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Basque Country Travel Guide & The Iron Route

Muskiz, La Arboleda and Portugalete

Iron will forever be tied to the history of Vizcaya. This route will take you along the footprint that this essential mineral has carved into the landscape, while also taking advantage of scenic landscapes filled with rare cultural treasure and simple hearty cuisine.

This area is known as Encartaciones, it has been inhabited since pre-Roman times for its rich agriculture and more importantly -- the valuable mines located here. Starting in Muskiz, we begin our journey where the pre-history of metal working in the region began, at the Ferrería de El Pobal Museum. Inside learn about the history of mining in the Basque Country. Prior to industrialization for over 300 years iron was shaped using only the force of water from the Barbadún river. Here you will find an authentic iron mill, along with a large workshop, iron forge, coalmine and a 150 year old tower house. 

In Avellaneda, visit the recently restored Casa de Juntas from the fourteenth century, this is where representatives of the neighbouring towns would meet to discuss disputes. Next to the tower is a restaurant and the Encartaciones museum, a simple museum that focuses on the history of the area.

The next stop is La Arboleda, during its prime in the industrial era, this was considered the most important iron mine in Europe, exploited by English, Belgians and Canadians. The last mine was closed over 25 years ago and today the landscape offers visitors a unique reminder of the past. The irregular hillsides, and excavated mountains have formed a curious green valley - now used as a picnic and recreation area. After the mines were closed, they were flooded to create two reservoirs where locals can fish, but swimming is strictly prohibited.

Walk into the small town of La Arboleda and notice how it still preserves the same quaint charm from when it was once a residence for miners. Today the town caters to locals who come to the restaurants and bars which are famous for serving some of the best alubias. An alubiada is a heartly local meal made of slow cooked beans, chorizo, morcilla, pancetta, ribs and accompanied by stewed cabbage or pickled peppers called guindillas. It was traditionally fare eaten by miners who had to work long hours and needed a good meal to keep them going during the long work days. Its a very popular dish during the colder months and places fill up quickly during weekends in the fall and winter, so be sure to book in advance if you don't want to wait a long time. On the 22nd of July locals celebrate the festival of the Magdalena and the town fills up with people who make a pilgrimage to a nearby cave which was once the natural entrance to one of the mines in the area.

Other activities in La Arboleda include a mining museum, several hiking routes that lead up to the mountains and a nearby golf course.

To get to La Arboleda, you can take the switch back road by car, or you can also opt to take the furnicular, La Reineta. Built in 1926, the furnicular leaves regularly from El Valle at the bottom of the hill, it takes only a few minutes to climb the 1,200 meters to the top of the mountain. At the top of the furnicular you can enjoy great views of the river Nervion, port and sea. From here walk one kilometre to get to La Arboleda, there is also a bus.

After your visit head back down the valley, the last stop along this route is Portugalete, where the ships loaded with iron and other minerals would depart. This city is also famous because it is home to the oldest transport bridge in the world. The Puente Colgante or Puente de Vizcaya, built in 1893 by a student of Gustave Eiffel, it has been declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

Portugalete was once a popular summer town for rich Basque and English people during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, today it is a dynamic and populated residential town that still preserves its medieval casco. Notable buildings include the basilica of Santa Mara and the Salazar tower built in 1379. Before leaving the city, take a stroll along the coastal walkway, this 2 kilometre route offers views of the right bank of the river, and the port of Bilbao.

Get a taste of the Putxeras Route next.