Swordfish bars

13 January 2010

If you walk downriver from where I am into Bilbao La Vieja & make the correct turns, you’ll find yourself in a small square edged by concrete apartment blocks. On one side, there is a wall-sized mural of gray-uniformed men charging in ranks, bayonets fixed, towards you, words I can’t read in Basque above, & in that wall is set a small black door.

If you find yourself downriver in Bilbao La Vieja at 3 or 4 in the morning, you might see a woman dressed all in black & holding a cell phone standing, to no apparent purpose, in the plaza. And if you meet with her approval, the door in the mural wall will be opened & you’ll be let inside.

Inside is an illegal after-hours Basque bar, elaborately soundproofed, with no name that I know. (Pronouncing Basque bar names is a perennial problem for all of my foreign friends; we’ve developed ad hoc descriptive nicknames in English instead — Green Bar, where a redheaded Basque bartender who lived for years in Dublin gave me a free winetasting, or Animal Bar, which  has high-resolution photographs of goats & pigs on the tables and is a lesbian bar, but only sometimes. This sort of place, one of an unknown multitude lurking somewhere in the warrens of San Francisco & Bilbao La Vieja, I, at least, call a swordfish bar, after the usual kind of password for a Prohibition speakeasy, and you never find the swordfish bars unguided.)

The place is a subterranean crowding of cigarette smoke, red-painted walls, alcohol-stained wood, the smell of hash or weed, conversational Basque everywhere (unusual, for Bilbao), people dressed in black shoulder to shoulder, filled to the brim, and I suspect that having an accent when you order in castellano was to my advantage — better to be foreign here, than to be Spanish.

I was there the week before I left for Christmas. I think, reflecting on it now, that this is how Bilbao has been, for me: more reserved than the stereotypical effusion of Andalucía, but the kind of place where you might at any moment be shown a door you’d never noticed before & open it find yourself in the middle of something extraordinary.

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