The jauntiness of Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum and caroling Basques

Bilbao is just right: budget friendly, full of lively contemporary architecture, a handsome old town, decent public transportation and of course a spectacular museum





I’d really hate to be a pig in Spain.  This isn’t even a specialty store–just a regular grocery and your choice of hanging pig legs.


The Zubizuri (that’s White Bridge in Basque) designed by Santiago Calatrava.  Calatrava also designed Bilbao’s airport terminal.



Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, opened in 1997.  The architect says the titanium-clad structure was inspired by swimming fish.

My favorite thing about contemporary art is the excitement.  I have this sense of discovery and surprise at the new way that artists are using materials (especially time-based arts—I looooove contemporary performance.)   While I enjoyed my visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao, I didn’t have that feeling of discovery here.  The collection is mostly from the 90’s and almost all works I’ve seen before.  The building can’t be missed, naturally, and the Richard Serra and Sol LeWitt installations are absolutely masterful, though the building could never be a proper background for quieter, smaller works.  Me?  I prefer my contemporary art to be where art is now–alive, a little scrappy, and unpredictable.


The silver ball sculpture is Reflectorama by Anish Kapoor.  The steam, which floats out from under the bridge hourly, is Fog Bridge, a piece by Fujiko Nakaya.



Maman by Louise Bourgeois, created 1999.


I want tiles like this in my bathroom.


The Matter of Time by Richard Serra.



Richard Serra’s monumental (and for me, vertigo inducing) installation is perfect for the building.

As I  was standing off to the side of a gallery waiting for HOB to look at the Serra, a steady flow of people approached me and asked me questions like “Am I allowed to take photos?” or “How do I use this audio tour?” and even though I don’t speak Spanish I answered them all with confidence because, friends, I do this for a living and somehow everyone can tell.


It was our last night in Spain.  It was a great, but intense trip.  It rained/snowed/hailed every day and we were hungry.  We were on our way back to our room to pack up for the next morning’s flight home.  And then the singing began.  A group of Basque men in berets converged in the rain under a department store awning.  They rhythmically pounded sticks on the ground and sang in the Basque language of Euskara, a magnetic weaving of bass, baritone and tenor.  After two songs the men once again pounded sticks and marched off.  “Well,” we said to each other, “that was unexpected and beautiful–wonder what it was all about?”  We poked our heads into the cathedral and found another large group of signing children, men and women in gorgeous traditional dress–they had taken over the church, but only for the duration of a few songs.  Outside the church was more caroling: four part harmonies, a fife and drum, and an accordion.  We forgot where we were headed and listened until the singers moved on.

The young woman working the desk at our hotel was Basque, and she explained that this was a holiday in honor of St. Agnes, a day when the Basque people carol door to door in praise of the saint.



This is why I travel: culture is alive.  Sometimes you need to leave the museum, walk out into the street, and find that the vitality of art is outside where your feet get wet, your stomach is growling, and you just might find yourself in the middle of caroling Basques.


How we got to Bilbao: bus from Oviedo.

Where we slept: Casual Hostal Gurea.  Price: €40.50 for a double.  Recommended: yes.


  1. arteatromexperu · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Arteatromexperu's Weblog.


  2. Thanks for the glimpses of Bilbao. My aunt and her family lived there for about two years in the early 70s. She still speaks fondly of the city and the people they met there.


    1. Does your aunt or her family speak any Euskara, Cheryl? I’m totally fascinated by this language, which I read is one of the oldest in the world.


      1. I don’t believe so, but they are enviously fluent in Spanish and Italian. I’ve never heard of Euskara, but in a grammar book I’ve been hired to proofread, I learned that all European languages, including Sanskrit, seem to come from one original tongue. I find that fascinating. Now I might have to do a bit of research on Euskara.


  3. About the Euskara, they don’t know if is one of the oldest because the first written documents speaking about it are from the romans, so they don’t even know how old can it be. The only thing is known is that is the biggest mystery of languages in the world, being the only language without parents discovered.

    About the post, nice man, liked it, but, YOU MADE IT to visit the UGLIEST of the 3 cities of the basque country. Vitoria and Donosti are much more beautiful than Bilbao.

    So, See you around and safe journeis.

    Ikusi arte eta bidai hon bat opa dizut.

    Greeting from a nomad with a camera.


    1. I’m certainly no linguistic specialist, though I did read in a couple of places theories that Euskara might be derived from Cro-Magnan speech. Imagine that!

      We’ll have to visit Vitoria and Donosti on our next trip to the region. I hear great thing about San Sebastián (and it’s food) as well.


      1. WEll noone know yet. Only theories are made but none is certain.


  4. I try to like modern art, but I usually can’t get that interested in it. I think I need to take a class on how to interpret/understand it. I do really like that Richard Serra installment though. It’s cool to look at and I like how you can experience it from all kinds of different angles.


    1. I not sure it’s necessary that we like all types of art, but I think you have a good idea there about taking a class. It really helps me to take a tour with a docent–if you ever get a chance to take curator’s tour, go for it. Those are the most helpful.


      1. I guess “like” is the wrong word. I want to learn to appreciate it. And maybe out of that will come like. I absolutely hated medieval religious art until I took art history in college, and now it’s my favorite.


  5. alvinasilva · · Reply

    Reblogged this on mulherfocada and commented:


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