I’ve been wanting to go to Bilbao for years. And the main reason for wanting to go was to see architect Frank Gehry’s masterpiece – the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997. I knew people who’d been and said how wonderful the building was but once I finally got there, I realised nothing had really prepared me for its magnificence and sheer wonder.
When Annie and I were discussing going away for a weekend together in January, we opted for Bilbao and San Sebastián as places neither of us had been to, so a new adventure for both of us. We booked everything through British Airways: flights from London Heathrow to Bilbao at the very reasonable price of £112 return and hotels in both Bilbao and San Sebastián. I’m a big fan of flying British Airways whenever I can (and no, they don’t pay me for saying this or upgrade me to business class!) because of their generous hand luggage allowance, which is great for city breaks when you don’t want to waste time checking bags in, and because there are usually a good choice of times for flights throughout the day. I’ve also found good deals booking hotels through them. For Bilbao we chose a 4* NH hotel, Hesperia Bilbao, which was wonderfully situated virtually opposite the Guggenheim, just across the Nervión river, and cost £84 a night for the room. There’s an element of ‘chain’ to NH hotels but I like them and have stayed at others in Amsterdam and Cartagena in southern Spain: they’re reliable, good value, comfortable and attractive and we found everyone really friendly and helpful.
We just missed a bus from the airport into town but luckily a Spanish couple suggested we took a taxi together and share the €26 cost between us. Thus we sped into the centre much more quickly than we’d expected and because our plane had landed about 25 minutes early, we had plenty of time to find a nice lunch before going to the Guggenheim where we’d booked tickets in advance for a 3.00pm entry. We decided to make our way to Plaza Nueva in the old part of town where there were plenty of pinxtos bars for a snack lunch. We walked all around the square, protected from light rain by the wide porticos that we could walk through. We didn’t bother with our guidebook and just picked one we liked the look of and had a great lunch.
If it was a visit to the Guggenheim that had prompted our visit to Bilbao, it turned out that the pinxtos were equally exciting – in a gourmet food way. They are the Basque version of tapas, a little bigger – maybe two bites instead of one – and are quite exquisite, complex and special. I’ll write more about them later when I talk about San Sebastián but let’s go back to the Guggenheim now.
Walking back along the river at different times of day we noticed how the shimmering titanium tiles that cover the museum change with the light. It’s the most extraordinary building and, I think, beautiful. I love its sensuous curves and changing colour; its organic almost living appearance. As we approached for our visit we first came to Louise Bourgeois’ amazing Maman spider sculpture.
The photo above gives you a sense of its size. It’s named Maman – mother – for Bourgeois’ mother: ‘The Spider is an ode to my mother … spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.’ For the arachnophobics amongst you, this may be a helpful thought next time you come face to face with a spider.
Also outside you see Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree & the Eye. It consists of 73 reflective spheres anchored around 3 axes. Images of the surrounding city, the river and the museum itself are captured on their surface and forever moving, and are meant to be Kapoor’s way of reminding us of our unstable and ephemeral world.
Once inside and in the Atrium, it’s a bit like entering a cathedral, both because of the vast shape and the way one’s eyes are drawn upwards towards the sky.
A wonderful, honey-coloured pillar brings warmth to the light and everywhere there are curves; there are no harsh straight or pointed lines; the whole place envelops you. You can walk round galleries at different levels from which you look out to the city and river.
And you can also look all the way down.
We loved the place and spent a long time there before going back to the hotel for a siesta time before seeking supper. We did use our Lonely Planet Pocket Guide in our choice of bars to eat at night. This time we headed to the New Town but it was also beautiful and we remarked how often when visiting a new city, the old town is very different to the new, but this wasn’t the case in Bilbao. The city was so much more than we’d expected: beautiful, wonderful architecture aside from the Guggenheim; fantastic bars, pretty squares and lovely communal spaces. First we went to El Globo.
There was a friendly, buzzing atmosphere. The bar was clearly full of more locals than tourists and varied in age. We chose three pinxtos and some wine. Wine in bars like this in Spain comes in fairly small quantities at cheap prices – usually no more than about €2 a glass. Just as you find in other continental countries, the Spanish don’t indulge in large glasses. Like the wonderful little snacks – the pinxtos – the wine comes in small quantities of excellence.
When out in Basque country eating pinxtos, you don’t commit to one bar, you have a couple of snacks, a small glass of wine, and then move on to the next bar. However, having had a very early start to our day, Annie and I thought a couple of bars would suffice. We moved on to La Viña del Ensanche, said to be one of the best in the city. You can have a €30 tasting menu, but we weren’t that hungry and we also felt it rather spoils the fun of looking at the wonderful array of pinxtos and choosing the ones you like the look of most.
It was very busy inside but we were fortunate to find a table for two. We ordered just 2 pinxtos, but very special ones, and glasses of more local Rioja. We were impressed that they brought them separately without us asking – more like a starter and then a main course although they were snack size. The first was some gorgeous foie gras. (I’m sorry if you’re offended by foie gras but it is quite simply one of my favourite things and also a speciality of the Basque region.)
Our second dish was cod on a bed of tomato sauce (a description that I admit doesn’t do it justice).
It was spectacularly good – for me, one of the best dishes of the holiday. We took our time, relaxing into our new surroundings and discussing how wonderful it was, and then we slowly made our way back to the hotel, much in need of a good sleep after a long – but brilliant – day.
In the morning – Sunday morning – we set off fairly early in search of breakfast (having chosen not to include it in our hotel stay as neither of us like big breakfasts and it’s so much fun to eat out locally). Everywhere we noticed how beautiful laid out communal areas and walkways were. There was a sense of design and care in everything.
We loved the elegant and beautiful buildings.
Back in the Plaza Nueva we decided to go into Cafe-Bar Bilbao.
The interior was decorated with the kind of Moorish tiles you find in the south and very attractive.
We ordered fresh orange juice, coffee and croissants. It was all excellent.
It was grey and raining slightly outside so we decided to go back to the hotel and ask them to call us a cab to take us to the bus terminus for our trip to San Sebastián. The weather forecast promised more sunny weather later, so it would be nice to get to our next seaside destination. However, we both agreed that we’d loved Bilbao much more than we’d expected. It’s a really lovely city and I’d like to go back again and stay longer next time. As for San Sebastián, great things were to come there too … but that’s for another post.
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