Spain has never really been on my radar as a holiday destination. Sure I’ve been to Barcelona (who hasn’t?) and Madrid too, plus (ahem) a few trips to Marbella in my youth. But Northern Spain, the Basque Country had never really entered my head until I read that Louise Bourgeois was exhibiting at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
On further investigation I found that there was also a relatively new museum dedicated to Balenciaga, just down the coast in Getaria, only a short taxi ride away.
So, with my two great loves combined – contemporary art and fashion, I was booking my easyjet flights as quick as you could say ‘Hola!’
Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao is twenty this year and it’s generally why most people visit Bilbao – which is a flawed view because there are plenty of other reasons to visit – not least the food, the coastline, and the history. Despite the unpredictable weather (not unlike Northern England), it’s a spectacular place to visit for a few days and inexpensive too.
But first the Guggenheim, which is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular modern buildings on the planet. The distinctive feat of architecture marrying titanium, glass and limestone into a fusion of swirling edges and surfaces that look like they defy gravity is incredible to look at, never mind the art that is housed inside. From one angle the building looks like a boat but it’s not clear whether that was Gehry’s intention.
The art on display stands in comparison with many top class international galleries, in fact, in my opinion, it’s better. The art that surrounds the building (and requires no entry fee to look at) is in itself stunning and includes Jeff Koons, Puppy – a 13 meter tall living plant sculpture of a West Highland terrier, Anish Kapoor’s imposing Tall Tree and The Eye stainless steel and carbon monolith and the most eye catching of all, the 9 meter tall Maman by Louise Bourgeois – although if you’re scared of spiders you might want to give this a miss.
Bilbao’s compactness makes it a perfect city for walking and there’s plenty to see and do. The historic old town is atmospheric and its original seven streets – Las Siete Calles is dominated by the 14th century Gothic Catedral de Santiago – here you can while away the hours shopping, drinking and checking out the various markets. At the heart of the historic center is a large square, Casco Viejo, which has a large array of bars, music and entertainment to keep you occupied.
If you want a good view of Bilbao and get an aerial shot of the Guggenheim you can take the funicular railway up to the top of the Artxandako Mountain. It takes 3 minutes to ascend but the panoramic views are just perfect.
Whilst most people visiting Spain are aware of tapas, in Bilbao you eat pinxtos – which are bigger than tapas and more elaborate too. The idea is to go from bar to bar sampling one or two in each place – no need for dinner!
If you are planning to go to Bilbao, go for an extra day and take the time to travel up the coastline to San Sebastian. The coastal road itself has some awesome vistas. Make sure you stop off in Getaria for the best views out to the sea and take the time to pay a visit to the black-glass clad museum dedicated to Cristobel Balenciaga, the couturier and fashion designer regarded as one of the most influential of the 20th century. There are over 1200 pieces from his archive on display in the impressive museum, including many owned by the late Princess Grace of Monaco.
Having blown off the cobwebs with all that sea air you can discover what else Bilbao has to offer.
The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum has nearly 10,000 works, including paintings, sculptures and applied arts ranging in time from the 13th century to the present day. There’s also a decent maritime museum which has interactive fun for all the family, or you can take a crash course in Basque history at Museo Vasco.
Bilbao deserves to be gaining in popularity as a tourist destination. Yes, the Guggenheim dominates, but it’s undoubtedly got more to offer than just art.