The decision to make Bilbao and the Basque region of northern Spain the focal point of my first trip to the Iberian Peninsula is met with mixed reviews.
"Bilbao is ... an industrial city," says Leyre, a friend from Valencia, in thoughtful euphemism. "But you'll have a great time in San Sebastián!" she optimistically adds.
Fun, kitschy and beloved: Puppy, a flower "sculpture" by Jeff Koons, guards the entrance to the magnificent Museo Guggenheim Bilbao. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).
When I arrive in the city, even the friendly front desk at the boutique Hotel Miró raises something of a surprised, furrowed brow.
"You're staying with us for ... four nights. Wow. Ok!"
Somehow, I get the feeling that many people, native Bilbaínos included, still underestimate just how far the city has come in its urban renewal efforts. But this means fewer tourists compared to other parts of Spain and, for the traveler who favors rambling down the slightly off-the-beaten-track anyway, this maybe isn't a bad thing.
At first glance, Bilbao is a surprisingly attractive river city that belies its somewhat austere reputation. It is authentically working class yet civilized with an understated cultural refinement. Clearly, the largest city in the Basque region is prospering again and, might I say, making it look rather easy. The streets are alive without much in the way of stress or chaos and life for citizens in this welcoming city seems to be very good.
However, it wasn't always this way.
No less than a quarter of a century ago, Bilbao was mired in an ugly, post-industrial decline. The city became Spain's version of a rust-belt Pittsburgh, a poster child for urban decay, and Bilbao's youth began migrating in droves to other Spanish cities in search of greener pastures. To make matters worse, increasing political tension and terrorist activity incited by a small group of Basque separatists proved counter-intuitive to overall progress. Things looked bleak.
Fortunately, the city's hard-working spirit and visionary urban planning would prevail, and by the early 1990's, Bilbao had clearly become a nice turnaround story. The opening of the city's landmark Guggenheim Museum further established the city's position as a metropolis on the move, just in time for the 21st century.
"Industrial" Bilbao has never looked better. (2008). The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Puente de la Salve (the bridge), and the Ría de Bilbao glow like few others at midnight.
One might (successfully) argue that the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao put the city on the map. Designed by Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry, "El Goog" is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of modern architecture anywhere in the world. And let me tell you, in person, it does not disappoint.
Like the somewhat comparable Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim Bilbao evokes a maritime theme and resembles a giant ship - a clear nod to the city's shipbuilding and fishing roots. Uniquely clad in titanium tiles, the museum reflects a spectrum of shades and moods at different times throughout the day. Inside, the 45-metre (148-foot) high glass atrium, is positively a sight to behold. Inspired by the human heart, the foyer "pumps" arteries of catwalks and walkways to the different galleries of the museum. Incredible stuff.
Yet, for all of its architectural triumphs, perhaps the most impressive thing about the Guggenheim is its accessibility to citizens and visitors alike. Sure, the art and architecture here are world-class, but it doesn't come with the uppity attitude. One doesn't have to look much further than the museum's extensive grounds to appreciate this.
From Jeff Koon's kitschy and delightful "sculpture" Puppy - a 12-metre (39-foot) dog which cheerfully guards the museum's entrance ... to the extensive playground crawling with kids at all hours of the day ... to the wine and pintxos (tapas) bar featuring the live music of Spanish guitars under the night stars ... the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is proof that the best public places should not be built only to be admired, but also lived and enjoyed.
Happily, the Guggenheim's vibe of playful accessibility runs throughout the whole city, and it is this very disposition which makes Bilbao the splendid place that it is. This Renaissance, of sorts, is one for the people ... and I'm glad I had the chance to be part of it, if only for a few days.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao at night. (2008). The "spider-looking" sculpture out in front of the museum is Maman, by Louise Bourgeois.
The shimmering Puente de la Salve. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).
Colourful window boxes are the trademark of the Hesperia Bilbao Hotel. Bilbao, Spain. (2008). A sure sign of life in a comeback city, new hotels are springing up on both sides of the Ría de Bilbao.
The amazing Zubizuri footbridge, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. Bilbao, Spain. (2008)
A slice of skyline of the new Bilbao, with the Zubizuri footbridge at the left. (2008).
"El Goog" by day. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).
Kids enjoy dodging the random jets of water shooting from the fountains on the grounds of the Guggenheim. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).
Guggenheim lemons. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).
Juan Muñoz's Thirteen Laughing at Each Other outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. (2008).
I can only assume that Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Clyde and the Bilbao city tram are fleeing a hungry Pac-Man in this shot. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).
Kids at play in Plaza Nueva, in the heart of Bilbao's Casco Viejo (Old Quarter). (2008).
On the streets of Casco Viejo. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).