Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bilbao and San Sebastian

Paula has long wanted to visit the Spanish Basque area as that is where her mom's people are from. 
When we left Geneva Airport on Friday, April 27th, the weather was warm and sunny.  When we arrived in Bilbao it was raining sideways.  We were too disgusted to even try to find a quaint restaurant, so we decided to eat dinner at the hotel.  Spanish dinner time doesn't start until at least 9:00pm. As is typical in many Spanish restaurants, it was a priced fixed menu, which also includes wine and dessert.  We had a great dinner, the wine was very good and the desserts were scrumptious.  All of this for 19 euros each, about $25.00.

When we woke up Saturday morning it was still pouring rain, so we grabbed our umbrellas and headed out to explore Bilbao and visit the Guggenheim Museum.

Bilbao (bil-BOW, rhymes with “cow”) was founded in the early 14th century. It is the tenth largest city in Spain, with a population of around 500,000.  It is located in the north-central part of Spain, 8.7 mi south of the Bay of Biscay. Throughout the nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth, it experienced heavy industrialization that made it the center of the second industrialized region of Spain, behind Barcelona.

An example of the Spanish architecture we saw during our tour.

We stopped at a small cafe near the museum to have breakfast.   The hot chocolate was like drinking a very thick and sweet Hersey's syrup.  Notice, they even give you packets of sugar to make it even more sweet.

The Guggenheim Museum.

As quoted by Rick Steves, "even if you are not turned on by the modern art in the building, you must see the structural design of the museum".  

We were allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but not in the actual art galleries.

The Atrium area - 150 feet high, from which glass elevators and metal walkways lead to 19 exhibition spaces.

Another shot from the Atrium area.  Other than the floor area, there are no straight lines in the interior or exterior of the structure.

You can't take pictures in the galleries, so the next two pictures are from the Internet.  I included them because I thought they were in the top five "unusual art" exhibits in the museum.

‪This art, by Richard Serra, is permanently located in the largest gallery in the museum (426 feet long and 98 feet wide). This world famous collection is entitled The Matter of Time. The whole work consists of eight sculptures measuring between 12 and 14 feet in height and weighing from 44 to 276 tons.  You are expected to walk among these metal walls - the "art" is experiencing the journey.

This art, by Richard Long, is 43 foot in diameter, made entirely of pieces of slate.  Question - how do they move it and put it back together?

The building was designed by Frank Gehry and was complete in 1997.  The site occupies a space of 350,000 square feet, 124,800 square feet of exhibition space with 19 galleries spread over 3 floors.  The outside of the building is covered in stone, glass and titanium squares, which resemble the scales of a fish and shimmer in the sunlight.  In keeping with the maritime theme, appropriate for the setting (It is built alongside the Nervion River which runs through the city of Bilbao).

Admirers have compared the museum to a titanium clipper ship under full sail (harking back to Bilbao's shipbuilding history).

An exterior picture of the massive glass windows.  

Maman (French for Mother) is a sculpture by the artist Louise Bourgeois. 
The sculpture, which resembles a spider, is over 30 feet high and over 33 feet wide, with a sac containing 26 marble eggs. Its abdomen and thorax are made up of ribbed bronze.
According to Bourgeois, "The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother".

After touring the museum we headed for the old part of Bilbao to explore and get some lunch.  You will notice that it is still raining.  In fact it was still raining when we left Bilbao to head to San Sebastian later in the afternoon.

A common sight in Bilbao, Jamon (Ham) hanging in the meat market.

Plates of Jamon sandwiches.  Now we are really getting hungry!!

  We found this little restaurant in one of the many small alleys.  Notice the bread is not in a basket, it is just sitting on the table. All the restaurants did that. We decided to pick the lunch place by who had the nicest looking bread as part of the place setting. We had another very enjoyable meal and a bottle of great wine.

Santiago Cathedral (St James, the patron saint of Bilbao since 1643)

Built at the end of the 14th century, this is the oldest building in Bilbao

The style is Gothic and has a neogothic tower and an impressive portico. There are three naves with vaulted ceilings. The church has two facades, one Renaissance and the other neoclassic. Its tower and main facade, in Neogothic style,

What is impressive about the cathedral is that it is very clean and the many stained glass windows are beautiful and extremely impressive. There is a square in front of the church that displays an elegant fountain.

This concluded our tour of the Old City. We headed back to our hotel to pick-up our luggage and then to the bus deport for the hour-long bus ride to San Sebastian.

We arrived in San Sebastian and it was still raining, but we decided to take a walk along the beach front promenade on the Bay of Biscay. 

San Sebastian (In Basque, the name is Donostia) was founded by King Sancho the Wise of Navarra in 1180, because he wanted a port by the sea. In 1794 the French took the city during the Napoleonic wars (San Sebastian is only 12 miles from France).  

In 1813 the English and Portuguese forces took the city and then set it on fire. Most of the city burned down. The city was slowly rebuilding, then in 1845 Queen Isabella II, of Spain, came here because her doctors told her to take a bath in the sea for her skin problems. The aristocrats accompanied her to San Sebastian and the city experienced explosive growth.

Today, with a population of around 186,000, the main economic activity in the city is tourism and commerce. There are tourists the whole year. Many are passing through, doing the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage going to Santiago de Compostela.

The only problem with the city is that it rains a lot. There is a constant drizzle and light rain that falls on the city most of the year. That is why everything is green and the flowers bloom all year long. The best months to visit are July and September. we learn that. 

Another shot of the beach front promenade.  It extends for over 2 miles along the beach.

This is a picture of the Bay of Biscay with San Sebastian in the background.  In the upper half of the shot is the most popular beach in San Sebastian, Playa de la Concha, (so named because the beachs' shape, which resembles a seashell (La Concha means "the shell" in Spanish). On the right side is Monte Igueldo (which means (The Quarry Hill) where this shot was taken.  On the left side is Monte Urgull (which means Pride).  During the early history of the city, they build fortresses on both mountains, to help protect the city from ships attacking via the sea.

On the left side of the picture is the picturesque island of Santa Clara, it is situated closely offshore in the center of the Bay of Biscay.  It is home to one of the areas prettiest beaches, although due to the tides it can only be used for part of the day. The island can be accessed by boat or you could join some of the locals and swim across.

Homes overlooking the Bay of Biscay.

La Perla Thermal Baths.

Queen Isabella II had this structure built, overlooking La Concha Beach, when she was spending her summers in San Sebastian.  Today it is spa and is suppose to be a great place to spend a rainy day.

San Vicente Church.

Located in the heart of the old part of San Sebastian, the church of San Vicente is considered the oldest church in the city. It was built in the early 16th century in the Basque Gothic style.  In 1923 four rose windows were added to the facades.

The interior which will hold 3,000 people, consists of three naves. The church has a massive Romanesque altarpiece. There are figures of Jesus, San Vicente, San Sebastian and the Assumption. 

Jesus, after the crucifixion. The Blessed Mother in her Burberry scarf. 

One of the four rose windows depicting Jesus and his 12 disciples.

Romanesque altarpiece, an incredible piece of work.

Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus‬.

Saint Mary’s is a baroque Roman Catholic parish church and minor basilica completed in 1774. The main nave consists of a large space of 157 feet by 108 feet divided into three naves. Six pillars and the walls with pillars act as a buttress supporting the vaults. The octagonal pillars reach, up to their capitals, a height of 49 feet. The central dome is 89 feet high.

The main entrance is located between the two towers and looks as an altarpiece with its tortured figure of Saint Sebastian, one of the patron saints of San Sebastian. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows.  He was rescued and healed by Saint Irene of Rome.  He then criticized the emperor for continued persecution of Christians and was clubbed to death in 268.

He is venerated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. 

The main entrance to the church, Saint Sebastian is in the middle.

Jesus being removed from the cross.

Catedral del Buen Pastor (Good Shepard)

This church is the city’s largest, built in neo-Gothic style.
The church covers an area of 20,650 square feet and was inaugurated in 1897. It was designated cathedral in 1953. It has a symmetrical, rectangular floor plan, in Latin cross formation with three naves, transept and presbytery.   It will hold 4,000 people.

It is built in sandstone from the Monte Igueldo quarries (less than 2 miles from the church) and has a wealth of decorative elements such as stained glass windows gargoyles, pinnacles, etc.  The spire measures 250 feet in height.  The high altar is dedicated to the Buen Pastor.

The High Alter, dedicated to Jesus, The Good Shepard.

We were walking through the old town streets of San Sebastian when we heard a festive band that lead us to this theatre. They were trying to draw a crowd into the seats to see a local dance review. Since it was still pouring we decided the warm theatre would be fine.

Another shot of The Bay of Biscay and La Concha Beach, with the town hall in the background.

The San Sebastian Town Hall is now a famous landmark which was inaugurated in 1897 as a casino, although due to gambling prohibition laws in 1924 the Casino was closed down to be renovated and reopened as the city's Town Hall and continues to be used for that function.

Paula in front of the Urumea River, which divides the city of San Sebastian.  The Zurriola Bridge, in the background, is one of the nine bridges that spans the river.

On the other side of the Zurriola Bridge, is Zurriola Beach.  The city brought in all of the sand to create this beach.  Due to the contour of the ocean floor, huge waves are created, making it home to many International Surfing competitions.

The Victoria Eugenia Theatre.

The theater was built in 1912 and has 910 seats.  It is said to be one of the most glamorous buildings in San Sebastian.  It serves as a venue for major cultural events such as the Music Fortnight and the San Sebastian International Film Festival, as well as screening every day movies.

Working hard for their money, these two played around town all day Sunday. 

Constitution Square. 

The square was re-built in 1817 after the devastating fires of 1813.  Many of the most important cultural events of the city take place in this square. It is rectangular in shape and the buildings which surround it have the same height and the same facade composition. It also houses cafes and other retail shops.  While there, we saw many people in the square enjoying their hot drinks, even though it was raining.  Kids were playing soccer.  We even saw a band playing, which is typical on most Sunday's.

Each of the balconies, of the colored buildings that line Constitution Square, bear numbers.  This is left over from its past when the square was used for bullfights.  Even if you owned an apartment here, the city retained the rights to the balconies, which it would sell as box seats. Residents could look over the shoulders of the paying customers.

One of the important things to remember is that the Basque folks are still fighting for their independence from Spain. It is quite common for the Basque to hold gathering, such as the one above, to passionately express this desire. In most cases they are peacefully demonstrations such as the one pictured here.

About 850,000 true Basques live in Spain along the Bay of Biscay and in the western Pyrenees mountains in the region referred to as the Basque Country. Another 130,000 Basques live in Southern France.

The Basques have sought autonomy from Spain since the 19th century. Francisco Franco, the leader of Spain from 1936 until his death in 1975, abolished their special privileges. The Basque separatist movement was rekindled after Franco's death. Despite the granting of limited autonomy in 1978, the more militant separatists, including the terrorist ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty), continued a campaign for complete independence.

On a brighter note, we left the demonstration and headed for some lunch.  We had some of the best food ever, while in Bilbao and San Sebastian.  The highlight of the Old Town, of San Sebastian, was its array of incredibly lively tapas bars.  Here the snacks are referred to as pintxos (PEEN-chohs).

We selected one of the many bars and the food was delicious.  The offerings, as seen above, are laid out on the bar and you choose which ones you want.  They also serve some great wine.  When you are finished eating, you simply tell the bar tender what you had and he charges you accordingly.

We decided to "walk off" lunch by walking to the west side of San Sebastian and taking the funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo and do some exploring.  On top is an amusement park and this old lighthouse.  

The lighthouse was originally built in 1778 and was deactivated in 1855 with the building of a new lighthouse lower on the mountain.  In 1912 the Monte Igueldo Historical Society acquired the building. and added the square top.  Inside the lighthouse is a spiral staircase to the top, they added pictures all along it depicting the history of San Sebastian.

Paula at the top of the lighthouse.

This is the "new" lighthouse on Monte Igueldo which was activated in 1855.

At the base of Monte Igeldo, there are three iron sculptures, embedded into the rocks, to make a piece called El Peine Del Viento, or The Comb Of The Wind by local artist Eduardo Chillida.

Another of his iron sculptures.  It looks like the initial logo for Sun River in Oregon.

The Mercado de la Bretxa (the Bretxa Public Market).

It is a large building that has been converted into a modern shopping mall.  There are 3 floors, the bottom floor is where the fresh fish and meat markets are located.

The outdoor farmers' produce market is lined up along the left side of the Bretxa Public Market.  It is open every day except, and appears to do a thriving business.  On Sunday this space is occupied by vendors selling crafts and the like.

They did not have a price on this salmon, but it look as good as any we get in the northwest.

Not sure what type of fish this is, but it really looked funny.  By the way, we did see it listed on some of the restaurant menus in San Sebastian.

This is salted cod.  During the era of sailing ships, without refrigeration, cod would be preserved in salt to feed sailors on ever-longer trips into the North Atlantic.  Thus,  allowing them to venture into deeper waters where they could not catch fresh fish.  

Cod is still a Basque staple.  They still buy the salted version, which must be soaked for 48 hours and the water changed at least three times, to become edible.  

I had cod for dinner twice. I don't know if it was the salted version, but it was very flaky and tasted great.

This was a common sight in both Bilbao and San Sebastian.  This picture was taken at the Bretxa Public Market.  

There are four major categories of dry-cured uncooked ham.  They are listed below highest to lowest quality:

Jamón Ibérico de Bellota - Free-range, acorn-fed Iberian pigs.

Jamón Ibérico de Recebo - Acorn, pasture and compound-fed Iberian pigs.

Jamón Ibérico - Compound-fed Iberian pigs.

Jamón Serrano -  “ordinary cured ham” from white pigs, fed with a mixed diet of authorized commercial compound feed.

 Note the hooves are still attached.

I am not a huge meat eater, but for one of my dinner appetizers I had a plate-full of one of these types (not sure which one), it was absolutely delicious.  

The Segrado Corazon ( The Statue of Christ).

We hiked up Urgull mountain to get a closer look this statue that overlooks San Sebastian.  The statue was done by  Federico Coullaut in 1950. It measures more than 40 feet tall and can be seen from a distance of 4 miles out at sea.   It sits atop the Castle of La Mota.

The Castillo de la Santa Cruz de la Mota (Castle of La Mota).

This military fortress, built at the top of Mount Urgull in the twelfth century, deterred most attackers, allowing the city to prosper in the Middle Ages.  We could see where the walls have suffered from the countless attacks and sieges over the years.

One of the big guns in the fortress...oh and there's a cannon too. 

Our trip has come to an end.  Even though we experienced a little rain, at times it was a down pour, we had a great time and GREAT food!!  We would certainly recommend Bilbao and San Sebastian, however, come in July or September when there is less rain. 

We had to have a taste of gelato before heading back to Bilbao to catch our plane.  

Need to hit the gym and starve ourselves all week. 

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