BILBAO, Spain - There are, of course, more than five cool things about Bilbao, the largest city in Spain's Basque Country and one of the best places to travel in northern Spain. However, these are five things I found especially appealing on my first visit to the city and its rugged, green, mountainous surrounds:
1. The Guggenheim Bilbao. No surprise here. This riverside art museum, designed by Canadian- born, Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, has been a sensation since it opened in 1997. It is still a wonderment. I find Gehry, with his computer-based designs and use of nontraditional materials like titantium, becoming a cartoon of himself. Simply put, his signature use of bent ribbons of metal atop his buildings is becoming mannered. But in this branch of New York's famed Guggenheim, all of Gehry's ideas come together to make a thing of beauty; it is his masterpiece. I caught a brilliant exhibition by the British Indian artist and, for want of a better word, sculptor Amish Kapoor inside; Kapoor's use of form and color is compelling and unique and worth seeing anywhere. But while it may have been said before that the art of the Guggenheim Bilbao is the museum itself, it having been said before doesn't make it any less true.
2. Riverside Bilbao. Up until 1984, shipyards and piers for the Port of Bilbao lined the polluted Rio Nervion on its sluggish way through the city center. No longer. A visionary city master plan that preceeded the Guggenheim by more than a decade cleared out the old industrial sector, cleaned up the Nervion's waters and installed interesting public art and a relaxed waterside promenade punctuated by a children's playground, plantings and the occasional cafe. The result is a brilliantly reinvented city center that puts most notions of "urban renewal'' to shame. Bilbao did it right. And the process isn't stopping. A glassy, curved highrise by Ceasar Pelli is rising just downriver from the Guggenheim, and the new building promises to become another jewel in Bilbao's crown. Truly, this is a city of architecture.
3. Public transport. It may sound prosaic, praising workaday public transport, but when you try to get around a new city as a foreign visitor, you appreciate the efficiency and even beauty of a first-class public transport system. Modern trams cross the city and thread through greenways beside the river promenade, there is a good system of city buses, and the Norman Foster-designed Metro (the subway) is fast, clean, safe and appealing to the eye. The only missing piece is a dedicated airport Metro line from downtown. The present airport bus is not esthetically pleasing but it costs only 1 euro 15 cents and runs every 20 minutes in peak daytime hours.
4. The Port of Bilbao's new passenger marine terminal. Located downriver from the city center near the mouth of the Nervion, the bright, glassy, airy terminal is scheduled to open right about now. Bilbao is pushing hard to grow its cruise ship business and is seeing success. The port city is on cruise ship routes rounding the Iberian Peninsula between the Mediterranean Sea, England and other key ports in continental Western Europe.
5. Strolling Old Town. The historic quarter, well-served by the Metro and other public transport, is a fine place for strolling, shopping, eating and gawking. Again, it is clean and safe and its compact size and narrow, pedestrian-friendly shopping lanes present a pleasing prospect for travelers. Streets are well-marked in Spanish and Basque, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants and the old town doesn't lack pretty churches and fine examples of traditional architecture. The ornate former main railroad station affords some good photo ops and the entire district achieves a rare balance between being busy and being laid-back.
Other than the Guggenheim, I knew nothing about Bilbao before this visit. I'm glad I came.