We took 8 hours to reach Bilbao from Salamanca – on Sunday 9. We left Salamanca at midday and changed trains twice – once at Avila, and again at Palencia. It sounds a long time but it was really pleasant and we had a couple of hours waiting at the stations. We spent a great time looking out the window at constantly changing scenery – one of the good things about train travel. In the earlier part lots of olive plantations, vines, heavy cropping, wind farms, and fields of solar panels. The last hour into Bilbao was stunning with fantastic views each side as the train travelled through the mountains on a very twisting route. We had a compass and it was just amazing watching the way the train had to change direction 180 degrees a couple of times as the rail lines pushed through the rock. It is definitely one of those great train journeys of the world.

IMG_0172Our accommodation at Casual Gurea is a 15 minute walk from the station, which incidentally features an amazing stain glass window. Casual Gurea occupies one floor of an apartment block, with about 30 rooms. Really great – in an old building, nicely modernised inside. We have a double room and bathroom and share a dining room which hardly anyone uses. We use it to make a cup of tea or coffee, and to have our brekkie. It is in the old city, close to everything. We would definitely recommend it.

Old Plaza Mayor (in the daylight)

We did not arrive till after 9, so checked in and went to the nearby old Plaza Mayor for a glass of red – here Vino Tinto – and some tapas – here called pintxos. And they were delicious. We have not been going out for these to date as we have filled our days too much – and after our great 3.00 to 4.00pm lunches we mostly just eat some fruit in the evening. But today on the train we had only had a delicious bocadillo – filled with marvellous Iberian ham. Not hard to take.

We spent all next day, Monday 10 at museums.

The Guggenheim

The museum is a 20 minute walk from our B and B, along the river. Very beautiful walk. Notable are the number of interesting bridges in this town.

The museum is fantastic. Like our opera house but even more over the top. It was designed by Frank Gehry. We don’t think we have seen any of his other buildings – and he has done a huge number. We did not know about the Toledo Museum of Art, and did not get to it.

The Guggenheim builders must have had a terrible time. It is hard to imagine how they managed. Apparently Gehry had a long interest from childhood in fish, one of Bilbao’s traditional industries, and this explains the titanium tiles which cover the entire building, looking like fish scales.

Many say, the building is more stupendous than the contents although there are some terrific things and we spent 4 hours there. One was a series of circular/elliptical iron structures, which are 4 metre high mazes which you walk through. It is called ‘A Matter of Time”. It is about the physicality of space and the nature of sculpture and how it impacts on the viewer. They issue warnings about becoming disoriented. The creator, Richard Serra, had been working on his concept for 20 years and it was only when this museum offered him this huge space that he was able to put his dream into reality. Hard to describe – sorry. The video which you can see here will give you some idea of this installation.

Also some very interesting art, especially a collection by a a Swiss couple, Hermann and Margrit Rupf – they have been buying important stuff for years.
Most of the very modern abstract expressionism stuff was not our sort of art.  We were not permitted to photograph any of the art works, but we did manage a shot of an amazing moving installation in which LED lit words moved up and down nine vertical strips.  Also sneaked a shot of one piece of abstract expressionism, the colours of which caught our eye.

As well as inside, there are lovely things outside on the terrace. A beautiful bunch of huge iridescent multi-coloured tulips, a tall installation of silver balls somehow holding themselves up, a pool of water that emits a ‘sculpture mist’ at intervals, an engaging sculpture of a spider, with beautiful legs which is meant to symbolise a big hug. Further off in the garden is a giant puppy, at present covered from head to toe in pansies. The story there is that he came first and they built the Guggenheim as his kennel!!  You will already have noticed the spider, the balls and the puppy in the images above.  Here are the beautiful tulips.

Bilbao Fine Arts Museum – Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

The collection we enjoyed more was at the Bellas Artes museum which we went to from 4 till 8 after our usual lovely lunch. It has a collection of European art from very early till almost the present. The most interesting for us was the huge collection of Spanish art. If you are going we suggest you start at present day art, especially the very modern stuff, which we found terrific – but we were running out of time when we got to it. In fact we were chased out of the gallery.  Al was nearly locked in the toilet – here called the Servizio.

We did a lovely wander home on streets we hadn’t been on. Close to home a group came marching down the street, some dressed in black outfits, including hoods, others with white outfits and also hoods. We hear from the fellow on the desk here that this is all part of Holy Week and likely to happen each night.

A lovely city to discover. Home tired, had a nibble, and slept for 10 hours.

Tuesday 11 – getting to know Bilbao

We had thought we would do a day trip to San Sebastián today, but are enjoying Bilbao so much we decided to spend the day getting to know it better. We sort of followed a walk which the Spain Lonely Planet details, and it was great. We basically did a big circle from where we are and back again. Took us 6 hours with an hour off for lunch. Highlights included:
The amazing Palace of Music, the Euskalduna Palace, home to the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, and other musical bodies. It is stunning architecture which was created to transform a no longer used water front area, incorporating reminders of its past. It leaves Hamer Hall for dead! If we had been here one night longer we could have got to the Mozart Requiem.

More views of the Guggenheim. It is hard to miss.
The rich and incredibly varied architecture in central Bilbao which seem to have been constructed at the turn of the 19th century. This seems a common phenomenon in Madrid and Salamanca and we want to know more about the source of wealth for such construction. Is it the result of the transfer of wealth from the third world in the colonial era?
The number of heavily used parks and children’s playgrounds and exercise areas in a city where life is lived in apartments.
The strength of the Basque culture and language. Street names and public information are pretty well always written in Spanish and Basque. Another reason to learn more about Basque history and culture.


Semana Santa – Holy Week

Holy Week is a big community week in Spain. Tonight we witnessed 100’s of Bilbao people dressed in tunics and peaked hoods, marching through the streets as an act of penance. The hoods are to enable people to undertake their penance anonymously. They are members of confraternities or brotherhoods, many of which started in the Middle Ages as Catholic education for the masses. Some started with the counter reformation. Each group had a different colour outfit and marched together and in step. Not only men – also women and children. Some had bare feet – a sort of extra penance. They had drums and trumpets and played very loud and rather dirgy music. There were many in the street to watch and they were very quiet. We discovered them first at St Nicholas’ Church near the river and watched the end of the procession from our balcony. Mary with the dead Christ – a pieta – a sculpture on a float carried by eight people brought up the rear.  Here are a few images and you may wish to get a little closer to the procession here.

IMG_0214We leave early tomorrow and have stocked up with another Bocadillo Jamon from the friendly ‘jamonerie’ (Al’s creative language) over the road.  As has been the case with every city we have visited we don’t want to leave. We could easily stay here another week and immerse ourselves more. So tomorrow – Seville. And sure to be more processions.