Monday, April 20, 2009

Visit to Bilbao (1)

With a nine o'clock flight from Gatwick, June insisted we book into an airport hotel in order to get a night's sleep before rising early to negotiate our way with some degree of freshness through the check-in, security and shopping to the departure lounge. Famous last words.... We reminisced about younger days when we'd sleep on a bench at the airport to catch an early flight.

Our seventh floor room at the Sofitel, two minutes walk from check-in, was soundproofed and air-conditioned, but once our noisy air conditioning was switched off, we became aware of a persistent hum emanating from electrical equipment in a neighbouring room, maybe its air conditioning, or a pump emitting a loud mains frequency hum. This turned our hundred quid a night room into a luxury Guantanamo cell with its own sleep deprivation torture.

Somewhat bleary eyed, we checked in, then dozed our way to Madrid. The Richard Rogers Partnership which produced Cardiff's own Senedd Building also produced Madrid airport. His slatted wooden roof design feature is highly visible here, most impressive, except that this Euro-hub airport with a capacity for 35 million passengers a year has two buildings, each a kilometre long and a kilometre apart, joined by a subway shuttle whose vehicle is almost identical to that familiar to Brits at Gatwick.

Our internet booking was uninformative on making the transit between flights. We landed at Madrid, found scant information about our connection, until someone explained that the departure lounge in question was at the other terminal. We had to walk the length of the terminal, then endure a passport and full security check to board the shuttle to enter the other terminal and walk most of its length to find our departure gate. Signage was adequate, but not designed with disoriented foreigners in mind. It included, without explanation, timings in minutes from one designated area to another. Useful if you knew why, worrying if you didn't know there was a shuttle, a security check etc etc. In-flight magazines contain airport maps and detailed information to decode the mystery, of course - but if you're dropping off before the 'plane starts to taxi, and awaken on landing, one can miss out.

As we rushed along our 'adventure trail' from one terminal to another, we kept running into other English passengers hunting for 'baggage reclaim' and an exit to the airport, not realising that they had been delivered with little explanation to the virtual 'extension' of the main terminal where 'native' flights (i.e. BA, carring Iberia booked passengers) have to land because they are 'non-Schengen Treaty' entrants to the EU. This a consequence of being 'Fortress Britain'. We put them through the hoops when they arrive here, they put us through the hoops when we arrive there, unless we can get on one of their 'planes and get delivered closer to our flight connection gate without a 55 minute panic stricken hunt for our next departure destination.

Well, we made it, with sufficient time, but the experience was unworthy of this great piece of social architecture. I even managed to take a dozen photos en route! After all, they could hardly leave without us, as they had our luggage in transit as well. The ethically indecent part of our journey was having to cover the same piece of sky in reverse, flying north 45 minutes on the same route to get to Bilbao. With few direct flights a day, the alternative was the Plymouth to Santander ferry, but that would have robbed us of the experience of Santiago de Calatrava's airport, to revive flagging spirits. It has his signature element - mastery of making curved concrete beams fly elegantly to create space that light can inhabit. Buildings like sculptures in the landscape.

Most of the airport building is under one giant roof, shaped like a cross between a dove with outspread wings and a clamshell - homage to the location of Bilbao on the route to Compostella. From the airport bus we had a good distant view of the building nestling in the hillside at the edge of the plain occupied by the runways. Brilliant white set in green grass, looking like a giant bird settling - pure visual poetry.

I wish Cardiff had a Calatrava building, preferably with a bridge thrown in. Perhaps I should start a campaign for the proposed Convention Centre?

After we'd found our hotel and settled in, we ate at an excellent tapas bar and then strolled out to watch the sunset over the Maritime Museum (a dry dock with some interesting local shipping laid up in it) at the side of the river Nervion, which runs through the centre of the city and is the axis for the regeneration project (Ria 2000) which has been transforming the heart of city now for almost twenty years now.

Bilbao is not Clydeside, or Barrow or Newcastle, yet it shares with them a history of shipbuilding and ironworking concentrated in a river valley ten miles or so inland from the estuary port opening up into the Bay of Biscay - key to its long maritime history, like Liverpool. Next to the Maritime Museum is the Euskalduna Concert Hall and Convention Centre, a huge building the colour of rusted iron, giving weight to its vocation as a talk shop for the 21st century, an ideas foundry. Everywhere around, both in historical artifacts and modern installations, there are reminders of the iron industry which was for several centuries the muscle of this region.

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