the bilbao effect

The Guggenheim Museum metamorphosed Bilbao to a totally new energetic city, a visitor-friendly metropolis of glass and steel, with sheep grazing on the surrounding hills. But we also love the Bilbao that conserves its past, that harmonizes classical structures with the radically new. A city in which berets are worn jutting out and pulled down to one side – Bilbao-style, the traditional way – the city of pintxos and txikitos.


It was worn by Faye Dunaway, as the iconic bank robber in Bonnie & Clyde and, before her, by Ingrid Bergman, in the most provocative photo of 1948, the poster for her war romance Arch of Triumph. Coco Chanel wore one several times. It was sported by Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz great who was one of the original hipsters of the 40s. The list of famous names who have worn a beret seems to go on forever. Working-class, bohemian, intellectual, chic, beatnik or revolutionary, a beret is a plain, flat hat made of wool, originally worn by Pyrenean shepherds in the French Basque country. After the outbreak of the First Carlist War, in 1833, it spread over the Iberian peninsula. Since then it has been recognized as the national headgear of the Basque provinces, a mark of identity that also has strong associations with France, where it is an iconic cultural element.
The beret surged in popularity when it began to be produced industrially in the mid nineteenth century. Of the Spanish factories manufacturing berets, only one – the second oldest in Europe – is still working. Boinas Elósegui is a family business, founded in Tolosa in 1858, and the only company in Spain that can still produce a quality beret using artisanal methods. They say that in Bilbao, berets are worn wide and flat, jutting out and pulled down to the right, but without covering the ear. They also say that the further south you go in Spain, as in France, the smaller they prefer their berets to be. “Straight, pulled down, Bilbao-style, Parisian-style… the secret is in the diameter and the flair with which it is worn,” Josu Aguirre, Head of Administration at Boinas Elósegui tells us, “because the beret itself is always the same.”

chain reaction

Each link weighing 400 kg, these magnificent chains could secure a supertanker or anchor an oil platform. Now they take pride of place outside the Bilbao Maritime Museum, a testimony to the importance of shipbuilding, maritime transport and the iron and steel industries to pre-Guggenheim Bilbao. These are the Vicinay Chains, and their final resting place is on the site where the Euskalduna shipyard once stood.

written in stone
When you first make your way into Bilbao’s historic quarter one of details that stands out is the peculiar lettering used on many business and restaurant signs. They are stark, basic characters that look like a specifically designed typeface, but in fact it’s a combination of ancient characters with some common features. They are known as Basque Letters or Euskara, perhaps the most striking of the Basque country’s visual marks of identity. The indigenous character of the Basque country is made manifest in the Basque language, one of the oldest in Western Europe. Predating the Indo-European languages, it is not derived from Latin and its roots remain shrouded in mystery. Basque Letters, which were developed in the early twentieth century from inscriptions on medieval tombstones, has become a distinctive part of the way this sense of identity is expressed. If the city is a written space, in Bilbao, identity and tradition are written in Basque Letters.

arte 48009

Some of them are so closely associated with Bilbao that they have become elements of a composite portrait, fragments of the city’s image. But the best-known among them — Jeff Koons’ Puppy, the monumental terrier made of flowers that stands guard outside the Guggenheim — is only one of almost 100 artworks that make up the city’s urban landscape. The sculpture in the image, Sites and Places, by Ángel Garraza, is located within Bilbao’s most artistic zip code, 48009, specifically in the Parque de la Ribera. It is part of the Paseo de la Memoria — “the memory promenade” — a garden-museum that traverses the city on the banks of the estuary, recalling the area’s industrial past.

pucker up!
“It’s fresh, salty, and a little spicy.” And so its creator named it la Gilda, after the femme fatale played by screen icon Rita Hayworth, whose father was Spanish, in the film that was a scandalous success that same year, 1946. It was an accidental culinary discovery that married the flavors of an olive, a guindilla –- a chili pepper, pickled in wine vinegar –- and an anchovy, simply by skewering all three on a toothpick. In Bilbao they have adopted the invention as their own. Going out for pintxos, that quintessentially Basque style of socializing, strolling from bar to bar with friends, eating elaborate tapas and drinking small glasses of wine, would not be the same without a gilda. Long live la Gilda!
half full
In Bilbao, wine is drunk in sensible measures. At the first bar you visit, a txiquito, as a reasonable 12 cl (4 fl oz) glass of wine is known, and a pintxo or two. Friends; talk; laughter, and on to the next bar, where the ritual is repeated. And so the night unfolds. Bilbao’s residents call it txiqueteo or poteo, pote being another name for a txiquito of wine. A style of socializing so deeply rooted it has become a tradition. In recent years, the glass the original txikiteros used has been revived, although its weight — more than 600 g (21 oz) — means you won’t find it in many bars. They are hand-made, so no two are the same, but more than half their height is always made up by the pressed-glass base. Their origin is unknown, although we know they first arrived in Bilbao as part of the official visit of Queen Victoria Eugenia. The city was decorated with candles in small glass holders, which were distributed to the city’s tavern owners. After the queen’s departure, the candle holders were repurposed as the perfect glasses for an evening’s poteo.
hola carola
Whenever she went by, works in the shipyards stopped, and a deafening siren blared. It was the 1950s, and this scene was repeated twice a day, when Carol Iglesias, a beautiful blonde who worked in the Spanish tax office, came and went in the boat that carried her across the river to have lunch in Deusto. The workers named their new crane Carola in her honor. Built in 1957, Carola, was the tallest and most powerful crane in the whole of Spain, and established the port of Bilbao as one of the most important in the world. Today, bright red and elevated to the status of sculpture, at 60 meters tall, it is a majestic symbol of Bilbao’s industrial past.
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