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After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Bilbao was declared the capital of the Basque Country with the seat of government being established in the Carlton Hotel overlooking the Plaza Elíptica, the city’s central square. The Republican Basque Country put up a desperate resistance Franco’s Nationalist forces despite Bilbao being heavily bombed by the air forces sent to Spain by his German Nazi and Italian Fascist allies. With the Basque province of Álava having sided with the Nationalists at the onset of the war, Bilbao set about building a massive system of defences known as the "Cinturón de Hierro" (Iron Ring). However, the designer of this ring betrayed the Basques several months later by handing over the plans to the Nationalist army, and it was this, combined with the defences being severely undermanned, that led to the eventual conquest of the city.
During the civil war the Basque Government formed its own police force, the "Ertzaña", on which the present day Autonomous Regional Basque police, the "Ertzaintza", are based. Apart from maintaining law and order, the role of the Ertzaña was to counter Spanish Nationalism, with this involving the abduction of as many opponents as possible. However, the war in Bilbao took its inevitable course, and at the "Battle of Artxanda" the Basque forces were routed by the Nationalists, partly because they were hopelessly outnumbered. Thus began one of the darkest periods for the Basque Provinces that had resisted Franco’s Nationalist uprising, including Bilbao, during which they were subjected to cultural repression and enforced isolation.
Bilbao is a compact city crammed in between the surrounding hills and the estuary of the Nervión River. In the 50s and 60s this led to the advent of many poorly and hastily built residential blocks, often without gas, electricity or water, to house the great number of rural poor coming to the city from the surrounding countryside in search of work. In August 1983 Bilbao suffered severe flooding, which resulted in the Nervión River being partly diverted.
After the decline of the heavy industry that had sustained Bilbao for the last forty years, the resulting economic crisis led the city to embark on the planning of the new modern Bilbao. The highlights of this urban renewal were the construction of the Bilbao Metropolitan Railway (Metro) in 1995 and the Euskotran tram system in 2002, the famous Guggenheim Museum and the Euskalduna Palace, a concert and congress hall. The success of this development, especially that of the Guggenheim, has attracted many other high-profile projects and converted Bilbao into one of Spain’s most dynamic cities. This urban renewal has not been confined to the centre of the city, with many pedestrian precincts, parks, underground car parks and new schools being planned and built, all of which have eradicated Bilbao’s traditional grim industrial character and transformed it into a modern city that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
Portugalete is one of the many municipalities to have been absorbed by Greater Bilbao (Gran Bilbao). After passing through Bilbao the Nervión River flows between the two municipalities of Portugalete on the left and Las Arenas on the right bank. Due to the large natural estuary on which it was built, in the Middle Ages (between 1300 and 1511) Portugalete established itself as an important seaport. However, in 1511 Portugalete’s importance as a port receded when the Port of Bilbao was awarded exclusive trading privileges. In Spain Portugalete is best known for the Vizcaya Bridge (the transporter bridge that links it with Las Arenas on the opposite bank of the Nervión Estuary. The bridge, which was built in 1893, consists of a large frame from which a small gondola hangs, and it is this that transports both cars and foot passengers between the two river banks. On July 13, 2006 the Vizcaya Bridge was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.