Bilbao has the Cathedral of Santiago, San Mamés stadium, which is nearly like another cathedral, and the Basilica of Begoña. These three places, if you are interested more or less in churches or sports, are the ones that you should visit if you don’t want to leave the capital of Biscay with the feeling of having missed something important.
Because Our Lady of Begoña, who is the one we want to talk about now, has great significance for the city. To give you an idea: almost all the Begoñas in the world are from Bilbao, or they have family from Bilbao.
But to find out where this Sanctuary comes from, we have to go back five hundred years. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, it seems that over the remains of a primitive temple, the wealthy merchants of Bilbao ordered the construction of a church that can be placed in the late Gothic style with traces of what later became known as the Renaissance.
The works lasted for longer than a century, and as we can see today, it has elements of different periods: Sancho Martínez de Arena was responsible for directing the first works, Martín de Garita was commissioned to design the tower and Ibáñez de Zalbidea to build the vault and the chorus.
Inside, the businessmen who provided the funds made sure their shields and emblems were in full view. With them the money earned by trading with Flanders, London or Hamburg had ennobled, so they had to show them off.
Unfortunately, the church was severely punished during the Carlist wars. In 1835, the bell tower was bombed, and the vaults smashed into pieces. A few years later, in 1862, it was struck by lightning which caused a big mess, and in 1873 it had to endure more bombings which caused the collapse of its tower.
If that wasn’t enough, everything flammable burned in the interior, including part of the valuable artistic heritage that Begoña had accumulated, and which included canvases by the Baroque master Luca Giordano. The image of the Virgin, nevertheless, was saved thanks to its transfer to the then Church of Santiago.
Like so many other monuments, the temple has reached our days after several reconstructions, restorations and patches here and there… but it has made it. It is still possible to see its towers as the sailors saw them when on their return from the sea, they passed by the neighbourhood of La Salve. That was the place where they prayed to the Virgin in gratitude for protecting them, and it was that custom that ended up giving the name to the area.