Tuesday, September 24, 2019. Bilbao, Spain.
Soundtrack: Die Antwoord – I Fink You Freeky
Bilbao is the largest city in northern Spain and the de facto capitol of Basque country. The construction of its downtown and its general vibe has a lot in common with Barcelona, although Barcelona is cranked up to 11. Bilbao is more laid-back, and absolutely swarming with dogs.
“Take Barcelona,” I told the lads in a transmission home. “Excise everything but the Gothic Quarter, snickety-snack. Cauterize the cuts by wrapping it in Wilkes-Barre (or some other desolate industrial city of your choice). This is the skeleton of Bilbao.
To flesh it out, turn your new city into a dog shelter staffed by retirees and teenage soccer hooligans. Then, make the whole big bastard directed by Die Antwoord.”
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a glowing review, but I really like dogs and Die Antwoord.
Casco Viejo is Spanish for “old quarter”, and it makes up the downtown. You can see the similarity in with the preserved medieval construction. Casco Viejo is interchangable with Siete Calles, which means “seven streets”, and gives you some idea of the size of downtown.
Let’s talk about pintxos.
In Basque, the tx is pronounced like a sharp “ch”, so that’s peen-chos. It means toothpick food, and that’s its whole deal.
Tiny little impaled micro-sandwiches. These are spicy tuna and some kind of also spicy shredded beef thing. Pintxos are Basque country’s take on tapas, steering them more into bocadillo territory by leaning more heavily on bread than on potatoes.
Plaza Berria is Bilbao’s epicenter. At any given time, someone is playing accordion there. It’s never the same guy.
I followed a map to the start of Casco Viejo, which turned out to be a sprawling dog park.
Bilbao was crawling with dogs. Not strays, either. They were all exceptionally well-trained; I didn’t see a single on on a leash, but they all stayed at their owner’s side, whether in the park or the heavily peopled tangle of downtown.
Turns out, dogs are sort of Bilbao’s thing. One of the siete calles is called Calle de Perros. Noodle that one out. It’s got a thematically appropriate water fountain at the inner intersection.
Legend has it this 19th century beast was originally carved with the heads of Egyptian-style lions as the spigots, and the tub was used to wash animals before taking them to market. Rssident Bilbaoans have since decided, “Nah. They’re dogs. Everything’s dogs. And you use it to drink out of.”
Dogs allegedly drink out of it too, but I only saw people hit the button and lean into the stream.
I walked Casco Viejo until late, zonked out in my hostel and hit the streets in the late morning to make my way to the Guggenheim.
Bilbao is a beautiful city, if more retiring and demure than Barcelona. It’s not a fair comparison to make, and I wouldn’t be making it if I hadn’t come right from one to the other.
Barcelona is a teeming, thriving, bohemian metropolis. It’s Florence in the days of Da Vinci. Art is the rule of the day there. The artistic spirit of the city is screaming, but not the way it screams in New York (at you, while flailing a knife) or in Berlin (dissociatively, into the void); it’s calling out, playful, almost seductive.
Bilbao isn’t about that. The genius locii aren’t frothing. It’s laid back, in that particularly Spanish way. Bilbao would have been perfectly happy living in its relative mountain seclusion with its many, many dogs, if not for the Guggenheim.
The Basque government decided a famous museum is just what the derelict port sector of the city needed for a full metropolitan revitilization, and made the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation a multi-million dollar offer that they simply couldn’t refuse. The Foundation contracted a Canadian architect Frank Gehry, for some reason. Six years later, the ugliest museum in the world stood proudly in the ruinous wreckage of portside Bilbao.
The revitilization worked, and the Guggenheim is now one of the city’s biggest moneymakers. It attempted to spread a new style of architecture out into the city, breaking away from the traditional medieval Spanish construction, but that never caught on. Wonder why.
During the Black Plague, in order to mitigate the smell of the bodies, they would stuff the pockets with flowers. Plague Doctor masks are designed that way for the same reason, with the nose cones stuffed with rose petals in the belief that this would protect from the disease, along with hiding the smell.
I think Bilbao got the same idea when they saw what the museum was shaping up to look like. In 1997, artist Jeff Koons set up his monumental display “Puppy”, made of flowers meant to reflect 18th century European gardens.
I took some time to admire this handsome titan, then plodded down the steps into the underbelly of the Guggenheim proper.