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Travel Undiscovered Bilbao

Beyond the Guggenheim Museum lies a many-faceted city worth getting to know

by Marisa Bartolucci

THESE days Bilbao has become a destination for travel sophisticates eager to see Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum and, now, Santiago Calatrava's just-opened additions to the international airport. But it seems their curiosity about the city ends there. To me, a New Yorker at work on a book here in northern Spain, this represents a missed opportunity. Bilbao is the kind of city that many


pictureA Snoop at Bilbao
"What you may not have heard about the Guggenheim Museum," writes Peter Davison, "is that, unlike many of the great urban monuments, it does not dominate or upstage its city -- it embraces it."

travelers long for -- a city where the streets aren't jammed with tourists, where "authentic culture" hasn't been consigned to souvenir shops, where the pleasures of place can still be discovered firsthand. Not that the Guggenheim isn't the city's most spectacular attraction: an architectural rhapsody in titanium and limestone, it glistens and beguiles from every angle, joyously inviting this sober city to join in its cavorting. I can't think of another architectural masterpiece that is so convivial. (Indeed, so diverting is the building, even inside, that it is often difficult to concentrate on its exhibitions, which span the realms of modern and contemporary art.) But Bilbao also has a couple of other splendid, if architecturally modest, museums, a surprisingly enticing array of boutiques, an enchanting old quarter, and a vibrant street culture, in addition to a sublime cuisine. It's certainly intriguing enough to keep travelers entertained for a week or so, especially if they venture out for day trips or full-fledged excursions to the region's alluring coast and countryside.
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From the archives:

"A Train in Spain," by Lucy McCauley (July 1997)
Across northern Spain by rail, from Galicia to the Basque Country.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

The Basque Country
The Web site of the Basque Government, with information about arts, culture, tourism, the economy, government, and science and industry.

Virtourist: Bilbao
A series of photographs of tourist attractions in Bilbao.

It's hard here to resist the lure of the landscape. Bilbao is that rare old-fashioned sort of city where the urban and the rustic continue to meld. Turn down almost any avenue in the Ensanche, Bilbao's buttoned-up downtown, and you'll be greeted with views of emerald-velvet hills, across which you might glimpse a shepherd guiding his flock. Visit the Mercado de la Ribera, in the Casco Viejo, or "Old Town," and you'll find yourself amid piles of green-red tomatoes (the best I've ever tasted), purply-red peppers, delicate cogollos (a Spanish version of Bibb lettuce), and other tantalizingly fresh produce that comes from the surrounding farms. Take a short drive beyond the metropolis proper and you'll be in an alpine arcadia of steeply pitched fields and chalet-roofed stone farmhouses and dense pine forests, wild with boar and roe deer. Travel the brief distance to the coast and you'll discover idyllic fishing villages, some nestled into rocky cliffs. Mundaka and Elantxobe are two of my favorites, and happily for such enchanting spots, they seldom get much play in the guidebooks.

If the Basque country's delights have largely gone unsung, it is because the Basques are too modest to crow about them. Moreover, they have been obscured by gruesome news items about Basque terrorism. Until the Guggenheim opened, terrorism was about the only thing American reporters ever wrote about here. ETA (Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, or "Basque Homeland and Liberty"), the Basque separatist group, has intermittently rocked the country with its bombings and political assassinations. The group began as resistance fighters against Franco's regime, and as heroes to the Basques. Once democracy was firmly established in Spain, however, attitudes changed. Most Basques still chafe under Madrid's rule, and long to regain the prized political and fiscal independence that was theirs before the nineteenth-century Carlist wars, when their ill-fated support for the reactionary Don Carlos, the brother of Ferdinand VII, lost them their unique privileges. The majority no longer support ETA's violent ways, and few are even sure of the goal of its terrorism, which, though abhorrent in itself, is rarely directed at tourists.

That political unrest continues at all enormously frustrates most Basques, especially now that the region's future seems so bright. For centuries Bilbao was an industrial dynamo, an international center for shipbuilding, shipping, mining, and metallurgy, and also banking, and it produced many noble stone buildings and many wealthy Bilbaínos. But all that industry turned the air a sooty yellow and the River Nervión, which runs through Bilbao, a mephitic white. In the late 1980s the region's political leaders decided to move industry out of the city, in order to attract more service and high-tech companies. Today the air is clean, and the water is verging on it. Where not more than a decade ago sulfurous blast furnaces lined the riverbanks, now there are the Guggenheim and a sparkling white, sleekly arcing footbridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava, called the Zubi-Zuri (the name just means "White Bridge" in Euskara, the Basque language). Farther west along the river a striking new concert and convention hall, Euskalduna Palace, clad in dark-brown steel, stands on the site of what was not long ago one of the largest shipyards in Europe. Along with the futuristic "fosteritos" -- Slinky-shaped glass-and-steel metro stations designed by Sir Norman Foster -- these new landmarks have become the icons of Bilbao's millennial metamorphosis. This urban transformation has been so dramatic, so lightning quick, that most Bilbaínos are still a bit dazzled. Not since Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's Centre Pompidou regenerated the Marais district of Paris, a quarter of a century ago, has a museum been such an engine for urban renewal as the Guggenheim.

The Bilbaínos don't have many museums, but they've always been shrewd in the use of the ones they have. In the early 1900s, when the city was at its industrial zenith, a group of prominent business leaders endowed Bilbao with two museums, one for traditional and one for modern art, to burnish its cultural image. These later merged into the Museo de Bellas Artes. Just a few blocks from the Guggenheim, the discreet-looking Bellas Artes surprises visitors with an exceptional cache of European art, especially works by Spanish and Basque masters, ranging from Zurbarán, Goya, and Velázquez to Tàpies and Chillida. Despite its riches, for much of its existence the museum has been a dusty, lonely place. Recently, though, the Guggenheim has stirred the Basques' curiosity about their artistic heritage, and the Bellas Artes has unexpectedly become a favored haunt of locals.

For the traveler, a visit to the Bellas Artes provides a further reward in the chance to discover the works of Jorge Oteiza. In the 1950s and 1960s Oteiza's imposingly minimalist, powerfully architectural sculptures won him international acclaim. But, ornery and, some say, half mad, he refused to sell his work and soon stopped making sculptures at all. In the decades that followed, his reputation faded outside the Basque country. But he has at least two ardent fans in America who are anything but obscure: the minimalist sculptor Richard Serra and Frank Gehry, both of whom are said to consider him the greatest abstract sculptor of the twentieth century.

IF the Basques themselves have a passion for art, it is for the art of cooking. Theirs is a cuisine of the freshest ingredients and the most savory sauces. I am convinced that alchemy plays a role in the making of these sauces, concocted as they are out of only a few elemental ingredients. Take the legendary pil pil sauce: olive oil, garlic, chilies, and the juices of the cooking bacalao, or salt cod, result in an ambrosial emulsion.

In the Ensanche you can sample bacalao al pil pil made by one of its masters, Jenaro Pildain, the chef at Guria, a gastronomic mecca and the staid temple of classic Basque cuisine. If you choose to go, book way ahead -- the restaurant has only twelve tables (telephone 011-34-94-441-5780). And if you don't speak Spanish, bring along a phrasebook that lists culinary terms, because the waiters will never pass for polyglots. (Few Bilbaínos have yet adapted to the city's new tourist trade and learned English.) I suggest that you fast the day before, and then order the fabulous tasting menu: for about $50 per person you'll get quite a feast. Among the delicacies brought to me on my most recent visit were kokotxas a la Donostiarra, hake cheeks in a green sauce; angulas a la Bilbaína, baby eels in garlic sauce; and txangurro, flaked seasoned spider crab, stuffed and served in its shell. You might also want to try the flavorful T-bone steak, which comes from the tawny cattle raised in the surrounding hills.

For a Basque dining experience less religious and more gregarious, also in the Ensanche, there is Café Iruña, which whether I visit in the morning or at night is always abuzz with diners and drinkers. Established in 1903, it has one of Bilbao's most sumptuous interiors, its walls and floors adorned with richly colored Moorish-style tiles -- like a miniature Alhambra. Close by the restaurant is another culinary landmark, the Pescaderías Vascas. You must see this place to understand how the Basques revere their food. The toniest of the city's many tony fish stores, it is known as "The Jeweler's," because its window displays of salt cod, seaweed, and coral are worthy, in their exquisite invention, of Tiffany's.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Marisa Bartolucci is a freelance writer specializing in architecture, design, and cultural issues.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Undiscovered Bilbao - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 46-53.