Casco Viejo of Bilbao: Something Old and Something New

Bilbao is a city I would return to again and again. My husband had lived there many years ago as a missionary for our church. Twenty years ago, as he describes it, it was a dirty, industrial city. Now the industries are gone, it has been cleaned up, and features beautiful modern buildings like the Guggenheim. I would return just to see the Guggenheim again. The new and modern architecture of Bilbao is what probably comes to mind when you hear Bilbao mentioned, but a hidden jewel tucked away from the downtown area is Casco Viejo, the old city.

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Casco Viejo, Bilbao

The old city is filled with a unique character, and interesting shops. I wish we had more time and more money while we were there. Spanish fashion, both for children and women, is vibrant and interesting. Casco Viejo is filled with current trends and also traditional clothing for children. I really wish we had bought our son a traditional Basque outfit, complete with boina. We called him hombrecito while in Spain. With a boina, he would really have fit the part. In addition to clothing, there are many artisanal stores, with modern high end stores mixed in.

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Bilbao Athletic Club

In Toledo, the streets were draped with canvas to keep out the harsh sun. In Bilbao, the streets were draped with flags and banners celebrating the Athletic Club of Bilbao, their professional football club. It is an interesting mix of medieval and modern, much like all of Bilbao. It has a different feel from central Spain. The northern coast is more rainy and green than the rest of Spain. In fact, a couple we met from Ireland says it is just like the Irish coast. There are remnants of Celtic culture in northern Spain. The bagpipes are played. Many churches display celtic symbols. Bilbao is part of the Basque country. The Basque country has its own language, called either Basque or euskara. Bilbao displays its signs in both Spanish and euskara. This language is spoken only in the Basque country. It has no known linguistic relatives. This adds an exotic air to this northern Spanish brigadoon.

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Camino de Santiago Scallop Symbol

Wandering in Casco Viejo, we came upon this plaque in the street. My husband and I have talked about doing the Camino de Santiago with our children someday. The Camino de Santiago was one of the major Christian pilgrimages from medieval times. Legend says that the remains of St. James were buried in the town of Santiago de Compostela. The scallop shell is a symbol of this pilgrimage. Like the lines on the scallop shell, all lines lead to a single point. In this case, that single point is the remains of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. This plaque is modern day interpretation of the scallop shell symbol. We encountered other versions of the symbol, a scallop shell carved in stone, in other parts of northern Spain. We were thrilled to cross paths with the Camino de Santiago in Casco Viejo. Whether on the Camino de Santiago or other less formal trips to Bilbao, we hope to cross paths with Casco Viejo again.

Other posts about Bilbao:

The Puppy the Children Loved

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Our children love puppies. We have two small, white fluffy balls of love at home named Sophia and Garibaldi. The children miss them terribly when we travel. We take them to a “doggy hotel” whenever we leave town. I think our children secretly wish they could come with us when we travel.

Outside of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao stands this 43 foot tall puppy with flowers in all colors of the rainbow sprouting out all over it. It turns out the children of Bilbao loved this puppy, and didn’t want the puppy to leave them. This sculpture by Jeff Koons was supposed to be a temporary exhibit installed for the opening of the Guggenheim in 1997. I don’t know how long it was supposed to remain, but it was saved from demolition by the schoolchildren of Bilbao. They mounted a letter-writing campaign to keep the giant flower-sprouting puppy at the Guggenheim. I’m glad. It stands as an example of the voices of children being heard and positively affecting the world around them. This is a story I share with my children so they can have an example of the power they can wield. And I find joy in the commonalities we share all around the world. In this case, the love of puppies.

Through the Memory of a Child

I was sitting in church next to my oldest daughter, now 8, when she leans over to me and says,”Mama, I want to go back to that one museum.” As a family, we visit a lot of museums. I had no idea which one she wanted to visit. So I asked her, “Where did we visit the museum you want to see again?” She said, “I think it was in Spain.” Great. That narrowed it down to about 10 different museums in about 5 different cities. I needed more information. “What was in that museum that you want to see again?”

She then went on to describe the experience of walking through something shaped kind of like a ship, where the walls moved in and out, and it made you feel a little dizzy and a little sick. I thought about it, racking my brain for some kind of connection to her description. And then suddenly it clicked.

On our trip to Spain about a year and a half ago, we went to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This museum is worth the trip just for the building itself, but installed on the main floor as a permanent exhibition is Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time”. Several giant metal structures with wavy walls, some based in elliptical shapes, dominate the massive space of the gallery. It was designed as an experiential exhibit, allowing patrons to walk through each of the sculptures. I had never heard of this exhibit before, and I was a little intrigued. There was a sign warning people that walking through the structures could cause nausea and disorientation. That made me skeptical. Really? I didn’t believe that part. But I like to try new things, and so we walked through each of the structures in the gallery.

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The Guggenheim of Bilbao

Guess what? The experience of walking through curving structures where the walls lie at angles, sometimes seeming to close in on you above, sometimes narrowing beneath, sometimes seeming to lie parallel along an angular plain, really does affect how we experience space and time. Even while trying to maintain a regular pace, at times it felt like I was walking faster and at times slower. Our babysitter started feeling nauseous (poor girl) and had to sit down for a while. My skepticism melted away, and I felt in awe of how this sculpture affected my experience of space and time.

But I didn’t realize that it had profoundly affected my child as well. Almost two years later and without any inquiry on my part, she begged to go back and experience this art again. Sometimes traveling with children there are days that are tiring and difficult. Sometimes I wonder what they are taking away from all of these museums and architectural wonders, food and historical places, that we drag them to. These moments when I realize that our travels shape the way our children and experience and understand the world around them, makes all of it worth it. Someday, my darling, we’ll go back and visit the Guggenheim again.

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Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time” courtesy of http://www.guggenheim.org