Monday, March 5, 2012

It took a wedding in Spain’s Basque Country to make me fall in love with a Guggenheim…

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Spain has always been a country I’ve wanted to visit, yet for some reason  countries such as Greece, France, Germany, Austria, England, Switzerland and of course Italy have continued to occupy the top European slots on my travel list. And though I’ve always thought my first Iberian stop would be Andalucía, a region which wraps its arms around the cities of Seville, Granada, Cordoba, rubs shoulders with Gibraltar and exhibits a rich blend of ancient Roman, Greek and Muslim cultures it was a wedding invitation that brought me to fly across the Pyrenees and land in Bilbao. 
Plaza Nueva, Bilbao Spain

I was with my husband and four good friends from Venice, all who enjoy nothing more than a flavorful meal washed down with a good glass—or two—of wine. So, as soon as we arrived in Bilbao we set foot toward the Casco Viejo or Old Quarters to find the Plaza Nueva—interesting how the New Plaza is in the Old Quarters. Anyway, we journeyed forward because we had heard that the Plaza Nueva is where the best tapas bars in Bilbao can be found.  The entrance to the plaza took us through a small portico which led us onto a large palm tree dotted square. On the opposite side of the plaza the bright blue façade of the Bar Bilbao grabbed our attention. It was crowded with locals—always a good sign that the food is good and probably reasonably priced. My husband and friends are experts at picking and choosing cicchetti in Venice and they proved apt at doing the same with Spanish tapas. Soon our café table was covered with plates of crunchy pieces of fresh bread topped with creamed crab, or slivers of salmon, or layers of hand sliced pata negra— the melt in your mouth Iberian ham known to be the most expensive prosciutto in the world! And as true Venetians are accustomed to doing while on an ordinary ciccheti crawl in Venice we tasted, savored and sipped, paid the bill and then hopped around the corner to the next locale: the Victor Montes bar—serving find food since 1849.

Victor Montes Bar, Bilbao
We stepped inside to friendly smiles coming at us from behind a long black bar covered with platters bulging with Spanish/Basque delicacies; we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect invitation to continue our tapas trail. But this establishment was different than the first more casual Bar Bilbao. Quick glances around made me feel as if I had been taken back to another time of elegance. Black and white floor tiles formed a delightful checkered backdrop to classic wooden bistro chairs tucked beneath white marble table tops. Rows of spotless wine glasses hung upside-down from a brass rack hovering within arm’s reach above the bar. And the honored guests of the house, a line of pata negra ham hocks aged for eight-years, were tastefully displayed in the midst of fine wine, brandy and cognac. Between a morsel of a pata negra, brie and roasted tomato tapa and a sip of Rioja wine I imagined what it would have been like when this proud establishment first opened and women wearing long bustled dresses and  
Tapas at Victor Montes, Bilbao
mustached gents donning Bowler hats stopped by for a snack and a drink just as we were doing that day dressed in jeans, down-jackets and loafers. Or, how I would have liked to have listened in on the conversation that took place there in 1997 when the Guggenheim museum project was signed over a hearty meal; an architectural wonder I’ll come back to in a moment.

Stomachs satisfied and feeling cheery we said goodbye to the tapas bars, exited the Plaza Nueva and wander down the wide promenade that gently curves alongside the Nerviòn River and through the soul of Bilbao. Pleasant surprises were found every step of the way: a statue of three cherubs standing atop a fountain as if encouraging the surrounding leafless trees to prepare for spring; a Victorian carousel sat quiet while waiting for school children to put away their books and come out and play; well-maintained playgrounds and green spaces filled with laughing preschoolers, doting parents and hand holding retirees.

Nerviòn River and Zubizuri footbridge, Bilbao
One immediately understands that Bilbao is a city developed with family recreation, food markets, theater and outdoor entertainment in mind. The city administrators and urban planners have wisely and artistically blended Bilbao’s traditions with its contemporary growth, and I think they’ve been successful at creating a beautiful, livable city. Our group followed the wide pathway along the river thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have such a well-organized city to live in…yes we all come from one of the most beautiful cities in the world and yet….

Bilbao city tram

Rear entrance to the Guggenheim Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum beckoned us in the distance and unanimously—well almost—we decided that we couldn’t leave Bilbao without a closer look. We crossed the Zubizuri which in Basque means white bridge—a footbridge suspended over the river which much like the Millennium Bridge in London connects the promenade with the museum side of town. Zubizuri was handsomely designed by Santiago Calatrava—it should be noted that in Venice Santiago Calatrava’s work is either admired or disputed. He is also the architect of the very contemporary and “slippery” glass bridge in Venice, the Ponte della Costituzione or as many in Venice still call it Il Ponte di Calatrava. Once across the Zubizuri we stepped passed a carpet of green grass that doubles as the foundation for the city’s tram tracks—yes, even the tram tracks run across well maintained green grass.

We left the footbridge behind and walked down a quiet road. The shrine built to worship contemporary art twisted and towered in the distance. With each step we took the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum changed and showed us a different angle of genius. When we stood near enough to touch its smooth surface it dominated us and became its own surroundings, and as if in a sacred place, our very talkative group of friends was silenced by the beauty and magnitude of Frank O. Gehry’s masterpiece. It is a structure that pulls at your senses, seems to defy gravity, and used up all 
 my digital camera’s picture frames. It curves, it hovers, it reflects, it twists, it leans, and it glistens. Its titanium surface seems cold but is instead warm and welcoming. And as I stood and observed this marvel of architecture I wondered if the ancient Egyptians might have felt the same awe and emotion that was rumbling through me as they observed the genius of their own pyramids.
Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

For more information on places I've mentioned see:
Victor Montes Tapas Bar & Restaurant:
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao:


  1. Now I've added Bilbao to my "must-visit" travel list. The delicious tapas, the lovely city, the spectacular Guggenheim! Sounds like a great trip :-D

    Deb Mc.

  2. Loved this piece. How wonderful to read this up-close description of a fascinating and beautiful place. And wonderful that you can reach it so easily from where you live!