Bilbao has a long history. Though founded in 1300 many seem to be under the impression that Bilbao only came into existence with the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum. The museum, which opened in 1997, and the city of 353,000 it resides in, our now synonymous. Bilbao was a perfect choice for the Guggenheim. They are both brimming with culture, are unique and independent.
Some people come to Bilbao and only see the Guggenheim. Some come to Bilbao and only see the city and skip the museum. To do either of these things without the other is to miss the essence of Bilbao.
The Guggenheim Bilbao, like its sister in New York, is an architectural masterpiece. One can love it or hate it but there is no denying that it is jaw dropping impressive. Upon approaching the entrance you are met by Jeff Koons's "Puppy"
The admission fee is 10€ for adults and if you are 60+ entry is only 7.50€. The exhibits are spread over three floors. The inside is as stunning as the outside and the galleries themselves are also pieces of art. During my visit an exhibit L'Art en Guerre (Art in War) was on display. It included works by Picasso during his time in occupied Paris. The most moving display, The Camps, featured the works of artists who were imprisoned and perished in the Nazi concentration camps.
The permanent exhibitions include additional works by Picasso as well as Rauschenberg, Rosenquist and Warhol. Among Warhol's works included is an iconic series of images of Marilyn Monroe. One of the most impressive galleries contained a work called "Torqued Ellipse"and covered an entire gallery. It could be viewed and appreciated from above and was also designed to interactive with the viewer walking around and through the pieces
A 10 minute walk along the riverfront at the back of the Guggenheim brings you to the original Bilbao, the Casco Viejo. While the area around the Guggenheim is all about modern the area of the Casco Viejo (old city) is all about tradition and history. This medieval district of Bilbao was originally comprised of just 7 streets. It is the most colorful section of Bilbao and is a hodge podge of narrow alleys, churches, plazas and balconied apartments. It is full of cafes, bars, restaurants and shops and is a great place to wander.
Wandering on your own has its own rewards. Among these rewards are the chance to meet with the locals, sample the local cuisine or beer and perhaps sample a local market. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you get the chance to experience all of them.
As I strolled In the Casco Viejo area I had a feeling this was not a normal Sunday. Indeed, it was not.
I stumbled upon the last day of celebration of a local fiesta, Aste Nagusia. Everyone was proudly wearing their Bilbao/Basque scarves and children were dressed in traditional costumes. The biggest surprise is that I wandered into the local equivalent of a "chili cook-off"!
I still have not figured out what they were cooking but the judging table contained 42 pans of what is shown in the picture above, all lined up and ready to be judged. Every entrant seemed to have a crowd around their table cheering them on. [Note from Eric Goldring, of Goldring Travel: The week-long contest is called "Sukaldaritza Lehiaketa"...interestingly, if not creatively, translated from Basque into "Cooking Competition". What they are cooking is a traditional Basque lamb stew. I know this because there is a Basque population in the Sierra Nevada mountains where I visit often.]
Going with the flow of the crowds I found myself immersed with the locals as well as full sized, dancing puppets. This was entirely unexpected and is one of the things that I love about traveling, stumbling on to the unexpected. These puppets require team work and in addition to the man inside the puppet they have men on the outside leading the way and making sure nothing happens that should not. The puppets walk, dance and twirl madly to the traditional music that is playing. You can see how large these puppets are in comparison to the people standing near by. Truly amazing.
I personally am not a fan of tours. I feel that in most cases they isolate you from the destination. With the exception of the always limited "free time" you are mostly herded around to the obligatory stops, never getting a chance to discover a destination on its own. Granted, some cities are not that easy to get around on your own but when they are I say, do it.
Now you know why!