Thursday 16 March 2023

2023 Bilbao


By the cathedral in the old town.  The smell of drains, and a light rain falling.  A characteristic feature of the houses in this district is the glassed-in balconies – like Turkey and Georgia.  Strange to see them here.

Up early today – 5am – then along to the station to take the train to Gatwick.  Which as delayed, and made things more of a rush than usual.  Flight left late but arrived early – only just over 90 minutes.  Bilbao is near, geographically, but so far culturally, linguistically – which is why I am here, albeit for a flying three-day visit.  To see a place I have heard so much of, with its wonderful, mystifying singleton language.

To the River Nervión, by the huge Erribera merkatua, supposedly the largest covered market in Europe.  Makes me think back to Tashkent and the Chorsu building, and forward to the great central Asian markets I hope to see soon in Dushanbe and Khujand.  The church of St Anthony with its wonderfully uneven blocks of stone, the old bridge nearby. The main market has closed for the day, but the smell of fresh fish smacks you in the face as you enter.  One side full of bars and cafés, most offering the local pintxos – Basque tapas.

A walk along the river, shadowed by trams and (electric) buses, to the Teatro Arriaga.  Alas, at the moment there is only Hansel and Gretel playing, which I have no desire to sit through, even for the sake of seeing the interior.  The outside is enough – over the top French empire style [Wikipedia says "neo-baroque"].

Arriaga is a fascinating figure. Often called the Spanish Mozart, he was more the Spanish Schubert – he only lived 20 years (1806-1826), and coincides with Schubert, not Mozart.  Pretty much forgotten immediately after his death, that has had the happy consequence that the only editions of his works that survive are modern, and freely downloadable.  Sad that we’ve lost quite a few works, but the string quartets plus Overture Opus 20 give a hint of what he could do – and could have done.

On the metro to Indautxu – mostly to validate my 72-hour city pass – only 20 euros.  Metro modern, but with a design quirk: you enter above the two tracks, then descend stairs to the platform you want.  Curious to see the trains under you, with only a low wall.  Signage in the carriages not very good – Barcelona’s far better.  But very cheap – 80 cents with an oyster-type card used by most.

North to the Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park, domainted by the looming and rather incongruous Iberdrola Tower – all 40 floors of it.  The park reminded me of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont made from a quarry in Paris – similarly slopping.  Indeed, much of Bilbao is hilly – part of its charm.

Now sitting in La Baguerie, a modest little café near Moyúa, which is the centre of the modern part of the city – and where the bus for the airport departs from.  Feels like Saturday, with lots of people out shopping, especially ladies of a certain age.  Nearby the incredible Txabarri Palace – a kind of Basque gothic.  Also nearby the gleaming Iglesia de San José de la Montaña – which is particularly striking when viewed with the Ibendrola Tower in the background.

Back in the old town, which really bustling.  To the Plaza Barria (New Square), which is like a small version of the Plaça Reial in Barcelona – complete with palm trees.  Lots of children here, in contrast to the wrinklies I saw out shopping.  Strong wind getting up, but warm – temperature around 21°C
, compared with London’s miserable 7°C…

Back to room to recover, then out into the seething streets – lots of people out drinking, eating.  Great atmosphere.  Along to the nearby Café Lago – I’m too tired to wander far.  Has good reviews and indeed has great buzz.  One thing that surprises me: no one has switched to English when I try to communicate – badly – in Spanish.  Also, I can’t say I’ve heard any Basque, but maybe I’m not attuned to it significantly.  First glass of txakoli – the local white Basque wine.  Very slightly fizzy, but not too much. Nice.

After supper, out along the river towards the Guggenheim.  Lots of people out – and broad embankments just made for walking.  Past the bridge that looks amazingly like the one in Bratislava.  The on to the huge shapes of the road bridge by the Guggenheim, the Guggenheim itself, and the Iberdrola skyscraper.  The Guggenheim not lit up as I expected, but glorious nonetheless.  Then back to the hotel with the tram, getting off at Arriaga.  Walking back through the narrow streets of the old town, there are so many people out drinking and eating pintxos that the level of noise was that of a small, crowded pub.  Lovely end to a great day.

(The cathedral bell strikes ten...)


On the tram to the Guggenheim.  Such a civilised way to travel.  Ripping them out in the UK was such a stupid move…  A grey day, with rain threatened for most of it – typical for Bilbao, apparently.  Outside the Guggenheim, under intermittent rain.  Cloudy, but bright.  The Iberdrola Tower stands sternly nearby.

Inside.  Standing at the centre of the huge Richard Serra artworks – an enormous spiral of metal – surprisingly claustrophobic as you go round and round – perhaps because the walls are so high, and inward-leaning.  And the fact that there is no quick way out.  The long, undulating ones feel like tiny canyons, and remind me of that feeling created watching the film 127 hours… This gallery is amazing because it is so big – you rarely get to experience space in this way, and the artworks articulate that space brilliantly.  Great demonstration of that: I got lost – or rather lost my sense of orientation, and walked back to the entrance thinking it was the end.

A huge Jenny Holzer installation, with nine illuminated strips rising in a giddying fashion.  All in Basque.  Now Spanish.  Very weird effect of the floor sinking… perhaps because the texts move in perfect sync.  One side is in Basque, the other in Spanish.  One blue, one red.  Both hypnotic.  Oh, now in English…

Climbing the stairs, the interior looks like a modern version of one of Piranesi’s prisons – all odd angles, stairs, windows, metal.

In Room 202, a witty four photos by Thomas Struth – Audience 06, showing tourists staring at something in Florence – they look up, so a statue maybe.  Nice to see the watchers watched.  They look posed, but aren’t…

In the upper galleries, “classical” Abstract Expressionism.  Amazing sculpture by Chillida – whom I knew of, but not as a Basque.  A huge, brain-shaped rock, richly veined like cheese, pierced by perfectly smooth square openings, in three dimensions.  Wonderful.  As I climbed up here, looking down, the Guggenheim suddenly felt like La Sagrada Familia.  Interesting echoes.

My feet begin to hurt.

On the way out, popped in to the temporary Miró exhibition – his Paris years.  Lots of good stuff; also lots of meh stuff…  Quite busy here now.

On the tram, straight to Ribera, then into the market for pintxos and wine.  Market open – that fish smell… Great atmosphere here in the food section.  Out to find alcohol – not for now, but to take back.  The light txokali, of course, plus a Navarran/Basque liquor, Patxaran, made with sloes. BM Supermercado well stocked.

Then past Arriaga Theatre, over the bridge and the along the main shopping street – 
Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro – Bilbao’s Oxford Street/Champs Elysee.  Past Moyúa, along Ercilla Kalea – pedestrianised, reminds me of the similar street in Barcelona near La Sagrada (Avenue de Gaudi). Past the Pompidou Centre-like Bizkaia Plaza to here, the very odd Azkuna Zentroa Alhóndiga Bilbao.  Famous for its weird squat columns.  Currently sporting a huge red sun in close up, flames shooting out, projected on to a huge screen hung over a large empty enclosed space.  Always terrifying to think that’s what the sun is doing…  Wandering around, just noticed that there is a swimming pool – above us, with vague human forms visible as they pass over the translucent floor panels.  Spooky…

In the evening, off to the 
Euskalduna concert hall.  Easy – tram all the way.  So I go to Arriaga, the tram comes, we all get on – and the driver tells us all to get out.  It goes no further today, not clear why.  So along to the metro, up to Deustu.  Down to the river, over the bridge – which reminds me strongly of Bratislava – past the huge rusty iron wall of the concert hall – they do love their iron here, one reason Serra was able to go big on it.  Sitting by the bar in the slightly fresh wind, going in soon.

The concert hall has a really interesting design.  Basically, it’s a huge steel box inside the outer steel box.  Internally, it is covered in a rich golden-brown wood.  Unusually, the side seats are in pews – big sections enclosed on all sides.  I’m at the front of one, since I thought I’d have more leg room, but not with this huge wall I won’t… Fab view, though.  Lots of old people here – well, my age.  Not many young ‘uns.

Programme began with George WalkerLyric for Strings.  Very strong double basses – maybe all that wood.  Performance slightly spoiled by two noises.  First, just before the conductor began, a man blew his nose very sonorously.  Then, during the quieter passages could be heard squeaky voices coming from the headphones of the two camera operators – of which there were at least five in total.  People started moving to get away from it…

After the Walker, Adams’s Dr Atomic Symphony.  I’d only listened to this a couple of times, before, and this performance was much more convincing.  Perhaps because the conductor was a young (black) USian, Roderick Cox.  Worked for me…  Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances good too – bass and brass really belting it out.

After the concert, the rain was bucketing down.  But – miracle – people were waiting at the tram stop, suggesting that trams existed.  And they did, so tram to Arriaga for me, back to my room – and to bed.


To the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao.  Early rain giving way to broken clouds and sun.  The museum is free.  Nice mixture of old and new.  Van Dyck Lamentation of dead Christ – great study in downward sloping diagonals.  A roomful of dark Goya prints “A rain of bulls”…  Interesting that there are no explanations in English – only Basque and Spanish.  Nice Ribera of San Sebastian cured by holy women.  Striking how many people around here look like figures from a Ribera painting…  Upstairs to a room with two Ruisdaels – one print, one pic.  I haven’t seen his stuff for years.  Still love it.  The painting a wood at dusk – very romantic – no figures, just twisted and broken trees, the usual pond.  Very atmospheric, very moody, dare I say…

Fab Orazio Gentileschi – Lot and his daughters – Lot in red, the daughters in yellow and blue, lots of pink flesh – legs, arms, and breasts – the ladies exploding out of their dresses.  Strong upward diagonal.  Painted in London, apparently.  A sad, tiny figure of Lot’s wife, turned into a microscopic pillar of salt as punishment for turning around to look at the burning city of Sodom.

A room with a horrible twisted gob of meat in the corner – yes, a Francis Bacon.  I avoid looking at it in order to preserve my mental health…  A very unusual Zurbaran, of St Catherine of Alexandria, looking very stern, and yet childlike too.  An interesting work by Xabier Morras, showing the Underground station exit in Holborn.  1969, with suitably old car models.  Number plate DLP 126C – I wonder who was in the car when that photo was taken. Where were they going, what were they doing?  Now that moment has been caught in art, whatever it was…

A video explains the massive buildings works underway outside: they are adding a huge new wing.  At least I think that’s what the video said: it was all in Basque when I saw it, so I had to grab the few words I knew there…  Down to the river, sitting by the Guggenheim, its huge canopy before me.  Lots of people out, lots of dogs.  Weather clearing.

After lunch, on the metro to Areeta metro station down by the sea – quite a long journey, but easy.  Going to see Vizcaya Bridge, the weird gondola contraption there.  From the metro down to the river, where I see the huge gantry spanning it.  For some reason best known to the Basques/Spaniards, the overhead walkway is closed from 2pm to 4pm (lunch for the lift person?).  So I take the gondola for 50 cents.  Short, sweet, and rather surreal.

Then walk out to here, under the mini lighthouse.  Lots of motor boats in the harbour, smell of the sea.  Reminds me of a similarly long, hot walk out to the harbour in Valencia some years back.  Not  much to see here, just the opposite bank, and the sea to my left.  Not many boats moving.

Since the lift man clearly won’t come back early, no walk across the gantry fro me.  To Moyúa for a quick coffee and bun before trying to find the Artxanda Funicular.  Which was not easy, and led me through various insalubrious parts of Bilbao – I knew this from the quantity of dog poo everywhere: in “nice” areas, people pick it up and put it in dinky little bags.  Not here.

Finally I find the funicular station, where I was able to use my 72-hour city card.  Trip only a minute or so, view good.  In fact, the park at the top looks exactly like the one in Bratislava – sans castle.  Overcast now, but still pleasantly warm.

A lone raptor floats over the city – looks big.  Reminds me of the eagles flying of the Caucasus when I was up by Gergeti church

From here I can pick out the landmarks I know: the cathedral, Arriaga theatre, the bridges, Guggenheim, Ibedrola Tower, the concert hall of last night.  Not bad work for three days…

Back in the hotel.  At 7pm a deranged carillon emerges from the nearby cathedral.  Truly demented, rather wonderful.  


Up early for the trip to the airport.  Out in search of breakfast.  I love walking through old cities before everyone else is up.  Here reminds me of Venice, which I once took a stroll in at 6am when I was on a press trip there. To the Plaza Barria, the Café
 Bar Bilbao, one of the few places open at this time.  The wind is rising: the palm trees shake dramatically.

As ever, I arrive at the airport far too early, unable to check in.  In fact, checking in was not part of the plan: my ticket is hand luggage only.  It was when I was packing the two bottles of Basque alcohol – the txakoli and Patxaran – that I realised I can’t take these through security.  Various alternatives run through my mind – drinking them now? – tricky, no corkscrew – giving them to the maid?  In the end, I went online and added the case as hold luggage.  Not perfect, but doable.  My fear was partly that I wouldn’t find equivalents in duty free (and looks like I was right).

An amusing social experiment at the check in.  The departure board said desks 23 and 24 could be used, and a few people were already queuing for 23, so I went to 24.  But as more people arrived, they saw many queuing for 23, and only me for 24, so joined 23, making it longer, evidently assuming that I had made a mistake.  I had a choice: stick it out in 24, and risk being forced to go to the back of 23, shamefacedly – or join 23 now.  I decided that if they gave two desks, there would be two desks.  And so it proved, happily.  But quite a tense few minutes there…

My one regret for this trip is that I heard so little Basque spoken.  In fact, the only occasions when I heard more than the odd sentence was in the announcement at the start of the concert yesterday, which told us to switch our phones off.  It’s true that practically every public sign – and even most ads – use both languages.  But it’s sad that more people don’t take pride in and use their amazing linguistic heritage.

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