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When Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, something changed forever. Today, Bilbao has gone from industrial city to artistic point of reference for visitors from all over the world. And it has achieved this without losing the slightest bit of its personality of iron and water.
Bilbao was the first capital city that I discovered in Euskadi, and it is also the one to which I dream about returning. I have a fondness for industrial cities, but this one surprised me and the world with a radical transformation that, without losing an iota of its identity, converted it into pure art on show where before there had been iron and coal. With an impressive urban and environmental regeneration plan, the New Bilbao gives off an air of beauty. It gleams, as much as the titanium walls of its flagship, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, which was the start of the “artmorphosis” experienced by the capital of Bizkaia.
The former industrial land has been converted into a spatial transformation of Abandoibarra, the large area in which the shipyards and various industrial companies were located, winning international awards and making Bilbao a powerful tourist destination. Now, Abandoibarra is one of the most visited parts of the city. It contains a number of buildings created in a bid to modernise the city and give it an artistic beauty that is, at the same time, functional. All of the buildings have been designed by recognised professionals who have left their mark in order to convert Bilbao into an architectural gem, a city where the future has become present.
We have the Euskalduna Palace, designed by Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacio, the New Library at Deusto University, by Rafael Moneo, and the Iberdrola Tower, a project by the architect César Pelli which, at 165 metres, is the tallest building in Euskadi and the largest high-rise office block in the country, with an area of more than 50,000 square metres. The façade is similar to a translucent shiny skin thanks to the glass panels designed exclusively for this building. Without a doubt, the Bilbao Metro, designed by Sir Norman Foster, was another revolution in the city. Like an artery formed from the beautiful lines characterising Foster's architecture, it connects every corner of the city, and travelling around Bilbao becomes a fast game. The metro has brought huge savings in time not only for the inhabitants of the city, but also for visitors. What's more, it is now possible to reach some of the most beautiful beaches in Bizkaia by metro. Although not a new building, the Alhóndiga is also listed among the places not to be missed. A former Modernist wine warehouse, the work of architect Ricardo Bastida, it was renovated in a project by Philippe Starck, who has converted it into a spectacular cultural centre with a surface area of 15,000 square metres intended for leisure uses, featuring cinemas, a gym, an auditorium and an exhibition room. There is also an impressive square to welcome visitors to the city called Atrio de las Culturas, in which 43 columns of different architectural styles stand erect. From this square, it is possible to see the Terraza del Sol (Sun Terrace), a spectacular transparent pool on the rooftop. The list of buildings is long but the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum stands out above them all, as the building responsible for the transformation in which art has taken to the streets in perfect symbiosis with the city.
It is said that the architect, Frank Gehry, whose name will be linked to that of Bilbao forever, climbed Mount Artxanda and, on seeing Bilbao from above, exclaimed: ‘That is the place’. Nothing was ever the same again. Gazing over the same aerial view that so impressed Gehry is within anyone's reach thanks to the Artxanda Cable Car which has been climbing the mountain since 1915.
With an audacious design, the Guggenheim looks like a boat, a fish or a flower depending on the angle. Opposite is the impressive Araña (Spider) by Louise Bourgeois, a sculpture symbolising motherhood and which, if you stand beneath its stomach, can provoke many contradictory feelings and questions.
In any case, it is one of the most spectacular works and has become an emblem of the museum, as has Jeff Koons’ flower-covered Puppy sculpture that guards the entrance to the museum.
Inside, an exquisite permanent collection and a thousand and one surprises in the form of temporary exhibitions provide an attractive offer for visitors. But what's more, the building and its organic shapes continue to be the stars even on the inside. Once you are walk along the upstairs corridors and look at the building in its entirety, you will understand.
After visiting the museum yet again, and I never tire of it, I decided to do something different: see the city from the water, paddling along the Nervión Estuary in a canoe. In addition to the Guggenheim’s shiny titanium the city’s urban transformation, Bilbao has also carried out a comprehensive environmental recovery programme. The whole city and its inhabitants looked back toward their estuary which today welcomes them to long strolls along the river banks. It is not possible to completely understand this city without a thorough knowledge of the history of these waters, ever changing, ever perpetual.
I rented a canoe for 10 Euros and here I met Txomin, who briefly explained the choices. I could go alone, with a companion, with friends or join a guided trip. I decide on the last option in order to discover more. The trip starts next to the Maritime Museum, where we learned about the safety regulations and how to paddle the canoe. Sensitive to the cold water, I squeezed into a wetsuit provided by the company, and we took to the water with the qualified guides. We stopped at each bridge and listened to interesting stories. The reflections of the sun on the estuary water shone onto the surrounding buildings with a special light. With just one sunbeam everything lights up and the colours shine, this is the moment when Bilbao is at its prettiest, as if to show off its charms.
From my canoe I looked on in delight. We went below Deusto Bridge where we got a close-up view of the two tunnels full of pulleys that were used to open the bridge for the large cargo ships. The group oohed and aahed. It is impressive, as is the Iberdrola Tower viewed from the water, or the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, the seven buildings that form the Isozaki Atea with the two main ones marking the horizon, Calatrava bridge, beautiful from below, the City Hall...
Many of the most characteristic buildings in the city can be seen during this trip, but it was San Mamés, the stadium of Athletic Club, Bilbao's football team, that prompted the most questions – and photos. With an impressive career and the honour of being a club that belongs only to its members, and in which, moreover, only local players can play, rather than a club, it is an example of how to do things well.
Txomin told us how, at the end of the 19th century, the English who were working at the ports of Bizkaia would get together to play football, a virtually unknown sport in the Peninsula at that time. The interest of the young men from Bilbao was aroused together with a desire to play, and that's how the Athletic Club was started in 1898, although it was not formally founded until 1901. Since then, it has made history for many reasons, including eight League titles. Go for it, Athletic!
At the end of the trip, we played in the clean waters of the estuary. We said our goodbyes and I promised myself that I would return to repeat the outing by night, with trips running every Friday.
Exercise makes you hungry and I was dying to try the pintxos in the Old Town, also known as the place where it all began: the Seven Streets, a tourist area worth a visit as it still maintains all the traditions and hallmarks of the city. After leaving the canoe and saying goodbye, I headed off to the lanes that have witnessed the growth of this city. This is the perfect place to lose yourself, wandering around and enjoying some of the classic pintxos washed down with a zurito (a small beer), a kalimotxo (wine with coke, the favourite of many young people), a cider, a txakoli or a good Rioja Alavesa wine. Or order 'agua de Bilbao' (Bilbao water), in other words, a glass of cava as it is known by the locals because, according to the saying 'here champagne is drunk like water'.
After several pintxos with their corresponding brews, I fancied something sweet and there is much to choose from. For example, a carolina, the creation of a confectioner whose daughter loved meringue and who made her a basketful of meringue. The little girl was called Carolina, of course, and that's how the confectioner named his creation, which is now popular in coffee-shops all over the city. But my favourite is the butter ball, a brioche filled with cream, fattening but delicious.
I think that in just 25 years, with the industrial reconversion, Bilbao has become a magnificent city of services, turning its economy right around. It has done it well, with intelligence and effort. Thousands of tourists descend on Bilbao to sample its delights. The city is welcoming and this is visible in the multicultural nature of the old quarter, without losing the slightest bit of its Basque soul.
Although Bilbao has sloughed off its old skin, its spirit continues to thrive, drawing people in like a magnet. The people themselves make sure it is kept alive. The best-known trait of the Bilbao people is that they consider their city, affectionately known as the Botxo (meaning hole or cavity in Basque, referring to the narrow valley surrounded by mountains), the best in the world. This heartfelt pride has given rise to a multitude of jokes that they themselves smugly recount. The Bilbao dictionary itself says: 'the native of Bilbao is known for their elegant dress, and on the slightest occasion, for wearing the Athletic t-shirt, for being a show-off and for the vocabulary they use'. Personally, after my visits to the city, I believe that what they have is a deep love for their city and, what's more, a sarcastic sense of humour and refined sense of irony. The inhabitants describe it as a txirene personality, meaning fond of a laugh and eccentric. A txirenada, for example, would be to say something that everyone knows:
God was not only Basque, but was born in Bilbao.