On a whale watching trip on the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry across the Bay of Biscay we had a morning in Spain before our return journey. We had chosen to take the opportunity to visit the Guggenheim Museum which had an exhibition of Aztec art on at the time. On arrival at Santurzi we had to get up at what our friend described as “stupid o’clock”. The alarm call from the Captain came across the ships intercom at 5.45 UK time waking everyone for a seven o’clock disembarkation at Santurzi.
As we leave the boat an army of blue smocked cleaners is heading on board. We passed through customs and outside the terminal found a coach with a “Museum” label in the window. We were soon joined by others on the same trip and our guide Vanessa. Santurzi is the port for Bilbao which spans the river a little way inland. The museum itself is on the banks of the river in the centre of the town but would not open until ten o’clock so we would have a tour of the town as well.
Vanessa told us about the history of Bilbao and the Basque culture. The Basques are identifiably different from the rest of Spain (or France) with dark skin and dark eyes, think in concepts and count to a base of twenty. Pau in France is also a Basque stronghold. They also, of course, have their own language and schools. While fighting for an independent Basque state may be an unwinable battle, fighting to preserve their culture is to be applauded.
Bilbao is a pleasant town which had suffered with the loss of its steel industry and was re-emerging as a cultural centre. The Guggenheim Museum had played its part in this. It is a stunning (and disorienting) building. Inside I never really got my bearings. We first glimpsed it on our approach to the town centre before being eventually dropped off next to it. At the front there is a sculpture of a cat made of flowers and forty feet high. We emerge from the coach in the tunnel directly below this and walk round to the river bank.
There is a fountain which reacts to youngsters playing in it and other open spaces. A tramway runs along a grassy strip alongside the road. The museum is built of honey coloured limestone with a cladding of titanium. The limestone is dressed and square. There is not a straight line anywhere on the titanium. A wide shallow treaded staircase runs up one side of the building to the cat sculpture and the main entrance – we as a party use a different entrance.
Vanessa escorts us into the museum and tells us when and where to meet for the return journey with strict admonishments that if we are late we will have to make our own way back and may miss the boat. We are then free to explore and we make our way to the second floor and the Aztec exhibition. The exhibits are on loan from museums in Mexico and I think this is the exhibition which was on in London last year.
The exhibition is on two floors but we only have time to walk around the galleries on one of them. There are extremes in the intricacy of jewellery and lifelike carvings on one hand and the hints at, and tools for, the Aztecs bloodthirsty sacrificial rites on the other. We do have a little time to visit the museum shop and spend some of our Euros on a book about the Aztecs.
We then re-board the coach and head back to Santurzi. Like Portsmouth there is just a single storey terminal building serving as waiting area, customs check point and ticket gate. We have a while to wait before we can board and let the queue die down before we go through to board the boat. On board we are treated to the unedifying sight of a large over-imbibed Englishman who could not keep vertical without the help of a wall or chair. We leave Spain at midday and head back out across the Bay of Biscay.