The Shiny, Spectacular Bilbao Guggenheim
|Gehry's Guggenheim is the main attraction for visitors to the Marseille-like port of Bilbao.|
By Rick Steves
Bilbao 's great modern art museum is an example of a block-buster sight that's NOT on our tours. From the start, I've thought of our tours as training wheels for future confident and independent travelers. Our basic philosophy is to offer the very best of each region (a mix of the famous biggies and our trade-mark off-beat "back door" destinations) for the most people. Of course, one's traveler's highlight can be another traveler's waste of time and there are plenty of sights that we think are interesting — but don't make it on our itineraries. Another philosophy we've always had is not to try to cover it all on one trip — then we get going so fast, nothing becomes truly enjoyable.
We do what's reasonable in a given amount of vacation time in Europe and assume we will return. Our guides love it when group members have post-tour plans. We even provide post-trip consulting to our tour participants so they know what their options are and how to most efficiently and economically enjoy them.
After traveling with us in Spain or France, you may want to zip over to see the spectacular modern architecture in Bilbao. After our Eastern Europe tour you may want some quality beach time in Dubrovnik. After our Britain tour, you may want to hike Hadrian's Wall. After our Best of Italy tour.you may want to do it again. In so many ways, our tours are a springboard for even more travel fun.
In the last five years, Bilbao has seen a transformation like no other Spanish city. Entire sectors of the industrial city's long-depressed port have been cleared away to allow construction of a new opera house, convention center, and the stunning Guggenheim Museum.
More than the art, the building — designed by Frank Gehry, who is also the architect of Seattle's own Experience Music Project — is the reason so many travelers happily splice Bilbao into their itineraries.
Gehry's triumph offers a fascinating look at architecture in the third millennium. The limestone and titanium-tile-clad building looks like a huge, silvery fish, and seems to connect the city with its river. It evokes sails heading out to sea. Gehry keeps returning to his fish motif, reminding visitors that, as a boy, he was inspired by carp...even taking them into the bathtub with him. The building's scale-like skin is made of titanium, thin as tissue paper and carefully created to give just the desired color and reflective quality.
A great way for visitors to really enjoy the exterior is to take a circular stroll up and down each side of the river. I suggest a walk along the handsome promenade and over the two modern pedestrian bridges.
Once you arrive at the museum, you're greeted by artist Jeff Koons' 42-foot-tall West Highland Terrier, guarding the main entrance. Its 60,000 plants and flowers, chosen to blossom in concert, grow through steel mesh. This joyful structure brings viewers back to their childhood...or begs the question, "What constitutes art?" One thing is clear: It answers to "Puppy."
Inside, just beyond the turnstile, you enter the atrium. This is clearly the heart of the building. The atrium even functions like a heart to pump visitors from various rooms on three levels out and back, always returning to this comforting core to rest, reflect, and recharge. Only the floor is straight.
From the atrium, step out onto the riverside terrace. The shallow pool lets the river seem to lick at the foundations of the building. Though avant-garde, the museum fits into its setting: On the right, a grand staircase leads to a big green bridge. A nearby tower was designed to wrap the bridge into the museum's grand scheme.
Back in the museum, an English brochure explains the architecture, while a monthly bulletin details the art currently on display. Because this museum is part of the Guggenheim "family" of museums, the collection perpetually rotates among the sister Guggenheim galleries in New York, Venice, and Berlin.
The best approach to visiting Bilbao's Guggenheim is simply to immerse yourself in a modern-art happening, rather than to count on seeing a particular piece or a specific artist's works. Gehry designed the vast ground floor mainly to show off the often huge modern-art installations. Computer-controlled lighting adjusts for different exhibits. Surfaces in the Guggenheim Bilbao are clean and bare so you can focus on the star of the show...the art.
Staying in Bilbao
If you stay overnight, here are a few options, a fancy splurge across from the Guggenheim, and two cheapies in the Old Town, a bustling, pedestrians-only Old World district with lots of dining options. (For more information on Bilbao, see www.bilbao.net .)
Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao is the place for wealthy modern art fans looking for a handy splurge. It's right across the street from the Guggenheim, with decor clearly inspired by Gehry's masterpiece (doubles from $240-260, tel. 944-253-300, www.granhoteldominebilbao.com).
For under $80, you can get a good room in the Old Town at either the Hotel Arriaga (tel. 944-790-001) or Iturrienea Ostatua , located on a quiet, pedestrian street (tel. 944-161-500).