After writing a paper on the Bilbao Guggenheim for a contemporary art history course in graduate school, I knew I had to get there one day. I was captivated by Frank Gehry’s innovative architectural design and curious to see the museum’s diverse collection. So, the day after I finished a rather intense teaching gig in France, I convinced my husband to hop a train with me, bound for the Basque region.
Bilbao is the largest city in Spain’s Basque region (northern Spain) and the capital of the province of Biscay. I will not sugar coat the fact that getting from Paris to Bilbao by train took quite a bit of schedule coordination. Thanks to my fluency in French and my husband’s competency in Spanish (and quite a bit of luck!), we arrived in Bilbao in the late afternoon, four train rides and eight hours after departing Paris that morning. (Lesson learned: coordinate train schedules ahead of time and pack snacks). Tired and hungry, we checked into our hotel on the Nervion River and set about trying to find something to eat- a nearly impossible feat during the city’s two hour daily siesta.
We wandered into the Casco Viejo (older part of the city) and, when the restaurants re-opened, were delighted by copious regional treats. Famished at this point, we dove into the pintxos right away. Pintxos are light appetizers, typically served on small wedges of fresh bread. Another favorite was the traditional tortillas, made with eggs, potatoes, and plenty of oil. Many of the smaller bars we visited offered pintxos on the honor system. You help yourself to the various selections set out on the bar; then, as you are paying your tab, they ask that you estimate 1 euro per pintxo consumed. We happily washed down these tasty appetizers with calimotxos (cola mixed with red wine) and picas (light beer mixed with lemonade).
The next day, it was time to hit the main attraction (for art lovers like us), the Bilbao Guggenheim. The museum opened in 1997 and since this time tourism to Bilbao has increased greatly. To date, the museum has welcomed over 11 million visitors. The architecture invokes the maritime culture of Bilbao, with undulating metal “waves” that reflect the light and invite visitors toward the main entrance. We were pleased to find so much work by some of our favorite 20th/21st century artists (Yves Klein, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Eduardo Chillida, James Rosenquist, Clyfford Still, Antoni Tàpies, and Jenny Holzer) spread throughout the museum’s large interior. One of our favorite pieces was Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time” (La materia del tiempo), which spans the length of an entire exhibition hall and consists of various large metal sculptures that visitors can walk in and around.
We ended our day with a stop at the beautiful Chocolates de Mendaro for some rich chocolates, sweets and coffee. This local company, which has been in business since 1850, features both traditional and more contemporary cocoa recipes. They also have a shop in the nearby Saint Sébastien. Well worth the stop!
Throughout our stay, we found ourselves falling in love with the earthy qualities of Bilbao, its inhabitants and its cuisine. Everything was relaxed and easy…stir in a bit of high culture like the Guggenheim and the nearby Museo Bella Artes, and you’ve got yourself a great destination for art lovers and foodies like us.
Written by Jen Westmoreland Bouchard for EuropeUpClose.com