Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bilbao, A Basque Gem

                                                                      Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

We had just about settled into our apartment in Paris when we headed off again to the airport. JR had been invited to a mathematics meeting in Bilbao and I jumped at the opportunity to tag along and visit the capital of the Basque Country in northern Spain. We joined several French mathematicians on an Air France flight that left in the dark of a Paris morning and arrived an hour and half later in the bright sunshine of Bilbao. From the airport, it's just a 15-minute bus ride to the downtown.

As the bus entered the city, we got our first look at Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry's masterpiece, which has become a symbol for the city, pays homage to Bilbao's maritime history. All curves and angles, the museum resembles an enormous ship. It's covered with titanium panels that, depending on the light, reflect shimmering silver or dazzling gold. The museum sits on the banks of the Nervion, the river that runs through Bilbao, and its "prowl" juts under the Princes of Spain Bridge. The suspension bridge first opened in 1972, but in 2007 French conceptual artist Daniel Buren redesigned it, adding a huge red sculptural arch to the utilitarian bridge. 

The Guggenheim was entirely financed by the Basque Government as part of a larger plan to turn the former industrial city into a tourist destination. We saw the results as we walked from the bus stop to our hotel.  Once home to Bilbao's thriving industrial sector, the area had become a decaying eyesore in the heart of the town. Now, it is home to not only the Guggenheim, but also a library, office and residential towers and the recently completed Iberdrola Tower, designed by Argentinian architect César Pelli. Parks, pedestrian walkways and bike paths line both sides of the river and a series of beautiful bridges connect the two sides of the town. To get to our hotel, we crossed the Zubizuri, a pedestrian bridge, whose curved configuration seemed especially  fitting for a group of mathematicians.  

The conference was due to begin in the late afternoon so at 1:30 p.m., we all headed off for lunch in Bilbao's Old Town or the Zazpikaleak as it called in Basque. We learned immediately that Basque time is quite different from French time. The first two restaurants turned us away saying it was too early for lunch. (Lunch isn't in full swing until about 3 o'clock; dinner begins at nine.) We were welcomed at the third - the classic Café Bilbao - where we sampled many Basque specialities, including cod fish, calamari, grilled mushrooms, Iberian ham and Basque Idiazabal cheese, an aged sheep cheese. The mathematicians went off to their meeting and I stayed behind to enjoy a cup of coffee. As I left, the owner called out:  "Long Live Mathematics," a sentiment I heartily endorse.

While the conference was in session, I explored the city on foot, taking in the ambiance of the old buildings with their enclosed balconies; watching the people; and listening to the beautiful sounds of Basque, which is still spoken by 25 percent of the population in the Basque territories. A pre-Indo-European language, the origins of the Basque language continue to be debated by linguists. Whatever its origins, it resembles no language I've ever heard and was completely incomprehensible to me. People, however, were friendly and even when we lacked a common language, they were warm and accommodating.

In the evening, we joined what seemed like everyone in Bilbao for pintxos at the downtown bars. The ultimate finger food, pintxos are toasted bread topped with imaginative combinations of fish, ham, mushrooms, potatoes, vegetables and cheese. There are also croquettes and fried calamari. Each bar has its specialities and the tradition is to go from one bar to the next, having a small beer, called a zurito, or a glass of wine and one or two pintxos. It's as much a social as a gastronomic event. It's not for the timid, but it's a friendly crowd, so I dragged out my high school Spanish, threw myself into the melee and bellied-up to the bar. My favorite pintxos was Iberian ham, porcini mushroom and goat cheese with a bit of red jam on top - or maybe the oyster mushroom, foie gras and grilled onions - or perhaps the salmon, anchovies and sprouts -  or possibly the fried calamari. 

Since there was so much to see and do in Bilbao (and so many pintxos to sample), JR and I decided to stay on through the weekend. According to statistics, 45 percent of the days in Bilbao are rainy and another 40 percent are cloudy.  We beat the odds with only one cloudy day and four with bright sunshine. 

On Saturday, we took the metro - a new gleaming system that is another part of Bilbao's renaissance - out  of the city in the direction the Bay of Biscay. Thirty minutes later, we were in another world of rocky cliffs and endless ocean views. We walked along a seaside path for about 10 miles and then took the metro back to Algorta. There, in the old fishing village, we sat down to a lunch of fresh octopus, marinated sardines, and mussels in a red Basque sauce, accompanied by a nice glass of Txakoli, the local white wine. We were back in Bilbao in plenty of time to rest up for our nightly pintxos feast.

The next day, we visited the Guggenheim, which is just as stunning inside as out. Their famous restaurant, Nerua, was closed for vacation, but we ate very well and very happily in the museum's Bistro. The collection of the museum is not large, but its quality is high and its presentation in the large, soaring spaces is spectacular. To take in more art, we went to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, the town's "other" museum. Its building may be less dramatic than the Guggenheim, but its collection, that includes lots of Spanish and Basque artists, is definitely first class.

On Sunday evening, tired, but happy, we said agur to Bilbao and headed back to Paris. 

For more photos, click here.
To find out more about all the things to see and do in Bilbao, click here.

Hurrengoa arte,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. tks for bilbao ... you are clever courageous people ... I certainely did not walk 10 miles ... but explored the city ... market, small churches, architectur. I am an asphalt person ... green is okay in homeopathic doses!!!

  2. This was great! I want to try pintxos! I loved the train station and the photo of the single bird (resident).

  3. Thank you for your wonderful blog I enjoy it so much along with Parler Paris.


Thanks for your comments.