Bilbao: the Guggenheim Museum.

What is there to write about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that hasn’t already been written?  What photos haven’t already been taken?  Images of this extraordinary site are so widely available that you’re bound to have seen dozens already.  We certainly had.  Nevertheless, we were unprepared for the impact this quite extraordinary building, surrounded as it is by a giant bridge and dozens of skyscrapers, had on us as we first spotted its titanium hulk shimmering on the other side of the River Nervion.

We spent the day there on Thursday.  And partly because photography isn’t permitted within the building , partly because the architecture itself is what we’d gone to see, that’s what I’ll focus on here.  That and those few monumental works which are outside the building. It was the Basque government itself that proposed to the Guggenheim Foundation that it would fund a building to be built in Bilbao’s decrepit port area.  In exchange, the Foundation agreed to manage the institution, rotate parts of its permanent collection through the Bilbao museum and organize temporary exhibitions.  This astonishing investment has paid off, as the museum is in many ways responsible for Bilbao’s presence on the tourist map, and its economic success in difficult times.

Frank Gehry, a Canadian-American was appointed architect.  He said ‘So I started drawing fish in my sketchbook, and then I started to realize that there was something in it’.  Indeed. Besides the fish – scintillating , titanium-cloaked fish –  the building seems like a fantastical ship, or even a fleet of ships.  Within, however, the building is organised like a flower, with galleries as petals developing from a central atrium.  Bowing over the Nervion, it seems to link itself first to the river, then to the city opposite.

There are a few works outside.   There’s Anish Kapoor‘s ‘Tall Tree and the Eye’, mirrored orbs which reflect and dissolve images of the river, the city and the museum itself.  There’s Jeff Koons‘ playful, pansy-planted, monumental in scale West Highland terrier ‘Puppy’, a well as his stainless steel multi-coloured ‘Tulips’, buoyant and  colourful.  Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Maman’ is in fact a mammoth spider on extended, delicate legs.  She’s powerful but vulnerable, strong and yet fragile, just like, apparently, Bougeois’ mother.  Only Fujiko Nakaya‘s ‘Fog sculpture’ puffing out swathes of mist over the small lake outside the museum did little for us.

If you’ve not been here yourself, Google will put you in the way of anything you could possibly want to know.  Here are some of the dozens of photos we took.  Click on any image you’d like to see enlarged.

Postcards from Bilbao

Early last Sunday, we were contemplating the week ahead.  We expected a pleasant enough few days, entirely devoid of incident.

By late lunchtime, we’d planned  the makings of an adventure to Bilbao.

There’s a local information exchange service here for English-speaking residents of the area, and last Sunday, looking through emails, one from the group caught my eye.  A woman called Jenny, going to a conference in Bilbao, found that at the eleventh hour, her friend and co-delegate was unable to go.  Would anybody like to share her car journey and a small flat in Bilbao for the duration?  Well, why not?  An email or two, a few phone calls, and the deal was done.  Monday morning saw our journey begin with a quick stop-over in the French Basque country.

A view of the Guggenheim Museum from the Puente Zubi Zuri
A view of the Guggenheim Museum from the Puente Zubi Zuri

We hit it off with Jenny from the first, and whenever she wasn’t out at her conference we loved spending time with her.  The events there enabled her to meet fellow professionals throughout Europe, as she develops her own future plans here in France.  Everyone there was enthusiastic to use woods and forests as an educational resource (such as this one that Jenny’s still involved with back in the UK): but it didn’t give her much time in Bilbao itself.  So Jenny, these postcards are for you.  If others enjoy looking at them too, so much the better.

Bilbao’s a large city, and quite confusing to get into by car.  Its history as a port soon becomes clear, though it went through many years as a heavily industrialised city, attracting workers from throughout Spain, thanks to the locally available iron ore.   As in so many other steel-making towns of the western world, those days are largely over.  Partly thanks to the Guggenheim Museum, of which more in a later blog, and partly thanks to a burgeoning service industry, Bilbao is reinventing itself.

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The Basque alphabet: thanks to Wikipedia
The Basque alphabet: thanks to Wikipedia

We were happy to stroll round the centre in the warm sunshine, soaking up the sights and helplessly trying to decode any signs and posters we saw in – to us – unintelligible Euskara, the Basque language.  There were the old narrow streets of the Casco Viejo: though the 19th century is represented too, in the elegant square courtyard which is the Plaza Nueva.  We enjoyed the later developments along the river and on the other side of the original town.  Our flat was on the same bank as the old centre, but so steep are the streets there that we needed the frequent travellators and escalators to help with the climb.  Best of all was our journey up on the funicular: a 750 m, but almost vertical-seeming three-minute journey way above the city, to enjoy the views over Bilbao and surrounding countryside.

It’s the Alhóndiga I particularly want to share with you though.

Outside the Alhóndiga
Outside the Alhóndiga

Built in 1909 as a wine warehouse, it fell out of use in the 1970’s.  Eventually, Philippe Starck was charged with its re-invention.  Wow.  The interior has been transformed into an atmospheric, dynamic and exciting space.  An internal building, almost Romanesque in its severe simplicity houses, amongst other things, a mediatheque and a sports complex.  That’s on the top floor.  Glance upwards and you can see the eerie outlines of the swimmers  ploughing up and down the pool.  This interior edifice is supported by 43 squat columns, each different from the other: some are decorative, others reminiscent of ceramic vases, others of Gothic churches… and so on.  You’ll want to examine each one.  And then enjoy a meal at the restaurant.  High quality cooking at modest prices in a cheerful  and slightly quirky environment is a fine way to finish your tour.

Bilbao seems to be a confident city, proud of what it offers.  Street and park cleaners (goodness, they even wash the bus shelters) work far into the evening to keep the streets tidy and smart.  As night falls, you’ll want to join the locals strolling the streets, stopping at some cheerful bar for a drink and a selection of pintxos (tapas).  And eventually you’ll drift off to bed, to sleep off the effects of your busy day and recharge your batteries for the next

Postcards from Girona

We had a mid-week break in Girona last week.  Because I needed the dentist.

Despite the general all-round good quality of the French health system (though it’s not what it was), dentistry does not on the whole measure up.  Ask anybody round here to recommend a dentist, and they’ll either say ‘not mine, definitely not mine’, or suggest someone miles and miles away with a weeks long waiting list.

So when my daughter over in Barcelona recommended her dentist in nearby Girona, it seemed too good a chance to miss.  A quick holiday in a town on the ‘to-visit’ list, a chance to see Emily, and a pain-free set of teeth.

The dentist there sorted things out, but said he’d need to see me again.  So we realised we didn’t need to dash round on some frenzied must-see-everything-double-quick self-imposed tour.  We took our time.  We wandered up and down the narrow stairways that make up the ancient Jewish quarter, walked the old city walls, and spent time in the cool shaded Jardins d’Alemanys.  There was time for an early morning coffee, a relaxed meal, a cool beer in shady squares among the narrow back streets.

In its day Girona has been invaded by Romans, Muslims, Franks, enduring over 30 sieges in 800 years.  As Robin Gauldie, travel writer says: ‘It’s like Barcelona in miniature, with all the history, heritage and great food but without the insane traffic’.  We don’t need the excuse of a toothache to go back.  There are churches to visit, museums to explore, gardens to relax in, meals to enjoy.  There are riverside walks, and the countryside beyond.  So much to do and see, but all within walking distance of the ancient city centre.  Roll on my next dental appointment.

To view any of the pictures in a larger format, simply click on the image.

Catalonia visits southern France, bearing calçots

My daughter Emily’s just visited from her home in Barcelona, bringing her Catalan boyfriend, and an enormous bundle of calçots sent by his mother.

Calçots! Think we have enough?
Calçots! Think we have enough?

Eating calçots is a century-old tradition in Catalonia at this time of year.  Garden onions are planted deep in the soil, and earthed up throughout their growing period, so they have long thick white stems, just like a leek’s.  Harvested between Christmas and Easter, they’re a much appreciated local delicacy.

Really, they should be grilled fiercely over an open fire or barbecue.  We lack a barbecue, and in any case, southern France has its own traditions: Holy week is cold, wet and miserable.  Without fail.

Preparing the calçots
Preparing the calçots

So we settled for baking them in a fiercely hot oven.  And then we got down to the cheerfully messy business of eating them.  You strip the hot slippery skin off each calçot, and then dunk it in a punchy romanesco sauce before tipping your head back to ingest the lot.  You need napkins, yards of kitchen roll – bibs would be good –  and good bread to mop up the juices and sauce.

Serving the calçots.  Another break with tradition.  They should be on a terracotta roof tile.
Serving the calçots. Another break with tradition. They should be on a terracotta roof tile.

We had fun, but probably not as much as if we’d visited one of the outdoor festivals dedicated to the eating of these alliums.  Watch the video from Valls.

Eating the calçots.  No red wine for us.  The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal
Eating the calçots. No red wine for us. The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal

Salvador Dali and a star-shaped fortress

These three figures look down on you as you wait to visit the Dali Museum.  And the loaves of bread?
These three figures look down on you as you wait to visit the Dali Museum. And the loaves of bread?

“Where, if not in my own town, should the most extravagant and solid of my work endure, where if not here? The Municipal Theatre, or what remained of it, struck me as very appropriate, and for three reasons: first, because I am an eminently theatrical painter; second, because the theatre stands right opposite the church where I was baptised; and third, because it was precisely in the hall of the vestibule of the theatre where I gave my first exhibition of painting.”

That’s Salvador Dali, speaking about his wish to create a museum to his own work in the shell of the theatre at Figueres, destroyed, like so many other buildings in Catalonia and throughout Spain, at the height of their Civil war.

The courtyard, the Cadillac, the tyres... and... and....
The courtyard, the Cadillac, the tyres… and… and….

It’s an astonishing place.  Start out in the central courtyard, and you’re confronted by a Cadillac – Al Capone’s allegedly – beside a tower of tyres topped off by a fishing boat.  Wander round – in any order, please: Dali insisted there was no timeline or other imperative to be followed.

Homage to Hieronymus Bosch?
Homage to Hieronymus Bosch?
Gold cross.
Gold cross.

You’ll discover rooms of paintings in which he worked in the style of other artists as diverse as Vermeer, Picasso, Goya, Velasquez, Millet, de Chirico: was he in search of a personal voice, or simply exploring and celebrating his knowledge of art history?  A room full of fantastically bizarre creatures shows an affinity with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, but only a few yards away is a room full of exceptionally fine gold and bronze jewellery, largely made from coins with the heads either of Dali or his beloved wife Gala on them.

Then there’s the Mae West room.  Walk in, and you’ll see some random objects: a couch, two wall paintings, a fireplace.  Climb the stairs at one side of the room however, and look though the lens, and there she is, Mae West herself, in all her ruby-lipped glory.

And here she is.
And here she is.

It goes on.  He’s copied Michelangelo’s Moses: but what’s an OT prophet doing with a giant squid?

Or go and get vertigo while standing four-square on the ground, viewing the dizzying perspectives of the ceiling in the Palau del Vent.

...and that's only a bit of the ceiling.
…and that’s only a bit of the ceiling.

The whole thing was by turns stimulating, exciting, puzzling and sometimes even annoying – bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.  We’re really glad we went, though once may be enough.  And if you want to know more, there’s an interesting account in the blog ‘Elsewhere’

The Civil War came up again when we visited the Castell de Sant Ferran, just outside Figueres.  It’s an enormous, star-shaped site, built in the 18th century to protect the Spanish from the French, but it saw almost no action.  But in the 1920’s, Salvador Dali did his military service there. It only came into its own during the Civil War.  Then it provided secure storage for masterpieces from the Prado in Madrid, and became a stronghold for international brigades and ammunition.

We spent so long tramping round the walls – it’s a 3 km walk to encircle the entire site – that we didn’t explore the interior, which may have been a pity: some other time.  But what a walk!  As we began we could clearly see the Mediterranean coast and towns such as Roses.  Then the Pyrenees, covered in snow over to the north, and the dusty more barren nearby hills.  Figueres itself doesn’t give a good account of itself from up here: modern concrete factories and lots of high-rise blocks.

A small stretch of castle wall, with the Pyrenees beyond
A small stretch of castle wall, with the Pyrenees beyond

And that was it.  Our brush with the law in Barcelona had left us feeling a bit sour, and we felt our holiday was at an end.  So off home for us, planning a return one day to explore that coast we’d caught distant glimpses off from the castle walls.

The cops and robbers of Barcelona

Christmas in Barcelona.  A perfect way to celebrate.  Son and daughter-in-law were there too, and we all stayed in Emily’s flat, since her flatmates had gone away.  Perfect times for us don’t make for interesting reading for others: the balmy weather, meandering round the endlessly fascinating streets as desultory sight-seers, coffee stops at the outside tables of bars in picturesque squares, shopping at temptingly- stocked shops and market stalls in the cosmopolitan quarter which is Emily’s home, eating out or sharing tapas at simple neighbourhood restaurants….  Here’s the story in pictures.

So something had to come along and spoil it.

The car and Barcelona don’t go well together. Even driving in and out of the ill-signposted city is something we always dread.  With a superb and cheap public transport system, we’d have liked to have left the car at home, but it was stuffed with extra bedding, presents, bits and bobs Emily needed from home, so when we arrived, we unloaded and then took it off to park elsewhere for the duration, since she lives on a square with little parking.  She’d taken advice, and suggested a quiet nearby corner of town where a Spanish friend said it would be safe and out of the way.  Once there, we checked, and checked again that there were no restrictions.  One morning, we popped up and checked yet again.  All was well, so we left it until we were packing to go….. walked to the street where we’d left it…… No car.

Stolen!  Panic! What to do next?  Contact our insurers, see if we could sort out one-way car hire between Spain and France?  Would insurance pay? What about replacing the car, which we’d newly and expensively fitted out with snow tyres?  How could we possibly afford that? Emily rang the police, who promised to call back once they’d made enquiries.  After a couple of hours to-ing and fro-ing, we learnt that the car wasn’t stolen, but had been towed away because of parking infringements.  There should have been a notice stuck on the road where the car had been, telling us what had happened: but there was nothing there. We’d need to go in person to the Police.  There are three sorts here: those belonging to Barcelona itself, local Spanish police, and the national service.  We went to see the Barcelona lot, a 20 minute walk away.  Eventually they tracked our car down – thank goodness for Emily’s command of Spanish – to the Spanish police’s car pound at the last stop on the metro line.  If we went with ID and 239 Euros, we could have out car back……

Walk to metro.  Impatiently sit out long journey.  Emily spends time texting Spanish friends.  They’ve all had similar experiences: ‘It’s to try to fill the city’s empty coffers’, they explain. Track down car pound.  Join disgruntled queue of fellow-sufferers. Pay up.  No choice.  Receive form on which to write our grounds for appeal. Try to make our way back to Emily’s from a completely unknown part of town – we get good at buying time by circling roundabouts twice.  All the time fuming at the loss of precious hours with Tom and Sarah on our last day together.

Heigh ho.  Even run-ins with the Police however, can’t take away our memories of a wonderful Christmas break.

The Orange Man

Winter has arrived.  How do I know?  Although the nights are cold, the afternoons are still for going walking or tidying up the garden wearing a tee-shirt, beneath a duck-egg blue sky. So until the other day, I thought we were clinging on to autumn.

But on Thursday, the Orange Man arrived.  This is exciting enough news for it to be worth phoning a friend.  Every year, once winter kicks in and the orange harvest is well under way in southern Spain, a huge container lorry arrives in Lavelanet. It parks up at a disused petrol station on the main road into town and becomes an impromptu shop.

The man with the lorry, the Orange Man,  speaks only Spanish, and sells only oranges.  Not singly or by the half-dozen, but in large 10 kilo boxes.  10 kilos, 10 euros.  What a bargain.  These oranges, though sometimes a little knobbly and in irregular sizes, are the juiciest and tastiest you’ll ever eat, and it’s no wonder that whenever you pass, you’ll see someone pulling up their car and opening the boot for a case or two.  Our Spanish friend won’t have to stay long.  In a few days the entire container-load will be sold, he’ll return to Spain …. only to return when he’s loaded up again.

When he departs for the last time at the end of the season, we’ll know for sure that spring has arrived.

PS.  Very topically, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall takes oranges as his subject in today’s cookery column in the Guardian