See Travel 2017: Itinerary and Arrival for a rationale of this trip and an itinerary.
Tuesday, September 26/17. After a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast at our hotel (Artetxe), Margaret and I were ready to visit the building that put Bilbao (Bilbo in Euskera, the Basque language) on the culture map: The spectacular Guggenheim Museum by Toronto-born, Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry.
Rather than take a taxi (cost 9 euros), we caught a bus (1.50 euros) which stops close to the hotel and takes about 20 minutes to get downtown. The leisurely drive gave us a good opportunity to savour the city, which was quite different from what we had anticipated. Given Bilbao’s history as port (fishing), and its commercial pursuits (banking, Stock Exchange and trading) and heavy industrial activities (iron, steel, chemicals and shipbuilding), we expected a gritty, dour, colourless city. On the contrary, the impression we got was of a modern, lively, colourful and supremely optimistic municipality despite undergoing a severe economic decline at the end of the 20th century. However, the decline had given the town authorities, with the support of the Basque government, the opportunity to clean and modernise the city, and it remains the major economic hub of Euskadi, i. e. the Basque Country.
The Guggenheim Museum (opened in October 1997) rightly takes pride of place, but there is also a state-of-the-art rapid transit system (highlighted by the stylish subway/metro entrances designed by the British architect, Norman Forster), and an ultra-modern airport terminal, the work of Spain’s Santiago Calatrava. In the centre of the city, the sleek 165 metre (541 feet) Iberdrola tower, headquarters of a multinational utilities company, dominates the skyline, while a massive new super port is now Bilbao’s impressive maritime gateway to the world. Green spaces have sprouted where grimy factories once spewed pollution, and the River Nervión has been cleaned and its banks become prime development land/locations.
But, interesting as these innovative additions were, we had come to see the Guggenheim, a stunning art complex administered by the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation. Opinions about this museum are overwhelmingly positive, and it has been acclaimed as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.
Our expectations, then, were high and we were not disappointed. Edged by a park and canal on one side and by the river Nervión of the other, its dynamic impact changes according to where you view it from. From the park side, where the entrance is located, the museum rises above the trees in an imaginative combination of different shapes at odd angles.
The dynamism of the odd angles and shapes is complemented, too, by the different construction materials visible: glass, cream-coloured limestone, and titanium cladding. However, from the Puente de la Salve bridge over the Nervión or from across the river, it is transformed into a ship with its sleek, shimmering titanium siding conjuring images of sails riding the river. What could be more apt to capture Bilbao’s historical shipping tradition?
A walk around the Guggenheim is an inspiring experience. Preconceived ideas of what an art museum should look like are challenged by the irregular changing perspectives, so that the building seems to defy structural logic. The Guggenheim is not simply a museum, it is itself an avant-garde work of art.
After a leisurely look at the stunning exterior, we made our way to the entrance. But in our way was literally a big surprise, impossible to miss. Towering ahead of us was an enormous, floral sculpture of a seated dog, fondly known as Puppy.
The work of controversial American artist, Jeff Koons, it’s a lovable West Highland terrier just over 12 metres (40 feet) tall. The fur was made up of multi-coloured pansies and other vivid flowers, embedded in soil and supported on a steel frame, and fed by an internal irrigation system. (The flowers change with the season.) It was for us a joyful if quirky entry to the muted-coloured museum, and its unconventional form and location a playful reminder that art has many faces.
We discovered another surprising creature on the river side of the museum: an enormous, 9 metre (30 feet) metal spider, the work of the French-American sculptress Louise Bourgeois. One of a series of spider sculptures, “Maman”/ “Mother” –as Bourgeois called it—is a warm tribute to her mother who died when Bourgeois was 21 and whom she recalled fondly as protective and caring. But why a spider? For many people the spider evokes fear (arachnophobia), but in Bourgeois’s case it turns out that her mother was a weaver and the spider has long been the archetypal image of the weaver. This is how Bourgeois explains her choice: ‘The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver…. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitos. We know that mosquitos spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So spiders are helpful, protective, just like my mother” https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/guia-educadores/maman/
The inside of the Guggenheim is as unconventional as the outside. From the moment you descend the entrance steps, pass through the lobby and enter the atrium, there is the same deconstruction of accepted structural designs. Soaring upwards, there are large, leaning windows, steel girders, cream-coloured stone pillars, white walls, suspended walkways, and paths that lead off in many directions.
It’s not a labyrinth, but we found it an adventure, to find the individual galleries, even with a brochure. There are three levels reached by glass-enclosed elevators (lifts); the suspended walkways that link the galleries were a challenge for me since I do not have a head for height! Of the 19 galleries, we saw only a few, all large and none of them conventionally shaped (there are others apparently classically rectangular in shape).
The Guggenheim specialises in modern and contemporary art, and its holdings are complemented by exhibitions including works drawn from other Guggenheim collections. Margaret and I chose to limit our viewing, since the galleries themselves were unusually designed and the avant-garde works they contained required us to go back and reconsider what we were seeing against our more traditional views on art. We were moved by e. g. Anselm Kiefer’s war imagery and blackened sunflowers and impressed by Andy Warhol’s famous One Hundred and Fifty Multicoloured Marilyns (silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe).
The former was a moving evocation of the senseless destruction and desolation caused by war; the latter demonstrated the endless permutations potentially contained in one image.
There was a lot more to see, but it seemed to us that everything about the Guggenheim –the building itself and its contents— was a constant challenge about the nature and potential of Art. Gehry has overthrown accepted norms in architecture, and engages us in a dialogue not only on what an art museum should be but on what the role of buildings is in our lives. The works inside the Guggenheim issue a similar challenge. What, if any, are the limits of art?
From the aesthetic and intellectual stimulation of several hours at the Guggenheim, we turned to more practical matters in the late afternoon. After picking up our luggage from our hotel, we called a taxi and set out for the airport — about 20 minutes away– to pick up our rental car, an Audi A4. After having the car’s GPS (Satnav) converted to instructions in English, we were on our way, heading west along the coast. Getting out of Bilbao was quite straightforward, although we noticed that the GPS voice function was not working, something we attributed at first to our lack of familiarity with the system.
We had booked a room for two nights at the Posada El Trasmerano, just outside the small town of Argoños, about 80 kilometres/50 miles west of Bilbao. Soon after leaving Bilbao, we left Euskadi and entered the autonomous region of Cantabria. The road (A8) follows the coast for much of the way, and is a very pleasant drive. To our left, there were green wooded hills broken by fields with grazing cattle and sheep. To our right, there were teasing glimpses of the sea and sandy coves and fishing villages.
Historically Cantabria did not exist as a political entity until 1981 when the Province of Santander –until then part of Castile– acquired limited autonomy following the terms set out in Spain’s latest constitution in 1978. It was an important step towards recognizing the area’s cultural and historic identity, which had more in common with its neighbour to the west, Asturias, than with Castile. Indeed many travel books lump Cantabria and Asturias together, noting geographical, economic and even social similarities. Both Communities are mountainous with deeply embedded valleys and numerous rivers running north to the Sea of Biscay. Fishing and animal farming are basic to their economies (with tourism now having a major impact as well), and social norms tend to be still conservative.
By the time we arrived at El Trasmerano it was early evening. There was ample parking (free). Although the Posada is located just off a fairly busy road, our room (203) was on the ground floor in the back and looked out onto fields and wooded hillsides. A few cows added a bucolic touch.
Our room was very clean, cheerful, and airy with plenty of light; the bathroom a little small but spotless, the bed very comfortable. In sum, a lovely place to relax. But before retiring, we grabbed a light meal –a potato omelette sandwich (bocadillo de tortilla de patatas)– in the town. Across the road there was a supermarket where we bought fruit for dessert. By now we were ready for bed.
Image of Anselm Kiefer’s Sunflowers: https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/works/sunflowers/
For an excellent introduction to Bilbao, see Shankar Chaudhuri’s perceptive article: https://www.athomewiththeworld.com/travel/2018/9/14/bilbao-where-tradition-and-innovation-rule