If you think Bilbao is yet another example of the clichéd sunny coastal Spanish town, you’ll be surprised to find a city where the skies are usually overcast, drizzles are frequent, and which has a bleak cityscape that serves as a stark reminder of its industrial past. This was a city for workers, never intended for leisure. The affluent, privileged classes would always opt for San Sebastián or Donostia, a lovely (sometimes too lovely) town situated on the north Cantabrian coast, only an hour away from Bilbao.
In fact, Bilbao appears frequently in the rankings of the ugliest cities in Spain. Or it used to, that is, until the Guggenheim Museum kicked off its transformation into a cultural mecca—one that took place in an astonishingly short period. Being from a provincial Spanish city (Valencia) myself, a city which suddenly emerged as a tourist destination, I can imagine how its inhabitants must have embraced the fresh air of cosmopolitanism brought in by foreign visitors. Since the Guggenheim Museum’s inception in 1997, the sculptural building designed by Frank O. Gehry has received an average of one million visitors per year, creating enormous economic impact.
Art town: Frank O. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao gets an average of one million visitors each year. Taller De Imagen (TDI)/Cover/Getty Images
Other architects have also left their landmarks in Bilbo, as it is called in Euskara (the Basque language): the metro, designed by architects Norman Foster Associates, the Sondika Airport by Santiago Calatrava, and Philippe Starck’s stunning renovation of the Alhóndiga, a former wine cellar. The implementation of Zaha Hadid’s master plan to convert 60 deteriorated hectares of industrial port land into a new residential, amusement and business space is expected to begin in 2013. The Bilbaínos (as the denizens of Bilbao are called) witness this downpour of star architects light-heartedly and some refer fondly to the metro stations as “fosteritos”, or little Fosters.
Fans of Bilbao’s remarkable reinvention, after the industrial crisis of the 1980s, use the term “urban revitalization” to refer to the changes that have swept the city, but its detractors have argued that this is largely a case of “city branding” where decisions are taken in the interest of business generation and marketing. Last September, when I was working in San Sebastián and decided I had had enough of its prettiness, I headed for Bilbao to see how the city had changed since I last visited it, more than 10 years ago, when the Guggenheim had just been constructed.
I wanted to get a sense of the transformation that had made the city synonymous with contemporary design. How did a city with only 350,000 inhabitants come to be shortlisted for the title of World Design Capital in 2014?
On the bus to Bilbao, I browsed through the trendy magazine The Balde, published in Euskara and English (www.thebalde.net), which features everything from a fringe theatre performance in the city to an exhibition in Tokyo, Japan.
The magazine is only the tip of Bilbao’s design iceberg. In the field of product design, independent consultancy ADN (adndesign.es) has been at the forefront of Bilbao’s transformation. Some of ADN’s founders are also behind the creation of the Bilbao Design Academy (www.bilbaodesignacademy.com), a non-profit association aimed at promoting design as a catalyst for innovation and a source of value creation.
Stua is one of Spain’s most prestigious design furniture manufacturers. Founded in neighbouring San Sebastián, it has a shop in Bilbao, which is well worth visiting (stua.com).
Design on a platter: A set of four Eclipse Nesting Tables by Spanish design manufacturer Stua. Martin Y Zentol
In the area of fashion, an example of Basque sophistication may be found in Loreak Mendian (www.loreakmendian.com), a “street fashion” brand with a network across Europe, Japan and Russia. When visiting their shop in the city, visitors should pay attention to the window displays, which are works of art in themselves.
The two founders of El Plan B (www.elplanb.com), a graphic design studio that combines elegance and playfulness, are among the finest artists in town. But they are not alone. The talented Gorka Eizagirre applies his conceptual style not only to the graphic arts but also to exhibition and interior design.
If you happen to be in Bilbao around September, do not miss the unique Getxo Photo Festival (www.getxophoto.com), which takes place at the city’s seaside suburb by the same name. Unlike most festivals, this one displays its photos mostly on plastic banners to be found everywhere in the little locality. From the city centre, a direct metro line took me only half an hour to reach, and to my surprise, I found an exhibition by Michael Ackerman (who received a Nadar prize for his portrayal of Varanasi in the book End Time City) in the local market, right across from the butcher’s stall. Once the festival is over, the banners are recycled into wonderfully designed objects like handbags, portable hammocks or notebooks.
But a visit to Bilbao would not be complete without a meal. The Basque country boasts of one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-star restaurants on the planet, and I was determined to find one that would combine the region’s renowned cuisine with its cutting-edge design. I settled on the Etxanobe restaurant. Located in Euskalduna Palace, and with panoramic views of the river, this is a one-star Michelin establishment that has the motto: Choosing will not be easy! Instead of the traditional menu, the Etxanobe has an iPad application, allowing the customer to see not only photographs of the dishes they hope to order, but also videos of the chef preparing them.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once described the molecular quality of each grain of rice in a paella. He said, “Of the Spanish cuisine I like the paella, in particular when it has been properly cooked; that is to say, when each grain of rice keeps its individuality.” The gastronomic avant-garde sometimes uses the term molecular gastronomy to refer to this continuous experimentation with foods and innovation in flavours and textures. But the term is controversial, and disapproved of by many chefs themselves. Molecular or not, path-breaking innovations are expectedfrom Basque cuisine in the years to come.
It had taken me 10 years of travelling to fully grasp Bilbao. What would my impressions be on my next visit, I wondered on the bus back to Donostia. Do all cities have this potential to reinvent themselves or is it an ability just a few have?
WHERE TO STAY
Decorated by Antonio Miró, the fashion designer from Barcelona, Hotel Miró (www.mirohotelbilbao.com) is located on Bilbao’s Golden Mile. ‘Wallpaper*’ magazine wrote, “Thankfully the Hotel Miró opened its doors just a stone’s throw from El Gug.”
The five-star Silken Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao (www.hoteles-silken.com/gran-hotel-domine-bilbao) had the well-known Spanish designer Javier Mariscal participating in its conception, and has a selection of furniture that represents the most emblematic design from the 20th century.
EAT & DRINK
• Etxanobe (etxanobe.com). Average price of sample menu at the restaurant: €60 (around Rs 4,000)
• For those interested in the meeting point between design and gastronomy, a visit to Azurmendi (Azurmendi.biz) is a must. Average price of sample menu: €60
• For ‘pintxos’ (bite-sized rounds of toast topped with everything you can imagine), the old town has many options. Café Bar Bilbao, Zuga and Víctor Montes (Plaza Nueva Square); Santa Maria, one of the best cellars in Bilbao; Berton and Sasibil, situated on Jardines Street; Askao Berri and Gure Toki (Plaza Nueva Square); and Gatz (Santa María).
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