There are many things we could tell you about Bilbao's Alhóndiga. For example, that the building is one of the most characteristic of Bilbao... that its official name is Azkuna Zentroa (Centro Azkuna) in honour of Iñaki Azkuna, one of the city's most popular mayors and responsible for the renovation, in 2009, of this 43,000 m2 construction, which had lain abandoned since 1977.
As well as all that, we could tell you that for many years it served as Bilbao's main wine warehouse and that today, thanks to restoration work carried out by Philippe Starck, is has been transformed into a centre of culture and leisure with a lot to offer: exhibitions, various showcases, concerts, cinema, activities for children, gym, swimming, library, bar, restaurant,..
The origins of its name can be traced back to an Arabic word, “Al Funduq” which over time became “Alfondiga” and latterly “Alhondiga”. “Al Funduq”, literally translated, means “El fondaco”, though even Spanish-speakers would do as well to ask what “El fondaco” means, since it is an ancient and obsolete word which pre-dates the invention of bank cheques, electronic transfers, Internet or safes, when traders needed a place to leave their money and their goods. The Alhondiga was this city's fondaco, though they could be found everywhere: Bilbao, London, Cádiz, Seville...
The old alhóndiga was built in a modernist style, though with a number of eclectic elements. It even has something of the baroque palatial, that was typical in the seventeenth century. But perhaps more surprising still is that the Bilbao Alhóndiga reminds us, in part, of Venetian gothic, when the canalled city was queen of the ancient trade route of the Levant, through which traders from all over Europe – including Basques – sailed from port to port, bound for the Orient. The columns located inside the building also tell us something about this adventure story...
One thing we can be sure of is that the Alhóndiga, first opened in 1909, was intended to reflect a city which, at the beginning of the 20th century, was rife with luxury and could – indeed, should – afford to build a luxurious palace even for what was essentially its wine warehouse and market, to serve as a reminder of the power of the old town of the Seven Streets (Siete Calles). This is where wine was bought and sold, where people argued and even fought, dagger in hand if necessary, over the price and quality of the wines which the noble and loyal town would draw up on noticeboards for all to see.
One of the peculiarities of this building can be found when you look up, where you can see the feet of the bathers enjoying the swimming pool on the top floor.
And as a final finishing touch, one can appreciate all of the 43 distinctive columns in the building's interior. Each one is completely unique in its style and look like something out of a film or a science fiction comic. So much so, that just one year after the inauguration of the renovated Alhondiga, a team of comic artists were brought together in order to design a comic in which to tell extraordinary stories about the building.