Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Visit to Bilbao (2)

Immediately after breakfast I slipped out of the hotel and visited the nearest Metro station to investigate the purchase of a Creditrans pre-pay travel card, as recommended by Manu working at reception. For 5 euros you can obtain about seven zone one city centre journeys, using bus, metro or tram. All journeys vary slightly in price from a euro down to 55 cents depending on mode of transport, but with a card all are discounted. Go outside the zone and more credit is taken, but you can top up from the machines at tram stops. Ingenious and effective.

We took ourselves on the bright green Euskotram to the old town to wander the streets, find the Cathedral of San Sebastian, and the huge covered market on the riverside, with its own steps down to water's edge for uploading fresh fish and maybe other food produce, presumably in times past. I say presumably because there was no evidence along the walled embankments of any current active moorings, and no sign of any water traffic, either leisure, or commercial. Since industry died and rail tracks were removed, the river banks have been cleaned up and well furnished with paving, trees, seats sculptures, even an eye-catchingly beautiful new bridge by Calatrava. The water, however appears empty and lifeless, albeit still subject to tidal ebb and flow. I hope I'm wrong about this, but it seems as if the river has not been socially regenerated in the same way the land has.

We returned to the same place and took lunch from the 'Menu del dia' in the Comodor behind the bar area. June was shocked to see how tapas diners littered the floor with wrappings and cigarette detritus - people eat drink and smoke as well as talk animatedly while they take lunch. All the bar surfaces tend to be laden with ready prepared tapas dishes, leaving scant room for plates, glasses, or rubbish. By contrast, the Comedor only slightly more expensive for the same food, was immaculate, and we were served with a bottle of wine and a bottle of water to accompany our 13 euro three course meal.

Not wanting to waste time with a siesta, even though we were tired, we walked off the lunch heading towards the Guggenheim, taking in the bright new recently opened shopping mall, en route. It has four levels of retail and a glass roof, and only when we saw the notice in Spanish offering 2 hours free parking to shoppers when you spend more than 15 euros (so you could just park and lunch), was its geographical location evident. We could have been just about anywhere on earth that uses the Latin alphabet. Bilbao is a city with a strong sense of place because of its distinctive Basque language (placed above the Spanish in all street signage), its fabulous food and its traditional building syle. There were only hints of localisation in the mall's decor. Let's hope we can do better in Cardiff.

We wen't ready to inspect the museum content only to look at them in context, walk around and take photographs, with so much to absorb along the broad tree-lined river bank promenade. The Frank Geary'designed titanium plated oddly shaped giant of a building showcasing Guggenheim's collection of installation sculpture and video is so utterly different from any other building in the city, that its' a shock to the eye. It's located with a high level bridge immediately behind it. This brings the main road in from the airport down a steep incline through a giant portal with bright cerise coloured surfaces, like a child's toy building block. At first sight it's an astonishing clash - garish portal and shiny titanium rounded surfaces of the Guggenheim. You might always hate it, as it seems to defy any aesthetic model of environmental harmony. However, the eye gets accustomed to it. In time it blends in, becomes a distinctive reference point in the townscape.

Half a kilometre up-river, Calatrava's distinctive bridge links the north bank with low rise tenement buildings of six storeys, to new apartments on old industrial sites. Twin glazed towers rise twenty storeys high, adding another distinctive feature to the skyline, capping the rooves of buildings on higher ground behind. Up to the tenth floor, the towers are clad in handsome gray stone, giving the impression that the glass rises up out of the stone. From a courtyard area at the foot of the bridge rise several flights of steps in the same gray stone going up 20 metres to street level in the 19th century quarter like a processional way. At the riverside, new buildings preserve the facade of 19th century predecessors, (as with Alto Lusso on Bute Terrace) conveying a sense of the new rising from the old. The ensemble of bridge and buildings is powerful, impressive.

With so much to see, and so much walking, we tired ourselves out, and bought some food on the way back to the hotel, so that we didn't have to got out again. We needed an early night to soothe the aches. Thankfully the room was quiet, high up on the tenth floor, with a view of the setting sun shining on the skin on the Guggenheim a mile away across the rooftops.

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