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An Epicurean Odyssey: Bilbao

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Bilbao was the first city to feel like a real metropolis since Bordeaux. Wide boulevards lined with classical architecture greeted us as soon as we arrived. Our dismount at the Airbnb was a little hectic as Google Maps directed us to the wrong spot on the right street. There was nowhere to park, and by the time I realized we weren't at the right place I had already extracted the bags from the car with Mei Ling at the wheel ready to move the car if necessary. Rather than load everything back inside, I figured we couldn't be that far away and I schlepped all the bags down the sidewalk singlehandedly looking for the correct address. I found it about two hundred meters away but there was no answer to the doorbell. After a series of messages through Airbnb, our host's father eventually showed up and took me up a cramped elevator to a muggy, shabby fifth floor apartment. We knew in advance about the lack of AC but our luck from the previous accommodations that weren't climatized seemed to have run out. It was seriously hot inside. I threw open every window I could find, dumped the bags, and sped back out to the car where everyone had now been waiting almost an hour.

It was too late for the market and way too early for dinner so the obvious destination was the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao's signature attraction for the last twenty years. The Guggenheim has been credited with singlehandedly revitalizing Bilbao from a decaying port city to an internationally recognized center of culture. We parked at the Zubiarte mall nearby and walked back through a large park towards the museum. The Guggenheim wasn't the only impressive building in the area. The enormous Iberdrola Tower projects straight upward from the contoured greenery of the park in solitary, glass-shelled splendor.

When we reached the Guggenheim, it was immediately clear that this was far more than just an unusually-shaped museum. While the building itself is captivating, what is even more impressive is the way the structure complements and interacts with the river, bridges, city and park that surround it. The perimeter of the museum is cleverly enhanced by several enormous and whimsical sculptures. On the terrace between the museum and the city stands Jeff Koons' enormous Puppy, coated in multicolored flowers. These flowers have to be changed twice a year and necessitate a complicated internal system of irrigation and fertilization. Between the museum and the river is Louise Bourgeois' terrifying spider Maman, its spindly legs projecting upward from the bulbous body and then spiking sharply onto the ground in full arachnid hideousness. Sculpture or not, it was difficult to look at Ian standing helplessly between all those legs like a discombobulated gnat about to be consumed. The great irony of the sculpture is that Bourgeois constructed it in tribute to her mother, a weaver, and it symbolizes the maternal values of nurturing and protection. Could Bourgeois really have been oblivious to the frightening presence of the giant spider or is she intentionally pushing the viewer to confront deep-seated yet irrational fears?

The Guggenheim is at the apex of a wide curve of the River Nervion, which ultimately dumps into the Estuary of Bilbao and then the Atlantic Ocean. The river is brown and murky yet teems with large, energetic fish that swim close to the surface of the water. Numerous bridges cross the river within the city and the museum is situated at the foot of one of the most iconic. The giant red gate over the green La Salve Bridge is a purely artistic embellishment that was added in 2007 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the museum's opening. A little to the west is the Pedro Arrupe footbridge which provides beautiful views of the museum, the river, and the La Salve Bridge.

Going inside the museum was never a serious consideration. Apart from the steep admission price, we didn't feel like spending a lot of energy just to keep the kids from creating a ruckus. There had been more than enough to see and experience on the outside. Instead we headed to the kids' paradise just to the west of the Guggenheim with splash fountains, an ice cream cafe, and a huge playground. It seemed to be a popular gathering place for locals and tourists alike. We let the kids loose for about an hour until it was time for dinner.

We drove back to the Casco Viejo, Bilbao's old town, and emerged from a parking garage to find that dusk was settling. The difference between Bilbao and the other Spanish cities we had visited was very apparent. Whereas Zaragoza, San Sebastian, and Logroño seemed to have little interest in the rivers flowing through their town centers, Bilbao has embraced the Nervion with a wide promenade and multistory apartment buildings right at the water's edge.

The Casco Viejo was architecturally atmospheric but very commercial and tourist-oriented. Our highly-recommended dinner restaurant proved to be ordinary. Back at the Airbnb some of the day's heat had dissipated but the air was still heavy and humid. We all passed a restless and sweaty night.

For our full day in Bilbao we decided to tour the city on foot. We were directly across the river from Mercado de la Ribera which occupied a prime spot on the waterfront.

The market was decent but nothing out of the ordinary, which was something of a disappointment given that we were in the largest city on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Most of the foot traffic seemed to be tourists, indicating that the locals were finding better bargains in neighborhood stores and supermarkets. We had breakfast at a sizable food court attached to the market which had a good selection of appetizing pintxos that also seemed to be priced in expectation of a tourist clientele.

We strolled northward along the bank of the Nervion, enjoying the amazing mixture of colors and architectural styles among the buildings that lined the river. Eventually we arrived at Santiago Calatrava's uniquely beautiful Zubizuri footbridge. We had now experienced Calatrava's futuristic designs in three different cities on this trip. The Zubizuri is particularly controversial due to design flaws that led to numerous slip and falls as well as broken glass tiles.

By this point we had reached Castaños, a residential neighborhood on the eastern bank of the Nervion notable for particularly interesting and colorful buildings. We had become accustomed to beautiful and innovative architecture in Spain, but it seemed that in Bilbao there was something new to admire every time we turned a corner.

Castaños is also where the funicular begins its ascent to the top of Mount Artxanda. Artxanda is the closest to the city center of the mountains that surround Bilbao and the most urbanized. We were all in need of refreshment once we arrived at the top and found a cafe where we had some disturbingly fluorescent yet revitalizing frozen drinks.

The views from the overlook in the park were spectacular. We could see pretty much the entire city of Bilbao from the Casco Viejo to the Guggenheim. It was fascinating to see the interrelationship between the city and the amazing natural forces of the Nervion and the mountains.

In the park was a large sculpture suggesting a fingerprint. Although I later learned he sculpture was a memorial to the Spanish Civil War, at the time it struck me as a reflection on identity. Our fingerprints are a symbol of our individuality yet in the modern world they also represent the ability of governments and corporations to identify and track us, and thereby control us. So is our fingerprint our friend or our enemy? Perhaps I was spending too much time musing on dark themes instead of simply enjoying the way the sunlight and the view of the mountain range streamed through the gaps in the metal.

Back on ground level, we soon found ourselves opposite from the Guggenheim. This time we let the kids cool off a little in the jet fountains before heading inward to the modern part of Bilbao on the west bank of the Nervion. Once again we were awed by the unique lenticular shape of the Iberdrola Tower.

We soon ran into central Bilbao's largest urban green space, Parque de Doña Casilda, which was full of luscious vegetation, fountains, and swans.

From the park we set a course to the center of the modern neighborhood, passing several more exemplars of Bilbao architecture on the way. The number of different styles on display seemed unlimited, with the only requirement being that the buildings had to be both striking and beautiful.

The ten year old cultural center Azkuna Zentroa is yet another of Bilbao's temples of design. Philippe Starck designed an avant garde interior within the old municipal wine market while leaving the classical exterior largely intact. Within the lobby the upper floors appear to be supported by a grid of short columns, each of different shape and style. One of our goals was to see the rooftop swimming pool with the glass bottom, allowing a ground floor view of the swimmers. After searching all over the center for it we learned it was being renovated. We consoled ourselves with a light snack at the immaculate cafe in the lobby.

From here it was a short walk east through the most bustling section of modern Bilbao back to the Nervion and then the Casco Viejo. We still had some time for an enjoyable stroll around the old town before dinner and encountered a creative street musician playing music on drinking glasses. We did our very best to find authentic Basque food for dinner and struck out miserably, ultimately concluding that the Casco Viejo has pretty much been abandoned by the locals. It's a pretty place to walk around for a couple of hours but for food it's better to head to the eastern side of the Nervion.

We rose early the next morning to begin our drive along the Atlantic coast to Galicia. Our two day stop in Bilbao had been one of the highlights of the trip so far, despite the lack of memorable meals and market browsing. The city had been a visual feast of architecture, design, and natural beauty the likes of which we had rarely seen. These kinds of unexpected blessings are what make travel so enjoyable and addictive. No matter how much you plan, you never know for sure what's going to be around that next corner. We're far from the only travelers who have fallen in love with Bilbao. Here are some more blogs about Bilbao that I've enjoyed reading since we returned home.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:00 Archived in Spain Tagged travel bilbao blog tony guggenheim casco_viejo friedman nervion artxanda azkuna_zentroa

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