Featured image: The stunning outside of the Guggenheim museum, designed by Frank Gehry.
While there is still plenty to write about Madrid, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about a weekend trip I recently took to Bilbao. One of the nicest things about studying in Madrid is its centrality within Spain; by design, the capital city is quite literally in the geographic center of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), so traveling just about anywhere in Spain by bus or train only takes a matter of hours. I had never been to Bilbao before and since first hearing about the city, specifically about the Guggenheim Museum and the city’s newer architecture, I knew that going this semester was a must. Bilbao is located within Basque Country, one of Spain’s more vocally-independent autonomous communities.
Most people in Bilbao speak castellano spanish, but a little less than half of Bilbao residents also speak euskera, a specifically Basque language with no linguistic connection to Spanish or any other language. I figured before going to Bilbao I ought to look up a few phrases in euskera, at least how to say “I do not speak Basque,” but I gave up that search pretty quickly. And for those playing at home, the answer is “Ez dakit euskaraz.” Real easy…
My trip to Bilbao was also my first experience staying at a youth hostel, something I have grown to understand is a much more common practice in Europe. My friend and I stayed at one centrally located in the new part of the city. We stayed in bunk beds in an 8-person room with six other travelers. One girl was from Kansas, another three from Germany, and I suspect that the mid-forties bald man who slept across the room from me on our second night moonlighted as a bouncer or a hitman in some former-Soviet bloc country. And while the shower faucets only worked for a minute and a half at a time, the stay was all in all a pleasant one.
One advantage of staying at a hostel was that we spent as much time as possible outside exploring the city, having long meals, and wandering through the Guggenheim’s many exhibits. Now, I’m not any sort of artistic authority, certainly not about painting and sculpture, so it’s a safe bet that some of the pieces I saw at the Guggenheim went a little over my head. Their permanent collection boasts some of Europe’s greatest artists of the past few centuries, and their rotating exhibits, while a little weird, were still new experiences for me as a museum visitor. The museum’s terrace cafe, stocked with house-made pintxos (the Basque word for tapas), is a testament to the wonders of day drinking; in Spain, it’s the cultured thing to do.
The museum building itself is a work of art. I have never seen a building so uniquely different from its surroundings, but somehow fitting into them. The museum itself wraps around the city underneath a large bridge that crosses the Nervión river, which offers some really scenic views of the sculptures featured around the museum plaza. A special mention goes to Jeff Koons’ awesome plant-based “Puppy”, pronounced with an unfortunate “oo”-sounding “u” by Spaniards.
There were plenty of other noteworthy things about Bilbao aside from the Guggenheim. On the far side of the river, we rode the Funicular de Artxanda up a nearby mountain for some breathtaking pre-sunset views of the city. Also on that side of the river, about thirty minutes walking further south, was the old part of the city, el Casco Viejo. Dozens of artisanal shops, Basque restaurants, and tastefully dingy bars lined the narrow streets. It reminded me a little of the oldest section of Madrid, but far less busy and with fewer international tourists. Aside from walking, and walk a lot we did, to get from place to place within Bilbao we took the EuskoTran, an above-ground light rail tram that surrounded the city along the river. When it rained pretty hard on our last day, that EuskoTran was a lifesaver.