Bilbao, the Big Dog of Basque Country

Bilboa, Spain

We could hardly visit the Spanish Basque Country without a stop in Bilbao.

As the largest city in the designated autonomous community, it has become the unofficial capital and economic engine that drives the area.

bilbao-towerThe Iberdrola Tower perfectly characterizes the modern aspects of this region that is better known for its mountainous rural charms, yet has become one of Europe’s leaders in per capita income and gross domestic product.

The gleaming skyscraper stands over five hundred feet high and served as a perfect landmark for us to find our way around.

Our hotel, the sleek Melia Bilbao, was just beneath it, so we could easily find our way back from where ever we roamed.

The Hotel Melia Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain

Walking just past the tower from our basecamp took us to the city’s premier attraction, the Guggenheim Museum.

The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain

The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain

Unlike most museums, the Guggenheim’s most impressive work of art may be the building itself.

Acclaimed architect Frank Gehry designed the spectacular structure along the Nervion River, carefully blending it into the surroundings while still insuring that it stands out.

Gleaming titanium walls intertwine in shapes reminiscent of waves, or perhaps sails on a ship, and seem to flow right into the water.

The Guggenheim's Flower Puppy in Bilbao, Spain

Before we even entered the building we were greeted by one of the most famous works in their collection, Puppy by Jeff Koons, better known to the locals as the Flower Puppy.

The four-story sculpture of a West Highland terrier puppy, covered like a giant Chia pet with marigolds, begonias, impatiens, petunias, and lobelias, has stood guard at the entrance of the museum since it opened in 1997.

The Flower Puppy of Bilboa, Spain

Maman by Louise Bourgeois outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain
Maman by Louise Bourgeois, an impressive giant spider and a tribute to her mom who was a weaver

But this was not his original home; he was a road dog before settling here.

For five years after being created for a castle in Germany the little hound bounded across the globe making stops at Sydney Harbor in Australia, and the Rockefeller Center in New York.

Koons has another work at the Guggenheim, entitled Tulips, that nearly fills an open air overlook along the river.

Tulips, by Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain
This work of art also allowed Veronica to take six selfies at once!

The enormous flowers appear as mirror-surfaced balloons, in keeping with the artist’s whimsical style.

Tulips art exhibit in Bilbao, Spain

While we were admiring the massive bouquet our fellow traveler, Joe, realized that he had built tables for Koons back in Pennsylvania.

Sometimes the world truly is small.

Browsing the works inside the museum during our “Behind the Scenes” walking tour, we found several by Picasso that required us to stop and contemplate, and Andy Warhol’s iconic One Hundred and Fifty Multicolored Marilyns was certainly a must see, but we were most fascinated by the work of Richard Serra.

Inside the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Spain
The art inside may not be photographed, but the fantastic architecture is fair game.

The scale of these sculptures is absolutely mind boggling. All in all there are eight sculptures displayed as a collection entitled The Matter of Time. These pieces are made with hundreds of tons of free standing solid steel sheets large enough to fill a gallery the size of an aircraft hangar.

Bilbao, Spain

Leaving behind Bilbao’s bustling business district, we ventured on to the city’s other big attraction, Casco Viejo, the old quarter.

As with most medieval cities, the town was built within protective walls.

Cathedral Santiago, Bilboa, Spain

The typically narrow lanes lead to several churches, the main one being the Santiago Cathedral from the fourteenth century.

The name is in honor of the apostle Saint James the Great, Santiago in Spanish, because the northern branch of the Way of Saint James runs right through the old town.

For over a thousand years pilgrims have been passing this way on their treks to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.

The Camino Santiago is marked with tiles to show the way in Bilbao, Spain
Markers show the way

The Camino Santiago was a constant companion on our journey across the Basque Country.

We followed it over mountain tops, along the seaside, across international borders, and now on city streets.

Still, for us it was just an additional interesting aspect of our visit.

For the thousands following the pilgrimage routes from all across Europe each year this is a spiritual, as well as physical, journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there.

Pilgrims hang a scallop shell on their backpacks with walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France. In English, it's called the Way of St. James
Pilgrims wear shells to recognize each other

We met a few of these dedicated devotees as we bopped on and off the trail during our explorations and had to admire their commitment.

There is even a movie, The Way starring Martin Sheen, about how walking the Camino affects the lives of those who make the pilgrimage.

Casco Viejo these days has become more of a shopping and entertainment district, and while passing the array of restaurants that line the ancient streets, we began to notice that lunch was a long time ago.

With dinner time upon us, which even at eight was still about two hours earlier than the locals like to eat, we realized that we’d been in Spain for two weeks and hadn’t had any paella.

That had to be remedied and this was our last chance.

Paella in Bilbao, Spain

With nothing more than luck to guide us we, picked one of the many eateries available to us and happened upon a good pan of the classic seafood and rice dish.

Afterwards, the plate piled with shells indicated that our mission had been accomplished.

Not a bad way to end our time in Spain.

David & Veronica,

See all of our adventures in Spain!

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this glorious adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. See our full adventure from the beginning here.

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16 thoughts on “Bilbao, the Big Dog of Basque Country”

  1. I knew about the Guggenheim in Bilbao but not about all the other wonderful things you mention–I especially like that flower dog, though it looks more like a cat to me. I am hoping to visit this year and will now plan to spend more time.

  2. Of course you hadn’t eaten paella!! You were not “really” in “Spain”. You were in the Basque Country….not typically known for its paellas.

  3. Anita and I are planning to go to the Basque country later this year, Bilbao is on the list of stops. Did you try any of the wines from the nearby wine regions Galicia, Castilla Y León or La Rioja?

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