Think of Spain’s Bilbao and what comes to mind? Ferries, industrial port or perhaps the most iconic building – The Guggenheim Museum.
Set on the northern coast of Spain, Bilbao is much like any other city you pass through; enormous, all-consuming and a tad impersonal. Remember that my views are coloured by being a predominant introvert who finds the vibrations of cities easily overwhelm my senses.
And as we drove inadvertently through the centre of Bilbao’s hub, with congested streets, towering six story buildings rising like vertical umbrellas, I was left with the same detachment that I feel in many of the cities we visit. Had we made a mistake coming here?
Still we have come to appreciate after three years on the road, that travel is made up of a myriad of experiences. Each one we either love or tolerate and yet all of them are necessary to broaden our cultural horizons. So we valiantly continue to put cities on our agenda; some we end up adoring like Zagreb, Bratislava and Seville and others just don’t really do it for us like Vienna, Salzburg and Florence.
You really could be forgiven for thinking that Bilbao is just about the ferry. And yet in the last twenty years, it has taken its rightful place on the tourist map. Its most significant draw is the masterpiece of the Guggenheim museum and whether you are an art lover or not, this building is renown around the globe for its architectural brilliance. I’m neither a great artist nor an art fan if I’m honest, although sometimes there are things that are so iconic that visiting is a given. I love that visiting somewhere new can influence how I think and feel or affect my perspective on life. And that’s why a visit to a place as iconic as the Guggenheim felt important. With its curves and light attraction everything about this building attracts the eyes and creates intrigue. Despite the art within being priceless, the building itself makes a statement all of its own.
With a tantalising tease of the cityscape from our lofty campsite at Kobeta, we took bus 58, which goes every 15 minutes from right outside the campsite into Bilbao old town. The €1.35 fare was a steal, allowing us to save our energy for the promenade along the river Nervión.
On a still winter’s day, this city aspect was pleasing to the eye, providing a moving atmosphere that coloured our memories. Our city preview from the previous day was fast fading from my mind. The architecture bordering the river, (that has its source in Burgos), is an eclectic mix of colonial, modern and medieval and it fringes the river banks with a certain je ne sais quoi. Whilst Bilbao, as the most active shipping port second only to Barcelona, has obvious roots in industry, make no mistake – this city is rebirthing and presenting its creative transformation to its European counterparts. Check out our gallery of pics below.
For now though let me share with you the virtues of the Guggenheim. Although I am not steeped in knowledge about the museum, I just knew I wanted to visit. I had heard its reputation for being one of the most incredible pieces of architectural art in the world and that alone made me want to go. And there’s no doubt that it is more grand than the grandest thing you can imagine.
Our arrival at the Guggenheim could not be mistaken as this magnificent curvaceous beauty seemed to rise up from the industrial port’s ashes with grace and power. It is not an understated building and with pieces of artwork around the outside, I was captivated before I even entered its doors. Yet enter we must, as this was an experience I had been waiting for.
We paid our €16 per person and passed through the well guarded security. There are three levels, each one offering a slightly different artistic theme. The first, Room Zero blew my mind and messed with my balance. A mirrored room gives an impression of Alice in Wonderland and as I watched the looping video, the way the images bounced off the glass walls is quite magnetic, making 3D seem like child’s play.
Accompanied by our audio guides, which come as part of the entrance fee, we learnt about the museum’s design by Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry. The huge project came to fruition in October 1997 and has transformed the dockland water’s edge image beyond all recognition.
Built in titanium, glass and limestone, this is a masterpiece, which in different lights takes on completely different faces. And in many ways, you could almost be satisfied by seeing the outside of the museum such is its craft and beauty. Although the inside will challenge you in more ways than one.
With an open atrium in the museum’s heart, Bilbao’s newest creation cries out to be admired. Splendid are its curves. Magnificent are its angular glass windows and resplendent are its halls that house such dynamic pieces of work. From Picasso to Van Gogh, Andy Warhol and a host of other artists from decades past, the Guggenheim is a centre-piece for self-expression and an almost eccentric interpretation of the world. Well that’s how it seemed to me.
The first floor was a real challenge. The descriptions on the walls alone introduced a whole new language to me that provoked intellectual thought. If only I had been able to photograph them, I could have convey their linguistic demands more eloquently.
The halls are intriguing, leaving you wondering whether these minimalistic white washed walls were a stroke of brilliance or an obscene waste of money. One room simply had two televisions playing news from CNN. Another had memorabilia stuck to the walls with an edition of The Sun catching my eye. To the modernistic gallery of contemporary work that challenges our concept of space and time. The modern world confronted by artists set on complementing progression and challenging the very heart of the world’s evolution.
One of my favourite pieces was The Tent without a Signal. A 10ft tent-like construction, which inside simply held a circular set of metal benches. An odd sight for an art museum, although the artist has made a huge statement to technology and how it consumes our lives behind our devices. The tent covering is made from metallic fibres that scramble mobile phone signals, rendering them useless. The space is therefore held as a sanctuary to profound silence that allows the audience to truly contemplate the depth of their souls. This seriously appealed to me as a Meditation Teacher.
The other incredible hall is a permanent feature called The Matter of Time. Artist Richard Serra’s ‘rumination on the physicality of space and the nature of sculpture’ offers a playground for adults. With enormous spiral structures made from steel you are invited to walk through their metallic form. It felt oddly like a Universal truth – such a small speck in an expanse of space. Weaving my way through the curves and the mazes, I felt transported into an out-of-world experience where for a moment, fear set in as I realised that I could be on another planet. And yet when viewed from the upper atrium, their structures were so simple and yet the steel designs challenged my spirit through that simplicity.
Leaving the museum, we were engulfed in a mist – as if in one last artist act of creativity; the Guggenheim’s moat came alive, piquing my curiosity. Every last bit of detail is invested in provoking the artist within. I highly recommend visiting this sensory journey that is so much more than a museum. It is architecture, craft, imagination and self-expression in their very purest forms. And it has to be experienced, just once in your life.
Bilbao has been built on a foundation of industry and trade and yet is embracing its evolution into a contemporary city. It does still have some way to go, although with UNESCO bridges and of course its brain-child the Guggenheim, Bilbao is redefining itself year on year.
Facts for your visit
- The Guggenheim museum is closed on Mondays.
- Not all the Guggenheim exhibitions will always be open as often they will be setting up halls for new presentations, so better check before you visit.
- There are no photos or videos allowed in the museum halls so don’t be tempted as there are guardians everywhere.
- The Guggenheim Bar is very nice offering a good deal on the local delicacy Pintxos – Tapas. 3 Tapas and a drink for €9.
- Don’t take large bags into the Guggenheim, as you will be required to store them in the cloakrooms.
- The shape and lights of the museum interior may cause some issues if you have sensitive eyes or migraine tendancies, so be aware of this before you enter.
- The Guggenheim is disabled friendly with lifts to each of the three floors.
- Getting around Bilbao is easy with the buses and trams that zig-zag the city’s network.
- Within half a day we had absorbed all we wanted from the city, most of which was within the hub of the Guggenheim itself. Unlike, say London, there are very few other major draws, except perhaps the 17 bridges that span the river and the Artxander funicular that takes you up to the mountain of the same name, giving you a great panorama of the city.
- If you are visiting the city with your camper, The Kobeta Camping Aire (43.25955 -2.9636), which for €15 per night inclusive of electricity and services, gives you a great spot for watching the city and visiting by bus.
- If you come with dogs, remember that they are not allowed on buses without a muzzle, nor will they be allowed in the Guggenheim museum.
- And a sensible note! Wear comfortable shoes, as just walking from the old town to the Guggenheim and back again will reward you over 12,000 steps and 9 kms. Trust me, my blisters will confirm this very well.
Overall I am so glad we visited and it reaffirms my thinking; despite my lack of love for cities, they hold great secrets and cultural treats, so visiting is an essential part of a traveller’s itinerary and my education, which feels influenced forever. Check out our final gallery below.
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