David Bowie died the other day. It may not be the first thing that springs to mind for most people, but when I heard the news, my thoughts swept me back to a cold and drizzly mid-February night in Bilbao.
The Bowie Bar in Bilbao
On one of Bilbao’s busier streets, there is one bar that aptly stands out from the crowd: spelt out in bright, effervescent coloured letters above the door, drawing people in with irresistible charm, the bar Bowie is such a simple yet powerful and accurate symbol of an iconic artist who shone brighter than most.
Inside, the bar buzzed with happiness and joy: people singing, celebrating, kissing and dancing, people spilling drinks as they laughed, people smiling wide – free of anxiety and worry. People with rebellious glints in their eyes and sinful smirks on their face, people dreaming of being heroes for a day, people exchanging glances, holding hands, trading intimate touches, people pointing at the conspicuous English chap with a hint of playful mockery.
I remember all this and travel back in time. I stand by the bar and shout “Eskerrikasko!” to the barman as he fills two tall glasses with more rum than coke. I turn around and proceed to lose myself until the early hours in the dancing crowds of the Bowie bar.
Bilbao: The Reigning Rainy City
The day after the night before I woke with a head that told no lies. The steady rain that hadn’t stopped all night continued to tap itself against the window. It wasn’t about to stop anytime soon. Bilbao is surrounded by glorious green mountains that you can see at every city intersection. The clouds are gathered up by the mountains like candy floss magically coming together around a skilled vendor’s spinning stick. It does not pass until every raindrop has soaked the streets. If you’re visiting Bilbao, take an umbrella: it rained so much, I bought two.
The Guggenheim Museum
After croissants and coffee had soothed my delicate head, I took a stroll to the remarkable Guggenheim museum. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum is as visually arresting on the outside as any exhibition housed within. From the exterior, the museum’s gunmetal finish and illogical, random curves present a daunting building that appears to shape-shift as you meander your way towards and around it.
Inside, the Guggenheim’s installations were an assault on the senses. I wandered from one alienating concept piece to the next, each one too much for my tiny brain to interpret: mazes of dizzying steel spheres, pots of fusty spices swinging from spiderweb structures like flattened out synapses and a giant suspended recreation of a sperm cell fertilising an egg. I was out of my depth – I needed another rum and coke.
Notably, the top floor was being readied for the start of Yoko Ono’s Half-a-Wind Show which I sadly missed by a couple of weeks. From one iconic avant-garde artist to another, Bilbao had it all.
Outside, the rain continued to slap the streets relentlessly. When it rains so much, it makes sense to take cover indoors. In Bilbao, that means hitting the bars for beer and pintxos – a Basque alternative to tapas. For about €5 in most places, you get a beer and a bite to eat, so do it the Basque way and go from bar to bar on a pintxos crawl.
What I hadn’t prepared for during my time in Bilbao was that on the weekend that I visited, it was the city’s carnival weekend. Nearly every bar was decorated with colourful facemasks in the windows and every so often a group of people would potter on by in full fancy dress. As the day turned to night, so the groups of people in fancy dress gradually increased. With nothing to show but my painfully obvious Britishness, I began to think I was not dressed for the occasion.
A friendly barman suggested I head to the old town for the main festivities. Bilbao’s beautiful old town is typical of those perfect, quaint cobbled streets that seem to get narrower the further you go as the buildings tower over you and impossibly steeple together from either side. On Sunday mornings, the old town hosts a quaint and charming flower market, but this was Saturday night and the narrow streets were heaving with groups of people partying in every fancy dress costume you could imagine. Flowers were the last thing on anyone’s mind – apart from the bloke dressed as a sunflower; I knew then I was definitely not dressed for the occasion.
I made my way to the main square which had a stage set up and tribute acts playing to the increasingly inebriated crowds whose drink of choice for partying was a pint glass filled with half red wine and half coke, or kalimotxo as they call it – the Basque can drink. I somehow attached myself to a group within the crowds. One was dressed as Spongebob Squarepants, another as Big Bird, there was Bananaman, the Joker, Mario and Luigi; behind them, a couple of smurfs, Batman, Spiderman and weirdly, the fucking queen. In my nondescript raincoat and an industry sized umbrella in my hand, I was the idiot in this crowd.
The party went on all night. At about 4am, half asleep and staggering, I heard the unmistakable sound of a bottle being opened behind me. I turned around to see a teenage girl of about 16 unscrewing a full litre bottle of rum. I couldn’t help but feel old. All I wanted was my bed. I grabbed my brolly and took my leave.
Should You Visit Bilbao?
I had visited Spain before, but Bilbao is something quite different. The Basque culture has its own charms that should be experienced. The food is fantastic: meandering from bar to bar snacking on pintxos and drinking beer is well worth a day of anyone’s time and if you’re lucky enough to visit during the carnival, boy can Bilbao party. The Guggenheim is a must-see and is undoubtedly one of biggest draws of tourists and travelers to Bilbao. Whilst the city is busy, you don’t have to venture far out of the Basque capital for beautiful scenery and stunning views. Should you visit Bilbao? For me, it is the city in Spain to visit. After all, there’s a Starman waiting for you – and Bilbao might just blow your mind.