19-20 October 2019
Traversing the southwestern region of France and getting to my destination in Spain taught me a new lesson: train travel in Europe is not perfect. I found it convoluted and less than direct to get from Bayonne, France through San Sebastián and on to the Basque city of Bilbao. Distances are not that much but there seems to be no easy, direct public transport. And, add to that an unannounced SNCF strike, cancelled trains and late TVGs, we pretty much have a long, ugly transportation day ahead.
We travel by a TGV train from Bayonne, past Biarritz south to the border at Hendaye. There, a blue Euskotren metro will take us to the Amara station in San Sebastián. Because I would like to proceed on to Bilbao, we connect with another Euskotren to Bilbao’s Zazpikaleak station. Making it more palatable is the scenery of mountains both low and tall, deep ravines, rocky streams, trees beginning to show fall colors, glimpses of blue bays, and countless charming family gardens. More than eight hours and about 110 miles later, we arrive in Bilbao.
Take me to a Pintxos bar and a glass of Rioja!
There are lots of reasons to visit this Basque city cuddling along the Bilbao Estuary, but my principal reason is to visit the Guggenheim Museum.
In 1991, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation hired the architect Frank Gehry to design a museum. The Foundation already had one in New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and a second, Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in her canal palazzo in Venice. The museum was suggested, and funded to the tune of about $180 million – by the Basque government. The museum site was to be the rundown area of Bilbao’s old port. Twenty-two years and a day ago, King Juan Carlos I of Spain opened its doors. The surrounding landscape has never been the same.
As much as the artwork, the spectacular structure draws the visitor. To say that the design is daring and innovative is an understatement. For the staid old port, it was astounding. The titanium, glass and limestone building, reflecting its flowing shapes and rounded edges in surrounding pools of water and the Nervión River, is probably one of the most iconic structures in the world. It is credited with transforming modern architecture and it certainly transformed Bilbao. I imagine sails on the sea, long ribbons flowing in the wind, a big package wrapped up in a huge silver bow. The building is stunning.
It is a rainy morning. Much as I detest spiders, Louise Bourgeois’ Maman (Mother) creates an interesting pose as fog rolls off the pools. The sculpture, all eight legs and 30 feet of her, depicts a Black Widow protecting her precious sac of “eggs.”
The interior of the museum is designed around a center Atrium, “The Flower,” from which are arranged three floors of galleries interconnected by catwalks. There are over 20 galleries filled with the world’s art of the twentieth century. Most galleries are a classic linear construct, but others are irregularly shaped by swirling walls and forms. Add to this the movement expressed in much of the modern art and the museum, at times, is a real challenge to one’s vertigo.
The size and breadth of the galleries lend themselves to the scale of the large art works displayed within. A fine example of this is the sculpture of New York artist Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. The exhibit consists of eight pieces of swirling weathered/rusted steel walls 14-feet high. One can walk around, among and through the sculpture. A videoed interview of the artist plays in one of the rooms.
Other art forms showcased range from acrylics, sculptures, paintings and photography. I especially liked the themes and works of Thomas Struth and his “Nature and Politics.” There is a little something for everyone, and if the artist is not of your liking, just enjoy the incredible building which houses it. There is a helpful audio guide which explains the artists and their art.
The outside art is fun as the interior art. Modern, colorful pieces adorn the patios and stone terraces. The flower-bedecked “Puppy” is adorable. And of course, there is always Maman.
The best view, perhaps other than from an airplane, would be from atop of the La Salve Bridge. The bridge itself is colorful and artistic. Any way you look at the Guggenheim and its surroundings, you will be inspired.
Perhaps the best spot, both for walks and exploring, is around the cobbled streets of Old Town. The 1756 San Nikolas is an early example of Baroque architecture. Deeper into old town, following narrow cobblestone streets, is the 14th century Cathedral de Santiago, designed in a gothic-revival style. Its interior chapels and cloisters are very nice.
The streets are lined with bars and restaurants. Streets, alleys and squares are packed with people on the weekend, many hanging outside having a beer and adding a din to the atmosphere somewhere between loud conversation and a “roar” of the crowd.
Like locals, we visit the bars serving Pintxos. Called tapas in Madrid, Pintxos are small regional specialities of everything from olives, shrimp, fish, crab, cheeses, ham, beef, veggies and lots more on bread. Three or four will make a meal. Each bar has their own special offerings. These bars are numerous and provide an opportunity to sample Basque “little bits” of all kinds. This makes pub crawls extremely interesting and tasty.
Bilbao is a great city. Architecturally it is quite beautiful with its mix of Art Deco, Neo-Gothic, and contemporary designs. From bridges to its theater house, Old Town’s iron balconies and Moorish/Spanish wooden balconies, the estuary walk or narrow pedestrian streets, Bilbao is a great place for a couple days.
And concerning Basque nationalism and separatism: yes, the movement is alive. It is not uncommon to see the Basque flag flying from balconies and it is permitted to fly from public edifices in Basque Country on the Spanish side of the mountains. Although there has been a stabilizing agreement since 1978, restoring autonomy to the Basque/Basque Nationalist Party is strong. Many would like the Basque peoples to establish their own country. As stickers around town declare: “You’re in the Basque Country, not in Spain.”
Old Town is mostly car-free, fairly compact, filled with shops, colorful markets, restaurants and cafes. Don’t miss the charming Fountain of Dogs. It seemed a little misnamed as the “dogs” sure look like lions to me. But otherwise, just wander. If something strikes your fancy, stop and check it out. I find any one of numerous Pintxos bars are a perfect spot to enjoy a rainy October afternoon.