(This post is part of my series on the Basque Country. Click here for Bilbao, here for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and here for the Vizcaya Bridge.)
San Sebastián is a city much unlike Bilbao. For one, it is noticeably smaller, with a population of less than 200,000. But more conspicuously, it is not at all a city of industry, commerce, or manufacturing. Rather, it is a place of tourism. The streets are full of foreigners, squeezed into the narrow streets, filling up the parks, covering the beaches with their bodies. The city is also remarkably pretty. As I strolled along the beaches I was reminded of Cádiz; and as I wandered through the streets, Oviedo came to mind. But the strongest and most persistent impression was surprise at the number of tourists. They were all over the place; every restaurant was full, every shop was crowded. The shoreline was an unbroken wall of hotels. I had no idea San Sebastián was so popular.
Some of this probably had to do with the city being (along with Wroclaw in Poland) one of the European Cultural Capitals of 2016. (Each year, a city or two in the European Union gets designated a European Cultural Capital, which means it will host several Europe-oriented events during the year.) This may have attracted even more tourists than usual. Even so, it is clear that San Sebastián is a major tourist destination, because its whole economy is oriented around visitors. This is fitting, for the city is undeniably charming. Its location is a good one, too, being only 12 miles from the French border, and northerly enough so that the temperature is nearly perfect in summer.
We were hungry when we arrived, so our first order of business was food. Our Airbnb host recommended a restaurant in the center. The restaurant was the Bar Aitona, and it was excellent. We ordered the steak and the octopus. Both were served on a huge bed of fries, both were amply portioned, both were well seasoned, and both were scrumptious. Added to that, the prices were very reasonable. We left very full, and very satisfied. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.
When we were back on the street, we decided to start exploring the city. This inevitably led us to Monte Urgull, the most conspicuous landmark in San Sebastián. Urgull is a hill that overlooks the bay. Nowadays, it is covered in trees, and is basically a park; but in the past it formed as a military fortification, since its high elevation at the bay’s edge made it well suited for defense. And these fortifications were not just for show; they were used in several important battles. Probably the most significant of these was the Siege of San Sebastián, in which the British forces, led by Wellington, ousted Napoleon’s troops in the Peninsular Wars. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but was instead attracted by the gigantic statue of Jesus—12 meters, or almost 40 feet tall—that looms over the hill.
We began walking up, and quickly found that it is a delightful place. Old walls, broken battlements, obsolete canons, and other aging fortifications still stand, some in ruins, some overgrown; and for me there is something remarkably romantic about the sight of weeds and trees reclaiming the abandoned dwellings of past times. The hill is divided into several levels, and as you ascend you get a progressively better view of the city. From the top, the whole shore is spread before you, with its azure water, crowded beaches, and the rolling green hills in the distance. We got to the top, where we could stare up at the towering figure of Jesus, and then descended on the other side of the hill.
This part of was a wooded area. But as we climbed down a rocky path, something caught our eye. Right below a cliff, surrounded by roots and trees, was the old memorial erected by the British army after the conquest of San Sebastián. A broken and discolored plaque, bearing the royal insignias of England and Spain, bore a message in both English and Spanish honoring the fallen soldiers. Further on, we noticed another plaque, this one on the side of a rock face, honoring the unknown soldiers lost in the campaign. I know these must be well known, but at the time, with only the two of us, it felt like coming upon an archaeological treasure. This illusion was quickly dispelled, since at the bottom of the hill we encountered a map showing where all the different war memorials, graves, and mausoleums could be found on the hill. In any case, it’s a lovely area, both for its history and its views.
The rest of our day was rather uneventful. We strolled around San Sebastián, enjoying the ocean, the river, the crowded city center. But we did not really visit anything in particular, since we couldn’t find anything to visit. It seems that San Sebastián is a lovely place if you want to eat and go to the beach, but it does not have much in the way of cultural tourism, which is mostly what I’m after. In any case, it was late. We had arrived at around noon, and by now the sun was setting. So we walked along the river to our apartment, and the next morning we said farewell to the Basque Country. But I hope to return, the sooner the better.
(This post is part of my series on the Basque Country. Click here for Bilbao, here for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and here for San Sebastián.)
The train pulled up to Portugalete station, the doors opened, and we got off. Portugalete is one of the towns, ranged along the Bilbao river, that make up the Bilbao metropolitan area. (The name’s resemblance with “Portugal” is apparently only a coincidence.) With a population of about 50,000, and a land area of only 3.21 square kilometers, it is actually the fifth most densely populated area in Spain.
To me, the place struck me as a pleasant, moderately urbanized, more or less tranquil town. Along the riverside there were some large, attractive restaurants, their tables crowding into the streets—though at this hour, too early for dinner in Spain, the chairs were mostly empty. But the surroundings didn’t attract my attention for long, since I could already see my goal: the Vizcaya Bridge.
In Spanish it is called the Puente Colgante, or “Hanging Bridge.” The name is appropriate. It is a perplexing sight at first. The bridge has the familiar form of a suspension bridge; but the middle section seems to be misplaced: it hangs ludicrously high in the air, with no ramps to get up or down. The more I looked, the more confused I became, for there didn’t seem to be any way you could use the bridge.
As I got nearer, I noticed something strange on the water. It wasn’t quite on the water, actually, but hovering above it. I looked up, and saw that the thing was hanging from the bridge. So that’s how it worked! The reason the bridge looked so odd was that it transported a shuttle that hung underneath, almost like a puppet on strings. That’s why the bridge was so high up and there weren’t any ramps to get on.
But it looked dangerous to me. The shuttle was fairly large; it transported about six cars and one hundred people. Could that skeletal iron structure above support so much weight? Dreadful fantasies immediately started rushing to my mind. I saw the bridge snapping in the middle, sending iron raining down into the river below, crushing the shuttle and sending everyone inside to a watery grave. Unfortunately, awful visions like this plague me rather frequently. I wonder if it’s the product of a morbid imagination, or just watching too many action movies.
We went into the office and bought our tickets, though I wasn’t sure what the tickets were for. The man explained that there was an elevator to take you up to the top, where you could walk to the other end. He also gave us a little information pamphlet about the bridge. From this, I learned that the bridge is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site, the only monument in the Industrial Heritage category in Spain.
I also learned more about the construction and history of the bridge. The Vizcaya Bridge is a transporter bridge, the first of its kind in the world. If you haven’t heard of a transporter bridge before, that is perfectly normal, since this type of bridge is uncommon; according to Wiki, less than two dozen were built, and only 12 still stand today.
The Vizcaya Bridge, finished in 1893, was designed by one of Gustave Eiffel’s disciples, Alberto Palacio; and Eiffel’s influence shows. The bridge is built in the same manner as the Eiffel Tower, with narrow iron beams riveted together to form a triangular grid; and like the Eiffel Tower, the Vizcaya Bridge is austere and elegant. Palacio originated the idea in response to a common engineering problem: how do you create a bridge that allows people and cars to cross the river, while leaving the river open for shipping vessels? The Vizcaya bridge, then, in both purpose and execution, is a symbol of the Basque Country’s embrace of industry, commerce, and the future—not to mention art.
(I do wonder, though, whether Palacio’s solution was all that efficient. After all, there must be a reason why the design didn’t catch on. The primary problem, it seems to me, is that the amount of cars and people that can cross at any one time is limited by the size of the shuttle and the frequency of its trips. Perhaps the famous Tower Bridge in London—completed almost the same year—solved the problem more satisfactorily, by putting a drawbridge on the lower level and a pedestrian walkway on the upper. But Palacio’s design is beautiful, original, and elegant, so efficiency can go to the devil.)
Finally it was our turn for the elevator. It was an ancient thing, crawling up the bridge at a snail’s pace. Eventually the lift creaked to a halt, and we got out. A narrow wooden walkway, surrounded by the iron structure, extended from one end of the bridge to the other. It’s really amazing how much of the Vizcaya Bridge is just air. You can see right through the thing, and yet it is strong enough to support the weight of a large shuttle carrying six cars.
I experienced this when one of the shuttles came rolling by, right underneath our feet. I could feel the entire bridge shaking, rattling, and shivering, as the electrical buzzing of the engine roared past. Once again, terrible fantasies started flickering through my mind, this time with me myself plunging to a ghastly death. But soon the shuttle came to a halt, and I realized that the bridge was solid as stone. What an impressive achievement: The bridge seems to float high up in the air, supported by the slenderest structure; and yet it is sturdy enough to remain operational after more than one hundred years of daily use.
We took some time to admire the view. On one side we could see the bay, and then the ocean beyond. In the dockyard in the distance, I could see dozens of giant cranes standing silently, like petrified dinosaurs, waiting to come back to life. On the other side, we could see the river gradually making its way towards Bilbao; and in the distance, a factory loomed. Really, wherever you turned you could not fail to notice the signs of industry, filling up the entire estuary with their jagged, colossal, metallic forms. Below us, we could see the towns of Portugalete on one side and Getxo on the other, their streets now full. We might have stayed more time up there, but the wind was quite strong and chilly, so we took the elevator down on the other side. Not long after that, we took the shuttle from Getxo across the river, back to Portugalete; and I am happy to report that the ride was quick and smooth.
There is only one thing more I have to report. Before we left, GF had asked some of her students in Madrid where you can buy good pizza, and they told her to go to Telepizza (a popular chain here, comparable to Dominoes). That sounded awful to me, but GF wanted to try it; so, once we got to Portugalete, we decided to go to the nearest Telepizza for dinner. It brings me no joy to tell you that, as I expected, the pizza was horrible, some of the worst pizza I’ve ever had; and GF was of the same opinion. Is this what Spanish people think pizza is supposed to taste like?
(For ease of navigation, I have split my original post into four parts: click here for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, here for the Vizcaya Bridge, and here for San Sebastián.)
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, EspañaInvertebrada (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.