On a day trip last year to Bilbao, in northern Spain, I left feeling more cheated than satiated.
My husband and I had made the 90-minute drive there, from our base in San Sebastián, to see the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. As we crossed the Puente La Salve – a futuristic-looking red bridge over the Nervión River, this enormous structure, made of titanium, glass and limestone, emerged on the right. It looked like the ark Noah might have built if he had lived during modern times.
Unfortunately, a sudden downpour of what seemed like biblical proportions marred our visit. It was unpleasant, if not impossible, to appreciate Gehry’s masterpiece from the outside. And arriving during a popular European vacation week, at the end of October, we found the place packed with families looking for an indoor activity.
We immersed ourselves in a fabulous retrospective on Alberto Giacometti, but couldn’t get near the Richard Serra sculptures that are part of the museum’s permanent collection. There was a 45-minute wait just to enter that gallery, on the first floor. The best we could do was to admire them from the balcony one flight up.
Our appetites thus whetted, and wanting to see more of Bilbao, this year we planned a three-day September sojourn. Fortunately, our latest visit was a much more positive experience. Though Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque province of Biscay, with more than one million inhabitants in the metropolitan area, it has a slower, gentler pace than most European cities we have visited. Far less touristy than San Sebastián, it offers an intriguing mix of modern and medieval.
By booking six months in advance, we secured an attractive rate at the Hotel Carlton, a grand old establishment in the center of the city. From there it was a ten-minute walk in one direction to the ultra-modern Guggenheim, and just a few minutes farther, along a different route, to Bilbao’s medieval quarter, known as the Casco Viejo.
For those unfamiliar with Basque culture and cuisine, Bilbao offers an excellent introduction. Basque Country comprises about 8,000 square miles on the Atlantic seaboard. It is divided into seven provinces – three in southwest France and four in northeast Spain, where it is treated as an autonomous community. Together they make up a territory that the Basques call Euskal Herria, as it is known in Euskera, the Basque language. That means “the land of Euskera speakers.”
Though Euskera uses the Roman alphabet, its origin, like that of the Basque people, remains a mystery. During most of Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship, speaking Euskera was prohibited, so at least two generations grew up without learning it. Today an estimated 700,000 people speak the language; many signs in Bilbao are in Basque first and Spanish second.
The Basque Museum in Bilbao (Museo Vasco, Miguel de Unamuno Plaza, 4), housed in a 17th-century building that was once a church and school, has a diverse collection that reflects Basque pride. There is an exhibit on the Basque fishing industry, which goes back centuries, and another on the more modern development of the porcelain trade. The museum’s crown jewel, displayed in its first-floor cloister, is a zoomorphic sculpture known as the Mikeldi Idol – a bull with a disc between its legs. Carved of a single piece of sandstone and attributed to the second Iron Age, its significance is unknown.
In brilliant sunshine, we returned to the Guggenheim and spent a couple of hours viewing its exterior, first from the footpath on the bridge, from which one can observe the way the changing light illuminates the building, and then along a separate corridor, popular with runners, that’s level with it. Architecture fans might appreciate a room at the ultra-modern Gran Hotel Domine (Alameda de Mazarredo 61), across the street, looking out at the Guggenheim and the 43-foot Jeff Koons terrier sculpture, constructed of flowers, that “guards” it.
Knowing that the museum was open until 8:00 (though closed Mondays), we bought advance tickets to come back later. Those who suffer from museum feet or simply want to step out for lunch, will be happy to know that this museum also allows same-day reentry; just stop by the information desk to get your hand stamped as you exit.
When we returned, at about 5:30, we had the place practically to ourselves. Though parts of the second floor were closed for installation of an upcoming exhibition of works by the German photographer Thomas Struth (October 2 to January 19), the rest of the museum was blissfully empty. No one blocked our view as we looked through the windows at the striking outdoor Louise Bourgeois sculpture “Maman,” on the river side of the museum. Made of bronze, stainless steel and marble, it is a spider that measures more than 30 feet high and 33 feet wide. Earlier, I had stood directly underneath that supersize insect and gazed up at the marble eggs in its sac.
It is the massive scale of the Guggenheim that makes it uniquely well suited to house modern art of such vast proportions, and inspire us to view it experientially. In this respect, the Richard Serra sculptures, which we were finally able to visit, rival the building. Constructed of rolled steel and installed at the Guggenheim in 2005, they are called “The Matter of Time.” And the best way to appreciate them is to walk through the sculptures one-by-one and register your reaction. It took us about an hour to do that, while playing and replaying Serra’s narrative about them, on the free museum audio guide.
For me, passing along the weathered steel walls, which tilt and swirl into various shapes, was a metaphor for life’s unpredictable twists and turns. For example, we follow the path of one spiral sculpture, thinking there’s an exit on the other side, only to find ourselves caught in the center and needing to retrace our steps in order to get out. In another, shaped like a squiggly snake, we think we are deftly navigating the curves, until we accidentally brush up against the sides because they have narrowed.
At other moments, I drew analogies to our return to Bilbao, and the surprises that awaited us there. Though we have spent extended periods in both the Spanish and French parts of Basque Country, most of our stays have been in the countryside. As city dwellers ourselves, we expected Bilbao to be somewhat frenetic.
Ironically, the only place we had that sensation was in the city’s pintxos bars, which are frequented mostly by tourists. The delectable finger foods, called tapas in other parts of Spain, are displayed in buffet-like fashion, and generally consumed standing up. In the evenings, the Plaza Nueva in the old town, lined with these establishments, feels like a gigantic, noisy cocktail party.
The pintxos at La Olla (Plaza Nueva 2), in particular, looked like works of art, but it was so crowded in the evening that it was difficult to get close to them. And, relatively speaking, pintxos are expensive, costing about $5 for something that might be consumed in only one or two bites. In good weather locals are more likely to linger at a sidewalk café, nursing a beer, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee – especially if they have had a long, leisurely lunch. For those with a sweet tooth, this is the time of day to indulge in churros and hot chocolate that’s practically as thick as pudding.
Lunch starts – and ends – late in Spain, as we were reminded, when, at 1:30, we were the first patrons to arrive at Casa Rufo (Hurtado de Amezaga Kalea, 5) for the midday meal. From the outside it looks like an unassuming bodega. The restaurant occupies three small rooms in the back.
We were well on our way to polishing off a chuletón (a T-bone steak that is a regional specialty), served sliced and sizzling on a metal platter and sprinkled with salt flakes, when another table in our little alcove became occupied with three businessmen. While we had skipped the appetizers, they started by sharing a portion of smoked salmon, sliced about half an inch thick, that easily could have been a meal for me. Next, a large platter of anchovies got the same treatment. A chuletón for the table did ultimately arrive, along with a second bottle of wine. (Our lunch cost €60, or about $66 at the current conversion rate, including beverages and a shared dessert.)
The following day we lunched more like locals, this time at Restaurante Mandoya (Calle el Perro, 3-5), in the Casco Viejo. Their menu of the day, for €19.50 (about $21) apiece, included three courses, bread, a glass of house wine and a bottle of mineral water. It was not only a great deal but also unusual, because it offered six options for each course.
For the appetizer, we chose marmitako – the Basque stew traditionally made right on the fishing boats after a tuna catch. In past trips to this region, I had learned to prepare it by asking around the markets. Since it’s rarely found on restaurant menus, this was an opportunity to try another rendition. The broth was more flavorful than mine, but the marmitako was heavy on potatoes and contained very little fish.
Main course offerings included other fish that we had seen in the markets, including hake, cod and sepia (cuttlefish), which I ordered grilled with aioli. In a nod to the Basque province in which Bilbao is situated, a number of menu items were prepared Biscay-style – meaning in a red pepper sauce.
During the early evening, we took a 20-minute ride on the Metro (No. 2 line), which we caught just steps from our hotel, to the residential neighborhood of Portugalete. Our destination was the Puente Colgante de Bizkaia – Bilbao’s hanging bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Designed by the architect Alberto de Palacio y Elissague, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), the bridge connects the neighborhoods of Portugalete and Las Arenas Getxo, situated on opposite sides of the river. Built 125 years ago, it was intended to be high enough for large ships to pass under it, and out to the Bay of Biscay.
To see the bridge up close, we walked downhill to the foot of Calle Casilda Iturrizar, and around the corner to the promenade along the water. At this point one has a couple of options: take the elevator to the upper level and walk across the bridge, or pay €3 (about $3.25) to ride the gondola to the other side, which takes one minute and 30 seconds. Instead, we climbed one flight up above the gondola, where we had an excellent look at the construction of the bridge, and the gondola, which looks like a spaceship as it hangs from the bridge and crosses the river, carrying both people and cars.
We returned via the escalator that ascends from the harbor to the upper part of the neighborhood. The best photo opp of the full span of the bridge is from the top of the escalator.
Our last morning in Bilbao was a Friday – the official start of weekend food shopping. So we headed over to the historic indoor Ribera Market, in the old city. En route we stopped to admire the Art Nouveau façade of the Concordia train station, constructed of wrought iron and turquoise-and-yellow tiles.
Ribera is not a place to buy produce. As in other Spanish cities, that’s better done at one of the many frutas y verduras – fruit and vegetable stands. For those staying at vacation rentals and preparing their own meals, fixed stalls in this market are an excellent source of meat, poultry, fish and farm-fresh eggs (including goose and duck eggs).
At Charcutería Garbiñe Renedo (Booth 233), we provisioned ourselves with dried ham for a picnic. A slice of burnt Basque cheesecake (intentionally browned on the top) from Quesos y Lácteos Merche (Booth No. 133), on the other hand, had been consumed within an hour.
Salt flakes, purchased at Casa Rufo after our meal there (€4.30, or about $4.70, for a container of approximately six ounces), had a longer shelf life. They accompanied us to our next destination, where we planned to cook. As we liberally sprinkled the delicious seasoning on practically anything that didn’t move, we felt like we had brought the flavors of Bilbao with us.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, chronicling her experiences in Basque Country. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.