The Artagan hill, beside the Nervión river, has been inhabited since time immemorial. The Romans first happened upon a village called Vecunia, the basis of the current district of Begoña in the upper part of Bilbao. This emblematic area has its origins in one of the three elizates (independent communities formed around a church) prior to the city being founded in 1300, which were to be annexed in the twentieth century. Over time, the former agricultural settlement made up of hamlets known as Mahatserria (meaning village of grapes in Basque) grew until it was fully integrated into Bilbao in 1925, although its almost 40,000 residents, who inhabit the neighbourhoods of Begoña, Bolueta and Santutxu, are still known as mahatsorris today. As always, life here continues to revolve around the image of the Virgin of Begoña, the patron saint of Biscay, who it is said appeared on the hill. It is preserved in the Basilica of Our Lady of Begoña, built in the sixteenth century on the site of the old wooden church, and Basques affectionately refer to her as amatxu (meaning mother in Basque). The feast day of Our Lady is 11 October. The church used to survive on the hand-outs of its congregation, the reason why the pillars in the main nave are crowned with the emblems of the merchants and guilds of the town of Bilbao.
Throughout time, Mahatsorris have negotiated the steep slope that separates them from Bilbao’s Casco Viejo in various ways. In 1745, to overcome the arduous ascent to the sanctuary, the Calzadas de Mallona were built, a stretch of more than 300 steps that begin at the present-day Plaza de Miguel de Unamuno square. On their ascent the stairs pass through the ancient Mallona Cemetery, the first to be built in the city after the French prohibited burying the dead in churches in 1808. Today, as little as the neoclassic entrance archway has been preserved.
In the mid-twentieth century, the architect Rafael Fontán built the iconic Begoña Lift, a concrete tower standing 54 metres tall—a true symbol of the architecture of the machine age—which the mahatsorris would use to “go down to Bilbao”. However, it has been closed since 2014 owing to bankruptcy due to the arrival of a competitor that has won over many users: the metro.
Up by the basilica in the greenest part of Artagan hill, is Etxebarria park, the city’s largest, overlooked by a tall chimney that evokes the old industrial Bilbao: the original chimney of the former steel foundry that was here until the 1970s.
Due to its elevated position, Begoña was a strategic enclave during the Napoleonic invasion in 1808 and both Carlist wars in the nineteenth century, when the city was besieged and the Basilica of Our Lady of Begoña became an improvised stronghold—the bullet that killed the famous Carlist general Zumalacárregui was shot from there—suffering heavy damage. Since the nineteenth century, the bell tower has had to be rebuilt up to three times.
The church of the patron saint of Biscay, the subject of legends, miracles and military sieges, has overlooked the city of Bilbao and the Nervión river for centuries.
Set to the rhythm of the Bilbainadas, the Casco Viejo quarter reveals the origins of the city that emerged 700 years ago on the right bank of the Nervión-Ibaizabal estuary.
One thing is for sure, every visit to Bilbao should include a day put aside especially for a pintxo route through the city. This style of eating or dining is an experience that is unique to the Basque Country and, without a doubt, it is one of the most authentic ways to really get to know its spirit.