Tuesday, September 18, 2012


By Janet Steinberg, Travel Editor

Thanks to “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, the former industrial town of Bilbao, Spain, that was once dubbed the most ugly city in Europe, has had a vibrant rebirth that exceeded the townsfolk’s wildest imagination.  Little wonder that it was one of the highlights of Silver Whisper’s cruise itinerary from Lisbon, Portugal to Southampton, England.  
Our Silversea shore excursion departed the Getxo pier for a scenic 45-minute drive to Bilbao.  As we approached the city we passed through its industrial outskirts and took in the splendid panoramic view from Mount Artxanda. A lacy iron sculpture crowns the park from which you have a birdseye view of the Bilbao skyline and a distant glimpse of the iconic Guggenheim Museum.  Bilbao is linked to the recreational park atop Mount Artxanda by a funicular.


From, Mount Artxanda, our Silversea shore excursion continued down the city's main thoroughfare Gran Via which reflects Bilbao's 19th-century mining and industrial prosperity.  Upon arrival in the heart of the city, we proceeded toward the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art (Museo Guggenheim) that opened in 1997.
And there it was! Frank Gehry’s masterpiece in flowing titanium and limestone.
Built by renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, the Guggenheim reflects Bilbao's heritage with its suggestion of maritime shapes and sails. The building is covered with over 35,000 titanium tiles and pieces of glass strategically placed to catch the natural light.
Gehry, a Pritzker prize-winning architect, told the story of a German client who had seen a Gehry building in Switzerland.  The client said to him “That one was Wow!  Now give us Wow! Wow! Wow!  In Bilbao, Frank Gehry’s Museo Guggenheim has given the world Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!
From a distance, the splendid bizarrely shaped $100-million museum looks like a massive steel sculpture.  The museum’s architect described his building on the banks of the Nervion River as a ship that has run aground.  Others have likened the silhouette of Bilbao’s Guggenheim to a roller coaster, a mermaid, a waterfall, a hula girl, and a fish. 
Gehry’s fixation with fish, a form that often appears in his work, dates back to his childhood upbringing when his grandmother took him to market on Thursdays.  “We’d go to the Jewish market,” Gehry said, “we’d buy a live carp, we’d put it in the bathtub and I would play with this goddamn fish for a day until the next day, she’d kill it and make gefilte fish.”
Puppy, Jeff Koon’s 1992 floral sculpture standing guard opposite the museum, is the Guggenheim’s mascot.  Constructed of stainless steel, soil, flowering plants, and an internal irrigation system, this humongous West Highland White Terrier topiary is literally still growing.  Having your picture taken with Puppy is a must-do in Bilbao. 


Maman is Louise Bourgeois’ huge bronze spider standing in front of the Guggenheim.  Bourgeois said that The Spider was an ode to her mother who was her best friend.  “Like a spider”, she stated, “my mother was a weaver… spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

Also in front of the museum is Indian-born, British artist Anish Kapoor’s sculpture of 80 reflective stainless steel spheres. The Guggenheim acquired Kapoor’s dazzling work of art, named Tall Tree & The Eye, in 2010 for  $3.5 million.


In addition to Frank Gehry, several other renowned architects have left their mark on Bilbao.  In the midst of the city’s Cultural Revolution, even the subway entrances (“Fosteritos” designed by world-class architect Sir Norman Foster) are works of art. These dramatically curved glass structures mark street level entrances to Bilbao’s Metro system.


The Zubizuri Bridge is another architectural masterpiece designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, The Zubizuri (Basque for "white bridge") across Bilbao’s Nervion River, links the Campo Volantin right bank and Uribitarte left bank of the river.  It offers pedestrians a convenient way to get from the hotels on one side of the river to the Guggenheim on the other side.


After leaving the Guggenheim, our tour continued with a drive to the Old Quarter, or 'Casco Viejo', located on the right-bank of the Nervion River. During the walking tour, we saw the 14th-century Gothic Cathedral, Arriaga Theatre, Plaza Nueva, the City Hall and many fascinating shops like Vaiandas de Salamanca where hams hanging from the ceiling are being air-cured with fat-collecting cones for the drippings.


Before returning to the port, the tour culminated with pintxos and drinks at the CafĂ© Kiosko del Arenal.  Pintxos are small snacks usually eaten in bars, traditional in northern Spain and especially popular in the Basque country. Those items called "pintxos" in the Basque Country are called "tapas" elsewhere in Spain. The name pintxo, in the Basque language, means spike and these appetizers take their name from the toothpick that is usually spiked through them to hold them together.
Bilbao, the once-grimy, largest city in Basque country where unidentified objects used to float down a foul-smelling river, is now a spruced up tourist town rivaling the likes of Spain’s most popular destinations.

Spanish Steps…in the right direction.

JANET STEINBERG is the winner of 38 national Travel Writer Awards and an International Travel Consultant with The Travel Authority in Mariemont, Ohio.

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