Bilbao (to Portugal); Algeciras (to Morocco via Strait of Gibralter)

October-November 1999


On the spur of the moment, we decided to stop in Bilbao, Spain to see the new Guggenheim Museum. The overnight French train took us to Irun, Spain just inside the Spanish border. From there it was only an hour-and-a-half bus ride to Bilbao. The bus interior was similar to an airplane: about 10 feet high, with leather seats and a steward who passed out earphones for the video and very good music channels. Fresh coffee, magazines and a restroom were also provided! Best of all, we rolled along through the beautiful Basque countryside past red-roofed seacoast villages.


The shipbuilders of Bilbao made a courageous decision in bring a major contemporary art museum to their backwater, medium-sized industrial city. And they decided to do it without having much knowledge of modern art. The site chosen for the museum was an old shipyard down by the river. The site is jammed up against a rather ugly bridge on one side and railroad tracks on the other. Three architects were asked to compete for the job, which was awarded to American architect Frank Gehry. His surrealistic architectural drawings for the museum were published in an art magazine several years before it was built and they looked goofy to us at the time. But the completed building clearly is one of the great works of architecture of the 20th century.

The titanium-clad structure is more fantastic than photographs can possibly show. We had fun trying to decide how to describe this museum to someone who hadn't seen it: a silver-quilted ship, a leaping scaly fish, a demented teapot, an opening tulip bud, a warped catamaran hull or the reflection of metal cylinders in a carnival mirror! In short, it looks as if a highly talented, giant sculptor had created it while very drunk. We were elated when we first saw it and even more excited as we inspected it inside, outside and from across the river. We'd take three or four steps and look at it again: new angle, new shape.

Gehry won the competition not only for the sheer audacity of his design, but for the way in which he integrated it with the existing site. He created a tower to embrace the bridge - making the museum and bridge appear to be a single unit. From across the river, it appears that cars are speeding across the bridge and dropping right into the museum! Gehry also created a reflecting pool to make it seem as if the whole building were a silver ship floating on the river. (Did we mention that we liked the building?)

Before taking an English-language tour of the museum, Lou decided to stretch his back to prevent muscle spasms; he does this several times a day when traveling with a backpack. He went discreetly behind a pillar in the lobby, dropped to the ground and began arching upward as though trying to do push-ups. This immediately drew the attention of museum guards, admission takers and cloakroom attendants. Several people began to run toward him with worried looks on their faces, assuming he was having a medical crisis. Joan had to stand next to him for the next few minutes - smiling broadly to indicate he was fine.


U.S. artist Jenny Holtzer was allotted  a dark niche for which she designed tall vertical LED (electronic letter) signs in English and Spanish. The messages are sensual and intimate, in unexpected contrast to the formal quality of the nearby lobby. It's possible to walk behind the free-standing LED strips as if you are walking behind a waterfall. Back here the messages are blue, not red, and are written in the Basque language. This was an artist's attempt to include the Basque people living in the Bilbao area. Right before the Guggenheim opened, Basque separatists tried to blow it up; fortunately, the bomb (planted at the museum entrance in Jeff Koons' huge topiary dog) was discovered in time.

Pipilotti Rist of Switzerland is a cutting-edge video artist whose work we'd seen at Honolulu's Contemporary Museum. Her more recent work shown here was even better. A single image was shown on two large scenes abutting one another at a corner, doubling the image. This causes objects to flow into the "crack" at the center. Dreamlike, funny and sensual - the images were almost entirely shot underwater. Tea cups tumble down among the coral and seaweed, while toy trucks, people and fish float slowly through. Entrancing.

A sculpture by a young Chinese artist named Cai Guo Qiang was also exciting. His "Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan" (1996) is hung from the ceiling. 3/4 of it is composed of traditional Chinese rafts made of logs supported by inflated sheep skins, attached to three very noisy Toyota engines. The long piece conjured up a Chinese dragon, and spoke of the West's fear of once-again being over-run by Mongol hordes - this time in the form of Asian-made technology.

In the galleries showcasing art from the museum's permanent collection were a group of paintings relating directly to the building's architecture. The works of Picasso, Leger, Kandinsky, Miro and others seemed to "predict" Gehry's design. Indeed, Gehry was trained as a sculptor, and the entire building seems more like a giant sculpture than a building. He used an aeronautical computer program to design it, as there was no architectural program available to do what he wanted. It was(From the awful sound of this sculpture, Toyota mechanics were needed!)  a leap into the unknown. Did we mention that we liked the building?


Bilbao itself is a delight. We expected to find a jewel of a museum in a dismal, industrial setting. Instead, we found a city sparkling both commercially and esthetically. Although a half-million visitors had been predicted for the museum's first year, well over a million people came - adding to the wealth and vitality of the town. Its gleaming new metro system is a smaller version of the fine one in Washington, D.C. Its major theater is undergoing renovation, a new opera house has just opened. There are handsome promenades on both sides of the river, joined by a stunning footbridge. Bilbao now belongs to the list of must-see stops on a European grand tour.

The Iturrienea Ostatu is a charming two-star pension in the old quarter of the city and was a splurge for us. (We usually stay at hostels and no-star hotels or we wouldn't be able to travel for months at a time.) Life-size papier mache sheep with quizzical expressions greeted us at the door. The lobby is homelike, decorated in a combination of Spanish country and wry contemporary. The woman at the hotel desk spoke good English and shared Basque history with us. The plain, middle aged woman who served us breakfast turned out to be the painter of some wonderful postmodern paintings sprinkled amongst the gingham and wrought iron.

Spanish food is a treat. We especially enjoyed grazing on tapas - tidbits of food offered at bars. You help yourself, keeping track of how many dishes you eat and tell the waiter at the end what you had. A smallish glass of VERY good Spanish rioja (red wine) was only $1.25. For dinner, we each had two glasses of wine and shared six tapas for a total bill of $15. The tapas included smoked salmon on toast, tiny frittatas of egg, spinach and wild mushrooms, and paper-thin slices of air-cured ham.

We had another adventure in independent travel when we tried to get train tickets from Bilbao to Porto, Portugal. We went to a window at the ticket counter, but found the attendant spoke NO English - matching the amount of our Spanish. Lou used the "American School of Linguistics Approach" - if you speak slowly enough and loudly enough, eventually foreigners will discover that they DO speak English after all! (Alas, this approach almost never works.) In the end, it took six counter attendants, several schedule books and the three young Spanish travelers behind us - who fortunately spoke English - to make train reservations to PORTUGAL



Guggenheim Museum: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday. Ph: 94 435 90 00

(1999 Prices)

Iturrienea Ostatua Hotel: $66/double (low season) with bathroom and a breakfast of croissants, good coffee, orange juice, pears, walnuts and cheese. This hotel is booked for months in advance in high season. Santa Maria Kalea, 14, Bilbao.  Ph: 94 416 15 00; Fax: 94 415 89 29




Lou and Joan Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net