Wednesday, July 04, 2012


It’s rare that you’ll find us seeking out big cities just so that we can visit a particular museum. Rare does not mean never. As we are in Basque, there is Bilbao to think about. Bilbao is home to the (now 15 year old) Bilbao Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art.

Now, there’s a whole story about the Guggenheim brothers and their rise to wealth (and it’s not an especially pretty story), and there’s another one about how it is that the Guggenheim offspring turned to philanthropy, and then there is a great story about how a prominent architect (Gehry) won the bid to design Bilbao’s museum – but they’re long stories and I promised I’d cut down on long stories here, so we’ll put them aside for now. I’ll just say this – if you like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, you will be stunned at the magnitude and originality of the space created for the Guggenheim collection in Bilbao.

On the approach, it just looks a little weird. Almost thrown together. Titanium plates, glass, limestone block, all shuffled, like a deck of cards or a clumsy tower of kid blocks, just as it spills to the table.


Maybe you’ll be charmed by Puppy (pronounced ‘poopy’) – Koon’s flower pup that stands just as you come close to the entrance. I kind of have an “eh” reaction to Puppy, but he does offer color, so there’s that.


The Museum stands at the side of an old Bilbao bridge and I could write another chapter about the integration of the (somewhat severe) bridge into the design and making it a wonderful integral part of the entirety -- and we're talking about the old industrial part of Bilbao that grew along the once busy river, so there's that challenge too...


... but I'll pass on that and say only that the best view of the building will be from the bridge. And so on the evening of our arrival in Bilbao, we walk across the bridge and look down on what now surely must look to you like a magnificent ship. It takes your breath away! (As does standing on a busy artery, high over the waters, if you're inclined toward vertigo.)


Once across the river, we walk along its bank, then cross back on the nearby pedestrian bridge – also something to admire.


Even after you cross it.


It’s evening, We’re hungry. Pintxos first, okay Ed? He goes along and we sit down at a known place thinking that surely a known place will be easy to navigate and we have okay tapas (sorry, pintxos) – a good octopus salad, a yummy egg spinach and ham tortilla and, well, a sort of flat tasting artichoke, but fine, all fine, can’t be immediately brilliant at this, it takes skills to order tapas here, yes, I admit it, it’s complicated.


And now we look for a dinner spot. I ripped a page out a book with several names of modest places. None of them are open anymore. And so for future reference: we promise ourselves never again to use printed guides for food searches.

Wandering up one street and down the next is sometimes a nice way to pick dining spots – but this time we do not strike gold. More like an “also ran.” It is a café, an old one and we order just appetizers – mushrooms with nuts and ham, fried mussels and fried green peppers. I know, lots of “fried.” 


And they are just fine but here’s the thing – we’ve been having a heck of a tough time eating inexpensively and well since leaving San Sebastian. Let me qualify this – none of it has been bad, but nor has it been memorable (for example, I just nudged Ed and asked him if he remembered what the third dish was in Bilbao and neither of us could recall it. You could say that this is what happens when you travel with the beginnings of dementia, but I don’t think we’re there yet).

The next morning, we are at the entrance to the Museum before it even opens.


You can’t come late to a popular place. You want to have a minute at least to enter it in the quietness that lets you see it, even if only ever so briefly, without distraction.

And we do have that.

Art people complain that too many visitors gawk at the building and don’t take in the art. I can’t imagine how this could happen. The art is perfectly distributed between three floors, all opening onto the grand atrium. (here it is, looking up.)

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It is the easiest museum to navigate and it has such imposing art (consider this first room of canvases of Lenin and Stalin, with prominent penises in each, or consider the second one -- the snake: a huge and I mean huge, so huge that you can NEVER remove it from the museum – art sculpture)...



There is a rule (I think) that allows you to photograph the architecture but now so much the individual canvases and no one knows how to distinguish between the two. I certainly don’t know. There aren't signs, just an occasional person to tell you no, not that, but yes to the other.


I wont spend forever on the art here, even though Ed and I do spend forever on the art there, inside Gehry’s building – which is unusual for us. Okay, just a tiny bit more: consider a small room with warm light bulbs and a thousand photos of people. Or another room, where a teacher has kids do a dance in front of the mirrors permanently there.


Or the special exhibition of David Hockney, who painted countless canvases of Yorkshire landscapes and then, after, moved on to produce incredible ‘paintings’ with his iPad. You can see the latter here:


I mean, how do you not marvel at it all? MoMA in New York has a lot of the ‘famous’ art. The pieces in Bilbao are (for me at least) less known, but oh my, are they impressive.

Okay, okay, I need to stop. It was, I have to say, one of the very best museum experiences we’ve had in many, many years.

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Here we are: look closely and you’ll see us reflected. In many panes.

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And now we are outside the museum again and the air is pleasant, the light is bright...


And after? There is no after. Our trip really does almost end there. We go back to our cool hotel and I upload pictures (the WiFi is so slow!) and we munch on free snacks...

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... and then we walk back to the train station – reeling back our travels here, back, back, so that we let go of the new spaces, one at a time...


...and we take the train back to Barcelona. (Not a short ride. Seven hours.)


We pull into Barcelona at 10:30 at night. We have a handful of hours to accomplish the following: walk to the Hotel Villa Emilia, reclaim my suitcase with the rosés, find supper, pack up and cushion those damn wines, rest, shower, grab a 5 am cab to the airport (no bus runs that early here).

Where to eat? When we were here earlier in June, we poked around the neighborhood to find a place close by that would serve a good supper very very late. A block away there is the casual, the wonderful, the (finally!) well priced "Little Snail."

The proprietor is a good soul who asked to be photographed and placed on the Internet (I will be famous!) so here he is:

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The satisfaction comes with the food. Simple, sure, but memorable. Fantastic paella, followed by shrimp with an abundance of garlic...

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 ...ending with an apple tart. (night menu, all inclusive price: 12.90)


So it’s a perfect ending. One always hopes for a perfect ending. You can’t expect everything coming together for you every day, but isn’t it true that the end of it all, it should put you in a good mood? Day is done, gone the sun... It was such a good trip!

And the (full?) moon shines brightly over the Calle Calabria in Barcelona. Home, for just a few hours, passing through, to get to the real home.


[From Detroit: Happy Fourth of July!]