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Basqueing In The Glories Of Bilbao

Pintxos And The Guggenheim Puppy on the menu for Neil Sowerby

Written by . Published on October 6th 2011.

Basqueing In The Glories Of Bilbao

Travel editor Neil Sowerby can imagine few more fascinating weekend breaks than Bilbao with its mix of cultural modernity and serious snacking. And the Hotel Miro is a work of art in its own right!

ICONIC buildings are all very well. But what’s inside counts, too. Manchester’s own Urbis, once the Museum of the Living City, will now host the National Football Museum, on a free transfer from Preston. Underwhelming. At Salford Quays, the visual impact of The Lowry and the Imperial War Museum has been irreparably diluted by malls, apartment blocks and the Media City gulag. What a mess.

Louise Bourgeois' Spider Outside The GuggenheimLouise Bourgeois' Spider Outside The Guggenheim

I can’t imagine such fates befalling the original icon of urban regeneration, the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Particularly since its contents are as delectable as its structure. And on its riverside setting it has room to breathe. Bravo Bilbao!

We saw the Guggenheim for the first time in memorable circumstances, but only in passing. Our flight from Manchester was late. Problems in Brussels earlier in the day. So it was after 10pm when we docked at our Bilbao base, the uber-hip Hotel Miro, which is conveniently sited 200m from the BIg G.

Firework Spectacular Over The RiverFirework Spectacular Over The River

Front desk at the Miro encouraged us (after our restorative sangria in the complimentary bar) to “go see the fireworks from the Puente de la Salve bridge”. It was Aste Nagusia (a weeklong Feria offering entertainment across the city) and this was no time to crash out. We were just in time. What fireworks! What a bridge! It felt like the proverbial red carpet had been laid out.

Oh yes, and en route there was that titanium-clad behemoth, gleaming like a catch of writhing silver fish in the moonlight. So recognisably Guggenheim, architect Frank Gehry’s groundbreaking statement that transformed Bilbao’s fortunes. It has certainly transformed a whole riverside, once a bleak no-go memorial to industrial decline.

Puppy LovePuppy Love

The temptation was to stroll along the banks of the Nervion to the epicentre of the Feria in the distance, around the Old Town, but these weary travellers sought immediate sustenance in a town famed for its food, so tackled Bilbao’s gridlike streetscape. For a city of over 1 million people it all feels quite manageable.

In England, well past 11am you’d be hard pressed to find a decent dining spot, but this was Basque Country in its revels and the Miro folk had pressed into our hands a list of recommended restaurants and bars serving pintxos (that’s what they call tapas in these parts).

Irrintzi %26#8211%3B Pinxtos Rush HourIrrintzi – Pinxtos Rush Hour

We struck pintxos gold at Bitoque Albia, which was serving till midnight. Upstairs was a riotously jolly bar but a yellow-painted basement offered calm and a spare table. An unhurried  procession of dishes was an ideal introduction to the town’s edible delights. I was particularly taken with the guindillas – long slender green peppers pickled in vinegar with a tangy bite – and the tenderest octopus dish I can recall.

We drank an albarino in preference to the local Basque wine Txakolí. It is customary on a pinxtos crawl to order at each bar a small shot of this effervescent acidic white, similar to a Portuguese vinho verde. We caught up with it later in an upmarket version and were unimpressed.

Guindilla Peppers And A Glass Of AlbarinoGuindilla Peppers And A Glass Of Albarino

Of course, the real joy of pinxtos is the rough and tumble of ordering at a busy bar. We caught up with that experience next day in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo, a labyrinth of ancient streets teeming with eating spots. We timed it just right, securing a precarious perch in Irrintzi before hundreds of Basques in traditional costume came roaring in for lunch after cheering on their favourites in the Tuna Fish Stew competition.

We’d witnessed the early stages – like Masterchef with big moustaches, but were keener on  the “Giants and Bigheads Procession with Bagpipers”. Don’t ask. Bilbao felt like jolliest place on earth.

Jolly too inside Irrintzi, described in our leaflet as contemporary pinxtos ( and they were very imaginative) in a contemporary atmosphere. In contrast, the venerable Victor Montes, in the Plaza Nueva with an interior barely changed for a century (it was built in 1849) moved to a slower rhythm, as the more formal waiters served a constant wave of snackers.

The entire area known as the Siete Calles (seven streets) around the Gothic church of San Miguel is a reminder of an older Bilbao, a once decaying industrial city which elsewhere, has relentlessly grasped the modernist and post-modernist nettle.

And so, pintxos aside, to the object of our pilgrimage. As JG Ballard once mused: “I wonder if the Guggenheim is a work of art at all?”

Puente De La Salve From The GuggenheimPuente De La Salve From The Guggenheim

More a state of mind, then. Like a giant toy perhaps? The fact it contains a fabulous collection of modern and avant-garde art at first seems hardly the point. The entrance is  guarded by Jeff Koons' flower-bedecked "Puppy". The antidote is Louis Bourgeois’s super-arachnid “Spider” on the river terrace. In between Gehry’s mad titanium whorls flash in the sun. Just great.

You enter by descending a light of steps. Once you gain the limestone and glass interior you lose all sense of equilibrium in the dizzying flights to the 19 galleries gathered around the atrium. Almost an anti-climax after the exterior, but there is much to enjoy, among the artists represented familiar British names – Chris Ofili, Damien Hurst, Rachel Whiteread. My favourite in the entire collection. Naturally, Exhuming Gluttony, Another requiem 2011 by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu.

Refreshment During The FeriaRefreshment During The Feria

I’ll just quote the brochure. Make your mind up on it when you make it to Bilbao: “Above a large wood table, upturned wine bottles hang from the ceiling, their necks wrapped in fur. Red wine drips steadily onto the table, spilling off and pooling in sanguine puddles on the floor. A quilt of animal pelts hangs opposite another wall, which bears the scars of reckless gunfire, suggestive of a history of violent excess in the space. While the room seems to conjure both an ancient ritual and a dystopian future, a critique of capitalist indulgence in the present day is at the heart of Mutu´s work.”

Scent pretension? I made that mistake when seeking out some Bilbao tips for Planet when easyJet’s excellent link from Manchester to Bilbao opened. “PlanetConfidential is wary about recommending  a hotel it has no experience of, but is intrigued by Bilbao’s the Miro. Nothing to do with the artist Juan of that ilk, it was created by fashion designer Antonio Miro. It describes itself as an Avantgarde, Superior Boutique Hotel.”

I teased them for that, but I knew I had to book in there this time. In reality it was fabulously individual and understated. It offered no food beyond snacks, but why should it with the wealth of dining  opportunities at hand. Sleek, chic but not snootyy; 50 rooms but it felt smaller; staff were uniformly attentive; and it was the perfect base camp for that iconic building down the road.



Hotel Miro InteriorHotel Miro InteriorHotel Miró, Alameda Mazarredo 77, 48009 Bilbao (+34 94 6611880, www.mirohotelbilbao.com). Rates start at 110 euros the double room, room only, plus 8 per cent VAT. This includes courtesy bar, free Wi-fi and use of gym.

Favourite pintxos places:
Bitoque del Albia,  Alameda Mazarredo, 6 48001 Bilbao (+34) 944 236 545, www.bitoque.net).
Irrintzi, Santa Maria 8, 48005 Bilbao (+34 944 167 616, www.irrintzi.es/en/).
Victor Montes, Plaza Nueva 8 48005 Bilbao (+34 944 157 067, www.victormontes.com).

For details of Guggenheim opening times and ticket prices, visit www.guggenheim-bilbao.es.

Getting there

easyjet runs a three times weekly service from Manchester to Bilbao. Flights start from £29.99 (one-way, including taxes). It opens up the Basque country’s largest city as well as other prime destinations in northern Spain such as San Sebastian and Pamplona. Visit www.easyjet.com.

Car hire

Book cheap car hire with www.rhinocarhire.com with prices from approx. £12 per day or from £87 for seven days' car hire in Bilbao. Rhinocarhire.com is an award-winning online car hire company, perfect for those seeking cheap car hire for a summer or ski holiday, city break or business trip.  Launched in June 2008, Rhinocarhire.com has quickly established itself as one of the leading car hire websites operating in over 20,000 locations worldwide and comparing rates with over 550 leading suppliers to offer the lowest prices, albeit for just one day or for an extended visit. Voted 'Best Car Hire Website 2010' at the Travolution Awards, it is backed up by a dedicated customer support network in the UK.

If you don’t want to drive in there is a bus service in from the airport every half an hour and the Norman-Foster designed Metro is state-of-the art. Get a Bilbao Card which, as well as public transport, provides discounts on a variety of attractions. For details and other tourist information visit www.bilbao.net/bilbaoturismo.

Travelodge stopover

Arriving late back int Manchester late, we staye at the Manchester Central Travelodge in Blackfriars Street. Travelodge has 477 hotels (32,000 across the UK, Ireland and Spain and plans to grow its estate to 70,000 rooms (approx 1,000 hotels) by 2020. Over nine million people stayed with Travelodge last year and 87 per cent of reservations re currently made online at www.travelodge.co.uk, where room rates start at £19 a night.


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