Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Visit to Bilbao (3)

Like neighbouring Newport, Bilbao boasts a transporter bridge - puente colgante - dating from 1893. Well, it says so at the top left hand corner of the city centre map. It is, in fact a fifteen minute metro ride out of town, eight kilometres away, down-river, near the mouth of the commercial port at a place called Getxo. (NB x=ch as in chuff).

We took the ride to the Portugaleta metro station after breakfast, and emerged disoriented by the district we landed in, up a hillside surrounded by modern low rise apartments, obscuring the landscape so that we had to guess which way to walk to find the river. Not even the town maps were much help.

Nevertheless, we chose the right direction. We walked a couple of hundred metres downhill and turned a corner before the upper bridge structure became visible ahead of us, above the rooftop of a yellow ochre painted former convent turned into a cultural centre. Here the street becomes quite steep, and has a mechanical pavement installed in 2007, like the airports use, to ensure the return journey was not heart-breaking. Not good for keeping fit however.

The bridge may be an industrial monument, but it's also in constant use by vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and proudly maintained. There's an elegant late 19th century hotel, and some public buildings forming a small square shaded by pollarded plane trees next to it ,also a promenade along the waterfront. All spotlessly clean and tidy, with little sign in this area of the maritime commerce which provided the wealth for such a transport innovation. Just docked in the mouth of the port was a giant cruise liner which towered out of the water, higher than the low rise apartments in the adjacent posh suburb. Tourism rather than shipping is what brings money into the city of today.

We returned to the city centre for a tapas lunch and then turned our attention to the museums. First the Guggenheim, with its unique mix of modern art, videos, paintings, installations. Most of what we saw infurated my sister, who is far from ignorant or contemptuous of modern art. Much of it intends to challenge the way we see, contributing to the perennial debate - what is art? The work of two Japanese artists either annoyed or disturbed me, while the installations of a Chinese artist caused me to stand and contemplate for quite a while. All seem driven by the head rather than the heart, and reflect post-modernist ideas which invite you to observe and draw your own conclusions, as there is really no story to be told, no unique superior message to be delivered.

The idea is that reality is always changing, and is constantly capable of being re-formatted and becoming something else but has no ultimate substance to it is hardly new. What is new is the notion that nothing is worthy of worship, therefore worship of the Other is a meaningless activity. This is so far from the familiar ban on idolatry, of worshipping no thing. It leaves us only with ourselves and relationships between us to make sense of in whatever way we find meaningful, yet with no real criteria by which to evaluate anything. A world of wonders and wondering maybe, but wondering in the face of ultimate emptiness and absence.

We were both glad to escape into first the sunshine and thence Bilbao's Fine Art collection a short walk away. Balm for the soul, after the desert. And we needed it. After so much mental stimulus, we took a brief sunset walk again to overlook the Maritime Museum's dry dock as we had on our first night.
On the far side of the river, a giant circus tent. The Canadian 'Cirque du Soleil' was in town for the week. Pity we couldn't have stayed longer to gone to a show. It came to the Millennuim Centre in its first season. Unforgettably beautful and innovative.

On the river below, two boats came into sight in quick succession, the only ones we saw during our stay. These were big canoes for want of a better word, deeper than English rowing skiffs, propelled by five pairs of rowers with a cox and steersman, a typical coastal seagoing craft of the Basque region called 'traineras'. Racing them off-shore is a passionately followed local team sport along the coast. What a surprise.

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