Basque Country Part 2: Bilbao

The last couple of days of our honeymoon were spent in Bilbao. Hotel Tayko overlooks the river and is in a brilliant location on the edge of Casco Vieja (the old town). Complementary macaroons and an upgrade to a bigger room with bath (heaven!) made it all the more special. I could get used to this!

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After availing ourselves of the treats and lounging decadently in our soft robes, we made our way to Catedral de Santiago, a glorious mix of Gothic Revival and renaissance architecture. We then had a quick dash around the local delis (buying too much ham and txakoli); and took in the handsome art-nouveau facade of Concordia station, before strolling along the Ria del Nervión to the Guggenheim for our evening meal at Nerua.

This was our biggest splurge of the holiday. Currently listed No.32 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the stark white modernist room belies the friendliness of the staff (we discovered our particular chef for the night used to work at Hackney Picturehouse: small world!) and the playful inventiveness of the cooking. I’m going to try to avoid talking about food too much this time, though. I’ll just say it was delicious. 🙂

Nine courses later, we retraced our steps along the river, passing under Louise Bourgeois’ gigantic Maman (genuinely a bit scary in the dark) and the handsomely-illuminated Zubizuri bridge, before stopping for a nightcap in a full-to-bursting craft beer bar near the hotel

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The next day, after tortilla at Café Iruña (a bit of an institution, filled with Moorish tiles and waiters who think they’re in 1920s Paris), we were back at the Guggenheim. This time, to actually look around the gallery. Since opening in 1997, the instantly-recognisable titanium edifice has been a catalyst for significant regeneration across the whole city. Tourist numbers have risen as Bilbao’s seedier and historically more industrial areas have been given a facelift, in the wake of its opening. 

Frank Gehry’s creation didn’t disappoint. As the sun danced off its gleaming surfaces, we first took in the exterior sculptures and installations: Jeff Koons’ colourful 12 metre tall Puppy and his controversial Tulips; Fujiko Nakaya’s mist; and Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye. All brilliant. Worth lingering over, exploring in different light and from different angles. Inside, it’s a slightly different story. I felt it was the architecture that continued to amaze, more than the exhibits. Although, I loved Richard Serra’s giant rusty Matter of Time sculpture.

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If you buy the Artean Pass, you’ll save money on a dual visit to nearby Museo de Bellas Artes. Like many, it seems, I favour the latter’s permanent collections over the Guggenheim’s. An eclectic mix of pieces from the likes of Gauguin, El Greco, Francis Bacon, and Basque artists Eduardo Chillida and Ignacio Zuloaga. My favourite was Juan Muñoz’s Hanging Figures (pictured below). To mark its 110th anniversary, the gallery is currently presenting an exhibition called ABC: The alphabet of the Bilbao Museum, which is wonderful – rather than ordering works chronologically or through schools of art, they are grouped into themes under each letter of the alphabet (D = Desire, for example; W = War). Loved it!

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Our final day was spent exploring the seven original 14th century streets (Las Sietre Calles) of Casco Viejo, as well as Ribera food market, the riverside, San Anton Eliza church, and the “hip and artsy” Las Cortes quarter (see some examples of the area’s amazing street art in my last photo blog).

When our legs started aching and our tummies rumbled, we stopped in Plaza Nueva for a pintxos lunch, sampling bites from Casa Victor Montes, Culmen, and – our favourite – Gure Toki. I think I mentioned in my San Sebastián blog, the best dishes are often the ones you order from the menu rather than take from the counter top (although those are usually delicious too). You can also order media raciones (half-portions) or full plates. But doing so fills you up quickly, so we tended to stick to tapa-sized bites. Having said that, my favourite dish that lunchtime was the half-portion of rare chuleton steak we shared. My mouth is watering at the memory. Dammit, I said I wasn’t going to bang on about food again. Sorry!

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