art in bilbao, cereal magazine — words


art in bilbao
for cereal magazine

A Stay at Gran Hotel Domine

When I arrive in Bilbao the sky is a deep, ink blue, illuminated by the waning Flower Moon that peaked a few nights ago. The horizon is dotted with lights, offering brief glimpses of life as my ride from the airport winds through the city.

The next day, I rise surrounded by sumptuous white bed linen and the faint smell of lavender, olive and citrus. The relaxing sleep spray provided as a welcome gift gently reminds me I am no longer in my two-bedroom flat in Hackney, and instead, have woken up in the (de facto) capital of Basque Country. Bilbao was once the main industrial port of northern Spain, and has since reinvented itself as a meeting point for arts, culture and creativity.

This artistic revival extends to my accommodation, the recently refurbished Gran Hotel Domine. Whilst having breakfast on the elegant roof terrace, I cast my eye over the curving titanium exterior of the Guggenheim Museum below. Across from the Guggenheim, the towering Jeff Koons puppy, fashioned from a kaleidoscopic array of flowers, lies within eyeshot. I attempt to document the lively scene, but soon realise I should simply sit back and relax. The fresh, local produce and wonderful company seem best enjoyed, not captured; I suspect this is the Basque way.  

After rounds of scrambled eggs, Iberian ham, and freshly-baked breads, my friends and I pile into our car for a day of exploring. Within an hour, we arrive in neighbouring San Sebastián – a resort town with more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris – with the promise of more gastronomic pleasure, a cobalt blue coastline, and celebrated contemporary art.

I clamber up the rocky steps at the western end of La Concha Bay to view The Comb of the Wind (1977) – Eduardo Chillida’s mighty steel sculptures that rise from the coastal rocks. I am told the three monumental steel pieces represent the past, present and future. Sitting there, with the salty ocean spray whipping my hair, and my 33rd birthday on the horizon, I sense a quiet sea change.

We walk along the sea front, following our noses into crowded pintxos bars. Our eyes prove bigger than our stomachs as we order plates piled with wild mushrooms and egg yolk, garlicky grilled red prawns and simply cooked white asparagus. Fully sated, we take a final meander through the cobblestone paths of the old town, before making our way back to Bilbao. On our drive, the sun dips behind colossal mountains, producing a blanket of colours reminiscent of the muted violet, pink and yellow of Agnes Martin’s Untitled 5 (1998).

Back at the hotel, I’m ready to return to the warm mahogany interiors, offset by shades of cool cream and emerald green, and illuminated by soft, ambient lights. I look out of my window, up towards the night sky, the now familiar inky blue spilling in to my room. My wind-blown hair hits the pillow with a thud, my skin sticky from a mix of sweat and sunscreen.

Gran Hotel Domine undeniably earns its place in Bilbao’s Art District. The organic spiral design of the hotel atrium mirrors that of Guggenheim’s New York counterpart; art works by Javier Mariscal, the designer of the hotel, punctuate the property’s walls; and pieces of bushel inspired bentwood furniture by Frank Gehry sit in quiet, carefully arranged corners. Even the clock in the lobby is a kinetic installation, A Million Times 120, by Swedish studio Humans Since 1982. As the clock turns 15:00, I leave the hotel and Bilbao behind. My last thought as I depart is how creatively nourishing my time here has been, spent delighting in Basque Country’s visual and culinary arts.

Words — Chi San Wan
Photos — Rosa Park