Agur Bilbao: Work, Foodstuffs, Slippery Bridges, Starchitects, Going Home

My last full day in Bilbo has arrived: “Agur” is euskera for goodbye. Although it is the universal farewell term here even when people are speaking Spanish, and I easily jump into “adéu” and “fins aviat” when I’m in Barcelona, until yesterday I could never get myself to remember using this one little word when taking leave. Probably because I speak Catalan, and euskera looks like this:


Because it is a non-Indo-European declined language, full of -zkis, -zues, and whatnot, and little or nothing about it sounds recognizable to the uninitiated, it triggers (in me?) puzzlement and analysis rather than intuitive appropriation. Especially given that three of my five visitors were linguists, and trying to get from any point A to any point B was unfailingly delayed by taking apart apart the suffixes and roots in every sign and trying to figure out any lexical connections to Spanish, or lack thereof (then making up gibberish according to our invented Basque grammar and giggling until somebody gave us a nasty look).

HENCE, yesterday I felt as proud of my first spontaneous euskera goodbye as parents must feel of a baby’s first word. As luck would have it, I used it on the one non-Basque sales lady I seem to have met, who responded with “adiós.”

With all visitors gone, my last few days were dedicated to a little exploration of the lovely Biblioteca de Bidebarrieta

Bidebarrieta1     Bidebarrieta2

and the sleek Biblioteca de la Diputación.


I was sadly unable to get into the Sociedad Bilbaína, not because (as in not-so-distant yesteryear) they do not admit women, but because in Spain August is universal closed-for-vacation/limited hours season. Maybe next time…

And, yes, there’s been shopping. I spent yesterday and today all around Plaza Moyúa, as well making return visits to the Fine Arts and Guggenheim Museum shops, acquiring delicacies and gifts for various people (and a funky COS sweater for myself).

Although I generally hate El Corte Inglés (Spain’s ubiquitous department store), a visit to their Club del Gourmet is always in order for a convenient and comprehensive selection of goodies to take home. I did settle on truffled salts and flavored oils rather than the more exotic delicacies…


I’m now provided with an ideal selection of presents and souvenirs that are all small and/or flat and definitely lightweight. Except for that churro-making contraption I impulse-bought Miss H, which looks like some Victorian surgical instrument. Given that I have to overnight in London on the way home, this time I also decided against trying to sneak frozen croquetas into the United States.

In the spirit of Agur Bilbao, today I decided to treat myself to a leisurely lunch, and by sheer spatial memory found a restaurant I’d  loved in 2012 but whose name (Atea) I did not even remember–only to find it CLOSED FOR FREAKIN’ VACATION.


(Dear Spaniards: I really do not get why y’all have to go on holiday simultaneously.)

So I moved on to the Guggenheim’s Bistro for a much-better-than-anticipated repast consisting of a lustful tomato-watermelon gazpacho with prawns that I must try to replicate the moment I get home, baby squid (txipirones) on a bed of crispy fideuà with a squid ink decoration,


and homemade chocolate-cream ice cream–all bathed with a chilled white wine as abundant as it was delicious, for the very reasonable midday prix-fixe of 27.94€.

It was the one and only place I’ve found this summer to be faultlessly air-conditioned, and the view of that pink University of Deusto building on the left with its three perfect palms amid whatever the other trees are was so soothing (and did I mention the abundant, exquisitely chilled white wine) that I lingered at the table reading a mystery novel


until I realized I was in the midst of that European phenomenon aptly named (by my italophile cousin and the cousin-in-law), conti-pation–whereby no restaurant server will ever bring you the check, il conto, until you’ve specifically asked for it, and sometimes for hours after you have. In Spain, this is specifically to facilitate the custom known as sobremesawhereby you may end up having dinner at the same restaurant where you had lunch, simply because no one got up and left at any point.

(BTW, conti-pation is culturally related to that other Spanish phenomenon, Spain in the Ass–whereby nothing that works or goes smoothly elsewhere behaves similarly in Spain. Especially applicable to any situation involving bureaucracy or a web site.)

But leave I did, and instead of taking the convenient tram back home on this unusually hot August day in Bilbao (it might have gone past 80º), I walked so as to be able to cross, for the first and last time this year, the Zubi Zuri bridge, built in 1997 by Spanish “starchitect” Santiago Calatrava:


I just noticed, when looking for a link, that Zubi Zuri is not featured in Calatrava’s web site, which seems appropriate given the many conflicts between the architect and the city to which it gave rise. To begin with, the bridge’s glass floor panels (themselves fragile and very expensive to maintain/replace) made it “nothing short of deadly for children and the elderly,” so the city soon traversed it with black non-slip tape. Today I observed that since my last visit here they have moved on to some sort of black rubber carpet:


TO CONTINUE WITH, in 2007 Calatrava (yes, the man responsible for the glass bridge floors on one of the rainiest cities in Spain) sued Bilbao over the addition of a new footbridge designed by Japanese starchitect Arata Isozaki at the end of Zubi Zuri, to extend its reach from the riverwalk to the upshore Isozaki apartment/office complex:

Isozaki1    Isozaki2

He sought the first application of the Spanish Law of Intellectual Property to an architectural work. That year, as explained in this fascinating summary of the case, a judge ruled in favor of Calatrava, considering both that original architectural works were protected by intellectual copyright and that owning the bridge did not entitle the city to alter it. However, he added the further consideration that, a bridge being a public work, public interest (being able to reach the new complex without having to go down and up numerous flights of stairs) had to at least partly limit the architect’s “moral rights,” and thus allowed the addition to remain (despite Calatrava’s request that it be demolished). After the last appeal, in 2009 the province’s high court maintained the ruling in favor of Calatrava, but awarded him 30,000€ instead of the 250,000 he sought if the Isozaki addition was removed, or 3,000,000 if it was not.

I’m kind of happy the city stuck it to Calatrava, not only because he has for years been building all sorts of beautiful but crapshit structures all over Spain and the world–as hilariously satirized in this 2012 Gran Wyoming skit (in Spanish)–but because I do believe in the supremacy of public interest over the integrity of what is in the end a public work: a bridge is for getting to wherever people want to go. Additionally, however, Bilbao is to me (much more, in some ways, than even Barcelona) a city of architects. That is, if Barcelona featured the original architect vs. engineeer feud in the nineteenth century (see Eduardo Aibar & Wiebe E. Bijker, “Constructing a City: The Cerdà Plan for the Extension of Barcelona.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 22.1 [1997]: 3-30), and once again became Spain’s architectural mecca as of the 90s, on a much smaller scale (or because of it) Bilbao not only showcases but literally connects the work of great modern architects. It’s all about going from Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim through Calatrava’s bridge to Isozaki’s towers or Juan Coll-Barreu’s Health Department headquarters or Rafael Moneo’s University of Deusto library, via Norman Foster’s thrillingly futuristic (and immaculate) metro stations:


It’s the sum-total ensemble, wrapped around the medieval old city and the river, that makes the city what it is (thus, no room for divas, say I–other than me of course!).

Anyway, that was that. I came home to my last Bilbo sunset:


Tonight a quiet parting drink with a new friend. Tomorrow off to London for an overnight stopover, and on to New York (some business required moving my return a few days up). I’m sad, but also excited: I miss butter, pizza, a little traffic noise, and some people dear to my heart.

Agur Bilbao! Next (and final?) post from the right side of the Atlantic.

About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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2 Responses to Agur Bilbao: Work, Foodstuffs, Slippery Bridges, Starchitects, Going Home

  1. itziar says:

    Wadda, this is terrific stuff! Thanks for writing!!!!


  2. Pingback: Back to Reality, Escorted by a Playboy Bunny (Barcelona, Amsterdam, New York) | plomaipel

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