Detailed review by koshkha
Northampton, United Kingdom
This piece is partly a hotel review and partly an account of our personal experience of visiting the city at a very poignant moment in Spanish history.
Why did I want to stay at the Carlton?
My first visit to the Carlton was entirely accidental and resulted from a flight landing so late that the hotel Id booked with a colleague had given our rooms away. This was about 10 years ago before Bilbao was gentrified. In those days it was considered by most as a bit of a grubby, down at heel industrial city. It was late, we were tired and grouchy and only the Carlton had rooms. We rolled up in the wee small hours of the morning, paid an arm, a leg and a few other body parts, thanked God it was business and not our money and spent no more than about six hours in our rooms before heading off in the morning.
However, six hours was more than enough for me to vow that one day I'd find a good excuse to go back.
Circumstance of our Visit
We visited in March 2004 for our wedding anniversary. A good tip for anyone forward thinking get married out of season and youll benefit for years to come from cheap deals on flights and accommodation for your anniversary. Most years we try to get away for the weekend to see a big art gallery somewhere in Europe. In this case we wanted to see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I'd picked up really cheap flights with easyJet and needed a hotel for the Saturday night. I found a cracking good deal online for the Saturday night at approx £60 for a double room. Out of season hotels in Bilbao can be picked up for very good prices.
Some readers might spot the significance of March 2004 for the Spanish people. On 11/03/04 the Madrid train bombings rocked the country just a few days ahead of a general election. Rumours were rife that all the national museums and galleries would close for a few days as a mark of respect. Bilbao is the heartland of the Basque territory and the President was still hinting that the bombings might be caused by Basque separatists rather than being related to Spains support for the USA and UK in the Middle East. Should we cancel our trip or go ahead? It was a tricky one. Were stubborn and despite not knowing if the museums would be open or not, we decided to take our chances safe in the knowledge that at least we had a good place to stay.
The Carlton - Location
The Carlton is located on the Plaza Frederico Moyua. Ive googled Mr Moyua and cant find out anything about him. Hes probably an ex-mayor or some other local dignatory. The location is excellent its between the shopping and museum districts and just a ten-minute walk to the riverside and the Guggenheim. There are plenty of bars and cafes in the area.
The distance from the airport is about 8-9 km from the airport. Spanish taxis are still relatively cheap and whilst I dont remember exactly how much we paid I think it was probably around £10. However, if we'd known where we were going, we could have taken the airport bus, which stops on the Plaza right outside the hotel and this was how we went back to the airport the next day.
The Carlton The Hotel
The Carlton was designed in 1919 and is the best-known hotel in town. According to one website I checked, it has hosted visits from the great and the good including Federico Garcia Lorca, Albert Einstein, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, David Beckham, Pierce Brosnan and Chelsea Clinton. I can't say much for Chelsea, but if it's good enough for David Beckham, then it's good enough for me.
The lobby is very impressive with high ceilings, sweeping staircases, opulent furniture, over-the-top chandeliers and big stained glass windows - it's quite a sight. The check in desk is tucked discretely to the side and we quickly checked in. No problems with our pre-booking and we were straight up to our room.
If you look at the photo of the front of the hotel you might just spot a room directly above the entrance with a balcony. Despite paying only a tiny fraction of the normal room rate, that's the room we got. It was enormous. Painted in light fresh colours with a bed the size of a football pitch, you could have had a party in the room and not seen the guests at the other end (that's maybe more to do with my eyesight but it WAS big). The furniture was smart and traditional with arm chairs, a desk, coffee table, suitcase stand and bedside tables as well as an enormous bed. There was plenty of wardrobe and storage space more than our two little backpacks could possibly need. The bathroom was beautiful too - and as it the case with Spanish hotels of all classes, full of all the goodies and toiletries that UK hotels are too mean to give.
There's a minibar, aircon, good double glazing, a safe deposit box, hairdryer, bathrobes, cable TV, internet connectivity and all the things you'd expect. It was cold outside but the heating inside was at just the right level with extra blankets in the wardrobes if wed needed them.
Having a balcony looking out over the plaza was fantastic we could stand out and watch the world go by.
We had booked room only and I am far too mean to pay Spanish hotel breakfast prices so I can't say too much about the restaurants or bar although I remember a fantastic spread the first time I was there. There's a sauna and a small gym but I don't think there's a pool.
Our date with history
On the evening of our stay, the plaza outside filled up with thousands of marching anti-government protestors - banging spoons on saucepans and walking slowly round and round in circles. Across the plaza was a government building with lots of Guardia Civil standing outside, looking nervous. We watched for an hour or so from our balcony. Every now and then the crowd sat down and sang. The atmosphere was electric. The crowd never became menacing or violent it was a very dignified protest with whole families marching together. Later in the evening as we were starting to think wed never sleep if they kept it up, they peacefully dispersed and the plaza returned to normal. The following day a shock landslide victory brought the left wing candidate, Zapatero, to power on the back of the countrys disgust that his predecessor had responded so poorly to the bombings and been willing to blame ETA. What can I say - we were there, we felt like a part of it.
A Weekend in Bilbao is it a good idea?
Ten years ago Id have said Dont bother but the building of the Guggenheim, the regeneration of the riverside and the general cleaning up of the city have created an interesting destination for a weekend break. Cheap flights with easyJet also make getting there more cost effective than in the past.
If you love bizarre modern and conceptual art, then Bilbao will already be on your must-see list but even if you just dont get videos of people jumping on trampolines and strange blobs of paint, youll probably still get a giggle out of the Guggenheim. Fans of modern architecture will also be impressed by Frank Gehrys unique building. Dont forget to get your photo taken with the giant flower puppy outside the entrance. Even if you dont go in, take a walk along the riverside and get some good photos of the museum.
A few minutes walk from the Guggenheim is another slightly more traditional art gallery in the centre of a lovely big park. Both museums are open on Sundays which is a good thing because not much else is. Shopping needs to be squeezed into Saturday as most of the stores are closed on Sundays. If you hire a car, there are beautiful mountains within a short drive from the city.
Bars and restaurants are very reasonably priced certainly cheaper than Madrid or Barcelona but be aware you'll struggle to get dinner before 9.00 pm. Dont make the mistake I did of ordering a glass of wine with your lunch and getting a bottle and then thinking itd be rude not to drink it. We were the couple asleep in the sunshine on a bench outside the Guggenheim in a red-wine induced anaesthesia.
Would I go again? Yes, probably, but perhaps a few weeks later in the year. Id also go for a Friday-Saturday rather than Saturday-Sunday because too many things werent open on the Sunday.