If you travel north-east from Madrid, towards the elbow where the northern coast of Spain meets the western coast of France, you will eventually reach one of the most fascinating corners of the country: el País Vasco, or the Basque Country.
The Basques are an ethnic group indigenous to the region, and they’ve been around a long time. Their origins cannot be precisely determined, but it is thought that they represent a living lineage of the people who occupied Europe before the Roman expansion. This is believed because their language, Basque (Euskara, as they call it), is unrelated to any of the neighboring Romantic languages. That’s clear at a glance. Look at even a Basque street sign, and your eye will rebel at the confusing jumble of consonants—so thick that even German would flee in terror. The language is absolutely isolated; there is nothing similar, no dialects even remotely related. Its survival is an indication of the Basques’ remarkable toughness.
The Basque region has always been troublesome for Spain. This is understandable, considering that the Basques have a different language and culture. Basque separatism has existed since at least the time of Ortega y Gasset, who identified it in his book, España Invertebrada (1922), as one of the forces of disintegration in modern Spain.
Much more recently, the Basque terrorist group ETA fought for independence. To date they have killed over 800 people, and that number rises when you include injuries and kidnapping. Thankfully there haven’t been any attacks in many years. But this antagonism between the Basques and the Spanish still exists. Just this month, while working at a summer camp, some kids from Bilbao got very angry when kids from Madrid started making fun of them for being Basque. And one of those Basque kids kept telling me “I don’t like Spain,” even though he lived in Spain and spoke Spanish far better than Euskara.
For all these reasons, I have long been interested in visiting the region; and this is not to mention all the friends who recommended going. So GF and I decided to spend a long weekend exploring the Basque Country for ourselves. Our first stop was the most populous city: Bilbao.
Bilbao is a city of industry. On our train ride from the suburbs to the city center, we passed dockyards, cranes, shipping containers, and factories. Bilbao is situated on an estuary; and the whole riverside, from the city center to the Bay of Biscay, is a scene of unbroken industry. Unlike many Spanish cities, Bilbao is a place bent on the future. On our way in, GF and I passed the Exhibition Center—a daring building, erected in 2004, that looks like a waiter carrying too many plates in one hand. Once you reach the center of Bilbao, a circular glass skyscraper towers overhead; and a modern bridge made of twisting metal spans the river. Even the garbage disposals look like robots.
But Bilbao also has history. The historical center of the city is the Casco Viejo, which is where we headed to first. It is a lovely area, with narrow streets and plentiful restaurants. One of the most famous things about the Basque country is the food. Instead of tapas, they have pintxos, which are more or less the same thing—small servings of food, mostly on bread.
Our Airbnb host recommended the Casco Viejo for eating; and since every restaurant was advertising pintxos, we randomly picked one and sat down. I’m sorry to say that, although good, the food did not leave a deep impression on me. Indeed, I cannot say that I found the food in Bilbao noticeably different from the food in, say, Logroño—that is to say, it seemed fairly typical of Spanish food. It’s good food, to be sure, but I expected something more distinct. Instead, we had croquetas on bread, jamón on bread, tortilla on bread, chorizo on bread, and so on. In any case, it was inexpensive and filling, so I cannot complain.
We spent some time wandering around the Casco Viejo, enjoying the medieval streets. We wanted to visit the cathedral, which is small and has a lovely façade; but it was closed, for whatever reason. So we decided to leave the old area, and walk towards Bilbao’s main attraction: the Guggenheim Museum.
The walk towards the Guggenheim was delightful, taking us along the riverside. In some sections I was reminded of Paris, with elegant apartment buildings and the old Santander train station, decorated in a colorful art nouveau style. Then the city began to look more modern. Rectangular glass buildings, brutally square, towered overhead; and a small white suspension bridge came into view. Soon we could see the Guggenheim itself, although its strange form was mostly hidden from view by apartment buildings and another suspension bridge. Next to this bridge, two odd, grey towers curled up towards the sky, serving no apparent function but decoration.
As we neared, I grew increasingly excited. I had heard of the Bilbao Guggenheim before I even came to Spain, and had longed to see it ever since. My anticipation growing, we walked under the bridge and turned a corner.
The sight did not disappoint. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Bilbao Guggenheim is covered in overlapping titanium strips, meant to look like the scales of a giant fish. The curling form of the building is also reminiscent of a fish, or perhaps of a massive, misshapen boat. Indeed, the building looks more at home in water than on land—a feeling reinforced both by a large pond in front and its location right next to the river. Just as in Gaudí’s work, there is hardly a straight line to be found; everything swells and curves, contracts and expands. In front, a large statue of a ghastly, nightmarish spider welcomes visitors to the museum. It is not exactly a beautiful place, but undeniably intriguing.
We found the entrance and went inside. The first thing we saw was a work by Andy Warhol. Consisting of at least fifty separate silkscreens, the work was an exploration of color and shadow. Essentially, Warhol just took the same silkscreen and made copies of it with many different colors (mostly bright neon). I enjoyed walking around the room, seeing how the image changed as I went along, but GF was deeply unimpressed with the piece. And I cannot say I found it terribly inspiring, either.
My favorite room in the museum was the largest. It housed Richard Serra’s massive installation, The Matter of Time. The work consists of long, thin metal strips, far taller than a person, arranged in geometrical patterns throughout the space. Some of these are in waves, some circles, some spirals. The feeling of walking through it is rather like being lost in a maze. Several times I lost track of GF, and had to search through the odd shapes to find her. The acoustic properties were also interesting, the metal sheets creating massive echoes, amplifying my footsteps into a loud clacking. The way that the installation warped and stretched my perception of space made it a true work of art.
The most well-represented artist in the museum was Louise Bourgeois. She is mostly known for her three-dimensional installations, which often use materials found around the house. In content, her work tends to be highly autobiographical. The aforementioned spider in front of the museum, which is her work, is meant to represent her mother. This strikes me as rather grim, but as the audioguide informed us, the spider’s weaving is supposed to represent nurturing and protection—though I’m not sure I buy that. Her relationship with her father does not seem to have been any better. One of her most famous works, Destruction of the Father, is an abstract depiction of a banquet in which the children have rebelled, killed, and eaten their father. The whole installation is made of soft materials, illuminated with red light that makes everything look like flesh; and the “children,” the “food,” and the “table” are formless blobs. In sum, I find her work a bit creepy.
The most beautiful room in the museum was the one dedicated to 20th century Parisian art. Unfortunately, while I remember being quite pleased with the paintings, the only canvases that stick out in my memory are Robert Delaunay’s portrayals of the Eiffel Tower. These are wonderful works, with the towering form of the Eiffel Tower squeezed, compressed, stretched, and twisted, standing over a trembling Paris below. There is an attractive energy and dynamism to the paintings, which fit well with the aesthetic of Bilbao, for Delaunay’s painting, the Eiffel Tower, and Bilbao are all oriented towards the technological future. More generally, I found the works in those rooms satisfied my ideal of what art should be—original, daring, personal, and yet informed by a tradition of technical competency and well-worn standards of beauty.
This does not apply to another room in the Bilbao Guggenheim, the one dedicated to “Masterpieces.” This label may have been tongue-in-cheek, for the works contained therein were, one and all, large canvasses covered in either a monochromatic shade of paint, or merely splattered haphazardly with colors. One of them, I remember, looked like someone had randomly thrown blue paint at a white canvass; but the audioguide informed me that the artist had a nude model covered in paint roll around on it. Another one (if memory serves) consisted of an amorphous blob of green, yellow, and blue, which the audioguide explained was meant to represent the countryside of the artist’s youth. It’s things like that which give modern art a bad name. True, there was a work by Mark Rothko, who I tend to enjoy. Apart from this, however, I was left cold. I spent about ten minutes doing my best to appreciate the works, and then finally gave it up.
It took us about three hours to see the whole museum, and then we were out on the street again. My final assessment of the museum’s collection is the same as my opinion of the building itself: not exactly beautiful, but intriguing. There are times when I feel that the modernist emphasis on originality and personal expression has been horrid for visual art. By jettisoning tradition they have abandoned both the technical facility and the standards of beauty that have guided the best artists for hundreds of years. But sometimes, when I see something truly strange and fascinating, I think that this search for new modes of expression, new aesthetics, new mediums, new techniques—in a word, for newness—is both necessary and good. It is, in any case, true that it is impossible to reproduce the aesthetics of earlier times without producing sterile works; great art must reflect both the times of its birth and the vision of its creator.
I wanted to see more, but our day was over. Since we had spent the morning in the car, it was already quite late. We ate dinner and went back to our Airbnb to rest. Originally we planned to spend two days exploring Bilbao, but a recommendation from our Blablacar driver made us change those plans. Instead, we would try to see the Hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.