BILBAO : ENSANCHE

We are still in Bilbao, moving to the next scene of this artfully renovated town of Spain.

South of El Goog spreads 20th-century Bilbao, known as the Ensanche, the vast expansion of the city prompted by the new industrial wealth, laid out in a grid with occasional diagonal streets from the 1880s onwards. Its main drag is the Gran Via, a wide boulevard lined with elegant apartment blocks, imposing hotels and some almighty mid-20th-century blocks like the BBVA building, the head office of Spain’s second biggest bank.

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At elliptical Plaza Moyua, the Gran Via meets several other streets, making the city’s modern nerve centre, overlooked by a monumental 1940s tax office in granite Franco-era style and the grandiose Hotel Carlton. On the plaza’s corners you see big glass worms protruding from the pavement. They are the Foster-designed entrances to the metro, fondly called ‘fosteritos’.

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Wander the streets of the Ensanche and every so often from out of the standard issue, 20th-century façades there juts something dramatically new. In one place, an undulating glass-walled palace takes one whole side of a square, the Plaza Bizkaia Building (2006), housing the provincial government headquarters

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Down another street, a six-storey glass cube balances on a narrow concrete base, the Foral Library (2007), simple yet supremely elegant. None are so spectacular as those of the Basque public health offices, Sede Osakidetza (2008), a corner building with black-tinted, multi-directional glass panels which create a colossal cubist sculpture.

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Even the world economic crisis which has been savaging Spain in particular since 2008 doesn’t seem to have side-lined Bilbao’s thrust to recreate itself. Bilbao’s Athletic Club has just inaugurated a dazzling new stadium called San Mamés whose slatted carapace glows by night in alternating colours, usually red and white, the club’s colours, or red, white and green, the Basque national colours. It’s another hey-look-at-me pop-up in the city’s breathless makeover.

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From a dour city which only business people were ever drawn to, it’s become a holy grail for anybody with an eye for design and innovation, globally recognised in December 2014 as a UNESCO City of Design.

And best of all, the locals have become happy.

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