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Bilbao: an ancient city thriving in the 21st century

— March 2015

Associated media

Frank Gehry, The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. Photo: Frances Follin

If you know only southern Spain, the Basque region is like another country. Its capital, Bilbao, is well worth a visit

At this time of year, when one is looking ahead and wondering what foreign parts one might explore later on, let me suggest Bilbao in northern Spain. Bilbao is far from the beaches of the Mediterranean or the olive groves of Andalucia. It is separated from the Atlantic by a fairly short stretch of now awkward-to-navigate river (the Nervión), and the sky can get quite overcast as a result but the climate is warm and mild. When the sun shines, the city sits under a bluer sky than I have ever seen anywhere else and when the sun goes in, there is still plenty to do and see.

Bilbao is in Spain’s Basque region – an area with a long history of difference from mainstream Spanish culture. The city fathers (and mothers) are a progressive lot, determined to put Bilbao on the cultural and economic map. To this end they have been prepared to put their hands in their pockets to fund stunning buildings by leading international architects. The idea is to regenerate the city following the decline of traditional industries in the late 20th century, and culture is part of this plan, but far from the whole of it.

Naturally the most famous of the new buildings is the Guggenheim, which Frank Gehry designed to look like a great ship sailing along the Nervión. It is actually sited on a most awkward bit of land – no architect’s dream location by a long way. Gehry was apparently excited by the challenge presented, however, when he inspected the site in May 1991. In 1997, the building was opened to the public.

The museum is famous for its exterior titanium cladding. Considerable experimentation went in to making the panels in such a way that they would always look bright and silvery, whatever the weather. To look at and touch the panels you would never believe that they are literally paper thin. Despite this, 50,000 tonnes of titanium went into their production. The complex structure of the building was realized with the help of a computer program, CATIA, which allowed the loads on each wall to be calculated and allowed for accurately.

Inside, the museum is full of light. The interiors are spacious and yet welcoming.  The special insulating glass used in the windows prevents the building from turning into a greenhouse in the summer heat. On the ground floor there is a regularly changing display of art from the museum’s collection. Here you will also find the vast gallery that houses Richard Serra’s vast installation, The Matter of Time. This is a group of enormous metal sculptures, each formed of massive curving panels of Corten steel, a metal that is self-patinating – it develops a surface of a kind of rust that protects the steel within. The panels curve this way and that, forming enclosures and passageways, and the visitor can move freely among them – or at least, as freely as one’s nerves allow. I will confess there were some that I could not bring myself to enter. This is art that you experience.

Upstairs are smaller galleries providing space for temporary exhibitions. There is a restaurant, a shop and an outdoor café. Outside are a number of sculptures, including one of Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Spiders’ and works by Anish Kapoor and Jeff Koons (including his (in)famous flower-covered Puppy). You should allow a whole day for a visit. Assuming you are visiting for several days (a long weekend is recommended), what else can you see?

Believe me, there is a lot more to Bilbao than the Guggenheim. For a start, it was not the first art museum in the city. The Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum), founded in 1914, moved to its present location on the edge of the city centre in 1945 and remodelled around the turn of the present century. It has a fairly small but fine collection of European painting spanning centuries, including work by El Greco,   van Dyck,  Murillo,  Zurbaran, Gauguin,   Cézanne,  Sorolla   and Tapiés,   among many others.

The city being very compact, it is only a half-hour’s walk from the Fine Art Museum across to the other side. There is a bustling shopping centre, some beautiful older buildings and exciting new ones. You can’t enter the headquarters of the Basque Health Service, but you will certainly want to photograph it, though in doing this you will also photograph everything around it, as it is covered in reflective glass panels/windows angled in every possible direction. Also in the centre you will find metro stations (locally known as ‘fosteritos’) designed by Sir Richard Foster, and the impressive Art Deco railway station. The Arriaga Theatre (built 1890) will remind you of the Paris Opera.

So 30 minutes’ walk (plus all the time you take to stop, stare and explore) from the Fine Art Museum you come to the Old Quarter, with its bustling Plaza Nueva (‘New Square’, 19th century). In this part of town is the beautifully restored cathedral of Santiago; a fascinating museum of the history of Bilbao, going back to pre-historic times; and another dedicated to the archaeology of the region. There are narrow alleyways with cafes and interesting shops. Many of the shops contain beautifully designed clothing at remarkably inexpensive prices (I did not buy any so can’t vouch for the quality).

A boat trip along the Nervión will take you past many beautiful buildings (including the Guggenheim) and through the now rather run-down industrial centre. This has not been forgotten, however, as Zaha Hadid has been commissioned to turn this into the sort of commercial district that will attract the new creative industries of the 21st century. It will be fascinating to see how this develops over the next few years.

You can eat very well in Bilbao. Instead of tapas, they have a local variant called pintxos (‘pinchos’) which are like tapas but rather larger! Eat them in the ornate Café Iruna, the Art Deco-style Café Antzokia,  or sit outdoors in one of the cafés in the Plaza Nueva. Main meals are similarly generous, and after all that sight-seeing, you will have worked up an appetite! Then again, a walk round the main food market, the Mercada de La Ribera, with its beautiful stained glass windows displaying the city’s coat of arms and its many stalls laden with meat, cheeses, fruit and vegetables, may make you wish you’d gone self-catering.

Have I covered everything? No, of course not. There is so much to see in Bilbao, once you have visited, you will want to go back.


Frances Follin
Independent art historian

Editor's notes

Direct flights to Bilbao can be awkward to find. Easyjet fly to Bilbao from Stansted; Vueling (a Spanish budget airline) fly from Heathrow daily. The bigger airlines do not go direct and the journey can take all day! As the city centre is small, any hotel located there will be fairly close to all the main attractions. Frances stayed at the Hotel Ercilla Lopez de Haro, in whose lounge Frank Gehry reputedly sat to make his initial sketches for the Guggenheim, which is now a short walk away.

An exhibition of work by French artist Nikki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) is at the Guggenheim Bilbao until 11 June 2015.

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