Port of Bilbao
Review and History

The Port of Bilbao is Basque Country’s largest city and capital of Biscay Province. Almost half of the Basque Country’s population lives in the Port of Bilbao, stretching along the banks of the Nervion River in northern Spain about 14 kilometers from the river’s mouth and the Atlantic Ocean. The Port of Bilbao is one of Spain’s most important economic areas, home to several important industries including aeronautics, electronics, information technology, energy, and manufacture of steel and machine tools.

While the city has had an industrial character for decades, many industries have moved from the city center. The Bilbao Exhibition Center hosts several international trade fairs each year. The Port of Bilbao is one of Spain’s most important northern ports. In 2005, it was the fourth busiest port in the country, moving 36.8 million tons of cargo. In 2006, over 354 thousand people lived in the Greater Bilbao area.

Port History

The Port of Bilbao was founded in 1300 AD by Don Diego Lopez de Haro, the Lord of Biscay, across the river from an older fishing village. Don Diego granted city rights to Bilbao, making it an early commercial center for the area.

The city grew slowly but steadily, and the population neared three thousand by the 15th Century. The Spanish Crown granted the city a Consulate in 1511, allowing the Port of Bilbao to become an important export point for Merino wool from Castile. During the era of the Spanish Empire, it was northern Spain’s most important financial and commercial center. The English called the swords it exported “bilboes.”

The Port of Bilbao became the capital of Biscay in 1602, and its wealth grew steadily after that. Due to the discovery of iron ore in the nearby hills, the Port of Bilbao did not suffer the economical crises common to the rest of Spain during the 17th Century. Commerce with the Netherlands and England kept the port prosperous. By the end of the 18th Century, the city had all but exhausted its geographic limits.

The industrial revolution of the 19th Century was a blessing for the Port of Bilbao, as busy ship-building, mining, and steel industries grew strong. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the Port of Bilbao was Spain’s richest city. Although the city was assaulted by Carlists four times, it was never conquered during the Carlist Wars. The Port of Bilbao annexed several villages in 1925 and developed new areas.

Siding with the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War, the Port of Bilbao was the capital of the Basque Autonomous Government. Despite heavy defenses, Franco’s troops took the city in 1937. During the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the Port of Bilbao continued to be an important industrial and commercial center, and immigration from south and central Spain brought many new residents to the city.

At the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st, the Port of Bilbao has undertaken important urban renewal efforts to move from its historic industrial base to a new era of tourism and services. A new metro system and a new tram line have improved inter-city transportation. The Port of Bilbao was moved from the river downstream to the Bay of Biscay, supporting greater ocean-borne trade and making room for new riverside development in the city.

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