travel journal: discover the world
Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque) had a tough upbringing. Growing up in an environment of heavy industry and industrial wastelands, it was abused for years by those in power and had to work hard to get anywhere. But, like the kid from the estates who made it big, Bilbao’s graft paid off when a few wise investments left it with a shimmering titanium fish called the Museo Guggenheim and a horde of arty groupies around the world.
Opened in September 1997, Bilbao’s Museo Guggenheim lifted modern architecture and Bilbao into the 21st century – with sensation. It boosted the city’s already inspired regeneration, stimulated further development and placed Bilbao firmly in the world art and tourism spotlight. Some might say, probably quite rightly, that structure overwhelms function here, and that the Guggenheim is more famous for its architecture than its content. But Canadian architect Frank Gehry’s inspired use of flowing canopies, cliffs, promontories, ship shapes, towers and flying fins is irresistible. Like all great architects, Gehry designed the Guggenheim with historical and geographical contexts in mind. The site was an industrial wasteland, part of Bilbao’s wretched and decaying warehouse district on the banks of Ría de Bilbao. The city’s historical industries of shipbuilding and fishing reflected Gehry’s own interests, not least his engagement with industrial materials in previous works. The gleaming titanium tiles that sheathe most of the building like giant herring scales are said to have been inspired by the architect’s childhood fascination with fish. Other artists have added their touch to the Guggenheim as well. Lying between the glass buttresses of the central atrium and Río Nerviòn is a simple pool of water that emits at intervals a mist ‘sculpture’ by Fuyiko Nakaya. Nearby on the riverbank is a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, a skeletal canopy representing a spider, entitled Maman , said to symbolise a protective embrace. In the open area to the west of the museum, a fountain sculpture randomly fires off jets of water into the air and youngsters leap to and fro across it. On the Alameda Mazarredo, the city side of the museum, is Jeff Koons’ kitsch whimsy Puppy , a 12m-tall Highland terrier made up of thousands of begonias. Bilbao has hung on to ‘El Poop’, who was supposed to be a passing attraction as part of a world tour. Bilbaínos will tell you that El Poop came first – and then they had to build a kennel behind it.
Heading inside, the interior of the Guggenheim is purposely vast. The cathedral-like atrium is more than 45m high. Light pours in through the glass cliffs. Permanent exhibits fill the ground floor and include such wonders as mazes of metal and phrases of light reaching for the skies. For most people, though, it is the temporary exhibitions that are the main attraction (check the website for upcoming shows). Admission prices vary depending on special exhibitions and time of year.
The Botxo (Hole), as it’s fondly known to its inhabitants, has now matured into its role of major European art centre. However, in doing so, it hasn’t gone all toffee-nosed and forgotten its past: at heart it remains a hard-working and, physically, rather ugly town, but it’s one that has real character. It’s this down-to-earth soul, rather than its plethora of art galleries, that is the real attraction of the vital, exciting and cultured city of Bilbao.
The compact Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s atmospheric old quarter, is full of charming streets, boisterous bars and plenty of quirky and independent shops. At the heart of the Casco are Bilbao’s original seven streets, Las Siete Calles, which date from the 1400s.
The 14th-century Gothic Catedral de Santiago has a splendid Renaissance portico and pretty little cloister. Further north, the 19th-century arcaded Plaza Nueva is a rewarding pintxo (Basque tapas) haunt. There’s a lively Sunday-morning flea market here, which is full of secondhand book and record stalls, and pet ‘shops’ selling chirpy birds (some kept in old-fashioned wooden cages), fluffy mice and tiny baby terrapins. Elsewhere in the market, children and adults alike swap and barter football cards and old stamps from countries you’ve never heard of; in between weave street performers and waiters with trays piled high. The market is much more subdued in winter. A sweeter-smelling flower market takes place on Sunday mornings in the nearby Plaza del Arenal .