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“La Huella digital,” (the Finger Print) sculpture by Juan José Novellas on Artxanda commemorating the defenders of Bilbao’s Iron Ring.

I arrived in Bilbao December2 on a wonderfully beautiful fall/winter day. The kind of day I’ve only been treated to a few times in the Basque Country (chilly and wet have been more my December experiences with some notable exceptions) and so despite being exhausted from the trip I knew that I couldn’t just retire to my hotel room and try to get some sleep. It was the kind of day that demanded to be explored and I couldn’t ignore it as tired as my body was.

I am a sucker for a funicular (cable car) and, given the beauty of the day, I knew that the view of Bilbao afforded from Mount Artxanda would be spectacular, so I decided I would walk from my hotel on the edge of the Casco Viejo (old town) over to the funicular that climbs Mount Artxanda on the eastern side of Bilbao. I had been up it once before, during my first visit to the Azoka in 2009, but I didn’t remember well where it was so I just sort of wandered along the east shore of the Nervión River figuring I’d find it eventually. But Bilbao being a city that keeps its secrets well (or my having not such a great nose for navigation), I went the wrong way and realized I wasn’t going to find it. That was when I stumbled across the Vaquero Bar (Cowboy Bar). Now, being a bit of a cowboy myself in my day, this seemed to me the perfect place to go in, ask for directions, and whet the whistle with an afternoon caña before making the trek up the mountain (via cable car).

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The Cowboy Bar, where barkeep César treated to me a personal guided tour through Bilbao’s history and present.

There were a couple of old men sitting in front of the bar who eyed me suspiciously as I snapped a quick photo of the bar’s facade for posterity (and blog inclusion), but the bar was empty other than a slighly older than middle-aged barkeep. I asked for a beer and then asked for directions to the funicular. Well, this was the right question to ask apparently, because the barman, César, not only gave me directions but then treated me to a 20-minute monologue on funicular history, the Iron Ring of Bilbao, the current political situation of the Basque Country, and the world in general.

Mount Artxanda was a key point in the Iron Ring of Bilbao. Being one of the most important industrial cities of “Spain” it was a key objective of Franco’s forces and the capital of Euskadi. The Basque government, quickly cut off from the rest of the republic at the onset of the civil war, constructed an elaborate set of defenses to protect the city, the Iron Ring (Bilbao being one of the world’s iron cities par excellence for much of its history), an impregnable set of defenses created with the idea of a long siege in mind (although also with World War I type defense in mind as well, not the new type of warfare ushered in the the ascendancy of mechanized assault). However, for César, and for history at large, the breach of the Iron Ring wasn’t due to superior armament, but due to treachery: one of the engineers who designed the Iron Ring, Alejandro Goicoechea, deserted to Franco’s forces days before the assault with the defensive plans, thus allowing the Francoists to breach it at its most vulnerable point.

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The shining city of Bilbao from the summit of Mount Artxanda.

With César’s directions in mind, and with his worldview coloring my vision, I walked along the banks of the Nervión. The shining tourist city that Bilbao has become (at least along the Nervión),  was replaced by the industrial city it had been, where piles of minerals extracted from the hills and awaiting shipment replaced boutiques and internationally famous museums, where, according to César, there had been dignity in work rather than the ignominy of servitude to foreign tourists.

The funicular had been designed, on the other hand, for the cities’ pleasure. It had climbed originally to a casino and pleasure garden as the cities’ wealthy houses and the workers’ shanties that supported them, started to climb out of the river valley. There had been a luxurious casino at the summit before the civil war that was destroyed during the bombardment and battle for the city but photos of which I looked at while I waited, along with some mountain biking boys who use the cable car for a ride to the top before what I’m sure was an exhilarating descent into the valley below. Most of the users weren’t tourists, but people going about their days: the mountain biking boys, an old woman working on a crossword, a woman with three Basque-speaking in children in tow. All using it for transport. César had told me that the station had served as a bomb shelter for the neighborhood during Franco’s aerial bombardments, but I saw no evidence of that, as easy to imagine as it was.

On the summit I walked along the edge. The city below glowed as the day neared sunset and the monument to the Basque soldiers shone, but was mainly ignored by the park’s users: a couple making out, a man teaching a girl how to fly his drone (which she nearly crashed and you could see his heart leap about), a few older people seated on benches with their eyes closed soaking in the warmth. A city is a collection of people, of history, sure, but mainly of the lives of people and their experiences and views, as I’d learned when I visited the Cowboy Bar below and as I walked along the Iron Ring above the glowing city.