Travel Report: Bilbao, Spain.
August, 2015. After a month stationed in the sleepy seaport of Castro Urdiales, it felt good to be back on the open road. A glorious few weeks across the north of Spain stretched before me and it all started here in the city of Bilbao. Famed for its flourishing art scene and one of Spain’s most impressive museums, I arrived with a spring in my step.
It took me just forty five minutes to reach Bilbao on the bus from Castro. The weather admittedly caught me by surprise, the first time in four weeks that it wasn’t a beautifully sunny day. In fact, it was a wholly overcast affair, a sheet of grey hanging over the city.
Nevertheless, I set off on a day’s exploring on foot. It wasn’t long before I got a taste of Bilbao’s varied architecture at Moyúa Square. Positioned at the crossroads of four branching streets, I found my eyes immediately drawn to the Neo-Flemish facade of Chavarri Palace.
This incredible building wouldn’t look out of place in the Belgian university town of Leuven, where I spent four years back in one of my previous lives. Amazingly, it was built in 1889 as a private residence for Victor Chávarri, the Marqués de Triano.
The noted Belgian architect Paul Hankar designed it in the renaissance styles of Bruges and Antwerp. Today it houses governmental offices.
Despite the unconvincing weather, Bilbao’s locals were out in force in the many open air cafe and bar streets. Of these, Calle Ledesma sums up the city’s laid-back vibe nicely. Here and there, between all the huddled groups of chatting people, I stopped to listen to various street musicians.
More than happy to let the Bilbao street ambience wash over me, I ducked into Baden Baden Cafe to refuel. The resulting Café con leche (coffee with mlilk) and wedge of Spanish tortilla certainly did the trick. “Delicious!”
Café Baden Baden.
It was all so pleasant I whiled away most of that first day in various drinkeries. Take Cafe Bizvete, for example, nestled beneath the tower of the 15th century Santiago Cathedral. A lovely spot for some lunch, a beer, a glass of wine or a caffeine injection.
I had another pitstop at Cafe La Granja, a grand, French style coffeehouse dating back to 1926. Located opposite Plaza Circular, at the so-called “nerve centre of Bilbao”, this city institution sadly closed its doors in February 2017 and is currently being turned into a hotel.
Somehow, the rain held off on that trip, in spite of the worsening conditions. By the time I entered the path that runs along the main stretch of The Nervión River, a light fog had descended. This definitely added a moody atmosphere to Zubizuri Bridge, a tied arch, curved walkway footbridge unveiled in 1997.
The structure comes with more than a touch of controversy. Its use of glass bricks in the floor caused several pedestrians to slip and fall in rainy weather. When local authorities subsequently modified elements of the bridge to improve access, they found themselves being sued by the architect, Santiago Calatrava. On the grounds of “moral rights” apparently.
Finally, after much unpleasantness, the matter was resolved with a settlement of thirty thousand Euros to Calatrava. Happily, I managed to cross Zubizuri Bridge without injuring myself. And very much enjoyed the foggy views over the river and beyond.
From the bridge it’s just a ten minute walk to Bilbao’s premier attraction, The Guggenheim Museum. Like it or loathe it, Frank Gehry’s daring glass, titanium and limestone creation has become a benchmark in ambitious contemporary architecture.
Inside, there’s a whopping 11000 square metres of exhibition space. Moreover, the area around the exterior hosts some of the city’s most striking works of art. First, there’s the impossible to miss Puppy flower sculpture, by the American artist Jeff Koons.
The dog in question is, according to the artist, a West Highland terrier standing guard over the museum. Apparently, the dog’s floral coat is a tribute to the traditional 18th century garden.
Decidedly less cuddly is the fearsome Maman, a thirty foot spider made of bronze, stainless steel and marble. The nightmarish construction sprang from the mind of the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.
You might be surprised to learn (as I was), that Bourgeois took inspiration from her own mother for the piece. “She was my best friend” explained the artist. “Like a spider, my mother was a weaver”. Protecting her eggs in a cage-like ball, she “provokes awe and fear”. At the same time, Bourgeois wanted to hint at vulnerability through her long, spindly legs.
How about Anish Kapoor‘s towering sculpture Tall Tree and the Eye? Featuring 73 reflective spheres anchored around three axes, the installation continues Kapoor’s lifelong explorations of all things mathematical and structural.
The mirrored spheres cleverly reflect images from everything around it, “simultaneously creating and dissolving form and space”. Deep.
Just across the river from The Guggenheim lies this one thousand meter mural of two women on the interior of La Salve Bridge. The American artists Veronica and Cristina Werckmeister oversaw the project with support from a group of local volunteers. The piece shows two women of different backgrounds and ages engaging in open dialogue.
A patchwork of lace connects the two ladies, illustrating the complexity of their relationship. The piece, which deals with themes of tolerance and understanding, was unveiled to celebrate No Violence Day in 2012.
As fate would have it, my weekend visit coincided with an Athletic Bilbao football match at the city’s 53,000 capacity San Mamés Stadium. Even better, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw that Bilbao would be playing none other than… Barcelona!
Thus I made sure to grab a ticket, excited by the thought of getting to see Señor Lionel Messi in the flesh. On match day, I found myself filing through the turnstiles alongside thousands of home supporters.
I had never seen a Spanish La Liga match and wondered how it would compare to the atmosphere of English Premier League and Championship games.
Taking my seat, I soon got chatting to a friendly home fan, who agreed to take a photo for me. “Wait!” he suddenly called with urgency. “You will cheer Bilbao, yes?” In all of the excitement, I hadn’t actually given a thought as to where my allegiances lay.
Of course I immediately declared my support for Bilbao as my host city. And due to the fact that they were obvious underdogs against the superstars of Barca. Luckily, the man seemed satisfied with this and even lent me his scarf for the shot.
San Mamés Stadium.
It was hardly a classic match that afternoon, not by any stretch of the imagination. But there was a pleasingly tense atmosphere as the two teams fought out a keenly contested tactical battle.
If truth be told, Bilbao looked every bit as organised and capable as the Spanish champions. But perhaps just lacking those moments of pure quality served up by the likes of Messi.
By his lofty standards, Messi actually had a quiet game. Nonetheless, his brilliance was still there to see in several understated moments. A sublime piece of control here, a pinpoint cross-field pass there.
The highlight of the game was undoubtedly when the referee awarded Barcelona a penalty. A sharp intake of breath swept across the home stand as Messi stepped up to take the spot kick.
Moments later, Bilbao keeper Gorka Iraizoz beat the ball away and I found myself engulfed in an ear-shattering ROAR of pure joy as Messi trudged away, head hung low.
Unfortunately, Bilbao lost the game 1-0. What’s more, it was Suarez, one of my least favourite footballers, who grabbed the winner, smartly finishing Jordi Alba’s generous cross.
Still, it was a fine end to a great visit and an experience that helped make Bilbao a particularly memorable trip among my many Spanish adventures.
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Looks like a very interesting city
I debated whether to stay a night or two on a road trip a few years ago, but bypassed it in favour of Ribadesella.
Had not hard of Ribadesella. It looks lovely!
We really enjoyed our two night stay ..had a fabulous hotel overlooking the beach
If it had not been for Covid we would have visited Bilbao last year. It’s still on the list though we’ll skip the football as it’s not our sport (it doesn’t have wheels and an engine). The city itself looks to be well worth several days of our time.
Thanks for reading Stella. Hope you get to Bilbao before too long.
Another city I’d like to visit sometime. Interesting to see the flower covered westie outside the Guggenheim. They are my favourite breed and we used to have one.
It’s a gorgeous piece of art and certainly more endearing than the spider. Thanks for reading.
I would love to visit one day- particularly to be surrounded by all the art. Your pictures bring back bittersweet memories of a time to relax and enjoy dining outside.
Thanks for reading! Yeah, I concur with the contrasting feelings of seeing the old world as we knew it in its full glory. Hopefully, we are not too far off a return to some kind of normality later this year.
I can’t get over how beautiful the architecture is in Spain. The Zubizuri Bridge looks neat, but it’s kind of crazy how the practicality of it was overlooked. There is a Maman sculpture in Ottawa outside of the National Gallery of Canada.
Oh I didn’t realize ol’ Maman is so well travelled. I shall look up her Canadian version right now. Thanks for reading!
That’s a place we should visit.
We have Bilbao booked for August – thank you for giving me lots of good ideas 🙂
Yay!!! Looking forward to your write up.
The Guggenheim has been on my bucket list for ages. You got that and Messi in one trip. I’m beyond envious.
Lionel Messi, take a (Bil) bow.
Spain has some of the most interesting architecture. I like the spider (although I think it is an alien). Last I think you and Messi bear a bit of a resemblance.
Oh lord, you’re not the first person to tell me I look a bit like Messi. A few of my students in China used to say that. “Teacher you look like Messi, you both have the tall nose”. As for Maman, maybe the artist thought her mother a bit of an alien too!?
Your appreciation for Bilbao is reflected in this pleasant review.
Thanks for reading!
I’m with you on the overcast skies in Bilbao: I was there in June 2019 and it was more-or-less grey skies during most of my stay. While I did appreciate the cooler weather, I did wish there was a bit more of blue skies to be had…Any case, I found the city very walkable, and I especially fell in love with Cafe Bar Bilbao in the Old Town: besides its beautifully-blue and white ceramic interiors, the pintxos and tapas were INCREDIBLE– I was especially fond of the open-faced cod sandwiches, and it’s an institution that I HIGHLY recommend should one be in the city someday!
Feeling regretful I didn’t visit Cafe Bar Bilbao myself!
Wonderful read, I was actually there the same year as you albeit a few months earlier (May). Sadly I’d timed my trip poorly so didn’t get to a Bilbao game but otherwise it was a great city to explore 🙂
Oh great, glad that this one particularly resonated. Anything I didn’t mention that stood out for you?
The only other thing I can remember doing that you didn’t mention was take a funicular ride up for views over the city 🙂
Sounds great. I missed a trick there.