The Bilbao Effect - Spanish City of Wonders
Suddenly everything changed: When the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened, it ushered in a new era. After decades in the doldrums, the Basque city is now seeing an unprecedented boom and attracting an influx of diverse creative talents normally only found in the world’s biggest cities. Everywhere you look, the cityscape reflects these changes
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Architectural testimony to the old and new Bilbao
Building or artwork? Designed by star architect Frank O. Gehry, the structure housing the Guggenheim Museum is arguably Bilbao’s most spectacular attraction. Since it first opened in 1997, some one million visitors have poured through its doors each year. The building’s deconstructivist style breaks with traditional forms, rendering it a sculpture. It has also proved fortuitous for the city since a more conventional building would almost certainly have failed to trigger similar growth in the entire region. On the inside, the museum exhibits mainly contemporary 20th century art on 11,000 square meters of space.
Guggenheim Museum: Avenida Abandoibarra 2, Tel. +34-94/435 90 00. Opening times: Tue-Sun 10am-8pm, Mon 10am-8pm (only in July and August, otherwise closed). Admission: € 7.50-13 (depending on current exhibition), reductions for students and senior citizens, children under 12 free. www.guggenheim-bilbao.es (English and Spanish)
Pretty controversial: Built at the same time as the Guggenheim, acclaimed architect Santiago Calatrava’s boldly curving Zubizuri Bridge is also a symbol of the new Bilbao. He does have his critics, though, who accuse him of having resorted to cheap show effects - and giving too little thought to the bridge’s daily use. Its glass floor, which becomes slippery after rain, is just one of its notorious features! What’s more, architect and city were involved for many years in a legal dispute over subsequent modifications to the bridge.
Biscay Bridge / Puente Colgante:
The people of Bilbao are no strangers to unusual ways to cross the Nervión River. If the Zubizuri Bridge epitomizes the new Bilbao, then Biscay Bridge symbolizes the industrial boom that once made the city great. Strictly speaking, it is not a bridge at all but a kind of suspension ferry, known as a transporter bridge. The oldest of its kind in the world, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bridge with its two 45-meter-high, steel-girder pillars was erected in 1893 according to plans drawn up by Gustave Eiffel’s pupil Alberto de Palacio. It is still a key element in Bilbao’s public transportation network.
Biscay Bridge (also known by its Spanish name Puente Colgante, which means “suspension bridge”): +34-94/480 10 12. Opening times: daily round the clock. Admission/fare: € 0.30 per person for a trip on the transporter (5am-10pm, higher prices at night), € 5 for the scenic route. www.puente-colgante.com (English and Spanish)
Innovation & relaxation
A project for world-famous architects: Even Sir Norman Foster, whom Queen Elizabeth II knighted for his outstanding achievements, has made his mark on the face of Bilbao. He designed an entire Metro line, many of whose stations are nothing short of spectacular. Characteristic features include the shell-shaped glass entranceways affectionately nicknamed “fosteritos”. Stations are still being added to the line and its terminuses are scheduled for completion in 2011. In contrast to Calatrava, Foster has repeatedly received acclaim for the functionality of his work. In this case, he has paid particular attention to the special needs of wheelchair users and parents pushing strollers.
Metro Bilbao: Tel. +34-94/425 40 25. Opening times: Sun-Thu 6am-10.30/11pm, Fri/Sat seasonally all night long. Fare: € 1.40-1.65 (single). www.metrobilbao.net (English and Spanish)
Standstill is regression: This is clearly the motto for Bilbao’s continued rapid development. Rather like the HafenCity development in Hamburg, Zorrozaurre peninsula, until now a mainly industrial site, is being transformed into a totally new city district. The British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid’s master plan introduces a canal separating the peninsula from the mainland and turning it into an island. In addition to homes for some 15,000 people, construction of high-rise blocks and other office buildings with space for 6000 jobs will also begin in 2010.
Seen enough contemporary architecture and art for one day? Then it’s time to take a break in Sopelana. A Metro connection brings this idyllic little town and its gorgeous sandy beaches within easy reach of Bilbao. Barinatxe (photo) is a big favorite with sunbathers, surfers and paragliders. Meñakoz, on the other hand, mainly attracts surfers - and even they should treat it with great respect given its up to six-meter-high waves and many treacherous rocks and boulders that demand great skill and experience.
Pictures: Corbis (4), Look-Foto (2), Zaha Hadid Architects