Arriving on the outskirts of Bilbao, we were rather underwhelmed by the dirty, industrial nature of the buildings on the autoroute leading into the centre. There seems to be a distinct hierarchy in Spanish cities, where the old, historic centre is first surrounded by grand 19th century housing or commercial premises, then a more suburb 20th century housing ring, with a new deep band of heavy industrial complexes encompassing all of this. As the new roads leading into the city followed the latest zones of loading cranes, logistics sheds, ports and production factories, first impressions never do much but disappoint. We circled around the south of the city, before heading up into the hills above to find our chosen aire, a spot situated a reasonable way out of town but blessed with fantastic vistas right across the entire city and bay area.
We found our site and settled in, marvelling at the lack of other motorhomes, as we had expected this particular aire, the only one near to Bilbao known to us, to be close to full. With water, power, services and WiFi all included on site, this was a luxury stop for us, and allowed us to save the gas recently purchased in a small town outside San Sebastián. From our vantage point we could see the entire city, including the Guggenheim and Athletic Bilbao’s stadium.
We caught the no. 58 bus into town for €1.25 each, a much less stressful way to enter a large city than attempting to drive in and find parking for Benny. Not being au fait with the route, we followed our progress on GPS and jumped off near the old centre markets, what we felt would be a good place to begin exploring. We could feel the instant change in our mood, like a weight released from our shoulders, with being entirely free to roam and follow our noses where we wished. Nothing more to think of or consider but exploring.
This being a Monday, no museums were open but we approached and circled the Guggenheim museum, which was good to see externally with no crowds around, even if the sky was slate grey above and the ground wet underfoot. We approached the Iberdrola tower, the highest building in Bilbao, and adjacent gardens. We dodged the rain as we criss-crossed the city centre, following the river and trying to get a feel for the layout, before returning to our hillside camp high above for dinner and drinks with a view.
The next morning the weather was promised to be a little better, although our initial view disputed this; the cloud was deep in the valley, completely obscuring the city and adding a spooky quality to the entire scene. One conical peak in the far distance set itself above the cloud, looking much like a vision of the misty mountain from Lord of the Rings.
We caught the same bus into town, this time feeling like locals as we knew the route and the best stop to alight from. We could relax and take in the sights and sounds of the journey rather than wondering all the time if we were at the correct location. We hopped off and walked a direct route to towards today’s main goal – the Guggenheim Museum.
Gehry’s vision is seen by many as one of the last great museums of the 20th century, creating over eleven thousand square metres of gallery space spread over twenty various sized galleries. Along with a permanent collection of predominantly Spanish art, a temporary exhibition of Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol works dominated the gallery.
Built in limestone, 0.5mm thick overlapping titanium tiles and glass, the building does somewhat fit within its context, accommodating an adjacent river and the main flyover bridge Puente de la Salve within its constraints. To enter one is, conversely, led down a long set of marble steps to the lowest foyer level, allowing the 55m high building to sit much lower within the local city context and not dominate the local skyline. Normally such high-profile buildings would have a grand staircase leading up to the entrance, to emphasise importance and offer a heightened sense of arrival.
Like many such ‘grand statement’ architectural buildings, the sculptural forms grab the eye and the headlines, but for those who care about such things, the detailing tends to let everything down. Unconsidered transitions between materials create dirty spots and awkward fudging, broken tiles in-filled with grout, cut edges left unfinished or unresolved. Few people passing through will care as they wow at the expressive curves and overlapping vertical spaces, but for me the building is lesser for the lack of attention to the finishes. And as for the choice of randomised harlequin wall tiling in all the WCs, the less said the better.
After our visit, we crossed the river to view the museum from the opposite bank, then walked along to cross back over at the Santiago Calatrava designed bridge further upstream. Nicknamed the ‘hip breaker‘ by locals, the original design had a smooth glass floor that was entirely treacherous underfoot when wet. This has now been covered by a rough rubber matting to prevent injury, but this somewhat diminishes the original (flawed) design intent and aesthetic.
We returned to the Old Quarter, east of centre, and visited St. James’ Cathedral, a stone built 15th century Gothic construction, that sits central in the area. We passed through several delightful squares lined with cafes and many bars, all tempting us with offers of pintxos and wine. Catching a late bus back to camp we enjoyed another fine night of relaxing with a local red in hand as we watched the city light itself up as darkness fell.