Friday, June 12, 2015

Bilbao: el Guggen & Fire

We flew from Marseille to Bilbao via Barcelona on Vueling. The flight was, at least, an hour late in departing MRS which led us to miss our connection in BCN and arriving in BIO almost 2 hours later than scheduled ...

and without our bags ...

Gus sitting in front of an empty baggage carousel at Bilbao Airport
We had the choice of having our bags delivered to our hotel or staying at the airport and meeting the next flight from Barcelona and collecting our bags. We chose the second "sure thing" option.

Our bags were on the next flight that arrived at 9:45 p.m. or 3½ hours after they had been scheduled to arrive in Bilbao, ni modo.

We rented our car and 6 miles and 30 minutes later we arrived at the Silken Gran Domine Bilbao, a sleek and contemporary city hotel that we were to spend the next 3 nights 

Atrium, centered around a dramatic abstract
 sculptural "cypress tree" designed by Javier Mariscal.
The sculpture itself is of rocks bound within a wire mesh.

At the base of the sculptural "tree" is a collection of personalized rocks.

We had eaten very little during the course of the day and after checking-in we had our bags sent up to our room and ducked into the hotel's lobby lounge for a few pintxos and a bottle of Txakolina the bracing, refreshing, often fizzy white wine that is enjoyed throughout Basque country. 

Our room
Penthouse Executive Suite
(photo credit:
The room was decorated with furniture and exclusive artwork of Javier Mariscal.

Blue and Red
View of the Guggenheim (blue) and
Arcos Rojos (red) appended to
 the industrial looking Puente de la Salve Bridge. Daniel Buren,
 a French conceptual artist, transformed the bridge into a piece of
 art much more suitable to the new look of the city. This change was in
2009 done to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Museum.

View of the hotel's famous neighbor from the terrace of  our room.

Our room, situated on the sixth floor of the hotel had an outdoor terrace with stunning views of the Guggenheim Museum and the green hills surrounding Bilbao.

The next morning we enjoyed an extensive buffet breakfast served at the Buenos Vista Terrace on the rooftop of the hotel before we headed across the street to what Bilbaoans refer to as “el Guggen.” 

Carpeted in colorful swaths of flowering plants,
 the 41-foot-tall Westie joined the Guggenheim
 Bilbao’s permanent collection in 1997 and stands in
 the Plaza Aguirre just outside the museum entrance.

Philip Johnson, the godfather of modern architecture, with the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao declared the structure “the greatest building of our time.”

Using innovative computer technology, internationally acclaimed Frank Gehry designed and built a structure of striking originality and formal inventiveness. The swirling shapes of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao covered in highly reflective titanium are not only astonishingly original, they were, at the time, like no other building that people had ever seen.
Entrance to the Guggenheim is to the left and down a long
 flight of stairs. The museum’s second floor is at street level.
The 257,000-square-foot museum is entered through a lobby that leads to a dramatic 165-foot-high atrium serving as a circulation hub and orientation gallery.

The atrium, which Gehry nicknamed ''The Flower''
 because it culminates in a series of angled geometrical
 shapes, serves as the organizing center for the entire

Installation for Bilbao
light-emitting diode  installation—nine vertical
 L.E.D. signboards, each more than 40 feet high— by
 Jenny Holzer. The words in the moving lines are a
 conversation about AIDS, and they switch back and
 forth between Basque, Spanish, and English..
There are 20 galleries (on 3 floors) around the central atrium. Galleries that are a regular shape (square, rectangular) have wood floors and the exterior walls are limestone. Odd shaped galleries have concrete floors and titanium exteriors.

Whether the architecture overwhelms the art is a question that Mr. Gehry has been asked before. ''The building has to have wonderful art but it also has to be a draw,'' he said. ''This was part of my mandate. This has a sense of place in relation to the city and other buildings. I believe artists want that too. They want a building to have importance in the community.''

The structure is absolutely magnificent and awe-inspiring - yet it holds a rather mediocre and uninspiring collection of art work. There is no large or famous permanent collection here, and while some of the temporary exhibits that come through the museum are interesting, many of them are just expressions of political or social activism thinly veiled as art. Still, it is hard to resist the temptation to say that you have visited the Guggenheim, one of the most impressive buildings in Spain.

Walking through the central atrium and outside to the "backyard" ...
Les Trois Grâces
Keeping in the classic style of French-American artist
 Niki de Saint Phalle's work, Les Trois Grâces are
 3 large sculptures of voluptuous women (a creation
 that de Saint Phalle calls a 'Nana') who appear to be
 dancing. Made of fiberglass, one Nana is covered in
 white, one silver and the other is black mosaic tiles.
 Each wear elaborate bathing suits of abstract design
 and multiple color schemes.  They are Saint Phalle's
 own version of The Three Graces.

A bouquet of multicolor balloon flowers of stainless
 steel and glass blown up to gargantuan proportions
 (more than 6 feet tall and 16 feet across), belongs to
 the ambitious Celebration series, initiated by
 Jeff Koons in 1994.
Tall Tree & The Eye
Sculpture by British-Indian artist
 Anish Kapoor standing outside
 the museum. the sculpture is made
 of stainless and carbon steel and its
 73 spheres reflect the surrounding
 area: the Nervión River and, the
 nearby Puente de la Salve Bridge,
the museum.

A bronze spider towers above a plaza alongside the
 Nervión River. "Maman," (mother in French) created
 by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, is more
 than 30 feet wide and almost 30 feet high.

Returning inside we turned to the left and entered Arcelor Gallery (often referred to as the "boat gallery"), a vast room, some 430 feet long by 80 feet wide , and encountered ... 

Richard Serra's "Matter of Time"
Dramatic view from the second floor balcony above the Arcelor gallery
(photo credit:
Richard Serra has been called not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the early 21st century. Serra's material is steel sheets, about two inches thick and up to 50 feet long and 14 feet high. They are so immensely heavy that only one rolling mill in the world (at EEW-Pickhan, in Siegen, Germany) could handle them. The sheets are joined by spot-welds to form curling walls. This creates a passageway, through which you move. The walls lean and straighten; they reverse their curvature, bulging and then receding. Nothing supports them but their own weight, bearing hugely and mutely on the floor.

The installation is breathtaking. The space inside, the gap between the walls, narrows, widens, breathes in and out (if you can speak of massive iron "breathing") and eventually led us to an inner chamber, for exit we had to follow the same route out. At all points, the structures were open to the gallery roof; we were able to see out only by looking up, which didn't really help a disoriented Gus locate himself. Exploring was a bit claustrophobic and unsettling ... to be in the narrow curving slot between giant planes of steel, to be unable to see what lies ahead.
While there is just no way of fully experiencing this exhibition without actually entering its inner sanctum, imagine for a moment being inside the video below ...

To some degree this is art for the feet. Serra’s eight sculptures
 invite you to walk them in sequence. In fact they demand it. How
 else will you get to see them?

Leaving the Arcelor gallery we headed up to the second floor and gallery 105 to view  Jeff Koons: A Retrospective. Koons has a unique style that allows seemingly contradictory concepts to coexist harmoniously.

His art is provocative, intelligent, esoteric, creative, challenging, bemusing, and at times disturbing or simply vulgar. People either love or hate Koons' work. Gus could go either way.

In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl announced that there was no way of arguing with his success. Koons is “the signal artist of today’s world,” Schjeldahl wrote. “If you don’t like that, take it up with the world.” In New York magazine Jerry Saltz announced that “haters will hate, but ‘A Retrospective’ will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling, alien, annoying artist.”

Antiquity (Manet)
The background of the painting shows the images of Christ
 and Manet: to the left is a Greco-Roman statue of Aphrodite,
 to the right an ithyphallic satyr, in the center is a very stylized
 representation of a couple embracing. At the forefront, is a child
 like drawing of a sailing ship using a brown magic marker.
 (To Koons, ships are metaphors for sexuality.)
Antiquity 3
Draws a parallel between antique sculptures and
 inflatable sex toys, while also trying to establish
 Koons as carrying forward the baton of the old
 masters. Again, at the forefront, a child like drawing of
 a sailing ship using a brown magic marker.

Made in Heaven
Work depicting his sexual relationship with his wife, the Hungarian-Italian
 porn-star Ilona Staller. This provocative work shows the naked couple in an
 explicit pose. Blurring the boundaries between fine art and pornography, Koons
 challenged the conventions of artistic taste, encouraging his audience to make
 their own decisions about what is acceptable.
New! New Too!
Lithograph billboard in the collection of the artist.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles
A larger-than-life gilded porcelain sculpture of the late
musician and his cherished pet chimpanzee.
Hulk (Organ)
Conjoins an Incredible Hulk inflatable toy
 machined in bronze and a functioning organ.
Joan and Gus in 20-25 years, we hope.

Unfortunately, we never made it to the third floor as it was closed for a changing of exhibitions; from The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collections (September 23, 2014 – May 10, 2015) to Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time (July 3, 2015 – November 1, 2015).

We headed back to the hotel for a quick rest stop and then headed out for a walk-about. Exiting from the back of the hotel we turned right onto Lersundi and quickly left onto Iparraguirre, a narrow and primarily residential street. 

Housing prices in city center Bilbao are relatively expensive: for a 3 bedroom residence one could expect to pay $1,400 of rent per month and to buy a similar apartment would cost around $550,000. However, the location is ideal and most of the buildings have undergone extensive renovation and upgrade in the last 20 years coinciding with Abandoibarra's (a district of Bilbao) revitalization and transformation. The building in the lower left corner is Casa Montero; built in 1904 and designed by Luis de Aladrén, a disciple of Antoni Gaudí.

View from Iparraguirre Kalea (Street) toward
 the main entrance of el Guggen.

Iglesia San José de la Montaña
Belongs to the order of the Augustinians, and 
was designed by José Basterra in 1918.

Chavarri Palace
Flemish style building located on The Elliptical
 Square. Since 1943 the palace has hosted the
 Government of the Spanish province of Biscay.
Metro Bilbao
Access to the metro is provided by 'fosteritos', glass structures
 affectionately named after the architect who designed them,
 Norman Foster. These modern-looking tunnels stand attractive
 alongside the modern and innovative interior of the stations.
Arriquibar Square
Reflection of Joan & Gus in garden mirror.
An old wine warehouse designed by Ricardo Bastida and inaugurated
 in 1909, which has morphed into a cultural and sports center.
Alhóndiga’s a Building within a Building
 If you look carefully you can glimpse a handful of the 43 fantastic unique
 columns that support the upper stories. Made of everything from brick,
 steel, cement, bronze, terra-cotta, marble and wood, the columns were
 designed by different artisans. They feature swirly patterns or geometric
 motifs and some even represent vases and classic columns.
(photo and caption credit: Travels with Tricia)

Fourth-floor indoor, glass-bottom swimming pool.
The Alhóndiga was originally built as a wine warehouse in the early 20th century. When it was abandoned decades later, city officials were uncertain whether it should be demolished or renovated. Eventually, they decided to turn it into a multi-purpose venue and in recent years, French designer Philippe Starck in collaboration with Thibaut Mathieu transformed the building’s interior to include a library, media center, glass-bottom swimming pool, a gym, 7 cinemas, 5 restaurants, and meeting and shopping spaces. The exterior largely retained its original appearance.

By now it was late afternoon and we stopped in for a bite at restaurant La Florinda. We ordered a hamburger and fries which we split and two cold beers which we didn't split. From the Alhóndiga we caught a taxi to Casco Viejo or what Bilbaoans call "The Seven Streets" which is a reference to the oldest part of the neighborhood which included 7 parallel streets: Somera, “upper”, Artekale “middle street”, Tendería “shopkeeper’s”, Belostikale, Carnicería Vieja “old butchery”, Barrenkale “lower street” and Barrenkale Barrena, “lower, lower street”. Over the centuries, it grew and occupied more than those seven streets, but has retained the name.

The old town, a pedestrian zone, contains several historical churches (San Antón, Santos Juanes, the Cathedral, San Nicolás), the Arriaga Theater and many of the city’s bars and restaurants. 
San Nicolás Church
Designed by Ignacio de Ibero, it was inaugurated in 1756, and is noted for its
 striking Baroque façade topped by two towers. It was a meeting point for sailors
 before going to sea. Exterior and interior restoration has allowed the church to
 recover its splendor, eliminating added details and revealing again the quality of
the stonemasonry from Galdakao. Its interior houses altarpieces and sculptures
 by Spanish artist Juan de Mena.

Modeled after the Paris Opera House and opened in 1890. It is the work
 named after the Bilbao-born composer Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, known
 as the “Spanish Mozart” in those days. It offers a year-round program of artistic
 activities, with theater performances, opera, ballet, concerts, and other cultural

We walked south onto Calle Bidebarrieta Kalea and passed by a small croquetas shop. Although we did not try any of the shop's offerings Gus noticed that they were selling cooked (just fried) and uncooked (take home and fry) items including, but not limited to, croquetas of cod, fried ham sandwiches stuffed with bechamel and cheese, piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp and mushrooms, cannelloni with different fillings, and bacalao al pil-pil.
Croquetas shop

Not stopping to sample anything we continued, passing by charming apartments ...
Elaborate sets of enclosed glass sun porches that are
 an ubiquitous architectural feature in Bilbao. They’re
 known as miradors.

 ... and arriving at Plaza de Santiago and standing next to the beautiful Catholic cathedral.

Cathedral of Santiago de Bilbao
It is the oldest church in Bilbao, built in 1379 and
carries the name of the patron saint of Bilbao. 

Architecturally, the present building is a blend of styles: from the 15th century Gothic of the cloister and the main vault, to the overly lavish Gothic Revival façade, rose window, tower and spire.
Cloister and Sacristy  of the Cathedral
Portico Home, south side

 Leaving the square of the Cathedral we found ourselves on Dog Street ... 

Fuente del Perro (the Dog Fountain)
The fountain has been named after its street location.

 Note that the three gargoyles, despite what some have
 wanted to see, are not heads of dogs but lion heads. In
 Ancient Egyptian architecture, gargoyles were typically
 in the form of a lion's head.

While we did not walk all "seven" streets we did hit three ...
Carniceria Vieja



View from pedestrian bridge, Puente de la Ribera, which spans the Estuary of Bilbao. On the left (oddly, the "right" bank) is Mercado de la Ribera and on the right (the "left" bank) is Bilbao la Vieja
Across the river and a bit uphill to a terraza that was packed due to it
 being "nice enough" weather, being a late Saturday afternoon, and the
 terrace being  part of Bar Marzana 16 which overlooks the estuary.
Returning to the hotel we turned-in for an early night. The next day we set out on an adventure. Originally planned as a culinary adventure Gus and Joan were "treated to" or "challenged by", depending on one's perspective, an extraordinary satnav adventure.
Gus had made arrangements to have lunch at Asador Etxebarri. This "grill joint" is said to be a 40 minute drive from our hotel, without traffic. Reservations were for 1:30. We left the hotel's garage at noon. Well, our GPS navigation suggested a route which would avoid toll roads and took us meandering and confusingly through Bilbao. We saw Bilbao in our rear view mirror 45 minutes later; we should be at the restaurant by now. Once on national highway N-637 we seemed to fare much better until we took the exit for Durango and found ourselves on a poorly maintained narrow road which was more suitable for mountain bikes that our rental car. This route was one of two routes to the restaurant, unfortunately it took us through Urkiola Natural Park. The road led Gus and Joan over hill and dale while turning from paved but poorly maintained into graveled and at times washed-out. There were dead-ends, farm houses mistakenly thought to be our destination, an abandoned car in a roadside ditch, and the inevitable forks in the road. The car's temperature gauge remained safely in the middle position, however, both Gus' and Joan's temperatures were steadily rising. It started to rain. Leaving the park, ahead we saw a small Basque village nestling in the lush green and rolling hills of Atxondo. Soon a sign indicated we had arrived in Axpe, home to ...  
The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2010,
 which it has retained ever since. Voted to be No. 13 on
 The World’s 50 Best Restaurants  for 2015.

Old stone house on the village square, that is now the
 restaurant, was personally restored by the chef over
 25 years ago.

It was nearly 2:00 or 30 minutes after our reservation time. Joan jumped out into the rain and went inside while Gus parked the car behind the building. When Gus went inside he felt as lost in a loud and crowded first floor barroom of Etxebarri as he had felt while driving in Urkiola Natural Park. Fortunately, Gus discovered the second floor and the restaurant dining room. Joan was seated at a nice table for two towards the front.
Gus had been looking forward to eating at this restaurant ever since he had read Cooked, by Michael Pollan. 
"... even after some two million years of practice, the possibilities of cooking with fire may not be exhausted yet ... a self-trained chef in his fifties by the name of Bittor Arguinzoniz, a former lumberjack and electrician, has been quietly and intently reinventing what it means to cook with fire in the twenty-first century."  Michael Pollan
Etxebarri’s main dining room with a distinctive
 country farmhouse styling. The tables were
 generously spaced and soft classical music
 played in the background.

Castell d' Encus Taleia 2011
The sommelier recommended this wine
 to accompany the first two courses of our
 lunch. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc (87%)
 and Sémillon (13%) that was very food

Smoked Goat's Milk Butter with Black Salt - Gus
 The butter, freshly churned on the premises, was
 quite creamy with a light smokiness from the tiny
 flakes of smoked salt. It’s not meant for eating on
 its own but with a hearty and rustic house made
 bread. Check out the very cool "stand up" butter

Salted Anchovy with Toasted Bread - Joan
Delicious fillet of salted anchovy on lightly charred, house made toasted
 bread , drizzled with olive oil – a powerful and unmistakable introduction
 to the “Etxebarri char flavor” that is ubiquitous and omnipresent, but not

Gambas de Palamós - Both Gus & Joan
These were only borderline cooked but, as all the seafood is kept
 live until needed, they were as fresh as could be. At once sweet,
 smoky, succulent, almost a raw texture and sprinkled with a light
 smattering of salt – dazzling in its simplicity yet so
 pungently tasty.

We changed wines and each paired a single glass of Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero with our final shared course of "Beef on a Bone."
Bone-In Rib Eye of Galician Beef - Shared by Gus & Joan
With a seared char crust, sparingly salted and bordering on rare
 we couldn’t have asked for a tastier dish or a better showcase of
 that Etxebarri smoky char flavor. Served with a vinegary lettuce
 salad to balance the richness of the meat.
Passing on desert we paid our bill, which Gus found to be very reasonable, and began our drive back to Bilbao.
Leaving Axpe

Fortunately we had a better idea of driving routes and were able to avoid getting lost and arrived back at our hotel in less than and hour.

Tomorrow we travel to the beautiful wine region of La Rioja.

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