Basquing in the Sun

The weather report told us this morning that we didn’t need to take our raincoats out for a day walking around Bilbao, but that we’d be using them constantly during the three days upcoming in Galicia. Sigh.

Between San Sebastian and here, we’ve been in Basque country the last few days. Not being fluent Spanish speakers, it’s hard to tell how common it is for people here to actually speak the Basque language which is on every sign alongside Spanish; Ray has his doubts that anyone speaks it anymore. At least there are plenty of “Basque style” items on the various menus, which we prioritize when ordering; for example codfish Basque style means in a clear sauce with herbs, and clams on the side.

One common eating strategy suggested by the guidebook is to cruise from one pintxo bar (that’s Basque for “tapa”) to another, having something to drink at each place and one thing to eat. Many bars put out quite a collection of platters of pintxos to choose from. Generally, we’ve found that ordering from a menu often has better results, especially later in the evening — you don’t know as precisely what you’re getting, but it’s usually fresher. And we’ve definitely been ordering plates of Iberian ham — mmm!

Other nights we’ve eaten in restaurants, including Arzak in San Sebastian, the home base of the chef whose Mexico City restaurant Tezka we ate at last November. Both were delicious, creative places with extensive tasting menus (our waitress was quite cooperative in ensuring that each of our tasting menus were different so that we were tasting twice as many things), but Tezka seemed more stunning, somehow.

The chief attraction of Bilbao is the Guggenheim Museum, built in 1997 by the modern architect Frank Gehry. Like his other buildings (the Experience Music project in Seattle, the Disney Music Center in LA, for example) it’s very un-rectangular, consisting of many impossibly curved surfaces like a giant pile of metal shavings. It’s very large and very monumental, and the art inside it, at least when we visited, is appropriate to it. There were no pieces of art with a dimension of less than 10 feet. Aside from some pieces outside of the building, inside we counted a total of four artists. There were permanent pieces by Jenny Holzer (LED columns), Jim Dine (“Three Red Spanish Venuses”), and Richard Serra (a large specially-built gallery containing various labyrinths made out of conical sections of corten steel). The rest of the museum which was open (one floor was closed for installation, with the price reduced accordingly) was entirely Anselm Kiefer, a German artist who works primarily with paint, rust, lead, and tree branches, and makes very large works exploring themes of Jewish mysticism and constellations and Holocaust poetry and Russian philosophy, as it pertains to the number 317. Fortunately, we missed seeing him in San Francisco, so there was something new for us to see here.

A man on the bus told us this morning that Bilbao was until 20 years ago a medium-sized steel city. Lately the City Fathers realized that they needed to expand tourism because the production has moved to China but they hadn’t quite figured out how to do it. It’s the whole world’s solution to being unneeded as anything but a market. We are happy to help. The man was helping too, in his way, he teaches English on an outcall basis to those who are too busy to go to an English academy. However, his own take on English is so far Northern, he’s right at the point where you turn on closed captioning in a Mike Leigh movie. We’ll be able to identify his students if we run into them.

Here’s an example of not hiring the right tourism consultants. We rode a Funicular up to a park with a view of the whole city, and there wasn’t any visible place at the top to have so much as a glass of ice water. We might as well have been on a commuter train. I can’t think of any other place in the world where cute transportation to a non-destination hasn’t resulted in the growth of a community of trinket and ice sellers.

It was never really obvious what we were going to do today, having seen the Guggenheim yesterday, and realizing that not only it, but all other museums in town were closed every Monday. Tourism managers take note. Somehow we managed to find some interesting things walking around. We were looking at “Europe’s largest covered market”, an Art Nouveau building with beautiful stained glass windows, and went upstairs to the Fruit Department to find it had been pre-empted by an art show. The show was closed but a security guard on a scooter let us see it for a few minutes before he went to lunch.

There is currently a citywide “garden competition” all over town where people have made gardens that are actually art installations. Think plastic cows, except growing. One we saw today, “Trash Mountain”, was a bunch of dirt in plastic bags, with empty oil barrels hanging over it, which will become a pile of squash flowers when it’s done in August. It was next to a smokestack which was in the middle of a park — presumably the factory it was attached to was demolished at some point.

To save a few euros, or perhaps for sentimental reasons or just plain curiosity, here we’re staying at the Formule 1, the French chain of super-cheap business hotels located somewhat inconveniently in industrial parks near suburban freeway exits. There have been a few changes since last time — towels are now optionally rented (instead of included), but this one, at least, has air conditioning at no extra charge. The bathrooms are still automatic and wash themselves after each use, and have a soundtrack with new age music and bird sounds, but they no longer have signs saying “I am your automatic toilet” or whatever it was they said before. We saved a few more euros and some possible aggravation by leaving the car here and taking a bus into town.

Tomorrow will be challenging — a 600-km drive with a scheduled museum stop and a designated lunch site. In the rain. I should go set the alarm.