cantabria to gernika and bilbao, part 2

In the Guggenheim, we took audioguides as a substitute for a tour of the building, which in this season are only in Spanish. The audioguide is included with admission, and available in a huge range of languages, including Catalan - clearly a political statement from Basque Bilbao.

We joined many other people standing in the atrium, the focal point of the interior, listening to the audioguide and looking around at the dizzying curves and cubes and ramps. The atrium is strange and wonderful. Outside on the patio, you are suddenly on the prow of a ship, a theme that is echoed many times in the building.

The narration describes Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim as a sculpture, and it does look and feel more important (and, in my opinion, better) than any of the art it houses. I know this bothers some people, who believe that a museum should be neutral and disappear behind the art it contains. I don't see why that should be. Surely Frank Lloyd Wright's original Guggenheim Museum upstages almost any art that is displayed there, and is the more important and durable art itself. But obviously I care more about architecture than I do about postmodern art.

For our part, we weren't particularly excited to see any of the art in the Bilbao Guggenheim. Perhaps if we had started in the morning, we might have spent more time with the exhibits, but I'm glad we chose Gernika. We looked briefly at interesting permanent works by Jenny Holzer and Frank Serra, and very briefly at a temporary exhibit about art and resistance in Nazi-occupied France. And very very briefly at work by Alex Katz, Basquiat, Warhol, and others along those lines.

Mostly we explored the building itself, which is what we came to see. It did not disappoint. It is really a knock-out.

When we were museumed out, we walked back to where the car was parked and easily found the hotel on a small, pedestrian-only street. I cannot imagine how we would have found it while driving.

The Hostal Begonia, like our hostal in Barcelona, is on the second floor of an old apartment building. There are funky paintings and tile everywhere, and an enormous library, hundreds and hundreds of books spanning a wide range of classics, politics, lit crit, biography, and history.

Our room was a "mini suite," all they had available that night, and it was enormous, four times the size of any other room on this trip (66 euros, our most expensive room since leaving Barcelona). We collapsed for a while, then set out in search of pintxos. We walked over to the oldest part of the city (dating back to the 1400s), a short walk over a bridge. We stopped at an outdoor market and bought some cheap jewelry and some sweets. Many stalls were selling local cheese that you could smell when the wind blew.

We spent the evening going to several different pintxos places. It's a fun routine. You ask what things are (you usually can't tell), and the bar person points to different things reciting in either English or Spanish, "Pulpo, Calamari, Chicken, Meat...". We saw a lot of people drinking white wine, the first we've seen on this trip, so we ordered it too, having a couple of glasses of wine and three or four pintxos at each stop. The food was amazing, and it's so much fun to have these wonderful little bites. Anything you like, you can order another. Anything you're not crazy about, it's a low commitment.

Many places were closed, Sunday night probably not being prime time, but enough places were open on the Plaza and another street Allan wanted to try (from the guidebook) that we had a good sampling.

For our last stop, we returned to where we started. Good timing. A group of Dutch people who (I overheard) had been there four nights in a row were shaking hands and saying goodbye to their host. He scooted off and returned with an unusual pitcher, shaped something like an old oil can, or an odd salad-dressing cruet. He said, "Here is special Basque thing!" and demonstrated: holding one side and streaming the liquid into his mouth from a distance. He offered it to one of the Dutch guests, holding it aloft so the Dutch guy had to either drink or be doused in purple liquid. Dutch guy was able to drink an amazing amount in one go. Everyone else was too scared. I would have done it, but I'm too uncoordinated and surely would have been wearing it or choking. I did try some in my glass: it tasted something like cough medicine. I later learned it's made from blueberries. The whole thing was a riot. As we were leaving, more people were streaming in and the place was picking up steam all over again.

We had a lovely day in Euskadi/Basque Country. I'd love to explore further, although I highly doubt we will return. If you go, you might also want to check out this transporter bridge, the oldest one in existence, and the first industrial object to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The other hugely popular thing to do along with visiting the Bilbao Guggenheim is to drive the San Sebastian coast and eat San Sebastian cuisine, both said to be unparalleled. We opted out of both of those in favour of paleolithic cave paintings, and were very happy with our choice.

As we went to bed that night, the big question was, will we visit Toledo on our last day, or just go to the hotel airport?

Photos of the Bilbao Guggenheim are here.

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