Two decades ago, Bilbao was just a melancholy city. It was a post-industrial disaster zone and it didn’t seem they could do much about the economy. The city fathers knew that a service economy was probably the only way to go, building on the fact that Bilbao was already an important banking centre. Their regeneration plan got going with the city’s first subway system. So far, so normal: a star act, but the kind of infrastructure that any ambitious city would go for.
Here the city originated and the port stood for many centuries. With its traditional shops, windowed balconies and stone walls carved with coats of arms, its fine old churches and convents, and all its streets pedestrianised, the Old Town has historical charm, but it is also a busy shopping, dining and drinking area.
Its most elegant feature is the enclosed square called Plaza Nueva, whose colonnades host many bars and cafes. A focal point is Plaza Unamuno, a square named after the great man of letters, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), who grew up nearby.
A beloved local custom, a ‘txikiteo’ is a bar crawl in which you and your mates go from tavern to tavern, about 15 minutes in each, downing a ‘txikito’ – a small glass of wine, usually the local Txakoli, a slightly sparkling, dry white – and sampling the local tapas which go by the Basque name of ‘pintxos’ (‘pinchos’ in Spanish) which are pretty good, especially the seafood ones, and Txakoli is a fine match.
From here, steep steps lead up the hillside and eventually bring you to Etxeberria Park, a rolling green space with a solitary factory chimney standing in its midst. It’s a nice place to relax and look out across the whole city spread below.
Here you can see how the River Nervion threads its way towards the sea, and the river banks once lined with industry all the way to its mouth where now the new “superport” lies, replacing the docks which within living memory welcomed shipping right up to the Arenal quay alongside the Old Town.
Heading downriver from the Arenal quay along the riverside walk, you pass by elegant ‘fin de siecle’ apartment blocks built in the city’s industrial boom days, and mid-20th-century façades from the period of fading prosperity, but then your eye is drawn to something totally modern: a fine lattice work of white steel that arches and curves over the river, the Zubizuri footbridge out of the vaulting imagination of the Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava, a man responsible for many of Spain’s most striking new structures.
GUGGENHEIM – EL GOOG
The famous American modern art museum dangled the opportunity to host a new European branch, with a dazzling design by the avant-garde American architect, Frank Gehry. A shimmering metallic fantasy rose up, projecting its gigantic asymmetric image into the River Nervion from a site where derelict warehouses and rusting cranes had stood.
El Goog glistens in its titanium-clad brilliance. Inspired by sailing ships, the museum looks a writhing and swirling metallic mass of mysterious meaning and great power. Drawn by the exterior, you’ll also find brilliance inside, such as thematic painting displays of intelligent works from across centuries, and the gigantic work by Richard Serra called ‘A Matter of Time’, consisting of snaking ribbons of rusty rolled steel inside which you can walk, getting startling sensations of mutating space.
Exiting on the museum’s city side, you find a broad esplanade dominated by a huge seated dog coated in flowers, a monumental piece of kitsch by Jeff Koons called ‘Puppy’. Meant to be removed soon after the museum’s opening, ‘Puppy’ still survives due to the Bilbainos who loved it so much they insisted it remain forever.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Text and Photos : Keith Mundy
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