Bilbao in a day
SEPTEMBER 20, 2009 21:09
The graceful curves of something massive glares from the short distance ahead. My reality is constantly changing along the bending promenade of the NerviÃ³n River. I gain new perspectives in the moments I purposefully elongate before I am forced to blink. The impending presence of the silver hulk earnestly demands my attention for the next five minutes as I approach. I think I know what to expect. Seeing this building was one of the reasons why I came.
Bilbao's attractive riverfront simply plays a supporting role off stage in comparison. When I say I cannot remember the exact details of the riverfront, I presume that I was not the only one either that day or any day for that matter, that has been intensely focused on this blinding glare.
Now standing before these whimsical titanium petals in spring bloom, despite having seen photographs of the building, the inevitable question arises in my mind: "Whatâ€¦the hellâ€¦is that?"
Playfully designed to be anything and nothing at the same time to a thoughtful viewer, the Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by architect Frank Gehry, has been consistently called the world's most important piece of architecture of the 21st century.
But why then in Northern Spain, in the quiet city of Bilbao, is this ultra post-modern building located here? It was Andy Warhol who once said, "The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet." In Spain, Bilbao is exactly that paradigm.
Clearly, Bilbao is a city that embraces its differences in order to define its identity. As the largest city in the Basque Country, the defiantly proud Bilbao residents choose to first speak Basque Euskadi rather than Spanish and their cuisine is a rooted mixture of French and Spanish fare. At its heart, Bilbao is a city and culture comfortable in its own skin and fearlessly is looking to the future. Easily, a tourist could think that they crossed over a geographical border despite the map saying they were still in Spain.
Bilbao's history and rapid development has given the residents reason to question their identity. The make-up of the people of the region has been influenced by many sub-cultures. Throughout Bilbao's walls are graffiti equations tagged 4+3=1, meaning four Spanish identities (Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, Soule and Navarra) and three French peoples (Labourd, Basse and Soule) equaling together one Basque identity. Their cultural composition in contrast to that of the rest of Spain is completely unique.
Previously Bilbao served as an industrial city for the Spanish steel industry, with the city's NerviÃ³n River link to the Atlantic Ocean, consistently providing local industrial commerce as a source for imports to the rest of Spain.
Now, the river acts as a central artery to explore the distinct personalities of the city as they disperse in different directions from the water's banks.
An initial sunset walk on the Paseo Uribitarte along the NerviÃ³n is an excellent way to become more familiar with the surrounding neighborhoods.
Along the way, one's private paseo (stroll) is joined by families walking their dogs, elderly couples sitting on riverside benches and street vendors selling delicious treats under a continuous line of romantically dimmed street lamps. The whole experience is completely charming and deserves to be taken slowly venturing along the wide paths.
Veering off the Paseo Uribitarte, the Casco Viejo (Old City) is a vibrant and lasting relic to a city that once was. Within the winding streets of the area, an unexpected spectrum of yellow, green and red colored buildings are present throughout.
Residents adorn their windowsills with colorful flowers which spill down the face of their structures. Numerous open air cafes line the cobbled streets, subtly offering residents and tourists the opportunity to sit, enjoy a coffee and a small plate of something sweet while laughing through their moments in various languages. Rising quite prominently within the Old City, is the Cathedral de Santiago, which deserves attention.
The Gothic-style church was built in the 14th century and despite recent restorations, it still maintains a strong and commanding character wedged within the maze of tightly spaced streets. Adjacent to the church square, are numerous shops selling unique items representing Basque history and folklore.
Glancing in the windows provides a glimpse into the history of the people and their traditions through their berets, clothing and national flag.
Local bed and breakfast, Iturrienea Ostatua, offers an inexpensive and excellent option within the Old City to launch your exploration from. The hotel's proximity to the rest of the city and its understated charm make it a valuable option to consider.
Leading out of the Old City, the Navarra bridge spills onto the Gran via de Don Diego Lopez de Haro directly into the heart of the El Ensanche neighborhood.
In the area, there is an excellent cafÃ© restaurant called CafÃ© Iruna, which should be visited to taste the local flavors of the city. Before dining, try leaning against the bar and enjoying a few pintxos (small tapas-style appetizers a la carte) of salmon and hot peppers served on slices of a baguette, paired with a local drink called a Calimoxo, red wine and coke on ice.
While eating, it is hard not to notice the unique AndalucÃan styled dÃ©cor of the restaurant. The yellow floor is filled with originally designed concentric squares repeated over and over. Was it was the floor, the locally famous lamb kebobs or the freshly caught fish that I sampled which made me dizzy?
Looking back, it was probably the delicious local Basque red wine that blured the afternoon.
Numerous times, it was mentioned that the Basque people are a highly competitive culture. That spirit can be viewed at Club Deportivo, the local Jai Alai arena in the city. Locals claim that the sport is the fastest in the world, with players wearing arm extensions to whip a single pelota (ball) strategically back and forth against an indoor wall at ferocious speeds upwards to 300km.
These exchanges continue until the pelota is not returned back. Simply put, Jai Alai is one of the most interesting and hypnotic sports - and following the ball mid-flight is an intense act of concentration in itself.
It is not a big surprise that the exciting matches between the regional Basque squads are followed and waged upon passionately by the locals. From the central square garden of Plaza Moyua is what present-day modernity is to Bilbao.
Glancing in any direction at luxury shops, hip cafes, fancy restaurants and the futuristically designed subway entrances designed by the acclaimed architect Norman Foster, one's perception of Bilbao and the Basque Region can change by the moment.
It is, however, the gravitational pull of the Guggenheim Bilbao just down the street from the square that is the catalyst for the dynamic revision to the composition of the 700-year-old city's face.
Sitting outside the Guggenheim, eagerly greeting visitors with a flapping, wet tongue is a 12.5m. tall "Puppy" designed completely from flowers by American artist Jeff Koons.
The puppy sculpture is so non-threatening, likeable and loudly colorful, that for a moment, it is easy to forget about the museum while taking pictures next to the happy creature.
The museum with its ambitious and futuristic silver design is the complete opposite in comparison; fiercely defiant, indifferent and quietly monotone despite the sun's artistic touch upon its fish-scaled skin. To contrast the two is not entirely fair, since Koon's puppy is merely guarding the secret to Bilbao's success.
Could this be the reason that the puppy is smiling so enthusiastically? Precisely, the uniqueness and captivating spirit of the Guggenheim Bilbao is that, its presence invites visitors to devote thought to reviving their curiosity and imagination for the creative human spirit.
Discovering the ubiquitous contours of the exterior of the museum is a beautiful way to spend any amount of time. From each angle, the museum dynamically changes its structural character and face - and that of its visitor's personal perceptions as well.
Whether or not the interior contents of the museum are actually seen, the sheer momentary opportunity to interact with the museum as its design casts an alluring spell on one's soul that is unparalleled.
With each different billowing angle, Gehry, skillfully deceives each visitor's hypothesis of what they might think the building may actually be - and in a greater sense, elongating the perception of Bilbao itself.
In a comparative sense, Gehry's Guggenheim is more than just a stunning piece of modern architecture. The secret to the museum is that it actually is gateway for visitors to discover the uniqueness of Bilbao.
The city is truly a traveler's delight. If the Guggenheim is what brings tourists to Bilbao, then it is the city itself that begs visitors to stay longer than planned. With beautiful streets to explore, delicious cuisine to sample, warm people to chat with and a world class art museum, Bilbao easily impresses.
Combining the contrasting styles of the very old and the very new, Bilbao provides unique expressions of how a vibrant city is evolving to the future while still embracing the richness of its past.