From the National Geographic Explorer in Europe
Oct 2, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
Bilbao, Spanish Basque Country
A full moon lit the scene as we entered the busy port of Bilbao over breakfast. The object of our visit was the Guggenheim Museum of Contemporary Art. Designed in inimitable style by Frank Gehry, its opening in 1997 marked the start of what has now been called “the Bilbao effect” of urban regeneration where one iconic building succeeds in attracting innovative design to renew decaying urban centers. The titanium edifice now attracts admiring visitors from around the world and has made Bilbao a cruise ship destination, something that would have seemed highly improbable a generation ago. The year 2012 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the museum’s opening and we were fortunate enough to arrive one hour before the opening of a major exhibition of Egon Schiele’s drawings, so that members of the Lindblad/ National Geographic group were amongst its first visitors.
Our tour included an orientation of the city of itself, hemmed in dramatically by the mountains that contained the iron ore on which the city’s 19th-century prosperity was built. The city’s recent industrial past could be traced along the banks of the River Nervión with disused warehouses and empty lots awaiting architectural transformation. The city created a favorable impression of stylishness and self-confidence.
Bilbao is one of the bigger ports in a country that traditionally has lacked good natural harbors. Bilbao is in the Basque country, Barcelona is Catalan and Gibraltar has been claimed by the English since 1704. This accident of geography nicely illustrates the centrifugal tendency of Spain, a state with a central capital – Madrid – that sits in the heart of a relatively poor region and must survive by clawing in revenue from its wealthier peripheral “centers.” Over the centuries this has caused tensions but the post-Franco era has seen increasing regional autonomy within the over-arching unity of the European Union. The current severe economic crisis that the country is transiting is, however, once again causing strained relations between Madrid and the autonomous regions. History casts long shadows.
The afternoon at sea was spent in preparation for our visit to the great pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela, with presentations on Spanish history and regional cuisine augmented by a fine selection of tapas served with local wines on the aft-deck in late afternoon sunshine. In a long Atlantic swell, we make our way to La Coruna, entry point for British and Irish pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela.