Wednesday, August 6, 2008

After Bordeaux it was down the coast and over the Pyrenees . We edged along the Atlantic, admiring sea birds and pretty bodies on beaches as well as the Dune of Pyla, the largest sand dune (in the world? in Europe? in France? – I can’t remember) before hitting bad traffic and the mountains in Spain. We were entranced by seductive San Sebastien, which has a long luxurious half moon of beach as accessory to an elegant town of beautiful old buildings and plenty of new wealth. Feeling pasty and underdone, I waded through the bronzed bodies into the Bay of Biscay before getting back into our car in a relentless pursuit of art and modern architecture. We hit the motherlode (one of several) in the next town, when we swung around a curve off a mountain road and stared straight at the gleaming impossibility of the Guggenheim Bilbao. The museum sits like a beached ocean liner in a bend in Bilbao’s river and dwarfs everything around it, with the exception of the sentries guarding opposite sides - Jeff Koon’s flower-covered Puppy and Louis Bourgeois’s Maman spider. Our very hip hotel gave us a direct view of the building’s rear flank, a sight that was enhanced almost immediately after check in by a thunderstorm that swept across from the mountains. After watching the lightning sparkle and spend itself, we ventured out for dramatic close-ups of our new neighbor at night. Note in the pictures the bright modern bridge that Bilbao built as a companion piece – it flashes on and off at intervals, playfully reflecting off the museum’s metal surface. The next day we discovered not only the impressive interior and some very interesting art, especially the sculpture installation by Juan Munoz, but also the old town of Bilbao with ancient narrow streets, gracious plazas, and a market that transported us light years away from the Guggenheim.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bordeaux France

Gray rainy days in Paris - perfect for reflecting back on ten days traveling in the hot sunny south. Mostly in Spain, but also two days in Bordeaux, a city we’d skirted on earlier trips but had never visited. Our timing was good – in recent years Bordeaux has shaken off old dirt and dust, renewing itself into an elegant city with well-kept pedestrian areas, smart shops, myriad plazas full of cafes, sleek trams, and great night life. Unlike so many European cities, Bordeaux wasn’t bombed during modern wars, (although it did duty more than once as capital in exile) so the city center has a rare architectural harmony from the glory days of the 18th century. I was especially taken with the extraordinary range of faces staring down from the facades – winking, grinning, leering, wagging stone tongues and rolling carved eyes. In the early 19th century the city was a place of refuge for Spanish intellectuals, including the painter Goya who died there in 1828. I came across a statue of him close to our hotel, with his signature furry top hat in hand. It wasn’t hard to picture him, despite age, deafness, and bitter disappointment at the ways of men, enjoying local oysters and drinking the magical Bordeaux wines.