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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao by day

The eerie colours and shadows by night of The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

I have wanted to visit Bilbao for many years, ever since I first saw the first image of The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I followed up this first image with some research into how Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Guggenheim, came up with the design and I was hooked. I had to see this amazing building which emerged from first crumpling of some alfoil and some free-flowing sketches from this master architect.

The opportunity emerged with this trip and was made even better in the company of two architects – my husband and my son, who can genuinely gain some professional development by exploring the ins and outs of this magnificent building. And it is magnificent. And to think that is it’s 21 years old. How did that concept building which emerged from some crumpled alfoil possibly be designed, engineered and built into a functional, beautiful art museum? Whether you view it by day or by night, in sunshine or overcast weather, the shadows and detail of the building are exquisite.


Various views of The Guggenheim

Constructed of titanium‭, ‬limestone‭, ‬and glass‭, ‬the seemingly random curves of the exterior are designed to catch the light and react to the sun and the weather‭.  Fixing clips make a shallow central dent in each of the‭ .‬38mm titanium tiles‭, ‬making the surface appear to ripple in the changing light and giving an extraordinary iridescence to the overall composition‭. Because of their mathematical intricacy‭, ‬the twisting curves were designed using a 3-D design software called CATIA‭, ‬which allows for complex designs and calculations that would not have been possible a few years ago‭. ‬Essentially‭, ‬the software digitizes points on the edges‭, ‬surfaces‭, ‬and intersections of Gehry‮’‬s hand-built models to construct on-screen models that can then be manipulated in the manner of animated cartoons‭. ‬‬(1)


The internal views of the beautiful Guggenheim

Try and make add it to your bucket list because having just been to Bilbao, you could just ‘do’ Bilbao for its own culture and beauty without the incredible drawcard that The Guggenheim is.

When you fly into Bilbao you will see it is surrounded by mountains and on the day we went, unfortunately there were gale force winds blowing. As we started to descend it started to get very bumpy…….noticeably so……holding-onto-the-armrest bumpy. When we finally arrived we all looked at each other (strangers) and smiled with relief until the Captain came onto the intercom, rather unnecessarily and said: “Sorry for the rather turbulent landing, but that landing was just within the capability of this aircraft (WTAF did he just say???) Our smiles looked a little wan and green after that admission from the pilot!

When you touch down at Bilbao Airport (designed by another well-known architect Santiago Calatrava), you can get the obvious taxi but the Green Airport Bus is only 3 euros and it drops you very quickly into 4 stops through the town. The first drop off point is the Guggenheim and then the centre of the city and so on- so if organizing accommodation for Bilbao think about close proximity to the airport bus stops. Once you get into Bilbao track down a Tabachi shop (a tobacconist shop) or go to the main Metro station (Consortium of Biscayan Transport -CTB) and Metro Bilbao S.A. located in the historical neighbourhood of Casco Viejo and purchase a Barik card – which is the transport card that you can load with euros and use for up to 10 people (just swipe for each person). The card itself costs 3 euros and then you can load with 5,10,15 euros and use on every type of public transport – the buses (including the return bus ride back to the airport), the light rail, the underground, the funicular and the gondola on the Bilbao Suspension Bridge (or the Puente Colgante -Hanging Bridge) and they are all heavily discounted so well worth the outlay.


The view from the top via the Funicular and The Hanging Bridge

We stayed at an Airbnb halfway between the Guggenheim and the old town. It was a really nice unit which slept 5 – which was great for the family, but if I went again I would look for an apartment that overlooked the view of The Guggenheim and just sit at the window and stare at the building. Yes it was that special!

Bilbao has an incredible eating and socializing culture. Everyone sits at the bars (of which there are thousands it seems) and drinks Rijorca (the local red wine) and eats tapas -which are mostly toppings on sliced French bread. The food and wine is very cheap there and it is very pleasant sitting and absorbing the atmosphere, the socializing and the chatter. Children including very young babies in prams are up till very late, included in the outing and there is an incredible number of older men and women who are catching up at their favourite bar. The dreaded smoking is still a big feature and I fear will continue to be a significant health issue as a packet of 20 cigarettes are 4.5 euros (compared to our $30 per packet) so way too cheap for cost to be a deterrent like it is here. It is really the only thing about Bilbao that I didn’t like – apart from the fact that my beautiful new Mimco backpack- my 40th anniversary present as well as this trip- got stolen with all its contents. It was slick, completely unnoticed by the four of us at the table and all the people around us in the outdoor setting and happened in the daylight. So beware, hook any bag you have around your foot and keep your wits about you! Like anywhere that you travel. I won’t hold it against you Bilbao.

Hanging Bridge and Michael soaking up the sun

We went on a metro underground ride out to Algorta and walk to see the tall cliffs and the start of the surfing beaches overlooking the Bay of Biscay. The trees were being pruned by the local council gardeners and they have a very distinct look to them.


Long walk to see the tall cliffs overlooking the beaches at Algorta

We then came back on the bus to the old town and had another sit down in the square in the Old Town and tapas experience. Bilbao bars are not well serviced with vegetarian options sadly, but plenty for the meat and seafood eaters. The next day when all the family had finally arrived we went for our Guggenheim experience. The tickets are 13 euros each and that comes with an included audio firstly explaining the wonders of the building and then interpreting each of the exhibits which include Picasso, Leonardo De Vinci and many famous artists. You can go out and come back in for that day pass- just make sure you see an attendant to get a paper bracelet on to allow a re-entry. Personally after checking out quite a few of the artworks, I just sat and absorbed the building. You can honesty look at every aspect of the Guggenheim and there is nothing replicated. It is asymmetrical, with amazing soaring heights, glass, steel, titanium, special installations, special effects (such as fog and fire)…it is brilliant.


We next walked over the Zubizuri Bridge (meaning “white bridge” in Basque) which stretches across the Nervion River in Spain, connecting Campo Volantin’s right bank to the left bank of Uribitarte. This footbridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava, opened in 1997 and features a glass deck that lights up at night. Although the glass path can get slippery on a rainy day, many use the bridge to reach the nearby Guggenheim Museum. It is so slippery that it now has a carpet laid on top of it. And yes one of us did slip on the exposed glass to the far side of the bridge (Jimmy….). From a distance the bridge cuts a fine impression. We then caught the Funicular up to the high hill directly behind Bilbao and saw the city view. It was magical but very windy and a bit chilly so returned on the funicular and we headed back for some warming food and drink. With our Barik card the funicular ride was only 0.58 euro but if you didn’t have the card was 3 euros each way!

After seeing off two of our party who had to return to London for a netball game, we went for a walk to the Christmas markets which had opened that night – the 1st December.


The crowds were extreme. It seemed like literally every citizen and their children were out promenading and showing the kids the Christmas lights and then heading to the main food street for food Colon de Larreategui Calea. It was almost impossible to make your way through the crowds but we found sanctuary in a restaurant – the Old Shanghai which seems odd in Bilbao, but it was indoors, less busy and the food was delicious.

On our final day in Bilbao the sun was shining and we discovered the Hanging Bridge and then the Gran Hotel Puente Colgante where there was a bar, a verandah in the sun with a DJ playing some cool music and beautiful food (salt and pepper calamari and tapas) very warming and enjoyable. Again across this four days the average number of steps was 25000 per day – it is so damn easy to get your steps up! (Despite this, as I am writing this now that I have been back in Australia for a week – the sad news is despite 25000 steps EVERY day it appears I have put on 3 kilos. Everyone to a person I have told this has said it must be muscle. But it does show calorie intake outweighs exercise).

The final travel blog will be about our two stays in London – one before our visit to Bilbao and one after.