Spain’s Basque Country Offers Travelers Much To See And Do

by Jim Weaver

Bilbao, Spain, may not have been at the top of the “must see” list of most North American travelers to Europe, but that’s about to change. If you’re not quite sure where Bilbao is, think Basque Country along the northern coast of Spain bordering the Atlantic and France. For much of the 20th century Bilbao (pronounced “bell bough”) was Spain most heavily industrialized city and its major seaport. But today, it has reinvented itself and emerged as a leading center for art, architecture, and culture.

Will people travel to a city, any city, to see a single building? The answer is a resounding yes, if it’s an iconic masterpiece of architecture. That’s what Bilbao has achieved with its new Guggenheim Museum designed by world famous Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry. Some have called it the signature architectural work of the 21st Century, and I would agree. Instantly hailed as the most important structure of its time, Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao celebrated a decade of extraordinary success in 2007. With close to ninety exhibitions and over ten million visitors to its credit, the Museum has forever changed the way the world thinks about museums, and it continues to challenge our assumptions about the connections between art and architecture.

The gigantic limestone, glass, and titanium structure dominates its riverside site. Some say its ship like appearance recalls the city’s commercial docks that once stood in its place. The main entrance opens to a great plaza where a flower covered “Puppy”, a 30 foot tall sculpture (1992) by American artist Jeff Koons, welcomes visitors.

Inside, the galleries are arena size. American artist Richard Serra has grouped eight monumental steel sculptures “The Matter of Time” as a permanent installation in Bilbao’s largest gallery.

In the late 1980s the Basque authorities embarked on an ambitious redevelopment program for the city. By 1991, new designs for an airport, a subway system, and a conference center and concert hall, were among a number of important projects by major international architects such as Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, and Arata Isozaki.

The city’s goal was to diversify it’s economic base by building upon its traditional shipbuilding and heavy manufacturing industries. A museum of modern and contemporary art, the Guggenheim, was a major element of this plan.

Bilbao has long been a stop for passenger cruise ships, but the new terminal opened in late 2010 will welcome many more visitors beginning this year. With accommodations for five cruise ships (and additional berths planned) tens of thousands of visitors will enter the city here each year. Transfer to city hotels is simple and convenient. More than 30 cruise lines, including MSC and Cunard, now serve Bilbao. For information see www.cruisecompete.com/vacations/visits/bilbao/1.

The Guggenheim is not the city’s only art museum. Nearby is the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts with a outstanding collection of works from the 13th century to the present. Paintings by Spanish masters include El Greco and Goya and there is a beautiful work by American artist Mary Cassatt.

One of the best reasons to visit Bilbao is the wonderful Basque food and wine, some of the world’s very best. Two restaurants in Bilbao deserve special note — Zortzoki where master chef Daniel Garcia turns simple foods into elegant fine cuisine (he recently opened new restaurants in Venice and New York) and Jotetxeo Resouronte at the Guggenheim Museum. Here Josean Martinez Alija, named the top young chef in Spain, and award winning young sommelier Maria Jose Vazquez Garcia combine their talents to make a truly superb dining experience.

Wineries are numerous in the Basque region, and well worth a day’s drive in the country or a multi-day excursion. The Riojan wine region
south of Bilbao is home to several fine wineries.
Marques de Riscal is a major wine producer near the medieval town of Elciego. A fine hotel here designed by Frank O. Gehry (think Guggenheim Museum) offers exquisite lodging and spa, and suburb dining. Bard Pitt and Angelina Jolie were guests here.

There are a number of cities in the Basque Country for visitors to the area to enjoy including San Sebastian (home to a world famous film festival), Getxo (Bilbao’s port city), Burgos (home of a famous gothic cathedral), Pamplona (where the bulls run), and Guernica
where the sport of jai alai was born and the location of the infamous 1937 fire bombing during the Spanish Civil War (which inspired the famous Picaso painting “Guernica”).

For more information Bilbao and the Basque Country of Spain view www2.bilbao.net/bilbaoturismo/index_ingles.