An April 2005 trip
to Bilbao by Owen Lipsett
Quote: A single building can’t completely change a city, but Frank Gehry’s justly admired Guggenheim Museum certainly has altered Bilbao’s reputation. Blessed with outstanding contemporary architecture that complements its atmospheric old town, Bilbao is unusually charming for a large city and makes an excellent base for exploring the Basque Country.
Stunning though the process has been, it’s important not to overstate the extent to which Bilbao has subsequently redefined itself. Both the casco viejo and the attractive fin de siècle Ensanche (gridded extension), on opposite sides of the Nervión, predated and persevered through the industrial age. Similarly, Basque cuisine has long been regarded as the finest in Spain (although many proud Catalans disagree). There can be little doubt, however, that with the construction of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and Santiago Calatrava’s nearby Zubizuri Footbridge in 1997 and the complete redesign of the city’s public transportation system by Lord Norman Foster, Bilbao has been thoroughly reinvented architecturally. Its newfound international reputation as a center for cutting-edge style extends to food – the minimalist nueva cocina vasca (New Basque Cuisine) coexists as comfortably with traditional pintxos as Bilbao's graceful contemporary buildings do with their predecessors.
Beyond the Guggenheim, Bilbao’s individual sights are relatively limited. The casco viejo (Metro: Casco Viejo) is most interesting for its architecture and array of excellent restaurants and bars, particularly in the Siete Calles area. The single notable exception is the intriguing Museo Arqueologico, Ethnográfico e Histórico Vasco. To the northwest, the Funicular de Artxanda offers an excellent view over Bilbao, revealing the relative compactness of its attractive center. The stunningly ineffable Guggenheim is just southwest of the funicular, on the opposite side of the Nervión. The interesting Museo de Bellas Artes is situated nearby at the edge of a series of parks that terminate in San Mamés (Metro: San Mamés), the so-called "Cathedral of Football" that is home both to Athletic Bilbao and a museum displaying its history (and trophy collection).
Accommodation, particularly at the lower end of the scale, is relatively scarce, considering Bilbao’s popularity. As elsewhere in the Basque Country, room rates tend to be noticeably higher than in the rest of Spain.
Spanish (Castellano), not Basque, is the language of choice in Bilbao (as opposed to much of the rest of the Basque Country). Although I encountered more English spoken in Bilbao than anywhere else in Spain, this was largely confined to tourist establishments and upmarket hotels.
I strongly advise you to pay with the most exact change possible: one common con is to only give change for a smaller bill when a larger one is offered. Only my knowledge of Spanish saved me from being ripped off in this manner. Also, avoid anyone purporting to offer (or seek) help in English. While this may sound nasty on my part, I noticed it was a common scheme to distract and isolate gullible tourists.
Getting Around Bilbao:
Bilbao is best seen on foot – it takes only about 45 minutes to walk across the center. The excellent public transportation system consists of smoothly integrated buses, subway (Metro), and a riverside tram line. If you plan to use it, purchase a prepaid Creditrans travelcard, which halves the fares.
Location: It’s almost impossible to find a better-located place to stay than Pension Bilbao. It is located 50 meters from Estación de Abando (which also contains the Abando Metro Station), you only have to cross a single street to reach it. The casco viejo is only about 300 meters away across the Puente de Arenal. The Guggenheim Museum is a little over twenty minutes away on foot, or you can reach it by tram (from outside Estación de Abando). San Mamés and the Termibús Station are half an hour away on foot and are accessible by the aforementioned tram and Metro. Consequently, I found the location perfect, but I’ve included this exhaustive information in case you’re particularly interested in staying near an individual attraction, in which case you may wish to look elsewhere. Although Pension Bilbao is on the fourth floor, there is a fairly rapid elevator in the building.
Rooms: My single room (which had a double bed) was quite spacious, bright, and attractive. The solid-oak wardrobe was quite sizeable, and a desk was provided as well. The room had its own balcony, although with Bilbao’s generally poor weather (I visited in late April) I was not able to take much advantage of it. The bathroom was reasonably spacious, and shampoo, soap, and towels were provided daily. The room’s television set received only Spanish television (which enabled me to, among other things, watch a football match with commentary in Basque.)
Service:Although I had some initial difficulties communicating by phone and email (which may have been my own fault), I found the service as the pension itself: impeccable. Aitor Alonso, the proprietor, speaks excellent English and gave me better information on Bilbao than the tourist office itself. My room was cleaned and the towels were changed daily. Mr. Alonso (and his staff) live upstairs – while they are generally not present, you can reach them at any time via a buzzer in small common area. I found the staff particularly friendly. Pension Bilbao accepts credit cards and requires a credit card number (though not a deposit) to hold reservations.
Quite simply, it's the best budget accommodation option in Bilbao.
Rates and further information: http://www.pensionbilbao.com.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 11, 2005
Calle Amistad 2, 4, Izquierda.(fourth Floor, On The Left
(34) 944 246 943
Ortua’s décor is simultaneously airy and homey with blocky wooden furniture that would not be out of place in one of the Basque Country’s sidrerías with tasteful small drawings and paintings decorating the walls. There’s just the right combination of overhead light and space between the tables to strike the perfect balance between cosyness, spaciousness, and charm. My meal began with lemon-infused water and homemade whole-wheat bread whose large, rough, and tasty chunks immediately suggested to me that Ortua’s food was likely to be more akin to hearty traditional Basque cooking than the minimalist and refined nueva cocina vasca(New Basque Cuisine) for which Bilbao has gained an international reputation.
Ortua is clearly a family operation and doesn’t print menus. Instead, the friendly servers (who appeared to me to be husband and wife) recite the two options for the first three courses (appetizer, salad, main) in Spanish. While they probably also speak Basque, I don’t know whether they understand English, although if you asked "¿Qué recomienda usted?" ("What would you recommend?"), they would almost certainly serve something to your liking. I personally chose vegetable soup (sopa de vegetales), followed by a salad (ensalada) of julienned vegetables made quite hearty by the addition of a mixture of grains and sesame seeds. I found both a good deal more hearty and filling, not to mention tastier, than their equivalents at more carnivore-friendly establishments.
Indeed, I found the main course of "meatballs" (alhondigas) made of seitan to be much tastier than most examples of the "real" dish they were intended to mimic that I have experienced. The server proffered the two options for dessert after I had eaten the previous three courses, which, while common elsewhere, is by no means the rule in Spain. I selected the creamy, unsweetened homemade yogurt (yogur), served with honey, and I’d strongly advise you to do the same if the option is available. It’s quite rich – proving that vegetarian cuisine is not always the most healthful!
If you’re a vegetarian, eating at Ortua should be an essential part of any visit to Bilbao... and even if you’re not, it should be!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 14, 2005
Alameda Mazarredo 18
+(34) 94 424 51 02
Had the Guggenheim never been built, Gehry would still be regarded as one of the world’s greatest architects for his innovative style, which involves using aircraft design software to create the distinctively undulating shapes that give his buildings their unusual feel. This technique was perfectly suited to conceiving a building that urban planners hoped to make both a landmark in itself and also an integrated part of Bilbao’s waterfront. Inspired by his experience playing with the live carp his grandmother brought home every weekend to turn into gefilte fish for the family’s Sabbath meal during his childhood in Toronto, Gehry designed a shiny building that seemed to rise from the river.
The museum’s bright interior, which Gehry intended to resemble a beating heart to circulate visitors to adjoining galleries (as opposed to more traditionally linear museums), is no less impressive. The hefty €10 admission fee includes an audioguide which contains information about Gehry and the permanent collection, as well as whatever temporary exhibition is being displayed. There are also daily English-language tours (usually at 3pm) of the building and both temporary and permanent exhibitions. The museum’s "permanent" collection of modern art actually rotates, as it's shared with the other Guggenheim Museums worldwide, however there are a few truly permanent site specific pieces. The most beloved of these is Jeff Koons’ "Puppy," a flower covered statue of a gigantic dog which guards the entrance. Originally intended as a temporary exhibition to commemorate the museum’s opening, it remained in place by popular demand and blooms in different colors every spring. I personally found Richard Serra’s "Snake," located in the aptly named "Fish Gallery" (the museum’s largest), and consisting of 3 gigantic ribbons of hot rolled steel, rather more interesting.
Considering its literal, figurative, and visual importance to the city of Bilbao, the museum is worth seeing more than once. I don’t just recommend exploring the building multiple times, which a ticket enables you to do, since it allows you to enter and exit freely on the day of your visit. It's also well worth approaching it from different angles in order to appreciate the way it fits with the city and the riverbank as a whole.
Further information: http://www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/ingles/home.htm
Abandoibarra Et. 2
The museum occupies the Baroque cloister of the Colegio de San Andrés, a former Jesuit school in the heart of Bilbao’s casco viejo. It’s best to begin on the third floor, most of which is taken up by the display of an impressive topographical map of the entire province of Bizkaia, constructed as a subtle message of defiance under Franco’s regime. An adjoining room of antique maps serves to illustrate the antiquity of the borders of the various Basque provinces throughout France and Spain. A model of one of Bilbao’s foreign consulates is intended to illustrate the city’s trading wealth during the Renaissance and Baroque periods – another unstated dig at Franco, who sought to shift the country’s industrial base to Castile.
The second floor contains an exhaustive (although somewhat dull) series of displays of prehistoric skeletons and artifacts unearthed from sites throughout the Basque Country. A theory popular among Basque archaeologists holds that the Basques are the last remaining descendants of Cro-Magnon man, making them Europe’s oldest people, but perhaps in the interests of not irritating Franco, it is unmentioned. The first floor features a series of displays on Basque cultural traditions, the two largest of which cover their economic mainstays: fishing and sheepherding. The latter contains an interesting display on Basque farmers in the Big Sky region of the United States, although disappointingly for many of their descendants, it contains no accompanying material in English. Unfortunately, the displays of traditional ceramics, arms, and linen are not particularly interesting as the accompanying notes (in Spanish and Basque only) offer little by way of explanation. The tiny area devoted to Basque sports does not mention the most famous of all, pelota, better known outside the Basque Country as "jai-alai."
The indoor exhibition area of the ground floor is generally given over to temporary exhibitions (which are unlikely to have any explanatory material in English). I was fortunate enough to see one on daily life in Pre-Columbian Latin America. The colonnaded courtyard contains a lapidarium that would be quite fascinating if it featured any explanatory material whatsoever. Sadly, it does not, making it an apt metaphor for this generally interesting museum, which, if it were more fully explained, would be exceptional.
Further information: http://www.euskal-museoa.org/eng/presentacion.html
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 11, 2005
Basque National Museum
Calle Cruz 4
New York, New York