arriaga, Bilbao's opera house, built in 1890.

Plaza Miguel de Unamuno and pintxos  

Walk away from the river and you'll end up at Plaza Miguel de Unamuno, a public square with more lively outdoor cafés, a central fountain offering drinkable water from the mouth of some sort of lion-man creature, and the metro station, whose modern trains can take riders to points all over the city and as far out as the beach communities along the bay. As a bonus, on the old stairs above the Unamuno station, you will frequently hear a young Basque rapper spittin' out rhymes in Euskera.

If a lively and rapper-rich plaza is not your cup of tea, head a few blocks over to Plaza Nueva, an enclosed and much more serene public square ringed by stately apartments above and several cafés and bars below. While you drink and have one of the famous Basque appetizers, pintxos — little pieces of food art — you can watch children play ball or exchange their football trading cards in the center of the square, while their parents watch on from the table next to you, beers in hand. One thing the Basques have done really well is to provide recreation areas for children in view of the places their parents can enjoy a refreshment. Smart, huh? Everyone is happy.

After your pintxos and libations, hop on the green tram and ride several stops along the river until you reach the enterprise that transformed Bilbao from an ailing and soot-covered industrial center to the sparkling cultural gem that it is today: the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by Frank Gehry (of Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture fame), the building doesn't boast MoPOP's exterior of bright colors and raucous curves but instead, true to the stately Spanish vibe, has slow-motion arcs and angles in monotone gold titanium. The exterior is a treat unto itself, each side of the building bringing an entirely different shape. On the street side, visitors are met by Jeff Koons's massive floral Puppy (which the locals refer to as "Poopy," following pronunciation conventions in Spanish). It's a 43-foot statue whose "fur" changes with the seasons. Take your selfies and then head inside the Guggenheim, where you will enjoy Richard Serra's stunning "Matter of Time" permanent installation (his work is also in the Olympic Sculpture Garden), as well as whichever temporary exhibition is on display at the time of your visit.

A rewarding move
Bilbao has been my home for over a decade. A Seattle native, I met Carlos, a Bilbaino, while he was working an international contract at Boeing. Our first outing was a watch party the night Obama was elected in 2008. Poor Carlos didn't quite understand why all these people glued to a television in an apartment on Capitol Hill burst into both cheers and tears at that historic moment, but I will always be happy to remember that as our first date.

After 10 months of dating, Carlos's work contract ended and he was required to depart the US. Wanting to stay together, we took advantage of Spain's liberal Gay marriage laws and, after a bit of red tape, got married in the lushly appointed, neo-Arab ceremonial room at Bilbao's City Hall. This Gay Seattleite was moving to Spain!

I love living here. As a Gay man and ex-pat, my life here is comfortable, pleasant, and secure. I'm still taken by the city's touristic charm, but I have also settled in as a long-term resident. Walking is my mode of transportation, taking me daily through amazing ancient streets and regal palm tree—filled parks.

There are Queer people visible wherever I go. Groups of friends are easily mixed, with no one concerned about anyone's particular sexual or gender identity, each person respected and appreciated.

I've developed my own teaching practice that allows me to work less than half time but still qualifies me for high-quality, comprehensive healthcare coverage, for which there are no deductibles for routine appointments or complex hospital stays. That alone is a reason to live in Spain!

The lifestyle here is a good one. I am welcomed and supported for exactly who I am. This Capitol Hill Queer is living proof that exploring the world can bring huge rewards.