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An Incomplete History of Biscay

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The locals affectionately call it “El Botxo” – The Hole.

Back in 1997 the opening of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum catapulted the little-known Basque metropolis to international fame. But Bilbao had been planning its dramatic makeover for years. Thanks to the vision of its leaders, the city is now peppered with cutting-edge architecture, including a bridge and airport terminal by Santiago Calatrava, a wacky health department headquarters, and a metro system with the distinctive touch of Lord Norman Foster.

In spite of all the newfound attention, bilbaínos have retained their easygoing charm and a penchant for irony. At the entrance to the Guggenheim, Jeff Koons’ 13m high topiary of a West Highland Terrier – Puppy – dominates the scene. Residents will tell you that “El Poop came first… and then they had to build the kennel.”

From the viewpoint at the top of Artxanda, reached via a funicular railway, it’s not hard to see why this city has earned its less-than-flattering nickname. It sits in a bowl ringed by verdant mountains, and the lone smokestack in Etxeberria Park – right above the old town – reveals the former location of a sprawling steel mill that was closed in the 80s.

Bilbao may be blazing into the future, but it remains ever mindful of its industrial past. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the fervent expansion of the city’s metalworking and shipbuilding industries, fed by an ever-increasing pool of labour and the rich iron deposits in the surrounding countryside. Along with Catalonia, the Basque Country was one of the two primary engines of the Spanish Industrial Revolution.

Today a reminder of those times still stands at the mouth of the Ibaizabal estuary. Designed by architect-engineer Alberto de Palacio – a student of Eiffel – the Vizcaya Bridge dates to 1893. It is the world’s first example of a transporter bridge, a novel solution to join the river’s banks without interrupting its maritime traffic.

City Hall and the Ibaizabal River

Bilbao’s Casco Viejo (old town)

A taste of Basque Pintxos

Vizcaya Bridge

Just 35 km to the northeast, tranquil Guernica holds a special place in the political consciousness of the Basque people. Over the centuries it has become a byword for the long-held traditions of autonomy and self-rule.

Beginning in medieval times, representatives from every town and village in Biscay would convene at Guernica to draw up its laws underneath an appointed oak tree. When the Basque province was eventually absorbed into the Kingdom of Castile, it became customary for the ruling monarch to swear an oath here to uphold the rights – or fueros – of the Biscayan people. It’s a tradition that has persisted in modern times: the regional president of the Basque Country, the Lehendakari, is sworn in under a descendant of this tree.

But to much of the outside world, Guernica is more well-known as the subject of a famous Picasso painting. Two years before the outbreak of World War II, a horrific event here would foreshadow the destruction that was about to unfold in Europe and Asia.

Scenes of Guernica

Stained glass in the Assembly House

The 4th-generation Tree of Guernica

A reproduction of Picasso’s painting

In the midst of a bitter civil war, Spain was a testing ground for the German Luftwaffe, the Nazis’ formidable air force. The Basques had sided with the Republican Government, and in 1937 the Francoists enlisted the help of their fascist allies to strike at the spiritual heart of Basque democracy. On the afternoon of April 26 – market day – the planes of the Condor Legion and the Legionary Air Force approached the skies over Guernica.

For two and a half hours wave after wave of bombers emptied their deadly load onto the defenceless town. Those who managed to escape the explosions and burning buildings risked being killed by machine-gun fire; German fighter planes were strafing the roads leading out from Guernica up to fifteen minutes after the final wave.

We will never know how many civilians died in the bombing. Initially the Basque government reported 1,654 casualties; the Russians recorded 800 killed; but modern speculations place it anywhere between 300-400 deaths. Hundreds more were injured and three-quarters of Guernica was completely destroyed. Few places remained unscathed, among them the Old Assembly House and the symbolic Oak Tree.

Following the Mundaka River, or Urdaibai

The Urdaibai estuary

Mundaka, known for its surfing scene

The port of Bermeo

In the 15th century, King Ferdinand the Catholic proclaimed Bermeo to be “la Cabeza de Bizkaia”– the Head of Biscay. Older than Bilbao, the seaside town of 17,000 remains the premier fishing port of the Basque Country. Here the pungent, almost comforting smell is the first thing that greets us at the train station.

The Basques have always been avid fishermen. At least 20 years before Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (1534), they were following the schools of cod and whale migrations as far as Newfoundland and Labrador, establishing whaling stations along the Strait of Belle Isle.

At Bermeo a replica of a 17th century whaling ship – the Aita Guria – is anchored beside the tourist information office. Above the old port the Fisherman’s Museum is contained within the Torre Ercilla, the sole surviving remnant of the town’s 30 medieval watchtowers. This was once the family home of Alonso de Ercilla – a soldier, nobleman and illustrious poet who spent much of his life travelling across Europe and then the New World. In the nascent colony of Chile he fought against the Mapuche and narrowly escaped a death sentence after duelling with a fellow soldier. Such a life would have been the envy of Quixote.

Few people today know of the Basques’ immense contribution to the Age of Discovery. After the death of Magellan in the Philippines, it was a Basque mariner – Juan Sebastián Elcano – who took charge, completing the first circumnavigation of the world.

At the marina

The Torre Ercilla and the old port

Midday silence

View from the pier

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hope to go to Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum one day, today I hade a taste of it. Thanks James!

    April 25, 2012
  2. We loved everything about Bilbao! And especially the Pintxos! Some of the best chefs in the world apparently come from the Basque region! Wish we had time to drive upto Guernica! Had no idea Juan Sebastián Elcano was Basque! Great post overall and wonderful pictures!

    April 25, 2012
    • Thank you, Madhu! I absolutely adored Bilbao – three years ago it was where my love affair with Spain started out. I only wish I could have stayed there a little longer. Next time make sure you spend a few days in San Sebastián, the pintxos there are simply the best in the world!

      April 25, 2012
  3. Superb picture of the Guggenheim, and with Louise Bourgeois’ huge spider sculpture too ! (The same , called “Maman” i.e. “Mommy” (!!!) stands in front of Ottawa’s Art Museum, did you see it?). All the best, Lou

    April 25, 2012
    • Thanks Lou! I saw the one in Ottawa as well, but I never understood why it was called “Maman”… it doesn’t make me think of a mother at all!

      April 25, 2012
      • There was a leaflet in the lobby, explaining that the sculptor considered spiders as perfect mothers, tending for a multitude of offsprings.
        On the other hand, I read somewhere that Louise Bourgeois had a very difficult childhood with parental problems… One can choose ;)))

        April 25, 2012
      • The second explanation seems to make more sense. 😉

        April 25, 2012
      • Amen to that!!!

        April 25, 2012
  4. Great pictures. Love the Bilbao Guggenheim!

    April 26, 2012
    • Thank you, Juan! It is really one of the most iconic buildings of our time.

      April 26, 2012
  5. So, that’s the story of the old tree that you told me. It’s interesting to know that current leader of Basque Country was sworn under the descendant of the tree (the information about the descendant of the tree itself is quite fascinating!). And again, the language; Lehendakari, Urdaibai, Mundaka…such a unique one!

    April 26, 2012
    • Yep, it is! The tree that survived the Bombing of Guernica lasted until 2004. It was the third on the site (“the grandson”) and had to be replaced because it was dying of a fungus.

      The Basque language is totally fascinating… I would have loved to learn it in detail but Spanish eventually took over!

      April 26, 2012
  6. I didn’t realise Guernica was so close to Bilbao… I would love to visit both Bilbao and Guernica! Thanks for this post full of interesting information! 🙂

    April 27, 2012
    • They are really close – by train it took maybe 40 minutes or so. They leave from Atxuri Station in Bilbao; it’s an easy walk from the old town. You’re welcome! 🙂

      April 27, 2012
  7. What a beautiful place, with such a haunting history!
    Full disclosure: the beginning had me a little confused because when I hear “Guggenheim,” I think “New York” oops!

    May 6, 2012
    • Ha, no worries! After all, the one in New York is the original museum!

      May 12, 2012
      • Oh really? I don’t feel so bad anymore then 🙂

        May 15, 2012

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