A Very Special Day in Bilbao

Spain Adventure Day Five
Thursday, June 21st, 2012

40 Euro peas. Really?

Our next stop on this tour-preview trip is the Rioja wine region. Most people think of Rioja when they think of Spanish wine and we're going to check it out. But first we had to visit Bilbao, capital of the Basque region and home to the architectural masterpiece that is the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum building designed by Frank Gehry.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The Guggenheim collection is really amazing, and there's a David Hockney exhibit there this summer that's drawing well-deserved praise. But it's really all about the building. That surface reflects the sky and buildings nearby, the scrolling rooftops jut out whimsically, and the whole structure brightens the waterfront.

Judy and Karla at Restaurante Etxanobe

It took some time to find the restaurant we thought sounded good-our GPS took us to a grate by the river and said we'd arrived at our destination. Far from a grate by the river, the Restaurante Etxanobe sits on the top floor of the Palacio Euskalduna, voted the world's best conference center building by people who know those things. The building is beautiful and the views spectacular, and the restaurant itself a little fancier than we'd expected. A lot fancier than we'd expected. A Michelin star on the entry wall told us that we had aimed high.

The maître d' came to offer specials not on the menu or iPad that we'd been given to help us select our meal. Everything sounded wonderful, but one appetizer caught our attention-tiny green peas he told us, a regional dish. Very special. When we placed our order, we said bring the peas. He smiled, then frowned, then wrote on his pad and explained that these peas were very special and cost 40 Euros. This was one of those moments-do you go with something so ridiculously expensive and forego another meal just to try 40 Euro peas?? Well, of course we did. Our meal was excellent and the peas were tiny and tasty and special. Were they 40 Euros special? Probably not, but because of them the entire day took on a special luster. And we did skip dinner.

In the Museo de Bellas Artes

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, around the corner from Etxanobe, is a mother lode of Spainish and Basque art from the 12th to 21st centuries. We wandered happily for over an hour and could have stayed longer, but our four hour lunch had eaten into our time in Bilbao. The Casco Viejo, or Old Town, is the medieval part of the city. With its narrow twisted streets and ancient buildings, it would be fascinating anyway, but the denizens of the area make great people watching. Filled with families walking and shopping, older women with blue, purple, and fuchsia hair-weirdly reminiscent of Hunger Games, punky kids with their whiff of marijuana, quirky stores, and very cool bars, this is a place to spend some time.

Square in Casco Viejo

A little over an hour's drive south is the town of Villabuena de Álava or in Basque-a language we have yet to figure out-Eskuernaga. In the heart of the Rioja wine region, we drove through miles of grape fields before arriving at Hotel Viura. The wacky architecture and design features will give us lots to discover over the next three days. The lobby has the feel of an upscale ski lodge, the hallway on our floor is painted black with the room numbers and fanciful drawings scrawled in chalk, and one wall of our bathroom is violet Plexiglas. We can't wait to explore the rest of this place.

Hallway in our hotel


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