Of the sixty-six recommended sights, activities and restaurant venues recommend by Lonely Planet’s online guide to Bilbao, my friend and I made it to three.
Knowingly, that is. It’s possible we accidentally struck some of the late night venues off the list, though by that point we weren’t exactly counting (anything). Besides, the only official plan for the weekend was to see the Guggenheim, and one activity can hardly be said to constitute a list. In fact my friend made a special request for it to be a list-free weekend. Which was fine by me… wandering is what I like best.
I’d been warned by quite a few people that Bilbao was bound to disappoint. That the city is dirty, industrial, grey, and it’s always raining. That the Guggenheim is an architectural gem (in a city of blergh), but the artwork inside it is barely worth the visit.
So with my expectations suitably lowered, it figures that Bilbao (and its diamond Guggenheim) blew me away.
Firstly, the city is not ugly. Yes, there are some slightly-less-than-polished industrial zones and depressing (okay, suicide conducive) high density housing complexes, but these can be found in so many cities. Going by some old photos, Bilbao was particularly grimy back in the day (it looked like a tar covered mess), but this makes the current incarnation all the more impressive. The streets are now spotless and tree lined. The really old architecture (churches and cathedrals and the tall apartments of the casco viejo, old quarter) is typical Spanish gothic: austere and gracefully enduring. Many of the new additions (skyscrapers, museums, and some inventively shaped bridges criss-crossing the river) are elegant, clever and sleek. The shops we walked by were filled with bright and shiny looking things I just wanted to have, and the bar tops were literally piled with tasty looking morsels just begging to be tried (so we did). The movida (movement, ambience) was upbeat, funky, and un-pretentious, and the service everywhere was cheerful and attentive. And our clumsy attempts to say please and thank you in the Basque language (which is completely unrelated to Spanish, and has a lot of ‘k’s and ‘x’s), were met with only a slightly disparaging roll of the eyes.
As for the Guggenheim. I’d wanted to go to there ever since a roaming show from the New York Gugg came to Melbourne a few years ago. It was cool, it was big, it was different, and it was enough to pique my curiosity and make me want to see the real thing. And I really liked the name, Guggenheim. So given that New York, Venice and Dubai aren’t on my short term travel agenda (it’s almost like a franchise), but Bilbao had been within my reach and calling to me since I set foot on Spanish soil, I’m surprised it took me so long to get there.
Having grown up in the art ‘world’ (it really is another world), I can confidently say I know enough about the stuff… to know better than to pretend to know anything at all. The best way to enjoy art is to just look at it, and enjoy. If it’s visually appealing and/or thought-provoking, and doesn’t require an essay or audio guide to ‘get it’, then that’s good enough for me. So by these flexible standards, and my natural inclination to wonderment, my overall impression of the art in the Guggenheim was that it’s bloody great. There were a few exhibits that weren’t my cup of tea (or more literally, piece of cake, such as the works of 60s artist Claes Oldenburg), but those that grabbed me, really ‘impacted me’ (as it’s concisely put in Spanish).
In no particular order (because it keeps on changing), my three favourite exhibits were:
- Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time: a giant, many-part steel sculpture which forms numerous circular and wave-like enclaves, which the viewer is able to walk around inside. It was enchanting to explore, as it plays with balance and orientation, and it echoes. We were mucking around inside the sculpture when my friend made the astute observation that ‘who you experience things with can completely alter the way you experience an experience’ (or something to that effect in Spanish). Point being (which I’ve often thought but never articulated) is that travel (and art, and just about everything) is more rewarding when you share it with someone open minded, curious, and positive. :-)
- The not so creatively named, but nevertheless intriguing Installation for Bilbao by Jenny Holzer: A mesmerising flashing/glowing/scrolling/multi-lingual poetry installation. It could have come across as sappy and/or melodramatic, but the words were potentiated by the clever motion of the lights, and the overall effect was hypnotising. I could have hung out in that aquarium-lit cave of neon emotion for hours on end.
- A temporary Egon Scheile exhibition: This retrospective of the early 20th century Austrian artist definitely compensated for what the Salamanca art deco gallery lacked. Good works on paper. I loved the confidence (and skill) of Scheile’s draughtsmanship, the (often unflattering) honesty of his portraits, and his warped, nervous palette. All the more remarkable was the scope and breadth of his work, given that he died awfully young at 28. Get cracking people.
- The gift shop: Art gallery (or museum) gift shops are my favourite kind of shop. They are often an extension, an encore, to the gallery experience. Sometimes the merchandise is actually cooler than the original exhibition (such as the Edward Hopper exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Thyssen). Or sometimes you find jewellery by local artisans and the gift shop is practically another gallery in itself. The Guggenheim gift shop was a wonderland of wearable, postable, assemble-able, useable art, with a fantastic bookstore to boot. It scored extra points for stocking some picture books by my favourite Australian illustrator, Shaun Tan. (I attempted to read them all cover to cover, which made me only slightly nostalgic, and which was the cherry on top of an already inspiring/emotional afternoon).
After the Guggenheim and an attempted re-fuel (of not quite enough coffee), we wandered downstream to visit the Museo Bellas Artes. By this point we were flagging, due to a severe case of gallery fatigue, which unfortunately affected our ability to really soak up the next lot of paintings. Truth be told, I remember very little of the Bellas Artes, except for feeling slightly cheated. It’s advertised to exhibit some works by Gauguin (one of my favourite impressionists and the subject of a fascinating biography by W.S.Maughan), but I could find only one…and it wasn’t even a good one. (It could be that I was looking at the wrong painting… it all gets a little blurry after the Guggenheim). There was also a temporary exhibition of Botero (who does really really fat people and animals, in very bright acrylics), and so now I can say with conviction that I like his sculptures but his paintings leave me with a bad taste in my mouth (or mal cuerpo, ‘bad body’ in Spanish).
Not to worry. After a belated siesta, some bacalao al pil pil (garlic butter salted cod), my first white wine since I left Australia, followed by more wine and umpteen pintxos (Basque-style ‘help yourself’ bar top tapas), good convo, good music, and the good vibes of the casco viejo… the Bellas Artes was forgotten and Bilbao was up there as one of the top weekends away…ever.
Sunday morning/afternoon, we got out of the city, and headed downstream to the river mouth (passing some ugly ‘burbs, lush hillsides, ancient stone farmhouses, and posh millionaires mansions on the way). The port is a heavy duty industrial port, whose main claim to fame is the oldest transporter bridge in the world. Bridges aside, the detour was really about making it to the coast and getting a refreshing blast of cold sea air, before the 4-5 hour drive home.
We did make one more stop en route, to a centuries-old fortress village about an hour from Segovia… but it was dark, the shops were closing, and the restaurants were no longer serving… So I’ve left that for another trip, another day, another post.
The Bilbao weekend was quite enough already.