Madrid and Bilbao represent some of the best of what Spain offers in terms of culture, architecture, and history. It is also the backdrop to our reuniting with close friends. Madrid, the capital and largest city of Spain is at the center of Spanish power and history. One of Europe’s great cities, Madrid has countless attractions and historical landmarks. Given our very short time in Madrid, and previous trips there, we focused our time catching up with old friends.
After saying our goodbyes to John in Barcelona, we took a train to Madrid and stayed in an apartment near the Plaza Mayor - a great central location within the city. We settled in, then ventured out to neighboring Alcala de Henares where we met up with our friends Ana and Juanjo. Ana was Mandy's host sister when she lived in Spain ten years ago in a college study abroad program and Juanjo is Ana’s long-time boyfriend. I had met both before on a previous trip to Spain and they were always incredibly generous, kind, and fun. We met them at their new apartment for a quick tour of their renovation, then we headed off to Ana’s family home a few blocks away. We were greeted by Ana’s parents, younger brother and later by their friends Bea, Adri, and their newborn son. We enjoyed a great dinner there and caught up on each other’s lives. A big topic of discussion that night was Barcelona and the Catalonian independence movement. It was interesting to get their side of the debate in opposition to independence and it gave me a true understanding of the rivalry that exists between these two regions. We said our goodbyes, and Ana and Juanjo ventured back into Madrid with us to enjoy a night out on the town.
For those of you who don’t know, Spain is famed for its wild nightlife with clubs roaring well into the early morning. Most don’t even go to the bars until midnight and they don’t kick into high gear until two or three in the morning. We decided on a more “relaxed” night out so we walked a few blocks from our apartment to a bar district but were assured this was a more chill bar district than others. While likely tame by Spanish standards, the bar we chose ended up bursting at the seams with guests by 3am. It was a great time. We danced all night and screamed to each other in Spanish (mine broken) over the unbelievably loud music. I probably understood half of what was said to me and I would imagine our friends understood much less of what I said. We left at four in the morning as the bar showed no signs of slowing down. We were in bed by 5 am and crammed in a whopping two hours of sleep before our friends from Chelci and Jesse arrived at our doorstep, all the way from Phoenix.
Chelci and Jesse are our very close friends who were to spend the next two weeks with us venturing through Spain and Portugal. They had just completed a day and a half of travel by the time they arrived, so it was sort of fitting we were also running on almost no sleep and were a bit hungover. The six of us decided to explore Madrid for the few hours we had before our train to Bilbao. We walked the Plaza Mayor, explored an open-air market where we bought coffee and some breakfast and took in some of the sights. We then said our goodbyes to Ana & Juanjo to board our train to Bilbao.
Bilbao is the largest city in northern Spain with a population of around 350,000 and one million in the greater metropolitan area. It is located near France’s southwest border with Spain. Like Catalonia, this region has a distinct and independent minded culture and identity. The city is the de-facto capital of what is known as the Basque Country which possesses its own unique history and language known as Euskara. The language Euskara is linguistically separate from any other European language and completely isolated from any known language. Its origin is one of the great mysteries of Europe and it is theorized that it predates the arrival of the romance languages that now dominate the continent.
The Basque region encompasses both France and Spain and is quite close to Bordeaux. In fact, while in Bordeaux I noticed a few Basque cultural organizations in action attracting crowds of men dressed in traditional clothes with green berets speaking in an unknown language I now realize was Euskara. The Basque country in Spain governs somewhat autonomously from the rest of the country but has historically pushed for full independence. This independence movement was particularly nasty in the past with its most radical group ETA, carrying out terrorist attacks for years on the Spanish government with numerous bombings annually, ending finally in 2010.
Our first night in Bilbao was spent enjoying a quick dinner and drinks at a small gin bar. We came to find out that the region is well known for gin cocktails and the bartenders served up some of the best gin and tonics I have ever had. It was dead in town that evening since it was a Sunday, but we talked the bartenders into staying open a bit longer than normal for us. Due to the excitement of the trip ahead, we decided to celebrate with more than our fair share of cocktails. We finished our night excited for exploring the city and the Guggenheim Museum the following day.
Bilbao is now most known for the architectural masterpiece that is the Guggenheim Museum – one of the largest museums in Spain. This museum of modern and contemporary art was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry and put into service in 1997. It is widely considered the most important architectural work in the world completed since 1980. The expansive structure is perched along the Nervion River in the center of town. Its façade consists of curved titanium panels, steel, and glass combining to form an organic yet surreal structure. The interior is designed around a light filled atrium and while filled with important artistic works, is an exhibit unto itself that overshadows much of work that it houses.
We spent the better part of a day exploring the museum. It was almost therapeutic walking the various sections of the building and climbing up the levels of the museum to the top. The natural light created the impression of being outdoors and the exhibit space flowed exceptionally well from section to section. While very crowded, the space created a sense of serenity and lessened the impact of the crowds. You could really feel the amount of thought and attention that was put into the museum design and must be one of the most amazing buildings I have ever visited.
The rainy weather in town prevented as much exploring as we would have liked, but I came away from my time in Bilbao as well spent. It is not every day you see a modern architectural marvel, and I am exceptionally happy I had the opportunity to see it. In the span of three days we visited two very different yet important cities in Spain. It cemented in my mind the fractured nature of Spain. A mixture of distinct cultures, identities, and languages, it has united to form a nation. The more time I spend in Spain, the more deeply I realize how complex and sometimes opposed these identities and interests are. I personally have a lot more to learn about Spain, but my time in the country thus far has inspired in me a desire to come to a more complete understanding of the complicated Spanish identity. // Jeff