¡Bilbao, Spain!

Bilbao was a whole other country. A small city with gorgeous architecture, scenery and art, it’s a gem. Collected from quick emails sent from the road, here’s some of my experiences on this incredible trip:

I took a late night flight out of Lisbon and headed north to my next stop. Bilbao, the Basque city on the northern coast of Spain. It’s big claim to fame is it’s home of the Guggenheim. Before the trip, it was a toss-up between heading to Seville or Bilbao. I felt I’d need a break from so much Spain so I headed to the north coast.

Somewhere along the way airport security stopped me. It was a routine check of my carry-on. The guard got out a swab and started speaking some language that just sounded blurry in my travel weary head. The guard started explaining to me what was happening, realized I was lost and asked what language I speak. When ‘English’ was the answer, he let out a bellowing laugh. He went on to sing in broken English, ‘looking for a bomb! A bomb!’ then kept bellowing and repeating ‘bomb’ and laughing, over and over. Maybe to his dismay, my bag checked out okay and he sang a couple more ‘bombs’ as I walked away to put my shoes back on.

Basque Country

Choosing to see Bilbao allowed me a glimpse into the Basque country. The Basques, an independent ethnicity separated from the rest of Spain by its language and culture, are among the oldest ethnicities in Europe. Some of the oldest cave paintings in the world are found in the region. All of this independence has boiled over at times with a violent nationalist movement. I was prepared to see a radically different part of Spain, but wasn’t prepared for just how different it would be!

The City

It rained the entire first day and a cloudy fog hung low over the city, but the grey overcast skies did show off the city a bit. The architecture and color palette were definitely more of a northern tone, and the Basque signage made Spain feel a million miles away. It was an forgotten industrial town before the Guggenheim opened here about twenty years ago. A cab driver told me the first thing they did when it opened was to ‘wash all the buildings’.

You can see just how rough and end of the line the city was in the older populace, there’s a common thread of pink and red circles painted with broad strokes around their eyes, along with noticeably abnormal limps, hunches and vacant stares. Everybody under 60 is healthy, spry and enjoying their new city. 

The city was compact and gorgeous. The buildings had an ornate quality to them. It was so easy to walk through and enjoy the views along the river and the parks. Mountains circled the city, and was a pretty inspiring sight to see first thing each morning.

La Liga! Athletic v Sevilla

Even with my decision to shun Seville for Bilbao, I ended up seeing a piece of Seville. I went out to a soccer game with the Basque only Athletic Bilbao taking on the second place Seville team. I had some beers outside among some ardent supporters under a tent in the sidewalk outside the stadium. The cold lashing rain made things rough fast, with winds making life unbearable. Luckily, the gorgeous stadium had all its seats covered, even though rain would bellow down through the hole in the roof over the field.

The European sporting experience is diametrically opposed to the American one in almost every way. The stadium, still beautiful and fully functional, is stripped down and unadorned with ads. Every seat was on top of the field – without half the seating interrupted by oversized luxury boxes. No beer was sold inside, and two small video boards quietly displayed the score and time in two corners of the stadium. There was no patriotic jingoism, no beer ads dolled up as handjobs for soldiers, just an athletic event between two opposing cities.

Just before gametime, they played a song on a txalaparta, an ancient Basque instrument. The percussion instrument had a haunting, prehistoric rhythm that mesmerized me. After a loud cheer, the fans pulled out their scarves and sang the team’s song, whipping themselves into a frenzy.

The game was fun – lots of chanting and the enthusiasm of the fans was great to be a part of. Athletic lost 1-0, but the game was full of action. Bilbao hit a couple posts that drove the crowd mad. I also figured out why Europeans whistle after bad calls – when 40,000 people start whistling in anger, it’s one of the most annoying sounds known to man. 

Guggenheim Bilbao

The Guggenheim Bilbao

My second day in Bilbao I headed over to the Guggenheim Bilbao. The famous exterior was actually matched by the interior. It had unexpected nods to the NY version with curving white walkways and floors. It also featured an exposed industrial steel structure. I lucked out and saw a big Alice Neel exhibition, she’s one of my favorites. I also saw some great stuff in the Women in Abstraction show. The show mercifully declined to present a single Georgia O’Keefe, so maybe her place in history is being erased as we live! 

An entire large wing on the ground floor was dedicated to the large, curved steel sculptures of Richard Serra. Initially, I was saddened by devoting this much space to his works, but as I walked around and in the sculptures, the sounds, echoes, and shadows created by the viewers and pieces made it a pretty wild experience. The museum had its big guns on the third floor. Some huge Keifers, a giant Warhol, Rauschenberg, DeKooning, Rothko, a gratuitous wall of Twombleys. The museum itself, with its winding, open walkways, glass, steel and stone undulating walls, kinda gave a weird sense of floating during the entire visit.

Bilbao has been a really nice city to visit – after the rain cleared and I saw the series of low mountains surrounding the city it really became even prettier. It reminds me a lot of Ljubljana, Slovenia in the size and form of the city. It’d be a great place to hang out for a week or so in the summer. Here are the other stops in my crazy three week thrip through Europe:

Spanish Painting