One of the many appeals of the train trip we took across northern Spain was the stop at Bilbao, the largest of three major cities in the Basque country, situated on the banks of the tidal Nervión river. In the 1300’s the nobleman Diego López de Haro, Lord of Vizcaya established the town on the right bank of the river opposite a small fishing village on the other side . With only three streets that formed the centre of the new settlement, the city grew slowly but steadily, into what is now known as the Seven streets or Siete Calles that make up the heart of the Old Quarter of this mercantile town.
In time and thanks to the Spanish Crown’s grant that gave Bilbao the right to be the main export port for Merino wool from the Castille to northern European cities, Bilbao became the most important commercial and financial hub of the Spanish north coast. During the industrial revolution in the 19th century the development of strong mining, steel and shipbuilding industries attracted a wave of migration to Bilbao. Throughout this period up to the early twentieth century, Bilbao experienced heavy industrialisation which made it the centre of the second-most industrialised region of Spain and certainly the wealthiest. Banks and insurance companies were established enhancing its capacity for business and trade. However, in the mid-20th century the economic slump, hand in hand with the excesses of urbanisation and industrialisation took its toll on the city that was in danger of going into oblivion. Something had to be done but it wasn’t until 1991 when the modernisation of this municipality started taking shape. An urban renewal effort to take the industrialised town into a centre for tourism, technology and other services was in the drawing board.
At the heart of this transformation was a modern cultural triangle made up of the Guggenheim museum, the new library of the University of Deusto and the auditorium of the University of the Basque Country along the Bilbao river, or the Estuary of Bilbao which lies at the common mouth of the rivers Nervion, Ibaizabal and Cadagua, that drain most of Biscay and part of Alava in the Basque Country.
In 1981, the Basque government proposed to fund a modern museum to be erected in the old port area district. This idea was brought to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation with the intention that the foundation would manage it for a one-time fee and subsidy. American architect Frank Gehry was given the task of designing one of the most important buildings in modern architecture. On completion in 1997, it signalled the coming of age of the former mercantile town into the modern era and changed the image of Bilbao completely. Through Gehry’s bold and dramatic design, the Guggenheim museum, transformed the city, physically and psychologically.
This renowned building made of titanium, glass and limestone is an interesting, audacious and innovative mix of art, space and architecture. Its sculpture like structure provides the ideal environment for the modern and contemporary art from various Spanish and international artists that it houses. If its intention was to capture attention, this building certainly caught mine. I was more interested in the building’s space and design, the giant Puppy by Jeff Koons in front of the museum made of bedding plants renewed each spring and “Maman” the 30 feet high, mammoth spider sculpture of Louise Bourgeois , outside the museum than the art exhibited in the museum.
Until then, Bilbao was a name and memory I associated with my childhood but the visit to Bilbao and the museum enriched my experience. This was one of the major highlights of our trip to northern Spain.
More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203