Lost & Found: Bilbao
6-7 February 2009

Huy was incredulous when I told him I was making a
special trip to Bilbao just to see the Guggenheim Museum. But the way I figure it, Bilbao is not somewhere that I could get to easily from Australia, and I have been enamoured of the avant-garde Frank Gehry building for a while. Plus it was an opportunity to eat Spanish food.

Visit:

Guggenheim Museum. It really is as striking as the pictures. One minute you're on the non-descript highway from the airport, the next minute the full glory of the fantastical, sensual structure hits you. Every angle gives a different perspective of space and shadows. Jeff Koons' big Puppy wasn't able to greet our entrance but some of the works inside were intriguing. We wound our way through Richard Serra's rumination on the physicality of space through the gigantic spirals and shapes of The Matter of Time and watched the luminous LED text dance in Jenny Holzer's Installation for Bilbao. Seeing Louise Bourgeius' giant menacing Maman rise from the mist was like watching a sci-fi movie and created an interesting juxtaposition with Koons' cheerful Tulips. I was particularly drawn to Javier Perez's Mask of Seduction, a hairy face mask and ethereal draped dress, which simultaneously tempted and repulsed.  Unfortunately, the temporary exhibition was by Cy Twombly, who I really hated thanks to the WORST exhibition I've ever seen in my life (at Tate Modern). Our knowledgeable guide did explain some of the meaning and methods of Twombly, but it still wasn't enough to convince that his scratchings and slaps of paint were anything other than sh*t.

Walking Tour. The tourist information runs 1.5 hour walking tours of the city for a bargain price of 4 euros. On a rainy Sunday morning, we got a private tour of the architectural monuments of Bilbao, from its era as
a steel port to its modern day regeneration. For a small city, Bilbao has some exciting structures.

  • The Basque health department building connects seemingly random shards of glass to create a kaleidoscope view of the streetscape and the sky.

  • The Campo Volantin Footbridge by Santiago Calatrava epitomises elegant simplicity in its single cantilevered arch.

  • Even the subways in Bilbao are designed by a famous architect, this time Norman Foster. Their slinky-like emergence from the pavements have earned them the name Fosterlitos, or little Fosters.

  • The sculpture walk snaking around the river from the Guggenheim has a varied selection of good and bad sculpture. We were taken with a very cool sculpture of  typical Basque coffee mugs.

  • The bridge which seems to pass in the middle of the Guggenheim is in fact over 40 years old, but it has been integrated into the structure in an imaginative way, particularly with the installation of the red goal posts.

Bilbao old town. As far as old towns go, Bilbao's didn't really strike me as being particularly beautiful or distinctive. The climb up to the Catedral de Santiago is worthwhile because the church is very peaceful.

Eat at:

Victor Montes. Its Art Deco interior is not as old as it looks - it is only about 30 years old. Nevertheless, this pintxos bar in the old town square exudes historical charm in its smoky surroundings (you can still smoke indoors in Spain - choke) and the pintxos were fantastic. We stood at the bar, had a beer and freshly squeezed orange juice respectively, and tucked into an assortment of fishy, meaty and cheesy things on bread. The staff smiled benevolently as they watched us eat with obvious enjoyment. Two drinks, 8 pintxos and a dessert for 30 euros - highly recommended.

Cafe Iruna. Our tour guide recommended the oldest restaurant and bar in Bilbao for its ambience and ornate Moorish decorations, unusual for Northern Spain. On a Sunday afternoon it was very popular with the locals, and we were lucky to be able to sneak some stools by the bar. The service was perfunctory (there were 2 waiters for about 40 people) but our various pintxos were great.

Etxanobe.  The ceiling was dramatically draped with vividly Rubenesque cloth and graced with frilly crinoline lampshades, the bread was delicious, the service was friendly and the amuse bouche tasted like the precursor to a meal befitting one Michelin star. We even met the boyishly enthusiastic chef, who gave us his cookbook for free when he found out we were Australia and flourished 'Fernando Canales' on the inside cover. Oh, we wanted to love it. Unfortunately, we weren't impressed with any of the food. The croquettes were great but not fantastic, our desserts were almost amateurish in their presentation and the petit-fours were too tooth-numbingly sweet, even for my seasoned sweet tooth. Most disappointing were our main dishes from the special cod section of the menu. What came out was a slab of rubber, doused in a tasteless green pil-pil sauce for Michael and a slightly better 'Bizkaina' red sauce for me. The damage was about 50 euros each.

Stay at:

Miro Hotel. Michael said "If I didn't know better, Joyce, I'd think you were trying to seduce me.". So, an apt introduction to the sexy ambience of the Miro Hotel, a small designer hotel opposite the Guggenheim Museum. The rooms were tastefully decorated in muted colours, with a black marble bathroom (bathrobes!), nice crisp white sheets, draped velvety curtains and enough space for a small leather couch. After our rainy foray into the old town, it was lovely to settle back into such a pleasant room and dry our feet while watching The Graduate. The next morning the expansive breakfast buffet had us devouring a pastry course, followed by a meat and cheese course, then a fruit course, accompanied by copious amounts of freshly squeezed orange juice. The hotel had a special offer during our stay - a double room for 110 euros (+7% tax) including a movie, sweets, buffet breakfast and tickets to the Guggenheim.

Bizarre:

Smurfs. Once of Bilbao government's more bizarre projects was a day where they released hundreds of Smurfs across the city to celebrate the Smurfs' 50th birthday in 2008. Bilbao citizens and businesses were asked to collect the white plaster Smurfs and decorate them for a competition. (Watch the video here). Two of them ended up in the window of these cafe called 'The Blind Hen', with bizarre hen-themed decor.

Getting there:

I should know better by now that to rely on public transport, especially the beleaguered British rail system, to get me anywhere on time. Our Stansted Express (surely a misleading and deceptive description) chugged slowly, then stalled at Bishops Stortford to assist a broken-down train,
which meant we were all bundled onto a bus to complete our journey. We arrive at Stansted with 30 minutes until departure, and managed to charm our way to the front of every line and ran onto the plane puffing and red-faced. Just goes to show you can get through security and to the gate in 15 minutes. Easyjet flight 50 pounds return.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: Avenida Abandoibarra, 2, 48001 Bilbao

T: +34 94 435 90 00

Casa Victor Montes: Plaza Nueva 8, Bilbao -

T: +34 944 157 067

Cafe Iruna: Berastegui Kalea 5 48001 Bilbao, Spain

T: +34 944 237 021

Miro Hotel: Alameda Mazarredo 77
48009 Bilbao, Spain

T: +34 946 611 880

Etxanobe: Palacio Euskalduna
Avda. Abandoibarra, 4
48002, Bilbao

T: +34 94 442 10 71