The Guggenheim Museum is one of many highlights in Bilbao, a city which has reinvented itself. By Mark Little
Bilbao, once the epitome of pollution and industrial horror, has become a choice travel destination thanks to an ambitious urban renewal plan. In a very short time the powerhouse of Spanish industry - hard-working and prosperous, but never much to look at - has been transformed into the very model of a city which gracefully combines tradition with a daring and innovative modern spirit.
The new Bilbao is of course best symbolized by the striking Guggenheim Museum which opened there in 1997, but there is a lot more to attract the traveler.
Nestling at the mouth of the Nervión river, Bilbao (Bilbo in the mysterious language of the Basques) was officially founded in 1300 on the site of a fishing village. In the middle ages it was a major port for the export of wool from Castile to Britain and northern Europe and quickly rose to prominence. By the 19th century Bilbao had become Spains principal steel and ship building city, as well as a booming financial center.
The original city of Bilbao stood at the tip of the Nervión estuary, ten miles from the sea, but as the city prospered and expanded it engulfed the towns on either side of the estuary. One million people live in the sprawling conurbation of Gran Bilbao (Greater Bilbao), but Bilbao proper, surrounded on three sides by low mountains, is a small city of 360,000 which can comfortably be explored on foot.
Start your visit at the tourist office on the Arenal promenade, by the banks of the Nervión, then adjourn to the delightful Art Deco atmosphere of the nearby Café Boulevard (founded in 1871, it is the citys oldest café) to pore over the maps and study the literature. Across the street is the Teatro Arriaga, inaugurated in 1890 and inspired by the Paris opera house. From here, plunge into the Siete Calles (the "seven streets"), as the Old Quarter is known. Neat and pedestrianized, the entire quarter underwent major restoration after a devastating flood swept through here in 1983. Make your way to the arcaded Plaza Nueva, where wine and pintxos (small portions of food) are dispensed in some of the most popular Bilbao taverns.
Directly across the river from the Teatro Arriaga, over the Puente del Arenal bridge, spreads the "Ensanche" (the "widening"), built to accommodate Bilbaos expansion in the 19th century and laid out in a business-like grid interspersed with round plazas. Here you will find elegant buildings that are a tribute to the citys prosperity, trendy shops, bars, cafés such as the legendary turn-of-the-century Café Iruña, restaurants and hotels, the oldest of which is the stylish Hotel Carlton, opened in 1927 and modeled after the Carlton in London. Here and there the scene is punctuated by the modern glass "Fosteritos", as the tubular metro entrances are nick-named in honor of their British architect, Norman Foster.
The main avenue is the Gran Vía, which crosses the Ensanche from east to west. Heading west you reach the citys main park, the Parque Doña Casilda de Iturriza, and standing between the park and the river, the newest addition to the Bilbao cityscape, the modernistic Palacio Euskalduna, an auditorium and convention center inaugurated in 1999. At the opposite end of the park is the neo-classical Museo de Bellas Artes, which has an exceptional collection of masters old and new from Spain and Europe.
The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum stands on the banks of the Nervión, upriver from the Doña Casilda park. Designed by the Canadian-born architect Frank O. Gehry, it opened in 1997. Viewed from the front, the irregularly-shaped, titanium-clad structure resembles a gigantic metal flower. Seen from the opposite bank of the Nervión, it looks like a futuristic ship. From any angle, the building never fails to amaze. Inside the visitor finds modern art of the you-love-it-or-hate-it variety: striking, daring, tongue-in-cheek, funny or silly, depending on your viewpoint.
Art aside, the museum has a nifty three-story gift shop and also a worth-while restaurant. Which brings us to another good reason for visiting Bilbao: food.
The Basques devotion to food is legendary, and they are famous throughout Spain as the most skilful cooks in the country. They have the best ingredients to work with, particularly fresh fish from the Bay of Biscay and meat from the verdant inland valleys, and the poteo, the tradition of having a pre-meal drink of wine or cider with a snack, is something of a religion here.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Little. Mark Little, a freelance writer based in Spain, is the editor of the Freelance Spain website.
Photo by J D Dallet.
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