For the people of Bilbao time is divided into two eras, tour guide Xabier explains. There is BG: before the Guggenheim museum built a huge ship-like museum on the bank of their river, and AG: after the Guggenheim opened in October 1997. That is when Bilbao changed from an outdated and polluted industrial city to the hip designer tourist destination it is today. “Congresses held in our city went up from two to thousands,” Xabier says, while we stand in the shade of the bronze statue of a giant spider called Maman, the 33,000 titanium sheets that make up the building, once an old dock and wood warehouse, right behind us. Joggers run past. It’s all very clean, modern and relaxed here, on the banks of the Nervión River.
But tourist season isn’t going to be quiet. After the publication of Dan Brown’s Origin, about the future of mankind and artificial intelligence, summer is set to be even busier than usual. Brown always has a penchant for stunning locations. His most famous novels, which follow the adventures of Harvard symbology expert Professor Robert Langdon, journey across some of the most iconic historic and cultural attractions in Europe. And in Origin, another rollercoaster ride of murder, intrigue and cryptic puzzles, professor Langdon is a guest of billionaire futurist Edmond Kirsch, who is holding an event which he promises will blow the lid on one of the great secrets of human existence.
Dan Brown isn’t the first one to discover this place. In 1999 James Bond - played by Pierce Brosnan – already leaped from a balcony with the building and its emblematic Puppy in the background. But Brown describes the building, both in and outside, in such a way, that you want to go there. So just like millions of people went to see the Mona Lisa and the Louvre’s pyramid in Paris after “The Da Vinci Code” was published, Dan Brown fans are now flocking to the Guggenheim.
After reading Origin, a visit to this museum seems strangely familiar. Getting lost in Richard Serra’s maze of rusty steel, titled The Matter of Time, where the professor meets a nervous Edmond Kirsch, feels threatening, with narrow corridors that keep changing shape. In fact, the giant spider outside seems to be the friendliest creature around, together with the huge statue of a puppy with a coat of 37.000 flowers that are changed by hand twice a year. Inside the museum there is very interesting and sometimes quite disturbing art.
British Industrial Revolution
A city tour of Bilbao doesn’t start in the old town, Casco Viejo, but ends there. After its foundation in the early 14th century by Diego López V de Haro, Bilbao became a commercial hub of the Basque Country that enjoyed significant importance. High quality iron was extracted from the Biscayan quarries and used to make all kinds of goods, already in the middle ages.
In its beginnings, Bilbao only had three streets surrounded by walls. Inside this enclosure, there was a small hermitage dedicated to the Apostle Saint James, which pilgrims visited on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Old stones in the road still indicate the way to go and there are still pilgrims to be found – especially those who try to escape from the thousands of tourists that flock the other Santiago road. Eventually the town was extended – to seven streets. The old town is a lovely place, with wooden structures and old shops. And a church that literally sank into the ground, so a whole sections of columns needed to be built to keep it standing up.
But the more spectacular historical buildings are found on the other side of the river. The goods that were exported from this little town of seven streets eventually caught the interest of British businesses. They settled here and started an industrial revolution. They set up mines in the mountains and shipyards along the river, then created banks and insurance companies.
The British built their mansions in the district of Abando, which is now one big open air shopping and commercial center of the city. The buildings are in different styles and wonderfully well-kept here. Xabier points out the place where the British had their men only club – where you could only be member if you were of British descent and had at least 6 million in the bank.
While life in the British district was good, the situation along the riverbank was another matter. This is where people worked in the shipbuilding industry. “When I was a child, we used to take the funicular up to the Mount Artxanda there,” Xabier points. “You could breathe fresher air there, but you couldn’t see the city. There was only a thick layer of smog.”
To get a taste of what industrial Bilbao looked like, I take a boat ride on the river to Portugalete and Getxo, where the Bristish aristocracy built its palaces once the air in the city became unbearable. It’s a beautiful commune at the end of the river, which is famous for its red UNESCO-protected 1893 Vizcaya Bridge – the first bridge in the world to carry people and traffic on a high suspended gondola. It’s also, we discover as we cross underneath, a popular place for bungee jumping.
Game of Thrones
The city of Bilbao isn’t the only place that was made famous by modern culture. The next day, Maria from KSpain Travel and Leisure drives me on winding roads to the other icon of this area: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Maria ran up this gorgeous man-made stone bridge during weekends as a child, and has been leading tourists around it for years. “It used to be an old church where fishermen used to go to pray for protection. They would take care of the bridge and the steps to the church. Since two areas were disputing who the island belonged to, the fishermen also had to go at least once a year to put down their flag.”
So it was all very quiet until one day, about ten years ago, when Maria turned on her computer and saw that a picture of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe now served as a Microsoft screen saver. And maybe this is also how it ended up in 2016 as the winding path that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen walk along to reach Dragonstone Castle, bringing in their wake 75.000 tourists a year and a need to get free tickets beforehand so not everyone walks up the steps at the same time.
While Bilbao reinvented itself for the modern world, here you still feel the old Basque country, where farmers live in stone houses in the mountains, make their own wine and cheese and have stone lifting competitions for fun. And where the men go fishing in rough waters along a dark coast. We cross the rough stone bridge and the long path to climb the 241-steps up to the little church, while angry waves crash beneath us. Then we ring the church bell three times to for good luck, and enjoy an amazing view of the stormy Bay of Biscay, featuring carved cliffs, tunnels and impossible arches out of the island.
Gaztelugatxe has been the place of pirate’s covens and legends, once welcoming witches, knights and even John the Baptist. It is no coincidence that it was named Most Voted Wonder and Most Valued by travellers from around the world. It is believed that the first hermitage that existed here was erected in the 9th century. In the 12th century, it became a convent. However, two centuries later, the friars abandoned it taking with them everything of value.
Because of its reputation, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe also played a role during the Spanish Inquisition. Witches and their ritualistic meetings known as Akelarre, make up a part of the Basque mythology. For this reason, the Catholic Church focused much of its time during the inquisition hunting for witches in the region. Several accounts indicate that many of the accused were locked up in the caves of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
On the way back, Bermeo to visit, one of the most important fishing villages in the Basque Country. The town has a long maritime tradition and, for centuries, the locals were famous whalers. We have pintxos - the Basque version of tapas that consist of small slices of bread - at its little harbor. This is the most picturesque corner of Bermeo, with slender houses painted in a myriad of colors that is full of bars where locals stop for a drink.
Night at the Museum
At ten o’clock at night, it’s time for the youth of Bilbao to flock to the museum for Art After Dark – a cool monthly event held at the museum where you can party alongside exhibitions to Spain’s biggest house DJs. Interested art visitors and tourists have been replaced by a DJ playing otherworldly techno music and crowds of young people all dressed up for a good time. “It really gets the young people in the museum and this way, they also go see the art,” Maria observes and she’s right. The youngsters flock in small groups past the abstract paintings of Picasso and the Marylyn Monroe pop-art of Andy Warhol. No wonder this city was named one of the most creative in the world.