The Bilbao Song: a little gem with a fascinating history

What do Yves Montand, Boris Vian, Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd have in common? The question may seem odd, but I assure you the answer is no less so: The Bilbao Song.

Yves at his height.

Our friend Alejandro M., a man of culture and an artist of great sensitivity, recently recommended that we write a post about this jewel-oddity, ‘La chanson de Bilbao’, a song we had never heard. At first we thought it was a tribute that Ives Montand had dedicated to our dear city.  Montand, for our younger readers, was a French singer and actor (born in Italy as Ivo Livi), whose popularity began in the 1940’s – when Edith Piaf discovered him for herself and for the world– and lasted another 40 years, well into the 1980’s.

Researching to find out the origin of this composition and to understand why Ivo-Yves had dedicated a song to Bilbao, we discovered a fascinating story that we want to share with all our newbies.

Nice guy Yves Montand, idol of the masses in France in the 40s and leading man of cinema for more than 30 years (he worked in 31 movies in 45 years), published ‘La Chanson de Bilbao‘ on his album ‘Rengaine, ta rengaine‘. The LP, one of those 33 rpms, was produced by Philips in France in 1961 under reference number B 76 536. It includes the songs ‘La Chansonnette’,  ‘Mais si je n’ai rien’, ‘La chanson de Bilbao’ and ‘II n’y a plus d’apres’ on its A side. The song also came out as a single, a 45 rpm, which Philips published in France in 1961 as well, under reference number 432.581 BE. On side A, ‘La chanson de Bilbao’ started the record off.

Vieille lune de Bilbao, que l’amour était beau.
Vieille lune de Bilbao, fume ton cigare là-haut.
Vieille lune de Bilbao, jamais j’te ferai dégaut.
Vieille lune de Bilbao, tu laches pas les poteaux.
Je n’sais pas trop si c’genre de truc vous aurait plu,
Mais c’était l’plus chouette,
C’était l’plus chouette,
C’était l’plus chouette
Du monde entier.

It turns out, reading the credits on the album ‘Rengaine, ta rengaine‘, that the lyrics to La Chanson de Bilbao’ were written by none other than Boris Vian, renaissance man, writer, pataphysical surrealist, jazz musician –a close friend of Duke Ellington’s- and incorrigible partier, a notable figure of the XX Century.

Boris Vian & Duke Ellington
It’s impossible to say who’s more spellbound by Duke, the young lady in the photo or Boris.

Many of you won’t know that the super popular (and beautiful) song by the group La Unión, ‘Lobo hombre en París’, (Wolfman in Paris) with lyrics by Nacho Cano, is based on the story ‘The Wolf-Man (Le Loup-Garou), by M. Vian. In 2007, the group revisited their greatest hit with this result. It will doubtlessly grate on the ears –and a lot- of lovers of the first version, one of Spanish pop’s immortal classics.

But let’s get back on topic. Boris Vian adapted the lyrics of ‘La Chanson de Bilbao’ from the musical Happy End, written by Kurt Weill –another breathtaking genius -, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht, which had opened in Berlin thirty years earlier, in 1929. Weill and Brecht had already successfully collaborated on what was known as ‘The Threepenny Opera’. As well Happy End later played in Munich (1956), Hamburg (1957), and in London’s West End (1965). And in all those places, they performed The Bilbao Song.

“Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one”. Happy End, the musical.

‘The Bilbao Song’ opened and closed a musical that, in its1977 revival on Broadway, was nominated for three Tonys and two Drama Desk Awards, including best actress for… Meryl Streep!

In her early days Meryl Streep was already a force to reckon with.

On a This is Broadway radio interview of Streep done when the play opened, they were already calling her the next Carol Lombard.  She had graduated from Yale just two years earlier when she was asked to fill in the role of Lieutenant Lillian Holiday (Hallelujah Lil) in Happy End. Oh, boy!

“That ol’ Bilbao
Down where we used to go
That ol’ Bilbao
Casting it’s golden glow
That ol’ Bilbao moon
Love never laid me low
That ol’ Bilbao
Why does it haunt me so?
I don’t know if it would have brought you joy or grief but
It was fantastic
It was fantastic
It was fantastic
Beyond belief”



Actually, though, it wasn’t Meryl who sang ‘The Bilbao Song’, but rather another old friend for many who were adolescents in the 80’s and for movie lovers in general: Christopher Lloyd. Yes, that’s right, Dr. Emmett Lathrop Brown of the Back to the Future trilogy (1985), better known as Doc, the lead actor, together with Michael J. Fox, of a film considered to be a masterpiece of teen cinema. In this amazing video footage we have ’The Bilbao Song’ that Lloyd sang in a performance of Happy End on Broadway in 1977. 

Happy End was performed once again in San Francisco in 2006, to not very good reviews. But just in case French and English aren’t enough, let’s go back to its origins. ‘The Bilbao Song’ was written and of course has also been performed in German. We leave you with this version by Ute Lemper that gives it back its 1920’s Berlin cabaret style.


Five reasons not to miss the ‘Xi’an Warriors’ Exhibit in Bilbao


For the last few days, and until February 22, 2015, Bilbao’s Palacio Euskalduna is home to a new exhibit that lovers of the Far East, history, archeology and the wonders of the world will truly enjoy. They are replicas of the famous Xi’an Warriorsone of the most mysterious wonders of all times. We’re going to give you five reasons why you shouldn’t miss this exhibition:

1. They’re considered the eighth wonder of the world 

The exhibit of the renowned ‘Terracotta warriors’ has its last stop in Bilbao after being on display in numerous European cities, such as Dublin, where it was right before coming to us. In it you can see a total of 150 pieces, which are not the originals, but rather reproductions of the ones we’ll show you in photos. This is because the Chinese government has repeatedly refused to let any of the original pieces leave the country, as is logical. Bear in mind that we are talking about what is considered to be the eighth wonder of the world and a work of World Heritage. The truth is, for us, this is more than enough reason to visit, but we’ll give you more.


2. The Xi’an warriors have a fascinating origin and destiny:

The Xi’an warriors were made for Qin Shi Huang (pronounced chin shi guang), king of Qin and first emperor of unified China, of the Qin Dynasty. Zheng, who was known by his first name, was responsible for keeping the country unified and also for some colossal works, such as the beginning of the famous wall, the construction of which cost the lives of more than two million Chinese.

The legend says that Qin Shi Huang was buried as he had ordered –in the year 210-209 BC- with more than 8,000 life-size figures of soldiers, chariots and generals so he would reach the great beyond protected by his army. This colossal army was buried in battle formation in three separate tombs little more than a kilometer from Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. Their destiny? To protect the emperor from dangers that might be lurking in the “other world”.

3. Their discovery was by chance:

It was in 1974 that some farmers of the Xi’an region, in eastern China, set out to make a well to get water. They began to dig and discovered they were also unearthing pieces of clay that had obviously been worked. After excavating for 5 days they reached the conclusion that the clay arms, heads, crossbows and arrows they were finding in those even layers of soil were something completely out of the ordinary.

Terrified that they had disturbed a sacred place, the farmers left off digging and returned home, a nearby village. A county civil servant who had heard about the discovery went out to inspect the place and realized they had happened upon something of great value, so he rewarded the farmers with 30 yuan, some two dollars for all of them.  The next year it was confirmed that the discovery was the 2000-year-old terracotta army of the first emperor of China, of the Qin Dynasty.



Today – or at least 3 years ago when we were there-, one of the farmers who made the discovery in the 70s signs books at the entrance to the excavation grounds, more than 20,000 square meters, and open for visits since 1979, and poses for photos with tourists in exchange for a few yuans.

4. All of them -all 8,000- are different and were painted

The terracotta warriors are made of several pieces: the trunk was shaped in one place, and then the head and hands were added. It seems that the hands attached to the trunks better, while the heads were simply placed into neck holes. As a result, many headless warriors can be seen in the pit, but nearly all of them have retained their hands.



All of the Xi’an warriors are different and have different features and characteristics, both physical (there are younger ones, older ones, with different appearances and ethnicities, different hairstyles, buns, moustaches…) and also military, showing different ranks according to the types of uniform they are wearing. The soldiers carry arms (bows, spears, swords, etc.), while the generals seem ready to lead the battle. History has it that after the fall of the Qin dynasty, peasants of the area appear to have sacked the tomb and stolen many of the weapons. In 1980 two painted bronze chariots were discovered. Each of them has more than 3,000 pieces.

In this photo the differences between each and every one of the warriors is clear.

The archeologists in charge of the excavation – and many other experts- continue to rack their brains to figure out how to unearth the rest of the warriors while conserving the original pigments they are known to have and which disappear as if by magic upon just 5 hours of contact with the air after so many centuries preserved in their tomb. The official archeologists of the excavation (led by a Chinese woman, Xu Weihong), were awarded the 2010 Prince of Asturias for Social Sciences.

Captura de pantalla 2015-01-05 a la(s) 00.22.31
A part of the tombs have yet to be excavated.

5. It’s your opportunity to see them without having to go to China

Three years ago we had the good fortune to see this marvel firsthand on our visit to China, but since a trip to the Far East isn’t something you can do every day as it’s a bit far from Bilbao, the exhibition is your chance to see what the famous Xi’an Warriors are like and to learn a little of their history.

In any case, if you do have the opportunity to visit China, don’t hesitate. It’s a wonderful country, full of dazzling treasures. That’s why we want to take advantage of the opening of this exhibit to show you what the tomb of the warriors is like in its native land.

Here you can see part of the excavation complex, visited by some five million people each year, primarily Chinese.



It’s absolutely amazing to enter these gigantic warehouses (which are still being excavated today) and see, in their sand tomb, the warriors accompanying Shi Huang to his encounter with the great beyond.

The first warehouse. The colored dots you see around the edge are people. That’s how huge it is.

Although you can see it here in the top photo, at the exhibit being shown at the Palacio Euskalduna, you can see a diorama that lets you get a sense of how enormous the excavation is. You can also see eight figures reconstructed in the image of those on exhibit in the Xi’an complex, as well horses, weapons, tools and some pieces of art and jewelry.

Should all this prove too little, at the same time as the exhibit at the Palacio Euskalduna, some stupendous activities (info only in Spanish) related to Chinese art and culture –only for kids, too bad, and on weekends-have been prepared. There is also an exhibit and class on tai chi, for all ages and a “dragon dance”.

In sum, newbies, don’t miss this exhibit; we’re absolutely sure you’ll regret it.

Translation from Spanish: JoAnne Harden


The Finns: a user’s manual for bilbaínos


The 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, one of basketball’s sporting highlights of the year, has just begun. It’s an event that has brought the national teams of the USA, Finland, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, the Ukraine and New Zealand to Bilbao.

With an uneasy sensation still in the air for the staunchly loyal Bilbao supporters of Bilbao Basket –the charismatic local team- because of its financial problems and its differences with the ACB (Spanish Basketball Team Association), the World Cup provides a new opportunity to show that Bilbao is a city that lives and breathes basketball too.

This World Cup is giving us the opportunity to see the US giants live, but also to watch Finland, a national team that may well be the surprise of this World Cup. As the Finns participate for the first time, they are going to celebrate in a big way, filling Bilbao with blonds.

The 31 of August for 2 hours 7,000 Finnish fans who are expected to spend a couple of weeks in the city, enjoyed a big celebration –Finland Day– hosted by a famous Finnish host where there will be live music, folklore demonstrations and the presence and messages of famous Finns and even an event to celebrate the twinning with Barrakaldo, whose conference center (BEC) is hosting all the matches. The icing on the cake will be the presence of Finnish group “Wolf pack” (Susijengi in Finnish), who were there to sign autographs for all who attend.

What are the Finns like?

Foto: Kinojam

With this situation upon us and following the advice of our friend Hugo, ex player and diehard Bilbao Basket fan, we realized that many Bilbao residents might be interested in knowing what Finnish people are really like. This goes for hotel and shop owners who want them to frequent their businesses and hope to make a great impression on them – as they always do – and also for anyone who is interested in discovering the culture and idiosyncrasies of these European brothers and sisters. It also includes those who dream of summer love with an international visitor in a sports background full of passion; there are sure to be those as well! Because if all the Finnish women who come to the World Cup look like the ones in the photo, more than one football fan will switch sides in a flash.

I have really good memories of my own experience of living with two Finns for a couple of years. I don’t know what all of them are like, but my friends Simo and Hanna were always polite, respectful, interesting and warm. The Finns have a reputation of being introverted and closed, but they are actually open and sincere, with a great sense of humor when you get to know them. They can tell you an unbelievable story and insist it’s true until you are absolutely convinced only to then reveal that it was all a joke. Or to teach you curse words in Finnish even though they are nearly unpronounceable and have no possible translation to anything similar to our national options. They are jokers, actually, just like some Bilbao natives. Joking with someone, here or in Finland, means in a certain way, “I like you. You’re nice”. The Finns and the Bilbaínos seem closed, quiet and dry, but you quickly discover that they are actually calm and unruffled but also sociable, sincere, and over all, very mischievous. .

Good conversationalists and hospitable, it would only be fair to treat our Finnish friends with the same hospitality that we always show in Bilbao with visitors of other nationalities. Because it seems as though they are the ones who created their own fame for being quiet, introverted and reserved – they laugh about it all the time, like some kind of collective sociological joke, and about those who are too uncomfortable with silences in a conversation, those people who, when they have nothing interesting to say –which is almost always- fill the air with nonsense. For the Finns, a pause in a conversation is nothing to be afraid of, there is simply nothing essential to add. You don’t have to fill the emptiness with commonplace utterances and obvious comments.

What’s more, they tend to be sincere, honest and direct, they say what they want to say, without beating around the bush or hidden motives, and they return what they find. If it’s not yours, you can’t keep it…

The mini that Timo Mäkinen was driving when he won Finland’s Neste Oil Rally (also known as the ‘Rally of the 1000 Lakes’) in 1965.


The people of Finland love to compete and they invent such crazy competitions that you’ll be amazed: sauna endurance, air guitar, mosquito hunting, mud soccer or mobile phone throwing… The truth is they do it out of their competitive spirit, but most of all to have fun and to end a celebration. They are so used to enjoying such short summers that they make the most of the good weather until the very last minute, filling the summer with festivals, fairs, markets and all types of activities to take advantage of the climate. A bit like in Bizkaia (Biscay). And if you don’t think so, consider Aste Nagusia…

Oh and calm and introversion disappear whenever a Finn gets behind the wheel of any type of vehicle. “I’m blond, I’m fast, I’m dangerous”, they must think. The truth is that since Finland is the land of guys like Räikkönen, Kovalainen and Häkkinen, I think it could opt for the title of “Fastest Country on the Face of the Earth”, don’t you agree?

woods Music, nature, languages

Regarding taste in music –take note for when your bar is full-, the Finns have always been the kings of the heaviest heavy metal, although it seems that Finnish youth is abandoning that tradition to follow the hot DJs, which may be a tragedy for a longstanding and globally respected genre. If you’re not sure, international hits are a sure thing: they’re from far away, but not Martians. Finland is a country with pristine natural areas, so the people there love a simple walk in the woods, just like people from Bilbao love an excursion to the mountains. It’s a great way to clear your mind, do a bit of exercise or just have some time for yourself.

To communicate with the Finnish, use English. They all speak it wonderfully well.

Tervetuloa ystävät!

Translation from Spanish: JoAnne Harden

Traditional sports: these basques are crazy!

The Basques are a people who are proud of their traditions. And the truth is that they have reason to be. Their traditional sports provide one of the most interesting and appealing shows of Basque culture for any Bilbao and Euskadi newbie.  If you are a little lucky, it is quite easy to see exhibitions and competitions in the main traditional festivals –the Semana Grande (Aste Nagusia in August) and the Feria de Santo Tomás (December)- and also in village courts and on local TV. The king of Basque sports is Pelota Vasca, which is also played in the Northern Basque Country and in many places in Latin America. With two or four participants on two teams, the players take turns hitting a ball against a wall (frontón) on a court with an additional wall on the left. Different styles depend on court size (closed court, open courts of  30 , 36 or 54 meters), and different rules apply in each case. By far the most popular is the one called ‘Pelota Mano‘ (Handball, literally) in which players hit a ball weighing over 100 grams with an open palm. No need to state the obvious:  a pelotari’s hands are wider than a German Autobahn.

ballplayer hands
Pelotari hands Photo: @ CONADE

Another style, called Cesta Punta or Jai Alai, is the oldest and best known internationally –in the States, for example, especially back in the 70′s–, but it is practiced almost exclusively in Biscay (and in summer tournaments in the Northern Basque country, always on long courts). Others, such as xare or share (played with a kind of tennis racket), racquetball and other variations enjoyed in the Americas,,are less popular and harder to find in Euskadi .

Rural sports, the most spectacular

If  Pelota Vasca or ‘Basque ball‘ is undoubtedly the best loved Basque sport, rural sports (herri kirolak) are those that will blow you away the first time you see them.  Seeing an aizkolari (log cutter) or a harrijasotzaile (stone lifter) in action is a sight worth seeing. Harrijasotzailes lift stones weighing between 100 and 300 kilos. The current national record is held by Mikel Saralegi, who lifted 329 kilos back in 2001. The stones may be cylindrical (100 k and 125 k), cubic or rectangular (125 k to 212.5 k) or spherical (weighing 112.5 k to 125 k).

‘Basque sports 06’ by Iñaki García Ergüin.

When I moved to Bilbao, the name of a famous stone lifter, Iñaki Perurena, was still remembered, This legend of the 80s and 90s became incredibly famous throughout Spain for setting and holding the record for stone lifting with a 322 k boulder. But that was with his two hands. With only one hand, Perurena lifted a 267 k stone. After that feat, Asterix may seem like a joke in comparison.

But it turns out that Scots, Icelanders, southern Germans, the Welsh and even the Japanese have sports and traditional rituals that involve lifting heavy stones. Perurena was also the first to lift 300 kilos, nearly twice his weight. In his spare time he enjoyed lifting 100k stones a thousand times in five-hour time periods,, as well as writing and reciting poetry. Yeah, he is a sensitive soul. What did you think? Today, Perurena still enjoys an undisputed reputation throughout the Basque Country, makes ads for nutritional supplements and participates in exhibits from time to time. He also has a stone museum in his hometown and is training his son Inaxio, who seems to be a worthy successor of the family name.

Another sport I often have the opportunity to see and enjoy as a Bilbao newbie is log cutting or jokoa aizkol, which seems to be a sporty evolution from the household chore of woodcutting. Competitions consist of producing a certain amount of cut logs in a stipulated time. Several athletes often compete together and the most striking thing is that to cut a log, an aizkolari climbs on top of it and  stikes his axe to the right and the left, always very close to his feet and legs. Yes, stress is assured. The most important competition is the ‘Golden Axe’ (Urrezko aizkora), which takes place every year. Australia and Canada are places where this sort of competition is also held, although their tests tend to focus on measuring endurance rather than speed.

Translation from Spanish: JoAnne Harden

La Camelia, vegan sushi in downtown Bilbao

camelia vegan sushi
La Camelia even has a bike delivery service

The truth is that I like sushi and I like vegetables, but I’m not vegetarian or vegan … yet. Even so, I really like La Camelia, a cute takeaway place in the old quarter, the Casco Viejo (also known as ‘The Seven Streets’ or Zazpi Kalea in Basque). There Angela and Carles take the utmost care with every detail to make sure that you always leave happy that you had sushi made with organic rice and no fish at all, only vegetables. But what vegetables! Arugula with rose petal jam, tahini with raisins, cucumber with herbs and mustard, dried tomatoes and oregano with tofu, roasted vegetables with poppy seeds … Authentic delicacies to enjoy with organic beers, sodas and wines. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, with a good sparkling sake. Yes, sparkling sake. Consistent, fizzy and very tasty.

In addition to makis, La Camelia musts include hummus –always with Angela’s secret twist–, and miso soup. For dessert, small kokoskis (little cake squares that originated in Poland) from Delicia Vegana (Vegan Delight) will make your day.

Translation from Spanish: JoAnne Harden


Guggenheim and Bilbao Estuary

This is Bilbao for Newbies / Bilbao para Novatos, a journal of my experiences as a recent inhabitant of this amazing city.

I’m a Spanish journalist who moved to Bilbao a year and a half ago from my hometown of Madrid.  In this time I have learned to love this amazing city, full of modern art & architecture, wonderful food, rich and ancient cultural heritage, welcoming people and big surprises.

People from all over the world come to Bilbao to see for themselves how this old industrial city has been able to reinvent itself and flourish again to become one of the most important centres of economic, cultural and artistic activity in northern Spain. My aim is to help both visitors to Bilbao and its new citizens discover the city by giving them advice and useful information that will help them get the most out of this fantastic city.

I hope you find this blog sufficiently helpful, entertaining and interesting to awaken a desire in you to come to Bilbao if you haven’t been here before.  We’ll be thrilled to see you around!

Don’t forget to follow Bilbao For Newbies at Twitter, Instagram & FB.

Welcome. Bienvenido. Ongi Etorri.