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Of all the worthy places to visit in Spain, I think one of the most overlooked and under-rated must be the Basque Country. I know that I could potentially make a lot of enemies saying this, but I think it is par none in terms of natural beauty, outdoor activities, pleasant cities and cleanliness. We spent another weekend re-visiting Bilbao and San Sebastían and crossing Biarritz and Bayonne, on the French side of the Basque Country, off our must see list. In Bilbao, we decided to try a couple of things we hadn’t yet ventured to do: Actually setting foot inside the Guggenheim Museum in the morning and on the agenda for afternoon entertainment, an Athletic Bilbao soccer match for the soccer enthusiast in our family, my dad.

The truth is that I love enjoying the Guggenheim from the outside. It is an amazing feat of architecture and engineering that is said to represent either a ship in mid-journey (it looks as though it really is in movement) or an intricate flower. The city now celebrates the “Guggenheim Effect,” a term coined to describe the revitalization of the once dirty and industrial suburban landscape into an elegant urban space, replete with green spaces tucked away in far reaching corners and an uncanny knack for integrating the modern with the ancient. I recently learned that folks from Bilbao have the reputation of doing things big, so if you do something good, do it great and if you fail, fall flat on your face. This is evidenced by the city’s pet puppy, which sits in front of the Guggenheim. It must be at least three stories tall and its “fur” is an ever changing coat of fresh flowers. My friend told me that when the Guggenheim was first opened, people from Bilbao would ask visitors “Have you seen our dog?” And as a follow-up, “Have you seen his ‘house’?” (The Guggenheim building itself).

Inside, the Guggenheim houses an impressive permanent collection of modern art and a rotating exhibition as well. A couple highlights from inside the museum would have to be an exhibit made entirely of gigantic steel sheets, about two inches thick, that are arranged to represent the fluidity of time. It is interactive, allowing the participant to walk through the undulations of the steel walls and attempt to get a sense of what the artist is trying to convey. It is also a huge demonstration, taking up the entire floor space of a fairly large warehouse. For its innovation, its interesting to view. Also, our whole group found an exhibit of urban photography that dealt with the utter bleakness of the majority of urban landscape. It highlighted people who live in such communities interacting with their surroundings and left me with a certain ache for them, for them to see the beauty of God’s creation outside of concrete blocks and trashed courtyards. Another photo I found interesting was one of a high rise office building in Hong Kong. Though nighttime in the picture, each floor was lit with a sick flourescent hue and more than a few of the cubicles contained an inmate. Each floor was a repeat of the floor above and below it.

Besides these installations I mentioned, plus one or two more, I didn’t love the art the museum had to offer. Besides being quite expensive, the museum, for as spacious as the interior is, felt almost empty in some rooms.  There seemed to be far too many white walls and not enough artwork to adorn the spaces. Also, keep in mind I don’t profess to love modern art.

After declaring museum syndrome (the syndrome in which one’s eyes and legs are fatigued and in which one’s brain can no longer process the images set before it) we headed out for pizza and then to La Catedral, where Bilbao Athletic defeated their opponent, Málaga, 3-1.

Soccer is truly a fanatic’s sport in Europe. Tickets are hard to come by, the most mundane of matches are frequently sold out (imagine, and we’re in the middle of a financial crisis), fans come dressed to the nine’s in their team’s colors, each spectator seems to know the players’ names, to know the minutest rules of the game and they definitely have an opinion if the call the referee makes isn’t in favor of the home team. In contrast, I believe Americans go to a sporting event to enjoy time with family, watch the crowd, eat a hot dog and drink a beer. The game itself is almost a side show. Not so in Bilbao, where the fans sat still the entire playing time, didn’t get out their packed from home bocadillos until halftime and didn’t even need to be entertained by a Jumbotron that catches wayward fans on camera. Definitely a true cultural experience, I’m glad we went, but I’m also glad that the soccer is over in an hour and forty five minutes because our stadium seats were tiny.

More on the Basque Coast in the next post! Happy Tuesday.

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