Forty years ago, Bilbao was the smelliest city in Europe. The stench from the horribly-polluted Nervion river turned stomachs. Even on the hottest days, people who didn’t have air-conditioning kept their windows closed. But that was then. Born-again Bilbao has come up smelling of roses after cleaning up its act, and windows are now thrown wide open – as are the arms that greet the torrents of tourists who until relatively recently were a rarity. The city used to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Nowadays, it’s a super-safe long weekend destination that’s full of delightful surprises at every turn.
|Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, by the Nervion River, is the foremost must-see sight in the city|
The perfect pint
Bald Basque bar owner Manu Iturregi has a magnificent handlebar moustache that makes Becher’s Brook look like a toothbrush. If ever they part company, those whiskers are guaranteed a glittering career beneath the villain’s nostrils in Wild West movies and Victorian-era TV dramas.
I’m sitting in Manu’s Bar Residence at 1 Barrainkua Street where he’s busy pouring and topping off pints of Guinness for an eclectic early-afternoon clientele. If my late pal Kevin Dorothy had been with me, he would’ve been watching him like a hawk. Kevin, who was a professional barman in Belfast, loved his stout and hated to see it being treated with anything but the utmost reverence. Kevin taught me to pull the perfect pint, so I know he would’ve given Manu 10 out of 10.
While I wait for my Guinness to settle, I start counting the many different Irish and Scotch and quite a few Japanese whiskies on the shelves behind the bar. Manu notices, and saves me the bother.
“One huuundred and eiiiiighty!” he says, with the same crowd-pleasing delivery as the guy who scores the darts matches on TV.
|Bar Residence owner Manu Iturregi with a pint of Guinness. Below, some of his 180 whiskies|
Out of this world
Manu’s personal drams of choice are Bushmills’ 16-year-old single malt, which is aged in bourbon, port and sherry casks; and the Ardbeg Supernova, one of the most heavily-peated Scotch whiskies you can buy, if you can afford it – a mail-order bottle leaves little change from €550. I tell him that’s cheap compared with the bottle of special-edition Jameson I saw in Dublin airport that morning.
“How much was it?” asks Manu.
“Five thousand euro,” I tell him.
“Hmm. Maybe if I win the lottery,” he says.
Supernova was spawned by a 2011 experiment in which Ardbeg was invited by a US space research company to send vials of maturing spirit to the International Space Station. The idea was to see how the molecules would react with charred oak in micro-gravity when matched against a control sample in normal gravity on the isle of Islay. It was an expensive experiment, which probably explains the astronomical price.
I’ll have to take Manu’s word for it that Supernova is out of this world, because the bottle he shows me is empty. However, he pours two generous glasses of 15-year-old Redbreast, raises his and says: “Slainte, agus failte go Bilbao. I think you’re going to like my city.”
If first impressions are anything to go by, I think he’s right.
|Different view of the Guggenheim Museum in a photo taken from Mount Artxanda|
Build it, and they will come
A few minutes’ walk from Manu’s place, which is listed among the best whisky bars in the world by the authoritative Whisky Magazine, is the Guggenheim Museum (www.guggenheim-bilbao.es), which frequently occupies or isn’t far from the top spot on those annual lists of the world’s most eye-popping modern architectural gems.
The Guggenheim, which opened in 1997and has seen admissions increase every year since, isn’t really a museum at all – it’s a remarkable work of art housing equally remarkable works of art. The brainchild of Canadian-born ‘starchitect’ Frank Gehry, it’s the reason why most visitors choose to spend time in Bilbao. More than a million people a year, 60pc of them foreigners, step through its doors.
Tour guide Xabier ‘Txabi’ Lexartza sums it up nicely when he adapts the oft-quoted line from Kevin Costner’s movie, Field Of Dreams.
“The Guggen, as we call it for short, is the perfect example of ‘Build it, and they will come’,” he says.
I’ve landed lucky in being paired up with the amiable Txabi, who’s as keen to chat about Dublin, where he lived for some months as a younger man, as he is to show me the attractions of his home city. His enthusiasm is infectious. Thanks to Txabi and Manu, my first day in Bilbao has got off to a first-class start and is getting better by the hour.
|Genial tour guide Txabi Lexartza outside the Guggenheim Museum, also pictured below|
A sight to behold
The Guggenheim is described in the free guide that comes with your entrance ticket as “. . . an extraordinary combination of interconnecting shapes. Orthogonal blocks in limestone contrast with curved and bent forms covered in titanium”. That’s fair enough (though I had to look up “orthogonal”), but it reminds me of a turkey covered in tinfoil, which is why I’ll never get a job on Architectural Digest magazine. Nevertheless, it really is a sight to behold.
Txabi tells me that 60 tonnes of titanium tiles – a low-density, high-strength metal more usually made into aircraft parts, golf clubs, tennis racquets and horseshoes – cover the facades and roofs of the Guggenheim’s galleries. I’m surprised it isn’t a lot heavier, because there’s so much of it.
“There are 33,000 tiles and they’re extremely thin,” says Txabi. “That’s why the titanium only weighs 60 tonnes. Inside in the Fish Gallery there’s a sculpture by Californian artist Richard Serra called The Snake. It’s made of weathering steel and it weighs 180 tonnes. That’s why the floor is reinforced.”
We stand for a while in silence, staring through sunglasses at the glistening curves and swoops and pointy bits. In late afternoon under a cloudless sky, the Guggenheim’s metallic mantle is a blue-tinted silver. Come sunset, it turns pink and orange. On those days when the Nervion is in no great hurry to get to the sea, the whole marvellously mad melange of titanium, limestone and glass is mirrored on the water.
I ask Txabi what the museum’s shiny shell reminds him of.
“To me, it looks like a ship,” he says, and points. “Look there, and there – you can see the shape of ship’s bows. Then again, maybe a flower in bloom. A big silver flower. And because the tiles look like fish scales, I sometimes picture the fresh sardines in the Ribera market.”
I see what he means, but he’s missing the glaringly obvious.
“So, it doesn’t remind you of a turkey?” I ask, and take his snigger as a “no”.
|Two of brash US artist Jeff Koons' less-offensive sculptures in the Guggenheim Museum|
Inside, the Guggenheim (James Bond fans will know it featured in the pre-titles sequence of the 1999 film, The World Is Not Enough), is hosting an exhibition by brash American artist Jeff Koons. This is the guy who sculpts colourful, gigantic balloon animals from stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces, and the place is full of them. In November 2013, his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie’s in New York for $58.4m, making it the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction. But that’s not all he sculpts, as I discover to my acute embarrassment.
One of his pieces is an oversized but anatomically precise sculpture of himself and his now former wife, Hungarian-born but naturalised Italian porn star Ilona Staller, going at it like rabbits. It takes a lot to shock me, but it nearly gives me an art attack. If the Mona Lisa had been hung in the same gallery, her eyebrows would have shot out of the top of her frame – even though she doesn’t have any.
“Txabi, you might have warned me,” I half-whisper, half-hiss. I’m mortified, and suddenly fascinated by the ceiling, the floor, my shoes, but especially the exit.
“I might have,” he says with a grin, “but I wanted to see your reaction.”
It’s not the first time I’ve been led up the garden path, but that was the last thing I expected to see behind the bushes.
Koons married Staller, who’s better known as Cicciolina and served as a member of the Italian parliament, in 1991. He spoke no Italian and she had very little English (she didn’t really need any as all her movies are subtitled – I’m told), so he courted her in Rome with the help of an interpreter. It gets sillier. The interpreter became infatuated with Koons and Cicciolina showed her the door, so he began conversing with his beloved in English – with a heavy Italian accent.
I don’t know what he whispered in her ear, but if it was the lyrics to Joe Dolce’s 1980 chart-topper, Ah, Shaddap You Face, it’s no bigg-a sapprise that the marriage lasted only two years.
|Everyone in Bilbao loves Jeff Koons' cute Puppy, as do visitors to the Guggenheim|
I push my offended eyes back into their sockets and we step outside. Towering over the Guggenheim’s main entrance and as cute as can be is Koons’ giant floral Puppy. Standing 13 metres high, it’s an accurate sculpture of a West Highland Terrier that’s covered in scores of thousands of growing flowers – petunias, lobelias and begonias, to name a few – with an integrated irrigation system that keeps it in colourful blossom year-round. It was intended as a temporary installation, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, so it’s staying put. It’s the prolific Koons’ most-admired work, and I think it’s blooming lovely.
It’s time to eat, so Txabi and I set off for the old town, walking by the river, where solo kayakers and university rowing teams are paddling and sculling. Joggers and kids on rollerblades and bikes pass us in both directions on the wide promenade; teenage sweethearts wander along hand in hand or eat the faces off each other on benches; and handsome couples with beautiful and stylishly-dressed children (the Basques are especially good-looking and supremely fashion-conscious) take advantage of a balmy early evening to stroll by the Nervion. Not so long ago they’d have been wearing gas masks, not Gucci.
|One of the relatively traffic-free streets in the quaint old town|
Farther, My God, From Thee
You wouldn’t want to end up in hospital in Bilbao. Not that there’s anything wrong with the health service in the Basque country (Txabi assures me it’s among the best in the world); rather, a pair of far-from-fancy cotton pyjamas will set you back €95, which I’m shocked to learn on peering through the fly-spattered window of a little old shop facing the 14th Century Catedral de Santiago.
The Gothic cathedral, which acquired a Neo-Classical facade and tower in the 19th Century, is the starting point for our tapas trail of the old town – a must-do on every visitors’ itinerary and something I’ve been looking forward to all day. We’re under starter’s orders, but Txabi, like all great guides, can’t pass an important building without pointing out a photo opp or sharing a fascinating fact.
“You see the four steps down to the door of the cathedral?” he says. “They weren’t there in the 14th Century. The door was at street level. But the cathedral was built on a foundation of compacted sand and silt, so over the centuries it’s been very slowly sinking. For a building dedicated to the worship of God on high, it’s going in the wrong direction.”
|Tasty treats on display in one of the countless pintxo bars and restaurants in the old town|
The prince of pintxos
Tapas in the Basque country are called pintxos, which means “thorns” or “spikes”. The name comes from the toothpicks that skewer your chosen tasty treat to the piece of bread on which it’s served. According to Txabi, they don’t come much tastier than those served in the bars and cafes of Bilbao’s old town.
We’re sitting on high stools at the bar in our first pintxo port of call (of eight), and in my hand is a wide stubby glass containing a drink that wine snobs believe was dreamt up by the Devil. Kalimotxo is equal measures of the cheapest red plonk and Coca-Cola, poured over ice. It sounds hellish, but it’s a mix made in heaven. In Boston they call it a cocktail and charge you $20. In Bilbao, where it was invented, you get more than enough change from €5 to order a pintxo.
Pintxos are haute, but not necessarily hot, cuisine in miniature form. I try umpteen varieties and combinations from simple potato and ham croquette to succulent slices of jamon Serrano, then chillies with olives and anchovy followed by saucy albondiga (meatball). But the prince of pintxos is grilled foie gras on toasted raisin bread with a little dippy dollop of apple sauce on the side for €2.
Barcelona, which gets a helluva lot more visitors than Bilbao, has, without a by-your-leave, hijacked the pintxo and passed it off as a Catalan creation. Don’t believe a word of it – the original and best in all of Iberia are prepared and proffered by those gastronomic geniuses, the genial Basques.
|The Mount Artxanda funicular railway is great fun, and the ride takes only three minutes|
A funi experience
I’m off to the seaside today, but first I have a viewing appointment on Mount Artxanda, which overlooks downtown Bilbao. More importantly, it overlooks the Nervion and the Guggenheim, and I’m going up to take some photos from a different perspective. But that’s the routine part of my mission. The thrilling part is that to get to the scenic terrace you take the funicular, and I love funiculars.
The journey aboard the Swiss-built ‘funi’, as the locals call it, lasts only three minutes. This has nothing to do with Mount Artxanda being up in the clouds and the little red electric car going like a rocket. Neither is the case. Artxanda tops out at a mere 250 metres, the terrace is at 224 metres and the funi covers its 770 metres of single track at an average of five metres a second. The fare is 95 cent, but strangely, you can buy only one-way tickets.
While I’m taking my pictures, a couple of coaches arrive in the car park and decant about 100 noisy German tourists. There are acres of space from which to enjoy the views, but like a swarm of bees converging on a fella covered from head to toe in jam, they head straight for me.
I decide I have enough photos and buzz off.
|The Bizkaia Bridge, the world's first transporter bridge, 14km downriver from central Bilbao|
Bridge of size
The 14km metro ride from the city centre to Getxo, where the Nervion empties into
the Ibaizabal estuary which further empties into the Bay of Biscay, takes just over 20 minutes and costs €3.40 return (public transport in Bilbao is surprisingly cheap and super-efficient). As the train approaches the station where I’m itching to get off, a recorded voice announces with what sounds like a dreamily contented sigh that the next stop is Areeta. The word is music to my ears.
As a child of the Meccano age, this is an exciting moment for me, because Getxo is home to one side of a fabulous feat of late 19th Century engineering, the Bizkaia Bridge (the other side is in Portugalete, just across the river). With the greatest respect to Txabi, this is one Bilbao landmark on which I think I can match him for knowledge.
Work on the world’s first transporter bridge, which is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding architectural iron structures of the Industrial Revolution, began in April 1890 and it opened just over three years later. Since July 28, 1893, the first and successive suspended gondolas have carried some 650 million passengers and travelled some 1,248,000 kilometres back and forth across the Nervion ̶ the equivalent of 31 trips around the world. On August 5, 1893, Princess Isabela of Bourbon made the short trip seven times. On September 7, 2015, I did it eight times. Na-na-na-na-naaah!
An elevator takes visitors 50 metres up to the 160-metre walkway incorporated in the cross-spar, from where the views are fabulous. On March 17, 2012, athletes Jan Salvador and Javi Carole ran a marathon back and forth across the walkway, crossing the finishing line together after three hours, 34 minutes and 13 seconds.
|Manu is a dab hand with the accordion, which he plays every year in Matt Molloy's pub|
Pipes and drams
After another hugely enjoyable and busy day, there’s only one place to head for a nightcap or three, and that’s busy Bar Residence (www.residencecafe.com), where Manu hosts a trad session every Wednesday night. As it’s Tuesday and I’m off to Dublin in the morning, I’ll miss it, but there’s always the next time – I’m going back in April, flights already booked.
Manu’s an accomplished accordion player and spends two weeks each August holidaying in the west of Ireland, where he’s been the star turn on many a night in Matt Molloy’s pub in Westport, much to the delight of the regulars. He’s also learning the Highland bagpipes, but not in Bar Residence, much to the relief of his own regulars. As for his neighbours in the old town, where he lives and practises his music, they must be either stone deaf or very tolerant.
A big rugby fan, he already has his ticket for the Calcutta Cup clash between Scotland and England at Murrayfield next February 6, when he’ll be wearing his kilt and singing Flower of Scotland.
I’m chuffed to say that in Manu and Txabi, with whom I’ve kept in touch, I have two new buddies in Bilbao. Txabi has a young family, so it won’t be easy for him to revisit Ireland any time soon. However, Manu’s heading over again next summer, and it’ll be my privilege to show him around Dublin and introduce him to my favourite watering hole. That’s on condition that he leaves his new instrument behind in Bilbao – they’re not exactly nuts about the bagpipes in Neary’s.
Aer Lingus has regular flights from Dublin to Bilbao from the end of March to the end of October, with greater frequency in the summer months. www.aerlingus.com
A taxi from the airport to the city centre costs €32, while the bus costs €1.45.
The four-star Hotel Ercilla in the city centre has rooms from €70 a night including breakfast. www.hotelercilla.com
|The popular and colourful Cafe Bar Bilbao in the old town|