Over the years I have heard much about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao so when we decided to include the Basque country in our travels, I knew we had to go there. For the average person, going to an art museum can be intimidating. However, when you are married to an artist, visiting art museums becomes a unique experience because you have at your fingertips a more educated perspective than the typical viewer would normally have at his/her disposal. It is wonderful to have someone who can explain the process of creating a particular piece of art or its relationship to a certain genre. It’s like having your own personal museum curator by your side. What I really appreciate about my husband’s perspective on art is that it’s very practical and down to earth. He has taught me that the art world is made up of a very small elite group of curators, directors, historians, and critics and they are the ones who decide what gets displayed and why… AND, that it’s not necessary to like the work they have chosen to hang in a particular gallery. It’s up to the individual to decide what he/she likes. You’re not required or obligated to be impressed by what these people have selected as examples of “great art”. This came as a great relief to me and I began enjoying our forays to various museums in California and then later beyond our borders to New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston and, more recently, to France. So it was with the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
When we first arrived at the museum, we took in the various aspects of its architecture. The building is constructed of titanium, limestone, and glass. Its design is reflective of its location on a river in a port intended to look like a ship floating on water with 20 different galleries, the largest of which is shaped like a fish. Canadian architect Frank Gehry claims to have been inspired by his early experiences shopping for fish in the market with his grandmother and the nautical theme is fitting for Bilbao, a significant port on the Bay of Biscay in Spain. There are several sculptures installed around the outside of the museum creating an outdoor gallery space open to the public 24/7. Among these are the menacing araña (spider) titled Mother, the charming floral Puppy, the multicolored tulip bouquet, and the silver bubbles rising out of the surrounding pond. All of these artistic elements add interest to the structure and draw the visitor in. For me, these were especially enchanting.
Admission to the Guggenheim includes an audio guide initially intended to orient you to the museum — its architecture, layout, and purpose. Before you can even begin to wander the galleries and observe the work, you are bombarded with a battery of words and explanations. While this is all well and good, eventually you tire of this and just want to get on with the experience of the seeing the artwork. As I mentioned before, viewing art is very personal and everyone will have his/her own point of view which is exactly how it should be. I am not a big fan of modern art which is the focus of this museum, but I try to be open-minded. We wandered the three floors of the museum, discussed what we saw, and came to fairly mutual conclusions — like everything else in our lives, we have similar tastes in art. Once again, it was refreshing to know it was OK if I didn’t like something. As we like to joke, “It’s not illegal last time I checked.” In the end, we each chose our favorites and appreciated the fact that we were able to take in one more of the world’s renown art museums.
After leaving the Guggenheim, it was time to take a stroll through the old part of Bilbao known as Casco Viejo. We took the metro to the central hub of the city, Moyua Square, consisting of a roundabout with a beautifully landscaped city park in the middle and several impressive multistory buildings both new and old circling the exterior. From there we walked directly into Casco Viejo and found the typical narrow cobblestone streets, shops, bars, and restaurants. We stopped in at one particularly inviting location called Rio-Oja (a clever play on words for the local Rioja wines) and had a couple of kazuelas (casseroles) — a different kind of appetizer than the traditional pinxtos as they were quite a bit more substantial and meant to be shared. We chose the ever popular hake (cod) in a rich tomato sauce and anchovies prepared with olives and peppers in vinegar and oil. Surprisingly, French anchovies are not the skinny, salty, briny type we eat in the U.S. They are much larger, meaty, and very flavorful especially when served this way and it has become one of our favorite dishes.
Later, we wandered slowly through the narrow pedestrian streets looking in the various shops and stores… sampling peach ice tea, checking out local products, and of course, looking at the latest fashions. After some time in France & Spain, I have come to the conclusion that unless you have an unlimited budget and can go for a shopping spree on the Champs Élysées, there aren’t many unique fashion finds to be had. Just like Americans, the average European citizen is looking for a good deal and economical choices so most of the affordable clothing and accessories come from China. French and Spanish made items are just as difficult to find as American made in the U.S. Nevertheless, it’s always fun to window shop!
We had parked our car for the day in the underground parking of the Zubairte mall (yes, a mall — always exciting for me!) near the Guggenheim. So we returned there for a short time before heading out to dinner. I am always on the lookout for a regular supermarket — not that easy to find and not always open when you need them. Since there was one in the mall, I decided to pick up some Spanish gourmet products I had read about and wanted to try. I came away with an interesting selection for our future meals and picnics — pâté de campaña (pork liver), chipirones en su tinta (squid in ink), sardinillas, bonito, and the best prize of all, black truffles that only cost 4,50€. Can’t wait to try them all out.
Finally, it was time to end our day with a special dinner of the one Spanish specialty we had not yet sampled — paella. It would be inexcusable to make a trip to Spain without having this dish at least once which, as you may know, has many, many versions. For this experience, we went to a small restaurant Laruzz Bilbao specializing in all types of rice dishes. After some contemplation, we made our choices which were served in individual paelleras. Accompanied by some bread and a bottle of excellent locally made red wine, it was the perfect finish to our day in Bilbao. Wow!!