A visit to Bilbao takes the breath away

Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum is held up as one of the best examples of how new buildings can transform a city's fortunes.

DESPITE the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to visit Bilbao in the Basque Country on four separate occasions, the sight of the Guggenheim Museum still takes my breath away.

On my most recent call at the end of last month, there was no sign of political demonstrations which have since taken place in Catalonia, sparked by the recent independence referendum. Since ETA called a ceasefire in 2011 and like Scotland, the Basque Country has devolved power, I hope Catalonia’s independence issue won’t put tourists off visiting this beautiful and autonomous community in northern Spain. Bilbao is a six or seven-hour drive or train journey from Barcelona.

The sun was shining warmly enough for short sleeves when my friend Dot and I wandered from the sleepy, early-morning Old Town along the picturesque riverbank to view the futuristic building made from titanium, glass and limestone.

I can hardly believe that 20 years have gone by since the Guggenheim Museum first opened in 1997. Ironically, the residents of this city, once famous for shipbuilding, weren’t keen on the idea of a museum when the plans were first drawn up.

During an economic crisis with high unemployment, it was thought that factories and job opportunities were more important than how people were going to spend their leisure time. Yet with tourism boosted by the magnetic draw of the Guggenheim Museum, visitors now come from near and far for a glimpse of this extraordinary exhibition space with its 18 light-filled galleries.

Designed by acclaimed American architect Frank Gehry, no walls are straight and the curvaceous, titanium-clad structure reflects the light like fish scales. It’s said to resemble a ship marooned on the riverbank, although from certain angles, it’s more like a spaceship has landed.

Dundonians will be familiar with the architecture, considering that the wavy-roofed Maggie’s Centre at Ninewells Hospital was also designed by Frank Gehry. He was a personal friend of Maggie (who sadly died from breast cancer before seeing her vision of a cancer refuge completed) and her husband Charles Jencks, who has gone on to oversee the launch of 21 Maggie’s Centres.

I happened to be reporting on the opening of the Maggie’s Centre in Dundee in 2003, which the architect and Bob Geldof attended. I therefore feel an extra affinity with Gehry’s extraordinary buildings, each a work of art in their own right.

Being early morning, we arrived at the Guggenheim just as a dry ice mist descended and crept eerily under the huge spider which guards the riverside entrance. This striking sculpture by Louise Bourgeois is nicknamed ‘Maman’ because of its huge sac of spider’s eggs suspended underneath and also because this work is dedicated to the artist’s own mother and maternity.

Bridget a safe distance from Maman.

Sadly, I have to admit to being a bit of an arachnophobe, so I much prefer the ‘guard’ sitting outside the museum’s opposite entrance. Nicknamed ‘Puppy’, this giant floral topiary of a West Highland Terrier by artist Jeff Koons towers over passers-by (two and four-legged alike) in all its multi-coloured glory.

Due to be moved after its initial showing, a petition by schoolchildren meant that Bilbao became the dog’s permanent home. Now regarded as a symbol of the city, it provides some impressive bow ‘wow’!

Jeff Koons’ “Puppy”

By the time we left the Guggenheim, the temperature had lifted to a very pleasant 25°C and it was getting towards lunchtime. The Basque region is renowned for ‘pintxos’, like tapas on cocktail sticks, often served complimentary when you order a drink, although sometimes you need to pay.

There was certainly a selection of appetising snacks on display from jamon to seafood in the atmospheric bars in the Old Town. The Casco Viejo is also nicknamed the Siete Calles after the seven streets that form this quaint quarter. Boutiques and chain stores like Spanish success story Zara are also tempting, and we managed to find some bargains in the short time we had.

If we’d had longer to explore than the day our Fred. Olsen cruise ship (fredolsencruises.com, Tel 0800 0355 242) which had sailed from Liverpool was in port, we may have visited the Fine Arts Museum, the second most important in Spain after the famous Prada in Madrid. Or taken the funicular railway to the top of Mount Artxandra for panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains.

I can confirm that it does rain in Spain, especially on the mountainous north coast, which is why it is so scenic and green, but fortunately not on that day when the skies were cloudless and blue. That’s why the beach at the nearby port of Getxo, where our ship was berthed, was a more alluring proposition…

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