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Originally a sailors’ settlement on the bank of the river Nervíon, Bilbao grew larger and more prosperous as the inhabitants of the settlement began to export the iron ore, which was abundant in the surrounding territory. By 1300, Bilbao, now a prosperous community of mariners and ironworkers, had received its first charter as an independent municipality that gave the town the right to self-governance.

With the coming of the Renaissance, Bilbao made further progress, and in 1511, the town acquired the right to set up its own commercial tribunal. The economic development and prosperity continued well into the 18th century, but suffered severe setbacks during the 1800s, mainly during the Peninsular War when Bilbao was sacked, and the Carlist Wars. By the closing years of the 19th century, the city’s economy had started picking up again, a trend that has continued, more or less uninterrupted, throughout the 20th century.

The most important factor in the climate of Bilbao and the surrounding lush green Basque countryside is the steady drizzle called the sirimin. It imbues the atmosphere with a steady grey, one that lets up little and rarely. Summer and autumn are better than winter and spring in terms of the rain.

Bilbao has the classic four seasons – spring (March to June), summer (June to September), autumn (September to December) and winter (December to March). The average annual temperature is 14º C and winter lows seldom go below 0º C. Summer days are usually a pleasant 20º C.

The best time to visit Bilbao is during the August fiesta, which begins on the Saturday after the 15th. Open-air cafes spring up on previously vacant streets, there’s music and dancing and plenty of merriment.

Bilbao offers some of the best shopping in the entire Basque country, and the city’s shops are full of interesting buys - shoes, clothing, textiles, and lots more. Among the local souvenirs that you might like to add to your shopping list are traditional Basque berets (known as txapelas), shoes, wine (the latter comes highly recommended- look out for the excellent Rioja!), puppets, and other local handicrafts. Most shops in Bilbao are open from 10.30 to 1 and 4.30 to 8, Mondays to Saturdays; all shops remain closed on Sundays and public holidays, and some shops even close on Monday mornings or Saturday afternoons.

Bilbao has a fairly lively nightlife, with live music and dancing at bars, clubs and discotheques across town. In addition, there are a number of venues where regular performances of music, dance, theatre and other performing arts are held. The city’s most `happening’ venues include the Teatro Arriaga (for opera, ballet, theatre and local zarzuella, a Spanish operetta form which is generally comic); the Palacio Euskalduna; the Café-Teatro Mistyk (highly recommended for music lovers: this is one place you can even hear good jazz); and the Teatro Victoria Eugenia. Listings of what’s on in Bilbao can be obtained from the tourist office and from local newspapers.

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