Friday, May 23, 2014

Bilbao -- Wow!

I don't think I've ever been in a city where one building completely transformed both the city and its immediate surroundings, but this is what happened in the Basque city of Bilbao in the late 1990s.
Before Frank Gehry's incredible Guggenheim Museum building opened in October, 1997, the neighborhood where it stands was a decrepit port area on the banks of the Nervion River. The river itself was polluted, the city tired and run down. Certainly, on nobody's list as a "must visit" destination!

As the museum was going up, however, a revitalization program kicked in for the whole city of Bilbao. The river was cleaned up, buildings were cleaned, painted, wide elegant walkways were installed, a tramway and rapid transit system were added to the already extensive bus services.

At the same time as the Guggenheim was getting ready to be inaugurated, Santiago Calatrava's Zubizuri (Basque for "White Bridge") opened, linking the right and left banks of the Nervion River.

Painted white, and with its curved walkway made of translucent glass bricks, and the suspension cables angling down and across, it gives you a feeling of walking through an elegant spider web, just beautiful!

All of this, and much more, meant that when Matthew was invited to be a juror at this year's Festival de Cine Fantàstico de Bilbao -- and I was invited to join him -- we did not hesitate to accept!

We arrived in good time for the opening ceremonies with, on my left, another jury member, Andrea Gutiérrez Bermejo (a Madrid journalist with the magazine "Cinemania"), and the Mayor of Bilbao in attendance. The warm, welcoming, generous organisers of the festival had very conveniently sent Matthew all but one of the films in competition ahead of time, which Matthew dutifully watched here in Paris. As a result, we had all kinds of free time in which to explore and fall in love with this part of Northern Spain!

Founded in medieval times, Bilbao was a bustling commercial hub, ships travelling up and down the river from the Bay of Biscay, exporting iron from local quarries and, in the 19th century becoming the most industrialized city in Northern Spain.  The narrow streets of the Old Town really give you a feel for those earlier years.

I especially liked the way the apartment buildings had both open balconies and glassed-in "sun porches" so you could enjoy the sun through the glass during cold weather.

The beautiful church of St. Nicolás, set adjacent to the city's old and much used "public parade", on the edge of the Old Town, was built in the mid 1700s.  Its fairly austere exterior belies its amazing rococo interior!

Its unusual design is a Greek cross set in a square, crowned with a dome and with several angles for small chapels.

The elaborate carving of the unpolychromed reredoses took your breath away. In fact, the whole interior, sculpted by Juan Pascual de Mena, was quite overwhelming. You almost didn't know where to look!

Moving forward a few centuries, and just across from the church, this Art Deco bandstand offers musical delights during the summer months. Alas, there were none when we were there.

I would imagine, though, that these gentlemen with their distinctive Basque berets would be there, front and centre, when the music began!
In the centre of the Old Town is La Plaza Nueva -- "new" because it only dates to the 19th century. Here you'll find cafés, restaurants and bars.

And here's where we found Victor Montés,  where you can sit at a table or at the bar and enjoy the signature food of the Basque region: "pinxtos".

Pronounced "pinchos", these are bite size snacks on bread or toast: ham, cheese, peppers, tuna, anchovies, eggs, olives, etc.  You go up to the bar and pick out what you want and then it's brought to your table.

It's a perfect lunchtime or supper snack, not too heavy, always very fresh -- and yummy!

...especially when accompanied by the current Bilbao drink craze: gin and tonic! At Victor Montés, they add lemon slices, rind of lime, and several juniper berries, which gave it a wonderful flavor -- I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!

As you wander around Bilbao, food is never far from the mind, or the eye. There must be close to 50 hams hanging in this shop, and no shortage of customers.

Other shops were a little more unusual, however. This "Spy Shop" was across from our hotel and, yes, the mannequin in the raincoat and "Bogart" hat, is holding a gun! The windows displayed all the latest in eavesdropping technology and hidden cameras. (Wonder if the NSA knows about this...)

Then there was this doll shop. In the back row are the usual frilly dolly dolls, but look carefully at the three baby dolls in front. Click on the photo to enlarge it. The face of the one on the left is all red with crying, and there's a string on top of the head that you pull to get the full effects of baby crying. The one in the middle is just plain grumpy, and the one on the right actually has drool leaking out of its mouth!

In the big department store, El Cortes Inglès, you felt you could be in any branch of Macy's because most of the same brand names were in evidence. Even the floor layout was the same. Except that you would not find a Tobacco Counter (doing good business) in Macy's!

Nor would you come across a beautiful display of fans in all sizes, materials and colors. I bought one to use in the crowded Paris metro during the hot months.

Elsewhere in the city, beautiful, late 19th century buildings speak of the previous prosperous era of Bilbao. The Teatro Arriaga stands, regally, in its own square, a little sister perhaps of the Opera Garnier here in Paris.

And everywhere, signage is in Basque ("Euskara") and Spanish. Basque Country is autonomous, with its own seat of power and its own, very particular language.  Having no known roots in other languages, it is almost impenetrable.  Children are taught Basque in school, but tend to speak Spanish once they leave the classroom. There are Basque universities and institutes set up to study and preserve this language, which has been in existence in one form or another for 6000 years. But it's a struggle, as we learned when we visited a Basque language centre. Among other hurdles are the dialects -- when you hear the word "Friday" spoken in the six different Basque dialects, it sounds like each one is a separate language!

With the arrival of the Guggenheim Museum, the Bilbao skyline has changed dramatically, with plenty of new skyscapers...

...some of which cleverly incorporate elements of the earlier building that once stood in its place.

Finally, after exploring many parts of the city, we took one whole day and spent it in and around Frank Gehry's building. The scope, scale, materials and soul of the place exceeded everything we had imagined.

From the glittering Anish Kapoor sculpture on an outside terrace... the soaring atrium with its curved sandstone walls...

...the view onto itself, through the carefully calibrated windows... the various outside aspects, this one including the top arch of an already existing bridge over the Nervion River...somehow, every time you turned around, you saw Gehry's vision with a different set of lenses. Magical.

Inside the museum, the Richard Serra room with its Matter of Time took us a good hour or more to wander in, through and around. A monumental work!

And then, there was Christian Marclay (born in San Rafael, California!) and his visual wonder The Clock, 24 hours of movie clips that, no matter what time you are watching, will be showing excerpts from films that include shots of a watch, or a clock, or a line of dialogue that gives the exact time that it is, as you are sitting there! This is how we ended up spending 7 hours at the Guggenheim Museum -- we just could not tear ourselves away!

Meanwhile, back at the Film Festival, the rest of Bilbao had been lining up all week to watch the roster of scary, bloody, horrific fantasy movies. At the end of the week, the jury convened to make their picks. Matthew is here with, to his left, Andrea Gutiérrez Bermejo, and the third juror, with his arm around Andrea, Carlos Areces, a well known and much beloved Spanish actor.

We gathered at City Hall at 12 noon...

...and in the Press Room, Matthew announced the winners, in his best Spanish. And the grand prize went to: Coherence, an American movie, directed by James Ward Byrkit, a suspenseful (but not bloody!) movie that bends the mind into paranormal directions when a comet passes over Planet Earth...

And with this new (to me) take on a familiar message, let's hope there'll be many more movies as good as Coherence. We both highly recommend it. And we also highly recommend a visit to Bilbao, where we certainly hope to return!

À bientôt!

(Muchas gracias to Matthew for many of these photos, and for the title of this post!)


  1. I was in Spain once a long time ago. It's time to make another visit! Thanks for the tour of Bilbao it looks beautiful.

  2. Thanks Janet - it's great to see you and Matthew sharing your love of art and film and food together. And Bilbao - Wow!

  3. Wow is right! Thanks so much for photos and commentary