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Guggenheim's Spanish Port
Acquiring a Taste for Bilbao, the Museum's Gritty Riverside Home

By Deborah Baldwin
The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 1997; Page E01

I'd heard about the new Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the celebrated $100 million art showcase that recently opened in the Basque region of northern Spain. But no one told me about Bilbao itself.

"Gritty," the guidebooks called it. The Basque country's financial center and former "industrial engine." Home of Basque separatists -- who seek to claim their region as a country of their own -- and an occasional bomb-toting terrorist. A port city sprawled on a worn-out river, surrounded by shipyards, vacant blast furnaces and railroad tracks. It sounded like Pittsburgh 50 years ago, only wetter (average annual rainfall: four feet). As one guidebook gamely cautioned, "Don't judge the city by the dirt under its nails." But hey, how not?

It didn't help when I landed at the boxy airport on a rainy November night, missed the bus and was forced to experience rush hour in a cab. It looked as if the drive into town -- the long way, as it turned out, down and around to the valley-bottom center -- was going to cost more than my hotel room. I was hungry, had no idea where I was going and spoke no Spanish. A long weekend in Bilbao, I was beginning to think, might be a terrible mistake.

Three days later I had to tear myself away. This time I caught the airport bus like a pro, savoring the elevated view of the city along the river, my suitcase

stuffed with marked-up street maps, a status poster from the new Guggenheim, names of restaurants I wanted to revisit, cultural attractions I never got to and cryptic notes about which street corner in the CascoViejo -- old-town Bilbao -- had pleased me most.

The Casco Viejo -- Bilbao's vibrant core. Echoing at all hours with music and nonstop talk, even an occasional fife and drum. A pedestrian's paradise woven with medieval streets, cafes and smoky tapas bars, and lit at ground level like a runway from dusk to dawn. Proud possessor of Spain's largest covered market, the '20s-era Mercado de la Ribera -- three great floors stacked with seafood, meat, vegetables and miscellany, including one stand specializing in walnuts, cranberry beans and snails. Location of the 14th-century Cathedral de Santiago, closed for renovations, and the Plaza Nueva, a rectangle rimmed with covered arcades, bars and restaurants, and overflowing on Saturday nights, when couples, kids and well-dressed babies go out on the town.

Reflecting on America's car-driven culture and the distances it creates, I drank in the cozy scene, thinking: Cake mix must be more complicated than this. Take one auto-free zone designed for small business. Just add people.

I had wandered into the plaza inadvertently but kept coming back throughout my visit, even though singles tend to stick out in the old town's village atmosphere. Coffee in the pretty blue-and-white-tiled Cafe Bilbao one morning, fish soup at the chic black-white-and-gold Victor Montes deli late one night. As the hubbub of round-the-clock conversationalists rose higher and higher, I felt more and more like a pigeon who had slipped into an aviary filled with exotic tropical birds.

Step away from the Casco Viejo and you'll get a glimpse of Bilbao's nonexotic side. With a population topping 1 million, Spain's fourth-largest city has neighborhoods you wouldn't want to get lost in, charmless suburbs that climb along the Nervion River as it makes its way north to the Atlantic Ocean, and the toxic-green river itself, where I spied one poor fish flat on its side, expelling its last breath. Come to Bilbao expecting to find a larger, more cosmopolitan Barcelona, and you'll be disappointed.

But you're in for a surprise if all you're expecting is a new museum. Bilbao is the financial capital of Basque country, a fierce, mountainous region so stubbornly independent it took the Romans aback. Basque culture, which spills over the Pyrenees into France, managed to survive succeeding waves of other invaders, never mind standing up to Fascist leader Franco, and the area around Bilbao remains a center of the sometimes violent Basque independence movement. In the three Basque provinces of Spain, inhabitants speak not only Spanish but an exotic indigenous language so ancient it befuddles linguists.

This is one of Spain's wealthiest regions, thanks to centuries of industrialization -- much of it centered on Bilbao, where narrow medieval streets on the Right Bank have long played counterpart to the broad 19th-century boulevards on the Left. But manufacturing has largely given way to a white-collar economy and visions of lifting Bilbao cleanly out of the past and into a postindustrial future. In a contemporary display of Basque pride, the city has drummed up more than $1 billion in redevelopment projects and called in world-class designers to weld the new to scraps of the old. Think of it as recycling on a grand scale: The Guggenheim, for one, squats on the riverfront, incorporating a traffic bridge and making witty reference to the site's former tenants: a factory and a parking lot. Other projects in the works include a convention center and a music center.

Two years ago a splashy Metro, designed by British architect Norman Foster, started accepting passengers, who descend into the shiny stations through fanciful glass entrances shaped like large see-through snails. All this infrastructure, coupled with smaller attractions like Bilbao's opera house and its Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum), suggest a pleasant, tourist-driven economy to come. Guggenheim officials estimate an influx of about 1 million visitors next year. Prices are beginning to float upward, and the break traditionally offered to hotel guests on weekends may vanish as tourists overtake visiting business executives.

Tourism, however, hasn't yet taken over Bilbao's soul. In search of souvenirs, I found stacks of creamy white salt cod, stiff as starched shirts; baskets of silver-wrapped chocolates in the shape of anchovies; and crisp rounds of crunchy almond nougat. But no cutesy gift shops with beribboned jam jars and official Bilbao dish towels. In some of the nicest parts of town, you can't even find postcards.

Forget shopping and keep moving. On Friday night, you may stumble into a gallery opening and segue into one of the many tapas bars, which swell and empty as groups of young people, dressed informally in black, storm in and out at 30-minute intervals. At the covered market, you can try to match up the displays of raw ingredients with the Basque dishes listed on menus. Stop by a 7-Eleven-style convenience store where you'll find magazines, videotapes, bulk candy -- and bulk olives. Or walk by a bar where everyone stands around as if it's perfectly natural to sip beer underneath a forest of hams, hung from the ceiling to dry.

The trick is to have a game plan, and my own became quite simple. If Bilbao was hosting the world's hottest new museum, where would the cognoscenti go out to eat?

Night No. 1 found me in an inexpensive hotel right off the Plaza de Arriaga, also known as El Arenal. Right nearby, in the pretty theater/opera house, or Teatro Arriaga, is the tourist office. Though this is the place to get your first street map and the staff is friendly and conversant in English, the information isn't up-to-date (hotel prices, for example, don't reflect recent increases). The restaurant list I ended up with was hard to mesh with the official street map. (Access guidebooks, are you there? Zagat, do you read me?) Bilbao is a city where word of mouth will point you in the right direction. This puts non-Spanish-speakers at an obvious disadvantage, but it's worthwhile, I finally learned, to keep asking.

All of which explains how I ended up in a family restaurant in the Casco Viejo recommended by the mother-daughter team at my first hotel, bravely making my way through the special fixed-price menu while the few people around me watched TV and nibbled on sandwiches. Unable to persuade the waiter to give me a look-see in the kitchen, I sat back and let him bring it on, all the way from sliced ham to sliced melon, with the local specialty, a white fish called merluza, in between. The waiter was kind enough, and so was the slightly faded hotel I'd found in my year-old guidebook. But something told me visiting artists and architects would have done better, and the next day I set out in search of new room and board.

Hotel No. 2 had an unpromising entry: no signs, and a group of workers noisily stirring up dust as they chipped away at an ancient stone wall. But one floor up was the tiny two-star Iturrienea Ostatua. Run by Igone Orbe, an artist who speaks French and some English, and her partner, Carlos Vara, it was perky, pretty and inexpensive, if noisy at night -- especially on weekends, when Bilbaons come to the Casco Viejo to party till dawn.

But in rainy Bilbao, I had miles to go before I'd eat. Armed with waterproof Eddie Bauer chukkas and an umbrella, I walked to the Cafe Boulevard, a spacious, theatrical-looking meeting place on No. 3 Arenal. The Arenal Bridge took me across the river to the sunny-yellow rail station, with art nouveau wrought-iron and tile trim, and, at the busy Plaza de Espana, a statue of Diego Lopez de Haro. Haro was lord of Biscay Province and made the already established community an official city in 1300. Ignoring the great man and adjacent architecture, I scanned downstream to see if I could catch sight of El Perro Chico, one of the hotel owners' recommended restaurants.

There's a striking contrast between the closed-in Casco Viejo and the grid-like "extension" built in the 19th century by Spanish urban planners, who prized order and open air. The backbone of this newer part of town is the Gran Via boulevard. It starts near the Plaza de Espana and ends up at the Plaza Sagrado Corazon traffic circle on the other side of town, where remnants of Bilbao's heavy-industry past are visible from the edge of a lush green park. Lined with midrise banks and stores, some of them quite handsome. The Gran Via is an easy orientation point when traveling between the two areas of town most interesting to visitors.

It's easy enough to route yourself another way: via the Guggenheim itself, located on a gentle curve of the Left Bank north of the old part of town. One of the charms of the two-month-old museum, in fact, is the way it seems to be everywhere at once, its titanium siding and seemingly slapdash design making it look like a pile of shiny tin cans, tossed together then sat upon.

Walk north along the river on the Casco Viejo side and see it as you come around the bend, just beyond a jazzy new footbridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and apparently pinned together with white cording to yield a cross between a fishing net and a billowing sail. Or go over the river at the Arenal Bridge and zigzag museumward along the city streets, crisply laid out by some of the world's finest city planners. When least expected, the museum will spring into view, a jumble of wavy silver framed by the sober mansions and office buildings that lead up to it. Travel all the way to the end of the Gran Via, walk through the shade trees and around the basin in the park and there it is again, dashing, grounded and complex in its former factory setting.

It's been called many things, including "a monumental cubist sculpture of a ship" (the Economist) and "the greatest building of our time" (architect Philip Johnson). But the glory of the new Guggenheim, devoted to 20th-century European and American art and designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry, is a particularly pleasant surprise for those who don't consider themselves Gehry fans. Here's a 257,000-square-foot museum that seems both totally at home in its barren setting and weirdly alien at the same time. It makes visitors smile, not from shock so much as amusement at the sight of the playful exterior and awe at the soaring spaces inside.

Hey, I know about these, you happily conclude when confronted by the dramatic glass elevators: They have these in food courts and hotel lobbies back home! Despite yourself, you wait in line for a chance to walk the narrow spaces between the thin steel walls of the curvy, 104-foot-long "Snake," sculpted by Richard Serra especially for the biggest gallery on Earth. And just as you get adjusted to the two-story spaces and oddball items on temporary display ("Sunflowers, lead, ash, asparagus and emulsion on canvas," it says under one objet d'art; another is tagged, "Lead, glass, photography and hair"), you find yourself in a conventional gallery space with four plain walls hung with Picassos and Pollocks. "Oh, thank goodness," you say to yourself, privately relieved. "Finally an artist who knows exactly what things really look like."

If you land at the museum before it opens, look about for the Gehry-designed cafe attached to the museum at street level. A bright place packed with visitors, it serves cappuccino and sweet rolls to a nonstop snacking clientele.

Jet lag aside, it takes time to adjust to the Spanish eating schedule, which seems to stretch from 9 a.m. till midnight. Breakfast is relatively light and lunch a full-blown meal, usually beginning around 2 -- or later. Between 5 and 7 p.m., people pour into pastry shops to knock back coffees and sweets. Things quiet down briefly, but by 9 p.m. the streets of the Casco Viejo are thronged again, many of whom seem to recover from lunch by topping off with tapas or sandwiches and beer or red wine.

If the Casco Viejo is the place to go for tapas, uptown is where insiders go for dinner.

The sun burst out the next day, inspiring me to jump on the Metro and ride it out to the Neguri stop north of town. A long walk downhill takes you to the beach and to a walkway over the bay. After my beach excursion, I popped out of the Metro at the Abando stop and took a right when I got to the river. Several blocks later, I spied a white-aproned chef standing in a doorway in the distance. I knew I'd found my 3 p.m. meal.

Behind a plain exterior, Perro Chico is done up in the same cobalt blue Gehry picked for his museum. It's a light, spacious place with a contemporary menu, helpfully translated into English. And it was here where I tasted one of those transcendent dishes that make Basque cuisine seem so appealing: a gently sauced plate of baby artichokes and tiny clams, still in their shells. At last I'd arrived at a place where insiders actually go.

That night I fell in with the hotel owners and another guest as they visited an art gallery and their favorite tapas bar. At midnight I collapsed on my comfy bed, the pleasant din of conversation rising from the street below. Little did I guess that a boisterous group of Bilbaons would set to singing just outside my window -- at 5 a.m.

Deborah Baldwin, a Paris-based writer, last wrote for the Travel section on Spain's Barceloneta.

Details: Bilbao

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $4.75. Metro stop: Moyua. Guided visits can be arranged with two weeks' notice. For more information, call 011-34-4435-90-80 (Bilbao), or, in New York, 212-423-3500. Or check the Web site:

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Washington to Bilbao. Iberia offers service to Bilbao from New York, via Madrid, and is quoting a round-trip fare of $738, with restrictions and including add-on fare from Washington. Cab fare from the airport to downtown Bilbao is about $15. Or take the bus, which runs at 40-minute intervals, for about $1. Depending on traffic, the trip takes 20 to 40 minutes.

GETTING AROUND: Bilbao has a user-friendly Metro, and there are many city bus lines -- plus a light rail system. But you can walk just about everywhere. Bring waterproof shoes in case of rain.

WHERE TO STAY: In the luxury category, the 53-room Hotel Lopez de Haro (2 Obispo Orueta, telephone 011-34-4423-55-00, fax 011-34-4423-45-00), in an upscale residential neighborhood, has a clubby ambiance and doubles that start at $150, with discounts on Friday and Saturday. A fixed-price meal in the hotel's gourmet restaurant is about $26.

The Hotel Carlton (2 Plaza Federico Moyua, telephone 011-34-4416-22-00, fax 011-34-4416-46-28) is centrally located and has 148 rooms with doubles starting at $163. A fixed-price meal in the hotel's restaurant is $20.

The Hotel Villa de Bilbao (87 Gran Via, telephone 011-34-4441-60-00, fax 011-34-4441-65-29), within easy walking distance of the museum, has 140 rooms and doubles starting at $112, with discounts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In the Casco Viejo, the nine-unit Hotel Arriaga (3 Ribera St., telephone 011-34-4479-00-01) has rooms for $55. The charming but tiny Iturrienea Ostatua (14 Santa Maria, telephone 011-34-4416-15-00, fax 011-34-4415-89-29) has doubles for $45. Add $5 for two continental breakfasts.

WHERE TO EAT: Keep in mind that many Bilbaons dine midday and snack at night. Prices include service in most cases and wine in some (ask if it's unclear); leave about 5 percent extra for the waiter. Most restaurants offer a relatively inexpensive "menu of the day." Expect prices to rise sharply when you order a la carte.

In the newer part of Bilbao, Goizeko Kabi (4 Particular de Estraunza) has a fixed-price, three-course daily menu at about $33. Metro-Moyua (40 Gran Via) has a fixed-price menu at about $12.

In the Casco Viejo, at El Perro Chico (2 Aretxaga), three courses with wine are about $35. Casa Victor Montes (8 Plaza Nueva -- not to be confused with Victor, a different restaurant on the same plaza) has seafood main courses at about $15; tapas and other light meals start at $5. Retolaza (1 Calle de la Tenderia) and Mandoya (5 Calle de Perro) have fixed-price meals at about $20. And Gatz (10 Santa Maria) has good tapas.

INFORMATION: Tourist Office of Spain, 666 Fifth Ave., 35th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10103, 212-265-8822.

-- Deborah Baldwin

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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