Bilbao and San Sebastian

I’d wanted to go to Pais Vasco since arriving in Spain and a RyanAir flight special finally convinced me to visit Bilbao and San Sebastian over a three-day weekend. I departed at 6:30 am and as the flight is only a little more than an hour landed at eight am. A quick bus ride and a short walk later I was at my hotel in the middle of La Ribera, the old town district along the waterfront which had been continuously occupied since the thirteenth century and is now known for it’s haute cuisine and pinxhos culture. Tired from going to sleep late out of joyful anticipation of exploring a new place and waking up early I took a short nap without bothering to set an alarm as getting up late is just on par with Iberian culture and I knew I wouldn’t miss out on anything happening before noon.

When I did awaken, I first decided to go to the Bilbao Guggenheim. After double-checking their hours of operation on their website and learning that from my hotel to the museum it was about a twenty minute walk along the brackish river Nervión I began my journey there. It was cold out but I was warmed by sun and the cities attractive mix of modernist and traditional architecture. Trekking there it appeared that the rest of Bilbao had also been waiting until a late in the day to become active. As I walked I reflected on the city, and my general nomadic experiences for quite a while. Soon, however, I arrived at the wavy titanium exterior of the museum.

In a word, the museum was disappointing. Were I to given the chance to visit again or not, chances are I’d allot my time for other activities – be it taking a long shower, spending more time drinking my café con leche while reading La Vanguardia or something equally mundane. This dislike of the collection was partially my fault for not having done more research into the permanent collection and in trusting in the aura of “Guggenheim” to be something worthwhile. The overwhelming majority of the museum were large, elemental installation pieces that I found to be marginally interesting but overwhelmingly pretentious in the scope of the work. When it comes to art I am admittedly a realist and romantic in taste and find most modern sculptures, plastic arts and paintings to be dreadfully lacking in redeeming qualities. There are times when I wonder if I am a philistine for having such negative views towards such art, but these disappear after I interrogate the reasons why I think this is so. The largest installation piece, taking up an entire room was naught but large pieces of wrought iron made so that you “lose yourself” by going into some of the pieces and see changes in shading in perspective in another

A string of Christmas tree lights of the type made in the seventies hanging from the ceiling as a means of referring to the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Sculptures without function or figuration whose features are supposed to allude to ur-artifacts and thus symbolize the totality of sculpture. One of the paintings that I did take a special pleasure in seeing, though not for it’s aesthetic qualities, was my first Julian Schnabel painting. When she was alive, my grandmother had told me when growing up Schnabel and my father were good friends. She told me how after he had returned from his first trip to Europe he had offered her several paintings in return for borrowed money that consisted of broken plates plastered onto a giant canvas. She’d said thanks but no thanks and suggested that he find a new occupation. Of course these paintings would later be a major parts of his career in the New York art scene and these particular works were his way of distinguishing himself from other artists working in the abstract expressionist medium. Looking at his works there I felt connected with her not just from the story but from my assessment of the work. I found myself more interested in wanting to read the book The Recognitions described in the Guggenheim audio commentary as being influential to Schnabel as well as other artists of the time, than the work itself. One section held numerous screen prints of Lenin in various colors, while another was of strange, non-functional shapes formed from wood, clay and metal.

While I recognize that some degree of commentary will always be needed for art – it seemed to me that most of the descriptions there were posted in order to make bad, facile art have a depth to which it isn’t able to convey on its own. Put another way, most high, complex art is to me just stupid. For instance, throughout my times in many a museum I have seen several paintings whose coloration is solely black or solely white. One may give all sorts of explanations as to the importance of *that* particular color choice and how it responds to a movement in art at their time or something else. But this applies equally for a blank canvas and seeing such pieces makes me feel as if someone is trying to get something over on me. Visual artists still have an aura to their works which has yet to be eradicated in the way that others artists have. Rarely if ever, for example, do you hear of a renowned author whose work only a few people understand.

I’ve probably devoted the same amount of time to the art at the Guggenheim Bilbao as walking there and back. After leaving there I walked down Alameda Recalde to Colon de Larreategui to look at the many old municipal buildings, statues of eminent personages past, small squares hidden within buildings and other beautiful works of living architectural art. This and Bilbao’s Old Town, to me are much more attractive and aesthetically edifying than anything held within the walls of the museum. Indeed I felt that the greatest aspects of the museum were outside it – the giant spider on the north side and the dog composed of plant lift in the front.

As I walked around the old town I saw several plaques indicating former residences that made my inner historian smile. The Latin American liberator Simon de Bolivar lived for a while in one of the apartments here and Miguel de Unamuno was born on one of the streets. While it’s hard for me to imagine such people there now, so far away from Spain’s golden era, but seeing such placards always brings me joy.

At night these streets lost their commercial luster as they became filled with small and large groups of twenty-to-fifty-somethings. In the areas closest to the river, thus closest to the newer and more expensive developments, were the older crowds hopping from one pinxhos bar to another in order to have a wide variety of snacks and drinks. The further one gets from the river on the east side the age of the crowd drops, the diversity increases and there is less emphasis on fine dining paired with regional wines and more emphasis on greasy foods and cheap drinking.

Placa Zumarraga marks the dividing line between the affluent and the less fortunate. As one leaves Casco Viejo and goes into Solokoetxe the crowd changes to metal heads, punks, rockers and their dogs and the odors from clean, river-scented air to the pungent smell of marijuana, old sweat, spilled beer and frying fats. This zone appeared to be the only space where the African community living further south appears to interact with the Basque youth at night, a place where those made marginal by chosen identity and forced history mingle. As I was more interested in culinary tourism than Bilbao’s wanton youth culture, I quickly ambled through the latter to spend our time in the former sampling pinxhos of different restaurants. There may have not been as many interesting radical and rock flyers – but the atmosphere was more convivial.

The next day I woke up early and took a bus to San Sebastian. I’d decided to go there on the advice given to me by one of my neighbors in my Barcelona apartment complex that had gone there the week before. The bus ride was cheap and the time to get there quick. I tried to start a conversation with a young Frenchman who was reading a copy of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, but as my comprehension of French consists of a handful of words and his grasp of English was tentative at best I simply gestured with my hands that I found the book interesting, had seen the author speak before at the Brooklyn Book Festival and that it made me happy to see someone reading it.

From the bus departure point I ambled along the large pedestrian walkway past second hand clothes markets and small cafes along equally small squares towards the Cantabrian Sea. On my way to the waterfront I passed beautiful old buildings made with hewn stone. Some of that had, since being mortared together, turned into a climbing ground for vining plants and made the building look like a pretty admixture of 1st and 2nd nature.

When I finally arrived to the main beach pavilion, I was immediately taken aback by the natural beauty contrasted with the color scheme imposed upon the buildins surrounding it. Simply put, San Sebastian is a beautiful example of the type of small coastal towns along the north of Spain and south of France that has exceptional charm. I couldn’t resist walking down to the small sand beach to lay in the sun for a while to enjoy the heat, breeze and view.

After perhaps half an hour, I walked back up the stairs to the two-hundred foot wide boardwalk park interspersed with small statues, children’s play areas and a number of trees denuded of leaves now that winter was just beginning to make it’s presence felt. There were many young families pushing their children in fancy strollers and others holding their adolescents by the hand. I went to investigate a merry go round that looked like it was from the 50’s. The paint on the horses, swans and sleds may have been slightly cracked, but it still had an air of grandeur to it. I walked along the densely packed buildings adjacent to the wharf that hugged the high ridge with a thirty foots tall statue of Jesus looking down upon the town similar in appearance to the famous one in Rio de Janeiro. I walked past a large number of pastry shops exuding the intoxicating smell of sugar and butter, small clothes boutiques and vendors of baubles and tourist kitsch that I’ve not seen offered in other parts of Spain. I later entered a large stone government building that have been converted into mixed-use commercial space and just so happened to have one of my favorite restaurants in it, Gambrinus. While I felt somewhat guilty for eating Czech food in Pais Vasco, I have such rich and happy memories from eating such food when I’d lived in Prague that I couldn’t help myself form ordering some gulash and pivo. More health conscientious now, this time I substituted the requisite French fries for salad.
After that filling and relatively healthy meal, I decided that before sunset I’d walk to the top of the cliff overlooking the city. I returned to the area I just was on the street adjacent that which had taken me there and found myself distracted – both for want of coffee and sight of another beautiful beach.

In my quest for coffee I found discovered another beach to the east of the one I’d just been at with less people and more dogs. Here there was also a concrete wave break that I could walk down here and so feel the spray of the sea as the swells crashed against the rocks and see the crests became beautiful spumes. On one of the rocks I noticed ETA graffiti, the first evidence I’d seen of the Basque Nationalist group since arriving.

I walked along the beach for a little bit and even found a dog with an amiable owner that let me play fetch with him. I was somewhat shocked by this, as all the dogs I’d encountered in Spain were usually trained to ignore everyone but the masters. I went over and touched the water, so as to be able to say I did, walked along there for a while then decided to continue on my quest to see up close the statue, fort and lookout points.

On the tops of the steps of this church were visible two other churches. One was perhaps five hundred meters to the east of it and the other, larger one perhaps a thousand to the south. There was a spray painted anarchy sign on the carved wood door and metal handle of the church, which unnerved me. I’ve seen this sign spray painted on buildings throughout Spain and even understand the anarchist’s critique of the Catholic church here. That said I found the degradation of such old and skilled craftsmanship not as a sign showing of power but it’s very opposite. The church here has made this and many other buildings that bring people together while the anarchists, well, if they had something to show it certainly was not shown on any of the literature I’ve seen on the place. I continued strolling, past a movie theatre, a modern place of worship and arrived at stairs with a placard that indicated it was the beginning of the trail to the top. A group of teenagers were jovially hacemos un botellon at the top of this first steps.

The walk up the rocks was a mixture of stairs and pathways with oaks on either side. Though the temperature was in the teens (Celsius), I heated up fast from the physical exertion and after five minutes peeled off my jacket to make the trek more pleasant. I stopped at several vantage points that had both the city and the sea as it’s focal attraction. At one of these points, which had once been part of a fort protecting San Sebastian there was a large number of Spaniards from the town who seemed as if they came there as part of a weekly ritual. I briefly chatted with them then continued up another 500 feet to the main fort. On the way down I went down the second path that the guide in the tourist office had informed me of. On this route were I passed by several groups of youths picnicking in the grass, playing Frisbee and when we finally exited the park it was right by the large staircase immediately beside the docks.

Night was starting to fall and as there was little time left until the last of the buses returned to Bilbao I quickly make my way back to the bus station. The Gothic style church I’d passed earlier was now lit up with lights of various changing shades of red, blue and purple. The outdoor-seating areas of restaurants were slowly filling up and the young families were replaced with couples window-shopping. I waited perhaps fifteen minutes for the bus and sat towards the back. Being that this was the second to last bus of the night, this time the bus was completely full. A group of borrachas that were unable to sit together populated the seats around me and spoke loudly and crudely throughout the entire hour and a half trip back. By their faces I could tell those not with them were somewhat annoyed, but at the same time only partially so as they would sometimes crack a smile. As for me, I learned two new uses for the verb joder. Tired from our long adventures, after I got back I skipped extended pinxho hopping again and instead stopped in only two different places that I’d not visited the night before.

The next day was my last so I went to the Museo de Bellas Artes, which was both fantastic. One of the temporary exhibitions was of Anselmo Guinea, a Basque modernist painter whose works were exceptional and the other was of La Maleta Mexicana, which I’d seen and wrote about while this collection was in Barcelona. The permanent collection also had a number of fine works, and of course a section of gothic religious art that seems to be mandated in all Spanish museums. I spent perhaps three hours looking through and admiring many of the paintings. There was a small section with sculptures reminiscent of those I’d seen in the Guggenheim, but after mocking them I simply walked past them.

After leaving I wanted to do and see more, however the streets of Bilbao, just like the streets of Barcelona and I would presume every other area of Spain, were nearly empty and the doors to most of the restaurants, shops and cultural areas were closed. Sunday! There was a Chinese restaurants which was of course open, so I ended up having a nice buffet there before taking the bus to the airport. While my stay there was only three days, walking around through so much of the old town of Bilbao and San Sebastian, getting to see the major museums and experiencing pinxhos culture did not make me feel as if I had missed out on much. Certainly I’d passed over numerous gems, but at the same time it was so nice there that I promised myself to go back there again.

Review of "The Invention of Paris"

Women here look at themselves more than elsewhere, and from this comes the distinctive beauty of the Parisienne.
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

I picked up a copy of Eric Hazan’s new book The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps to read before going to Paris hoping that it would be akin to Robert Hughes’ Barcelona. While both provides a wealth of details on the evolution of a city from medieval splendor to modern grandeur, the tone and tenor of the two books are vastly different. Where Hughes gives his attention to the architectural details that make Barcelona such a draw for those studying the applied arts as well as the history behind it, Hazans’ historiography focuses on the class conflict that played such a large role in the development of the city and provides little detail to the large changes of the city.

The first part of the book is itself separated into two sections and provides what might at best be called a micro-history of Paris by neighborhood from the 15th century to the mid 1900’s. Hazan illustrates that many ways the means of transportation available to goods production, land bequeathed to religious orders of variable popularity, health concerns, and the tax walls protecting the city from those that would prowl and predate on those just outside (and inside) the city walls. As a microhistory, the amount of details is amazing, if at times overwhelming.

The erection of a new wall around Paris for easier taxation and the changes that went on within it provides the reason for Hazan to change his discussion from quarters to fauborgs. Tax collectors have never been loved and to the rebellious Parisians this is no exception. The continual push of the intellectuals from the center to the periphery is detailed as is the contrast between various sections of the cities. As the rich would entrench themselves in a given position, they would find themselves afraid to go into certain sections for fear of populations that was known to all that they were exploiting.

One of the endearing parts of The Invention of Paris is it’s focus on specific regions and his explanations as to why it was that certain types of people were attracted there. For instance, salon culture has always attracted me, and the descriptions of Marais during the baroque period, which would have seen Thomas Hobbes, Blaise Pascal, Balzac, Descartes, Moliere and Racine weaving around the streets and entering into ornate drawing rooms to discuss their thoughts late into the night. The proximity to vast, old libraries and a population density of wealthy patrons willing to give some of their money in order to fund or just assist some of the greatest thinkers made Paris the intellectual capital that it was renowned as being. Whereas English is now generally the lingua franca within a meeting of the educated, French was the language of the court as well as anyone who wanted to address the audience of the literate across Europe.

One of the books weaknesses is the manner in which Hazan will jump back and forth throughout different epochs, sometimes by hundreds of years, in a single sections. While each particular quarter or fauborg is detailed in such a way as to show the influence of Royalist or capital imperatives on it, the historiography here lacks a cohesive narrative to draw all of them together and can seem overwhelming. The information provided, thus while interesting, seems to lack a pertinence other than a desire to prevent a particular historical event from being forgotten. Thus while we learn that recurring outbreaks of violence lead to Bellville as this was one of the easiest areas to defend once barricades had been erected.

One of the endearing qualities of the book is the wealth of literature that Hazan quotes illustrating the development of the city over hundreds of years. From journals of Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo, letters by Daudet and Diderot as well as those closer to modern times like Guy Debord. In this regard the book reads like a love story with the city both from the point of view of Hazan as well as those that he quotes.

The second half of the book, the sections entitled Red Paris, Flaneurs and The Visual Image. The first of these three sections takes the histories of the neighborhoods and starts to show how various sections responded during period of social unrest. And where there are no longer seemingly random stories of transformations of architecture, movements of certain trades and markets and name checking of eminent personages and their relation to Paris, Hazan shines. After having provided all of these extensive details on the various neighborhoods of Paris, their political activism is not just described about but narrated in a series of tense scenes related to the various riots, rebellions, and revolutions of Paris.

“Even if this was not always where things started, even if the first shots were fired on the Pont d’Austerlitz or Boulevard des Capucines, the main fighting always took place in this labyrinth (the streets around Pont Notre-Dame) This constant is not just explained by symbolism, even if it was the capture of the Hotel de Ville that enabled an uprising to call itself a revolution. It also had strategic reasons, derived from the interlacing and narrowness of the streets” (294).

It is this sort of information, which comes after having read histories and reports on the unrest, that makes the at times very slow reading of the rest worth it. While I did not have a map of Paris available as I read it, I was able to use Google Maps to get a somewhat better understanding of the city’s landscape.
The first of the later two sections, Flâneurs gives a historical recounting of the milieu that gave birth to the types of social philosophy produced by Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. With a specific purpose in mind, outlining the manner in which the need to be seen in French society interacted with the idleness of many a person, though never a true idleness as it was always a resting point before highly productive work, created a notion of spectatorship that is no longer as common as it was once. The desire was both to see a scene that was “mysterious and complex enchantment” that would kindle the imagination through a shocking and unexpected encounter and not be visible as someone witnessing it, as then one’s inclusion in the events would alter things. There is an element wherein the highly cultured would be able to face the dark miseries of life, with some but not great risk. These encounters with the marginalized, as Hazan shows by interspersing quotes from various flâneurs, leads one to a passionate identification with the underclass and can thus account for the leftist tendencies in French literature.

In the closing section, The Visual Image, Hazan gives much attention to Manet and the manner in which the painting scene of Paris once dominated that of the world. Between the brusque manner that states with matter-of-factness that it was the combination of a certain number of ephemeral circumstances that caused this density of highly creative and innovative artists to emerge and migrate, to Paris, there are hints of elegiac sentiments stemming from the manner in which photography soon replaced painting as the means of showing “real life”. In this time the painters turned idyllic and started depicting ruins. The section is short, only 29 pages, and covers a lot of time and topics – Manet, Prout, Dadaism, Surrealism, Man Ray all are mixed together in a flurry of thoughts tangentially connected. And though this is unlikely to be deemed as anything more than a broad background for these highly influential people, there loose connections are exactly what Hazan has been bringing to the forefront throughout the work: Paris is protean and beautiful for it.