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Bilbao – The cultural magnet

The Bilbao effect

During my arts management studies the Bilbao effect was a leading topic of many lectures and the Guggenheim Museum used as one of the flagship examples of arts-led regeneration. I was intrigued by this transition from the industrial port city to the cultural magnet and I always wanted to find out how this academic hype measures up to the reality. At the beginning of June I finally had a chance to visit the capital of Vizcaya.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

I started exploring the city with a morning walk around Casco Viejo, a home to Bilbao’s original seven streets, Las Siete Calles, that date back to the 19th century. This charming old quarter with colourful streets is full of shops, cafes and bars offering tasty pinchos. It is easy to get to it as most of the places in Bilbao are within walking distance. Alternatively you can take a metro. Bilbao is a small city but amazingly has a metro system in place, which is not the case in other cities in Spain.

Euskara, the Basque language, made my head spin when I tried to work out the names of some streets and monuments. Funny enough, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language in Plaza Nueva was one of the first sights I came across.

Strolling or cycling by the river Nervión is a must but can get a bit tough on a very hot day. I walked from Mercado de la Ribera, by the building of the Arriga Theater all the way to the Guggenheim Museum and it was absolutely scorching. I could see that even the flower puppy was suffering that day since the artwork by Jeff Koons uses live plants and flowers.

The landmark museum

For some reason I pictured famous building designed by Frank Gehry as much bigger than it actually is in real life. I was also surprised that the Guggenheim Museum does not have a permanent collection, which then again could be down to space availability. I was very happy to see and visit as this building is a true landmark.

In June there were only two exhibitions open to the public. The Matter of Time included eight sculptures by Richard Serra playing with visitors’ spatial awareness and the top floor of the museum was dedicated to Niki de Saint Phalle and her political and feminist artworks.

Guggenheim Bilbao was not short of sculptures. Except the Three Graces by de Saint Phalle, the Tulips by Koons and the Tall Tree & The Eye by Anish Kapoor displayed outside of the building there was also a sculpture that I was very familiar with as I have seen it already in London – Maman by Louise Bourgeois. Certainly one of more iconic pieces by this artist.

Maman by Louise Bourgeois

Maman by Louise Bourgeois

The starchitects

Bilbao’s magnetism is also about big names of modern architecture or the starchitecture as some refer to the work of Gehry and other well-known architects. The city proudly presents Zubizuri, a white footbridge designed by Santiago Calatrava and the Alhondiga, an old wine warehouse transformed by Philippe Starck into a grand multi-purpose venue with a state-of-the-art swimming pool with a transparent floor and a massive sun terrace.

For any fans of panoramic views I would recommend taking a funicular to the summit of the nearby Artxanada mountain. The departure point is only round the corner from Zubizuri bridge, on the right bank of the river.

Out of all cool things about Bilbao I really like that fact that the locals refer to the metro entrances as fosteritos. These glass structures were affectionately named after Norman Foster, the architect who designed them. This is just quirkiness on another level! Love it.

Metro entrance in Bilbao

Metro entrance in Bilbao

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