Last week, we returned from a fantastic trip through Northern Spain—from Basque Country (Bilbao and San Sebastián) to Navarra (Pamplona) to Catalonia (Barcelona)—it was an amazing experience. We saw a lot and learned a great deal about this wonderful country.
Our first stop in Basque Country was Bilbao. Bilbao is one of those cities you can feel is on the move. Its once industrialized landscape is now revitalized into a sophisticated and cultured city. With its plethora of art galleries, pedestrian-friendly streets, riverfront walkway and famous Basque cuisine, it’s hard not to fall right into the culture.
Bilbao itself, although compact, is larger than we expected. Like many older cities, it’s divided into new and old areas. The “New City” is quite cosmopolitan while the “Old Quarter,” or Casco Viejo, maintains its medieval charm. Bilbao’s seven original streets, Siete Calles, are located in the Casco Viejo. These seven streets run parallel to each other right down to the waterfront. The Casco Viejo is an entertaining old area, full of shops, bars and restaurants.
For modern art lovers, Bilbao is probably best known for its Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which happened to be one of our first stops…
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a contemporary art museum designed by the famous Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry. Opened in October 1997, this massive, modern building is so unique it’s difficult to take your eyes off of it. The titanium, glass and limestone structure, in itself, is a work of art. The shimmering, titanium tiles on the exterior of the museum are reminiscent of fish scales, as it is said that Gehry had a fascination with fish as a child. Many people say the Guggenheim’s impressive structure overwhelms its actual contents. It’s difficult to say, although, the building is something to see.
One of the permanent exhibitions that impressed us was The Matter of Time, by Richard Serra. This series of enormous, steel sculptures provided us some amusement walking in and around this maze of metal.
Other impressive sculptures are actually found outside the museum. Puppy, by Jeff Koons, is a 43 foot tall West Highland Terrier topiary with fresh flowers. Puppy guards the front of the museum. It’s amazing!
And Maman (French for Mom) stands behind the museum. Maman is a 30 foot tall bronze, marble and stainless steel spider by Louise Bourgeois—so fascinating for its realistic qualities.
Another museum we ventured into was the Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes) which is a short stroll from the Guggenheim. This museum houses a wonderful collection of art ranging from the 12th Century to present day, including important works by Basque artists. It’s worth the stop.
Pintxos are the Basque tapas (pronounced peen-chos). There are probably hundreds of pintxos bars throughout Bilbao, as “pintxos-hopping” is what most people do when visiting the Basque area and what many locals probably do just about every day. Pintxos are usually small open-faced sandwiches or appetizer-sized bites sometimes speared with a long toothpick. Pintxos bars are typically standing room only, where you choose the pintxos you’d like to eat, openly displayed on top of the bar, and then pay for what you chose. It’s a fun way to experience different local flavors with these miniature culinary creations. (Kevin and I just about lived on pintxos during the first part of our trip.)
Notable Pintxos Bars:
Viña del Ensanche (Calle de Diputación, 10)
El Globo (Calle de Diputación, 8)
Bilbao was a great place to begin our Spanish holiday, our pintxos-hopping and museum tours, but the journey continues…