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Bilbao was granted the title of villa (a city state) in 1300, and medieval bilbaínos went about their business in the bustle of Las Siete Calles, the original seven streets of the old town, and on the wharves of San Antón and Abando. The conquest of the Americas stimulated trade, and Basque fishers, merchants and settlers soon built strong links to such cities as Boston. By the late 19th century the smokestacks of steelworks, shipbuilding yards and chemical plants dominated the area’s skyline.

From the Carlist Wars through to the Spanish Civil War, Bilbao was always considered the greatest prize in the north, largely for its industrial value. Franco took the city in the spring of 1937 and reprisals against Basque nationalists were massive and long lasting. Yet, during the Franco era the city prospered as it fed Spanish industrial needs. This was followed by the seemingly terminal economic decline that has been so dynamically reversed in recent years.