Thursday 4th May 2017, Islares, Cantabria, Spain
This morning we were awake with the birds long before anyone else on the campsite had stirred. A bus passes the campsite every few hours and passes through a town from where we worked out there is a bus to Bilbao. This also runs only once every hour or two. However, it all worked okay and by 9.30am we were walking the streets of Bilbao heading for the Guggenheim museum.

This has been the first visit we have made to Bilbao. Somehow we had always imagined it as a worn, industrial town, lacking the sophistication of Santander. We were completely wrong! It is smart, clean, open, with pleasant residential flats, pedestrianised thoroughfares and green parks.

We'd left before breakfast so stopped off in one of the many cafes for coffees and pinchos. These seem to be the staple diet for Spanish people when they eat out, except for evening dining. They are more substantial than tapas but smaller than bocadillos. Tuna and anchovies piled onto a slice of baguette or Iberian ham and Spanish cheese in a long roll.

Monumento del Sagrado Corazon. 1927. -Bilbao

After a walk through the park beside the river we reached the Guggenheim museum. There are others in New York and Venice. Ian thinks there is also one in Berlin. The building is everything! It is a huge, totally impractical building but an architect's dream project! It is fascinating to explore. Unfortunately it is so huge it is totally exhausting walking around it, climbing stairs, following long, curving corridors leading to massively high galleries full of awkward corners. High quality materials have been used - chrome banisters, marble flagstones,iron walkways dissecting the massive open space at the core of the museum, and stainless steel lifts that are so huge they look like galleries in their own right. We were fortunate as we were only charged six euros each to get in because of our age. Normal price is fourteen euros. With hindsight it was worth what we paid just to see the building. The contents however are a load of Pollocks!

Guggenheim Museum. Exterior. Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum. Interior. Bilbao

There were a few other American artists but really this massive museum has been created, and now they have nothing to fill it with! A vast gallery with one huge work of modern, abstract expressionist art on each wall, meaningless to anyone except possibly - but not definitely, its creator, makes for a frustrating visit. From what we'd read we expected to find Picassos and French impressionists not just incomprehensible large scale daubing of self indulgent artists who cannot even be bothered to wipe the paint off their brushes before changing colour and hey, so what if the paint runs and trickles down the canvas? And who cares which way up it's hung anyway? Just write an incomprehensible and meaningless caption and pick up a large cheque from the directors on the way out the door! Most works were entitled "No title" as the artists couldn't even be bothered to waste time inventing one.

There is one work only that we can think of that should definitely be hung in this museum of modern art in the heartland of the Basques, and that is "Guernica" by Picasso. The little town lies not far from here. The artist painted it as a response to the complete bombing of the town one market day back in the 1930s. The raid was carried out by the Nazis at the request of General Franco. Thousands of innocent people died simply going about their daily business. This painting could never be displayed in Spain during Franco's lifetime and was held in New York for safe keeping. It now hangs in Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid. Meanwhile American expresionism clutters the otherwise blank walls of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Sent the Pollocks and Rothkos back to the US and turn the museum here into a shrine for Guernica! This is one of those rare ocassions when I see things in the same light as Picasso.

The museum looks more interesting from the outside. Clouds of dry ice float over a shallow lake with a sculpture of silver balls. There is a massive spider which I am quite sure we saw at Tate Modern some years ago, and there is also a huge whimsical dog created from living plants that are rooted all over it. Depending on which plants have been used it's colour varies. Today we noticed that it is very popular with sparrow who were busy nesting amongst its leaves.

Guggenheim Museum. Exterior. Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum. Spider sculpture. Bilbao

Dry ice over the lake, Guggenheim museum, Bilbao

Whimsical, temporary flower sculpture retained by popular demand at the entrance to the Guggenheim museum, Bilbao

Zubizure Bridge across the rio Nervion as it passes beside the Guggenheim museum, Bilbao

To be fair, there were also several interesting modern sculptures in the museum. Those I can appreciate. The physical proportions, materials used, stresses, balance, style and flow all contribute to the creation of a three dimensional work of art and one can respect the artist's intentions. Flat splodges of colour that would be binned by even the most doting of parents, had their infant carried it home from playschool, are an insult to human intelligence.

Ian however begs to differ! I found him absorbed in front of a work by Mark Rothko and he explained how his "Untitled 1952-53" was particularly affecting.

Untitled 1952-53, Mark Rothko, Guggenheim, Bilbao

"A large-scale composition comprising stacked, hovering rectangular fields of luminous color it is a work not to be read in merely formal, aesthetic terms as Rothko was not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else, as he used abstract means to express basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. We could understand why some visitors broke down and wept before his paintings. They certainly receive visitors like us with an inescapable frontality that allowed us no refuge in distance. This work is unusual in its horizontality, as Rothko tended to prefer a vertical format but its very horizontality reveals the creative torment, as only close examination of the painted surface shows. Rothko clearly began the work with the red band at the base of the painting, symbolical of the blood and suffering experienced in the war. He followed this with the yellow band, as is evidenced by the streaks of yellow paint falling like tears over the red. The yellow, like desert sand, epitomizes the aridity of the post-war world but on this band is clear evidence of the desperate soul-searching and pessimism of Rothko. The streaks of falling paint here are not yellow, as one would expect from the topmost band, but green. Rothko clearly intended the symbolism of living shoots of hope but in despair painted the green over with yellow, a change not entirely complete as the tone of the original (not clear from the reproductions) is different - more diffuse, nebulous, ethereal. We were overwhelmed at this contextualisation of post-structural reductionism, a stratified conceptualisation of dystopian paradigms. Experienced at relatively close proximity as the artist intended, the extended format expands beyond the observer’s lateral field of vision, so that the painting seems to open itself up and transcends its limits".

Leaving the gallery with Ian emotionally drained, we walked along beside the river taking in the covered market. It claims to be the largest in Europe, but whoever claimed it hadn't seen as many covered markets as we have and certainly not the huge one in Budapest.The market here in Bilbao is bright and spotless with white walls and glittering chrome. It also has very nice modern stained glass windows.

Mercado de la Ribera. 1930. - Bilbao

Mercado de la Ribera. 1930. - Bilbao

Iglesia & Ponta de San Antón. Bilbao

Ayuntiamento. 1892, Bilbao

We eventually found the old town which is lovely. Pedestrianised streets with individual shops line the thoroughfares at ground level while above are very attractive appartments with glass fronted balconies.

Casco Viejo. Street scene. Bilbao

Casco Viejo. Street scene. Bilbao

A central square where cafes with shaded tables were all serving beer and tapas as people took their lunch break in the sunshine. We joined them for beers and yet more pinchos - salmon, stuffed mushrooms, chorizo, tuna. All fresh and costing 1 euro each. Every shop counter was groaning under trays piled high with them, and each establishment had their own specialities.

Plaza nueva - an arcaded square in the old town lined with tapas bars, Bilbao

Plaza Nueva. Victor Montes restaurant. Bilbao

By now I was exhausted. Ian continued to rush around taking photos, including Basque manhole covers, while I waited on benches wherever I could. Deciding we'd best make our way back to the bus station we took a good hour to walk back there, stopping for a rest and a coffee enroute.

Metro entrance. Bilbao

Football stadium. Bilbao

We arrived just in time for the bus to Castro Urdiales. Unfortunately we then had to wait fifty minutes for the one back to Islares where we are camping. Tonight we are very weary. Time for an early night. Tomorrow we will probably move out of Spain and into South West France.