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Volante: Lucire travel featureBilbao, Spain

Elyse Glickman visits Bilbao, and discovers a city that has only recently found its soul, with its mixed Spanish and Basque heritages

Photographed by the author

Originally featured in the March 2005 issue of Lucire


United Travel Kilbirnie


Initial capIKE THOUSANDS of visitors before me, I enjoyed Barcelona’s Belle Époque architecture (Gaudi in particular) and Madrid’s Prado museum and vibrant Rastro Sunday Market. However, there was something about Spain’s Basque region that struck a chord within me that went deeper than the sensory pleasures of a European escape.
   In the process of changing careers in my mid-30s from corporate (public relations) to creative (teaching and writing), I realized I wasn’t so much reinventing myself as I was taking the best parts of my past and mixing it with new ideas to charge off in a fresh direction for the new century. For this reason, a
journey to Bilbao and its neighbouring cities wasn’t so much a mere pleasure trip as it was a source of inspiration and affirmation that all it takes is some ingenuity and will to move toward a better, more beautiful future.
   Though the Basque region has been known for a variety of things, ranging from its popular Rioja wines to internal conflict between Basque and Spanish nationals, fateful watershed events like the pre-World War II German attack on the town of Guernica, and other historic challenges imposed on its unique identity, the cities and towns of this province in the north central corner of Spain serve as textbook examples of civic pride genuinely working wonders. The romantic, multi-level city of Vitoria-Gasteiz is not only filled with idyllic ambiance but also one of the highest standards of living in western Europe. In villages like Berneo, Mundeka (getting increasingly popular as an international destination for surfers with its popular Bakio Beach) and Getaria (future home of the Balenciaga Museum), treasured Spanish and Basque customs seem to coexist seamlessly with young people building their futures and introducing modern lifestyle elements to the mix—and in a most impressive, environmentally conscious way.
   David Elexgaray, my guide, points out that the Basque country is a biosphere. After registering what must have been my quizzical expression, he further explains that it is biosphere not in the closed-off, clinical sense Americans are familiar with, but in a wide open sense with the convergence of culture and nature.
   ‘The cities grew up on river estuaries, and the way they are developing now in terms of how people are using and protecting the natural resources and how those resources shape the people,’ he tells me. ‘Bilbao itself was an industrial city affected by some ETA (radical Basque political movement) violence, political turmoil, and the Asian tech boom, which ultimately plunged the area into a crisis economically and identity-wise in the 1970s and 1980s. City planners and residents alike, however, decided to take stock in and learn from their setbacks, first by finding ways to politically and culturally embrace the dual Spanish and Basque heritages, then by making a commitment to take better care of the environment and then taking a stand in favour of a technological shift and increase in the number of cultural institutions. Emphasis on quality rather than quantity helped the region overcome the push from the Far East. While the cost of living has risen with the standard of living, some young people are moving to the other cities and towns, and really taking good care of their homes and the areas which surround it.’
   While young families are raising their children in such peaceful, old world settings of Mundeka and Gexto and older people are living out their days with contentment, the new-and-improved Bilbao is a vibrant, modern walking city in every sense. While the Guggenheim (opened in 1997) is the epicentre of the city’s revitalization, there is an abundance of small squares, parks and waterfront walkways which keep its soul rooted in the more genteel aspects of its past. I took note of the city’s many bridges old and new, which I found most symbolic—the new and the old at last coming together harmoniously. I am quite taken with this renaissance city, which according to David, began the heart of its magnificent transition only four or five years ago.
   On the first night, me and my travel companions were routed by our locals-in-the-know to Casa Rufo (Hurtado de Amezaga, 5), a festive, casual restaurant experience with old world flair, where tables are nonchalantly set up among deli counters and dry goods. The food was generous and hearty, as were the owners and the in-house cook, who spends his time smoking meats when he is not preparing his simple, but awe inspiring steaks, fish, croquetas and roasted vegetables, accented with lots of crusty bread and good humour.
   However, outside the classic 1900s ambiance of Casa Rufo and various pinxtos (say, ‘pinchos’, the regional term for tapas) bars nestled in the city’s gothic quarter’s plaza (Casa Victor Montes, Berton, La Almacena), was a world that very much is in the moment of the 21st century. On quaint and diagonal streets sporting accents of Madrid, Paris and London are hip boutiques and chain stores, and lots of young, fashionable professionals and college students with a palpable sense of enthusiasm and optimism. The storefronts were artistically rendered with carefully executed modern displays of furnishings and clothes that provide a nice sense of contrast to old-style delicatessens, bakeries and food shops.
   Though home décor stores are as abundant as fashion stores, old traditions are also alive and dynamic in the city setting, from the friendly mature Basque gentlemen wearing berets and offering directions and colourful stories to small children playing in the idyllic settings of green, manicured city parks and buildings dating from the middle ages to the renaissance to the present. Other Basque destinations that simultaneously exemplified the combined reverence and respect for the past and the present included Guernica’s Peace Museum and the Museu Chilleda (in Hernani, not far from Donostia–San Sebastian, uniting a dignified and simple university town with one of Europe’s great playgrounds for the affluent) which in their own ways encourage people to ponder history and ways they could build a better future. While historical artifacts and recreations abounded at the Peace Museum, Chilleda’s highly-tangible contemporary sculptures surround and fill a 1592 farm house with the same sentiment David described with the region’s concept of the biosphere.
   On the riverfront, rising like flowers from a vase created by the surrounding downtown area is the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao, its accenting outdoor sculptures along with an impressive array of new hotels (like our temporary residence at the well-appointed Sheraton Bilbao), cultural buildings and other civic projects that make it hard to believe that just a decade ago, Bilbao was primarily industrial. Gexto, the quaint British-looking town where Bilbao’s industrialist wealthy summered in the Victorian area, was a living showcase for the Punete Colgante, a hanging bridge marking the region’s move into a modern era more than a century ago. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, in turn, was the watershed project in this age that started the process of making Bilbao and the Basque country what it is today … one of the most desirable places to live in Europe and a “best kept secret” that won’t remain so for much longer.
   Although the Guggenheim Bilbao is home to lots of symbolic works from Liechtenstein, Rosenquist and Jenny Hauser, it was an imposing spider sculpture created by French artist Rose Bourgeois that summed up the spirit of the modern Basque country through her metaphor—that we, as individuals and collectively, have the ability to weave our own destiny. •

A journey to Bilbao wasn’t so much a mere pleasure as it was a source of inspiration and affirmation that all it takes is some ingenuity and will to move toward a better, more beautiful future

Where fashion in Spain reigns

Though the US dollar is weaker than the euro at the moment, there is great European style to be had at affordable prices. Here is a selection of superb national chains in Spain that brings Euro-style within easy reach.
   Cortefiel and Massimo Dutti—both chains are similar in character to our Banana Republic stores, with complete collections for men, women and children, along with a range of accessories to pull the looks together.
S’fera—look to this store for great career wear finds as well as some great basics at door buster prices (i.e. cotton turtlenecks for 10).
   Lois and Miro Jeans—while you will find fabulous Custo Barcelona stores throughout Spain (and should check them out), give Lois and Miro Jeans stores a look, since these equally splashy lines are not as widely available in the US.
   Mango—think of it as Forever 21 with better organization of merchandise and separates from casual to career in a wide array of fun colours.
   Nice Things/Nice Day—these boutiques are a little more fashion forward and slightly more expensive on average, but chances are when you buy something here, you won’t see yourself walking up and down the street back home.
Jorge-Juan—if investing in fine leather shoes and bags is your shopping goal for this trip, check out these stores first, for styles ranging from classic to tastefully funky in colours ranging from wardrobe builders to statement makers.

For more information on the Basque Country and other fantastic destinations in Spain, contact the Tourist Office of Spain at or, with offices in Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Elyse Glickman is a regular correspondent to Lucire.


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