I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful.
We were in Bilbao to see the Guggenheim – which was as wonderful as we had imagined – but it was the rest of the city that took us by surprise: Interesting sights on both banks of the Nervión River, oh-so-walkable and simply stunning architecture. We were in Spain, in a city of 350,000, but at times it felt as if we were in one of the arrondissements of Paris.
Bilbao was our first stop in Basque Country, an area along the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain, where an old language called Euskara mixes with modern Spanish. Our ship was docked at the Port of Getxo, about 20 minutes from the city center. And that’s when the beauty started.
As our shuttle drove along the waterfront, we passed an elegant old neighborhood with stately homes, manicured green spaces and lovely architectural styles that looked to be from the late 19th or early 20th century. It was a place I would have liked to have stopped and looked around. I wondered what was beyond those streets perched high above the water.
But our shuttle kept on to its destination and soon we arrived at the Plaza Moyúa, a flower-filled, fountained square built in an elliptical design in the 1940s. Streets radiate from the Plaza Moyúa like spokes on a bicycle, and charming red signs point in the directions of the Guggenheim and other landmarks.
The first thing you see as you approach the Guggenheim is “Puppy,” the 42-foot-tall West Highland Terrier sculpture by Jeff Koons. Adorned with thousands of plants and flowers, “Puppy” was originally a temporary installation that became a permanent fixture at the Guggenheim. It was easy to understand why the people of Bilbao love their “Puppy.” He is so delightfully grand and sweet that it just makes you smile.
And just behind Puppy, there it is. Frank Gehry’s 1997 masterpiece of light-catching titanium, unimaginable angles and aquatic themed texture, even more breathtaking in person than in its infamous photos. We must have spent half an hour wandering around the exterior, just looking at the place. It’s a constantly changing image, with colors that magically morph into different tones as the light dances around each angle. I was thrilled we had blue skies to watch the building put on its sun show, but I imagine the Guggenheim would have some tricks up its titanium sleeve on a rainy day, too.
From the Guggenheim, we headed to Casco Viejo, Bilboa’s medieval Old Town. Walking back to the Plaza Moyúa, we turned on the Gran Vía – officially called the Gran Vía de Don Diego – to reach the Arenal Bridge and cross the river. We passed an important-looking building which we later learned was the Bizkaia Delegation Palace, the seat of the executive government of Biscay. The building was completed in the 1890s and is considered an example of Eclectic architecture in Spain.
Further down the Gran Vía, we were stopped in our tracks by the sound of the most beautiful music. ’O sole mio was ringing through the streets, and we were so taken with these talented musicians that we almost forgot to turn on the video! Here is a brief snippet:
It was lunch time when we finally crossed the Puente de Arenal, and as we made our way to Casco Viejo, we passed more stunning architecture. As I was taking a photo of the Teatro Arriaga, a man stopped and told me that the 1890 opera house was the most beautiful building in Bilbao. And just down the street, we discovered that the railway station wasn’t too shabby, either!
We stopped at several restaurants and checked the menus before settling on Kapikua, a colorful café with a downstairs bar and upstairs dining tables. Lunch seemed to be the big meal of the day in Bilbao, and with the help of Google Translator, our server at Kapikua agreed to let Herb & me share the three-course meal. We placed our order, choosing one of the two entrees listed on the menu. It turned out that the “three-course” meal included both dishes, and we were incredibly happy we had asked to share one order! There was also an appetizer and soup and wine and dessert. The food was fabulous, and it just kept coming. I think we were there at least two hours, and by the time we went back outside, the Casco Viejo shopkeepers and restaurant owners were pulling down their metal shuttered doors and locking up for the afternoon.
We had planned to visit the 14th century Gothic Santiago Cathedral, but like everywhere else in Casco Viejo, it was closed from 3 pm to 5 pm. The Plazuela de Santiago, however, was open for exploring, and once again, the architecture was interesting and extremely beautiful.
The day had taken on a sleepy kind of haze as the late afternoon was setting in over Bilbao. We walked back to the Plaza Moyúa and caught the shuttle to the ship. Our driver followed the same route we had traveled that morning, taking us past the Getxo neighborhood that earlier had piqued my curiosity.
It was hard to get the images of Bilbao and the Guggenheim out of my head as we sailed from Getxo late that evening. And in a way, I didn’t really want them to disappear. Bilbao had served up a delicious day and had reminded me of a wise and important unwritten rule of traveling.
It’s always a good idea to take a look beyond the main attraction. You may find something that surprises you. Something you will always remember. Something even beautiful.