The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain conjures up images of a strange and futuristic community, a space-age society perhaps found in the cartoonish Meet the Jetsons or the comedic Fifth Element. Certainly among of Europe’s strangest architectural icons, the Guggenheim was designed by futuristic Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry who was encouraged to “design something daring,” and adorned with artwork such as Puppy (a giant dog made of flowers), and large metallic balloon animals created by American artist Jeff Koons. Erected in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum houses a collection of modern and contemporary art as part of both permanent and revolving exhibitions across various medias. Bilbao may seem like an odd place for such a museum. Built in the seedy, dilapidated docks district of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum was commissioned by the Basque government as a way to bring tourism into this little-visited region, rejuvenating not only the now-abandoned docks but also the under-appreciated Basque country. Today, it routinely makes lists of most important and admired contemporary buildings not just in Spain or Europe, but worldwide.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Stairway, Basque Country, Spain
It’s not hard to see why even just the pathway and staircase to the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has captured the inspiration of thousands – or why fantasy film/series producers (like the unfortunate Game of Thrones where the stairs and islet stood in for Dragonstone) have chosen this place to be part of a fantastical world. Carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop on Spain’s north Basque coast, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an ancient 10th century monastery perched precariously at the top of a rocky outcrop of an island. Reachable by a rugged causeway, the iconic steps and pathway were carved directly into the causeway itself. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, the unpronounceable Basque name actually loosely translates to “St John’s craggy fort.” At the top stands a medieval hermitage with burials spanning the 9th – 12th centuries. As with most medieval hermitages, the location was chosen precisely because of its rough and remote location – all the better for monks and hermits to isolate themselves from the evils of the world and focus on prayer and god. That said, the rough and remote location later became important as a stronghold and was attacked several times (including by the nasty though strangely revered Sir Francis Drake). Today, the island’s amazing geography combined with the added architecture is a popular site to visit.
Pro tip: It’s best to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the off-peak season or early on in the day. To truly appreciate the views, take the bus from Bilbao to Bakio and hike the rest of the way, about 6km. The steps are steep and rugged, so wear sturdy shoes and only attempt if fit. It’s a popular place so expect fellow pilgrims!
The exotic-sounding words Zubri Zuri simply means ‘white bridge’ in Basque, the local language of Bilbao and the surrounding Pais Vasco(Basque Country). Euskara, or Basque in English, is a fascinating language that, interestingly enough, has no ties to any other Indo-European languages! Bilbao and Basque Country are truly unique. Connecting the more modern side of Bilbao with the more historic side since 1997, the bizarre modern design of Zubri Zuri sports a curved walkway, overhanging arch, translucent glass bricks, and zigzaging ramps. Built as a pedestrian route to allow tourists to reach the even more bizarre Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Zubri Zuri Bridge has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Though a convenient way to get to the Guggenheim Museum and certainly worth the experience of crossing this unusual bridge, at some point be sure to walk along the River Nervion opposite of the Guggenheim for phenomenal views of the iconic museum’s strange futurist architecture! One of the things that Bilbao does best is the melding of old and new – Bilbao’s extensive Old Town’s meandering streets, beautiful churches, quiet alleys and quirky shops contrast well to the shining skyscrapers, quirky futuristic architecture and intriguing street art of the West Bilbao. Wander from Bilbao from west to east as you slowly go back in time in this strange but enticing Spanish city (is it really Spanish? Some would disagree…but that’s a discussion for another day) in northern Spain.
Mirrors – are they the windows into our souls? Are they a reflection of us, what makes us tick? Or are they merely a useful tool when putting on make-up, combing our hair or trying on a new pair of jeans? Bilbao is one city that expertly fuses the old and the new, the past and the present, heritage and modernity – this mirrored building which today houses Basque Country’s Department of Health is just one example. Bilbao (not Bilbo!) is secretly an artistic city it would seem, both in regards to creative architects as well as artists themselves such as Jeff Koons (see this post regarding his flower statue, ‘Puppy’). Not only is Bilbao one of Spain’s cleanest cities, it is quite different than the rest of Spain in that they have their own language – Basque. Unrelated to any other languages, you will see signs covered with complicated words and littered with X’s and Z’s posted all over the city next to their translations in Spanish. Home also to the famed Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is certainly a unique city like no other. So my question remains, the mirrors – are they indeed the funky and fun reflection into Bilbao’s soul? I think yes.
A little-known part of Spain is the northern coast running from Bilbao on one side to Santiago de Compostela on the other. One of the rainiest parts of Spain, it is also one of the greenest! Little towns like Santillana del Mar and San Vincente de la Barquera hug the coastline, famous beaches such as the one at Noja dot the coast (ironically this frequented surfers’ beach is located just next to a large prison…), roads sporting the shiny, yellow “El Camino” signs connect the towns (Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage). Winding grey roads, large green fields, limitless blue waves and bright orange roofs weave the patchwork quilt that is northern Spain. This is a region of tranquility, rarely frequented by tourists, colorful, happy and green. Whether you’re doing the Camino, surfing the waves, biking the coastline or merely soaking up the history and culture of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia, you’ll fall in love with northern Spain in moments.
This rough coast barely brings to mind images of Spain. Waves crash against the rocky beaches, cliffs fall dramatically to the sea. Located in Basque Country, Spanish isn’t the only language you’ll hear – their “native” language, Basque, is a very old, very distinct language, and has little roots in any other European language. Reaching the coastal inlet of Gaztelugatxe involves a bit of a hike (though taking a car part of the way is possible). Regardless, you’ll want to take to the trails as you hike to the monastery of San Juan in order to benefit from the beautiful views, thrilling landscape, exhilarating climbs and descents while listening to the relaxing sound of crashing waves.
Jeff Koons’ puppy outside the Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain
After a few weeks of absence (no internet while working out on the French vineyards!), I return with a photo of Bilbao, one of Spain’s best-kept secrets (no worries ; French vineyards are soon to come). Outside the infamous, space-age museum sits a…well, a special sort of art. Made completely of flowers, Jeff Koons’ amazing sculpture, ‘Puppy’ stands guard outside Bilbao’s famous museum. Koons is known for his stainless steel balloon animals as well as other slightly eccentric types of art. Puppy is a 43 ft/13m tall sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier puppy created from petunias, begonias, marigolds and other such flowers. He currently sits quietly outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum–itself a work of art!–where he has been since 1997. Today, an intricate and permanent part of the museum, Puppy almost became the victim of attack by an Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque) gang who planted explosives in flowerpots around his feet–though of course, our favorite terrier was saved by a Basque policeman who later died from gunshot wouds (and no, I am not making this up, as crazy as it may sound…). Ever since I studied Koons’ artwork in university, I’d always wanted to go, so finally getting the chance to visit Bilbao was an opportunity of a lifetime!