We’ve scored a good day to explore Bilbao, drizzly in the morning, clear and cool to follow. From our vantage point, the city is shrouded in fog and mist – I’m glad I took my hilltop photos yesterday.
A bus takes us into town – it’s incredibly built up, but we’re heading for the old city, set on the waters of Ria de Bilbao.
Our bus driver helpfully points us in the direction of the market, Mercado de la Ribera – he must have heard tummies rumbling. It’s a pretty building, built in an art deco style in 1930, and one of Europe’s largest undercover markets covering two levels of fruit and vegetables, meat, seafood and endless pintxios bars.
Bilbao’s old town grew around the river in the 14th century and it’s still the heart of activity with many ground floor car bars and shops, residential flats above. It’s very easy to become disoriented with its curving streets and winding river. Google maps rescues us frequently.
We pass a gorgeous buildings: the Teatro Arriaga, a 20th century theatre with a beautiful copper roof.
In a word, it’s spectacular. Modern in the extreme, it’s a work of art in itself. Built to resemble both a ship and and an opening flower, its true genius is the thin coating of titanium that covers it, rendering it a muse to the light with an endlessly changing facade. It’s a photographer’s delight.
As stunning as the museum is, I can’t do it justice from our vantage point but before I cross the river for an orgy of photography, there’s one sight I’ve been dying to see: the living sculpture entitled “Puppy” (or as I call him, Dogsy) commisioned for the museum’s opening in 1997. He’s gorgeous, a riot of summer flowers and he is indeed a very good boy, having faithfully conquered “sit” for decades.
Nearby a group of street performers, dress as hip-hop ducks, clacking their beaks in beat, have little kids enthralled. When they receive a donation from a little one, they engage fully, leaning in and pretending to nip, sending them jumping for cover. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun: the kids, the parents with cameras in hand, or the crowd gathered to watch. The clackers, as I’ve named them, are fabulous, one of the best street acts I’ve seen.
River crossed, the Guggenheim unfolds before us in all her glory. It’s a truly magnificent building and were it not for Chris, I’d happily sit here until sunset photographing the changing light, or better yet, hoping for an elusive reflective shot in still waters.
As I’m in snap happy heaven, we have a visitor, a nun from the nearby convent, who manages to convey that if we think this is good, the Bibliotheca is better. It proves to be an excellent tip. Our guidebook doesn’t mention it, but it is indeed a jewel. Google finds it, the local library back in the old city, and it’s 19th century opulent loveliness with stained glass, moulded ceilings and beautiful light fittings.
The Sister knew her stuff – how kind of her to share her treasure with complete strangers.
The city is reawakening after the afternoon close, we wander around a little more and then settle for a drink. I succumb to churros and chocolate, Chris a beer. We’re in the square in front of the cathedral beside a fountain, which despite the surrounding bustle, is a peaceful spot. A well earned rest after hours of walking.
Drinks lead to dinner. We navigate to a highly recommended pintxios bar in the Plaza Nueva, only to find it not only closed, but shut down. Very odd, as its website is still active. The Plaza Nueva is a Neo Classical arched square with plenty of eating options and pavement restaurants. It’s also a local playground – taking advantage of no traffic in the square, kids are playing soccer, riding their bikes and generally having a good time. On Sundays, the Plaza becomes a plant, animal and antique market.