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Spain

Bilbao

If you like a bit of oyster in with your grit, you'll find plenty of both in Bilbao.

 

You can taste a city at the top of its game, with traces of the ashes it has risen from still scattered all around. Quite literally in the case of certain restaurants, but more on that later.

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A creative law unto itself

To say Bilbao is a law unto itself is literally, as well as spiritually true.

 

For reasons too unfathomable to fathom, it not only has its own (impenetrable) language, but its own laws and the right to raise its own taxes. With that comes a resilience and indefatigability bordering on stubbornness.

 

Goodness knows, over the years it has needed it. 

Franco’s iron fist demanded one thing from Bilbao; steel.

Bilbao delivered. It industrialised and its population doubled. A few got rich, but inequality soared. Much of the city ended up slums.


Then in 1975 a perfect storm rolled in. Franco died. Spain became free and open to global markets, just as oil prices shot up and commodity prices hit the floor.

The inevitable recession hit Bilbao hard. Youth unemployment hit sixty percent and the city’s health hit rock bottom, addicted to heroin and state hand-outs. Toxic pollution became so extreme, the river Nervion was declared ecologically dead and a third of city land was abandoned.

So much for the grit. The pearl in Bilbao’s story is the commercial power of art, and the totemic impact of one extraordinary building; the Guggie. 

Of course, much has been written about 'the Guggenheim effect', but the building’s impact is deeply visceral, not just commercial. After a brief ride in from the airport, you emerge from a long tunnel through the mountain, and bang! There it sits; inventive, impertinent, defiant. You can only experience that particular surprise once in your life, so experience it you must.

On second impression, seeing the Guggenheim is perhaps a bit like meeting a celebrity in the flesh. A little smaller than you imagined, but boy does it command the room. Guggenheim Bilbao Top Trumps the Sydney Opera House for presence.

 

Jorn Utzon was of course gifted the more striking site, dominating the expansive Sydney Harbour and pretty much floating in it. Whereas Frank Gehry was dealt a congested bend in the river, with plenty of competition for the eyeline.

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The Guggenheim Effect

As a result, the best views of Gehry’s titanium concoction are often snatched glimpses. Crossing a long, city street, there it sits, gleaming assuredly at the end. 

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Titanium lustre

And when I say gleaming, let’s talk about exactly what colour the Guggie is. Titanium has its own particular lustre, quite unlike cold, harsh steel; darker, richer and thoroughly unpredictable. The weather plays games with it. In some lights, the whole building glows with a sienna warmth, in other moments it’s resolutely cold, with stark flashes of cyan chiming amongst the pewter and slate tones.

 

I certainly danced around my palette of watercolours, like Monet trying to capture the ever-changing facade of Rouen Cathedral, albeit I was rather less successful. Look at other people’s renditions and you’ll notice the best are pure line, or pure tone.

 

Some people say Gehry’s choice of titanium for the The Gug’s cladding was a deeply political choice (anything but steel). Others quote practicality (titanium is gossamer light for its strength). I reckon it was pure aesthetic playfulness. Bravo!

Playful audacity was, of course, what commanded the world’s attention. It channelled Bilbao’s ‘down, but not out’ attitude, captured the ‘two-fingers-to-convention’ ethos of 21st century modern art, and signalled a city in business. Its audaciousness was, of course, good for business. Bilbao’s economy has since switched from 80% industry to 80% services. The thing it’s most in service to, being of course art tourism, a lucrative seam, and my own particular MO.

Once inside, you quickly realise the gallery is the art.

 

To visit is to wander around within a masterpiece. And whilst you’ve no doubt seen the building’s public face on Instaface or Googlebook, the choreography of its artfully warped spaces is something you can only appreciate by being there. Sinuous, sensuous, spiralling, surprising, sometimes constricted, other times soaring, you rapidly run out of adjectives and settle on plain ‘stunning’. 

 

Oh, and there’s some art too. The stand outs being a wonderfully cheerful Rothko and a set of playful and monumental installations by Richard Serra. Those aside, this is the sort of gallery where someone drops a dirty tissue on the floor and before you know it, a curious crowd has gathered round, admiring the irony with which its folds echo the gallery space. While security guards earnestly prevent admirers getting close enough to touch. 

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The Gallery is the art

Food is Bilbao’s other adjective defying art form. Borrowing from the Basque tradition and rivalling nearby San Sebastian, Bilboa’s food scene is now world class.  I savoured two of the top ten best meals of my life there.

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The best of Bilbao's past

And here’s where the phoenix and ashes happily co-exist. While a lot of Bilbao has been rebuilt and gentrified, in and around the Campo Viejo things remain a little … authentic. 

Let’s just say in parts, you have to take the rough with the rougher.

 

Right in amongst all this sits local joint, Dando la Brasa. It looks shouty, urban, raw and feisty.  But its food is something else; raw, refined, respectful ... oh and feisty, if that combo is even possible.  I ordered the five course tasting menu, but really regret not ordering the nine. It was that good.

 

A couple of days later, as I was smugly recalibrating my all-time dining top ten, I found my way to Mina. The entrance is located precisely where you’ve given up hope of a one star Michelin restaurant ever existing. Another example of judging, book and cover colluding to surprise.

The surprises continued inside, with each dish embodying a uniquely playful experience.

 

It's the sort of food where ashes from Bilbao’s one remaining steel smelting plant are sprinkled over a single perfect quenelle of caramel ice cream. To be entirely honest, I’m telling a bit of a porky here. The carbon dust went with the confit oyster. The ice cream actually had a naturally occurring rock of salt in the shape of a nymph’s foot grated over it! I kid you not.

 

I realise the advice “prepare for surprises” rather defeats the point, but that’s Bilbao through and through.

 

I never say this about places I review, but Bilbao is probably a three night destination. You could always combine it with San Sebastian or some of the Basque's beautiful northern beaches. They’re probably even better than Sydney’s Northern Beaches, but I’ll have to make a long overdue trip Down Under to properly verify that claim.  

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Always look down

A Few Links and Practicalities

(Just sharing the love. I absolutely don’t get paid for these.)

 

Hotel Miro:  https://www.mirohotelbilbao.com/en/

I’d say this was good, rather than brilliant. But the location and view, if you’re lucky enough to pay for one, is brilliant. The better rooms are worth stumping up for.

 

Dando La Brasa:  https://dandolabrasa.com/

Mina: www.restaurantemina.es

Don’t be a cheapskate! The full fourteen courses won’t trouble your waistline, even if they will dent your pocket. The accompanying wine pairing is a journey around the region and an education in itself.  I sat at the counter overlooking the kitchen at work, which adds to the drama.  

 

Bistro Guggenheim: www.bistroguggenheimbilbao.com/en/

A two minute stroll from the Miro hotel. If you feel doubtful about choosing a gallery restaurant for a destination meal (as opposed to a gallery pit stop), don’t be.  The experience was only pipped out of my all-time top ten by the two venues listed above. 

Don’t miss;

Bilbao has the most beautiful railway station in Spain. It’s hard to miss as you pass by across the river on the tram. 

 

I would suggest taking several walks past the Gug, at different times of day.

 

The local white wine, Txakoli. Fill your boots. I doubt you’ll find it on any list anywhere else in the world.

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