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Shakespeare and William Bowles at Marzana quay

The row of centuries-old multicoloured houses stretches from the San Antón Bridge to the Ribera Bridge on the left bank.



January 2023

The Marzana Quay is one of the most atmospheric areas of Bilbao. The row of centuries-old multicoloured houses stretches from the San Antón Bridge to the Ribera Bridge on the left bank.

Many of these buildings are linked to the pavement of the quayside promenade by a metal staircase. This is due to the fact that, until the end of the 20th century, what today look like façades were, in reality, the dark backs of buildings whose portals faced San Francisco or Marzana streets.

Marzana quay

The now lively, bustling and crowded with people enjoying their leisure time, Muelle de Marzana, was until the 70s of the 20th century a space that mixed the port with the mining industry. It was frenetic, but very different. From loading bays that no longer exist, the wagons poured the ore onto the rusty barges that plied the estuary.

In modern times, the soot-covered dorsos are worth more than the façades. Pots of flowers and artwork embellish the metal steps. The terraces of cocktail bars, restaurants, including those with Michelin stars, cocktail lounges and hip bars alternate. A wooden footbridge forms a cantilever over the current of the estuary, making the walk even more attractive. Soon, at the onset of spring, the trees that line the promenade will be in bloom, filling instagram with their invasion of pink petals.

It is not at all unusual to find live music on the street itself, whether programmed or spontaneous. The perpendicular and surrounding streets are full of fashionable places, shops related to craftwork, architecture and creation. The BilbaoArte public centre is just a short walk away, in Urazurrutia. This is a part of the city that is now in vogue but still preserves part of its original flavour and reminds us that the mines, their galleries and rails, remain there, just a few metres behind some of the doors at the back of some of the market halls. That is the language of the old gods of Bilbao.

The Marzana Quay is one of the most atmospheric areas of Bilbao.

Marzana quay
Marzana quay

Steel Texts

The Marzana Quay also displays a reminder in the form of steel phrases written on the pavement. They are written in English, Basque and Spanish and have a lot to do with the city’s past and with the past of the quay itself.

One of them is part of the lines written by Shakespeare in ‘Hamlet’: “Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting, that would not let me sleep. Methought I lay worse than the mutines in the bilboes”. By ‘bilboes’, the Bard of Stratford Upon Avon was referring to the iron shackles that bound the feet of prisoners. In ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Shakespeare himself uses the term ‘bilbo’ to refer to the short swords of good steel used by the English sailors of his time. All about the iron.

Among the cobblestones of the quay shines a verse in Basque by the well-known Gabriel Aresti; the first sentences of the Municipal Charter granted by Don Diego López de Haro V just over 700 years ago; a paragraph from the Capitulado de López-Chinchilla about the wars of the 15th century; a review of the different types of ships from Bilbao in the 16th century, signed by the lawyer Poza; or the different prices that iron manufactures reached in the 19th century, compiled by the mayor Pablo Alzola.

And, of course, the Irish naturalist William Bowles’ description of 18th century Bilbao: “The buildings of the town are tall, good and solid, going down to the right of the Arenal it is all houses, warehouses and orchards, and as the houses are painted, and the passageway is planted with lime trees and oaks, those who go up the estuary on board a ship notice a perspective so beautiful and so varied that at every moment they seem to see new and magnificent theatre decorations”.

Bowles wrote it almost 300 years ago, not knowing that, long afterwards, he would sound as if he was referring to the bustling Marzana Quay.

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