Driving in and getting to grips with the one-way system to find our hotel was the one problem. Once registered and out on the riverside walkway Bilbao was easy and inviting.
Our reason to visit was the Guggenheim, but we soon discovered that was only the catalyst for the city’s reinvigoration. Nonetheless, with four or five hours before it was due to close we made our leisurely way there.
The hotel was opposite the Old Town, so we had plenty to look at across the river until we reached the bend and caught sight of the high-level motorway bridge and one unmistakable bastion of Frank Gehry’s titanium fantasy. From then on it was an unfolding wonderland of gold-tinted metal caught in the afternoon light before – if you like your dreams punctured by the gothic, and we do – Louise Bourgeois’s enormous spider stood guard before the entrance. Combined with the motorway it seemed like a Hollywood horror film from when Hitchcock was in his prime.
To find the entrance there’s a choice – around its legs or between, which we took. The concessionary rate is 7.50 euros, less than £6, with which you are entitled to a free audio guide. The permanent exhibition shows Jeff Koons, a pop artist we hadn’t found interesting before but realised was a very witty commentator on late twentieth century commercialism.
After a break with coffee and the local equivalent of Bucks Fizz we were fit for a stroll through the shopping district towards an evening meal. And what an evening meal! Twice as much tuna as we would dare to buy at a supermarket for about the same price. And that was only only one of a three course delight. There had been a tourist office just beyond the amusing Koons floral puppy, which proved useful for the next day when we were due to join the ferry home.
Before that we had time for the old town and to discover that there is somewhere even slower than Cambridge to open up in the morning. The locals take breakfast at one of the bars: we chose a nineteenth century one for its atmosphere and had to settle for a less than satisfactory meal in return. The shops were closed but we had a pleasant enough walk: no crowds, no risk; even the gothic church was closed, to the frustration of a guided tour.
When some doors opened we found a bargain or two, also noting we could have bought more interesting postcards of the Guggenheim at half the price than were available there. Then we came across the phenomenal covered market: it claims to be the largest in Europe, and if it isn’t who cares? The quality of fish, meat, cheese and vegetables was amazing. There are numerous toilets available, all in excellent state, and to show how seriously food is taken there, stained glass windows.
After all this, the modern city and even El Corte Ingles, where we had often shopped with success before, were a disappointment. That is, until we found a bar with the best tortilla all holiday and of course delightful coffee.
What more to do, except try to follow directions out of Bilbao and for a considerable distance to the ferry port, hidden behind the commercial docks. A memorable visit.