Tuesday, September 16, 2014

walking the waterfront

I lied.

Yesterday I promised you a trip to Bilbao’s old city.  I didn’t get there.  One more crowded shuttle bus with its waiting lines eating up time was just a bit more than what I wanted to face on a brilliant Monday morning.

Instead, I decided to take you on a stroll along Gexto’s waterfront.  Gexto, Bilbao’s port, provided our ship’s dock.

I don’t think I have introduced you to our ship --Celebrity’s Infinity.  And a fine ship it is.  (You may hear some more about it near the end of this cruise.)  You can see it at the far right above in a panorama of Gexto’s harbor.

As luxurious as the ship is, when we are in port, I prefer to be off of her.

I wasn’t certain what I wanted to show you.  The day before yesterday, we drove past a couple of mansions on our way to Bilbao proper.  I thought they would provide a center around which I could build a walk.

Before we get there, though, I want to share two scenes I passed on the way.  After all, this is supposed to be a sharing experience.

The first is a tile mosaic at the entrance to the port.

There is really nothing artistically special about the piece.  But I have always been attracted to these pieces that show men doing the work that keeps society running.  In this case, longshoremen.

Most of these clunky pieces also contain some sort of detail that adds a bit of humor (and humanity) to save it from turning into socialist realism.  The gears of the lift bridge mechanism gave me a chuckle.  Orozco would have liked the joke.

And what better to follow art than a girl with her dog.

The young woman repeatedly tossed a ball a good distance into the harbor -- triggering the dog’s retriever genes.  And, even though he would return and collapse in exhaustion, she would toss the ball even further.  And, once again, he would react to centuries of inbreeding.

Good inbreeding.  Not the type that left the Spanish throne ruled by certifiable imbeciles.

But all of that is mere prelude to the purpose of our little tour. 

The street that borders the waterfront also houses Gexto’s mansion row.  The wealthy and powerful Spanish of the early twentieth century built their seaside cottages here.  And, as you can see by looking down the street, the cottages are definitely related to their namesakes in The Hamptons.

And, just as in The Hamptons, the builders of these mansions were wealthy men -- each vying with the other to build a house that would be tasteful, but would still convey the clear message that “the family who lives here is not to be messed with.”

Let’s slip back a hundred years and take a stroll down the street.

Starting with this gallery.  They are built on the site of an old fort that guarded the harbor.  By 1910, Spain did not fear external enemies.  Instead, it was a time to enjoy the peaceful view of the harbor from the terraces of the multi-room gallery.

The gallery was once topped by an English style manor house -- the family home of a businessman.  It was torn down (I suspect to accommodate those apartment buildings); the gallery remains.

If you walk south on the street, the next house -- actually called a palace -- is Arriluze.  A businessman-politician, by the name of Ybarra, built it for his brother-in-law in a medieval revivalist style.  The Spanish enjoyed emulating the British, as you can see in the lines of this house.  It could be an estate house on the Cherwell.

The “palace” designation may not be accidental.  The then-current monarch named Ybarra a marquis.

Up the street a bit is Aitzgoyen.  At first glance, I thought it was a Swiss chalet.

Close.  The house is neo-Baroque.  Built with a pitched roof with wide eaves similar to a chalet.  The half-timber look is actually painted grill-work.  But the blue and white makes me think Heidi is about to appear on the lawn.

You can see the same style in a neighboring apartment house.  The lines are similar to neo-Basque, but filtered through post-modern elements.  The chimney stacks are the give-away.

In 1928, another businessman-politician commissioned noted Spanish architect Manuel Maria Smith to build this family home using regional mountain elements.  “Fort” is the element that comes to mind for me.

Ampuero was the last mansion built before the Civil War broke out.

Vallejo was also built by Smith, but in 1924.

The house is in a Basque baroque style.  It also started as a single family home.  But the builder’s heirs decided to expand it, and turn it into a multi-family dwelling.  With a view similar to my first photograph, it would be quite the place to live.

But not nearly as grand as Lezama-Leguizamon.  This palace -- yes, it is also called a palace -- is the grandest of the lot.

Built in 1903 (once again, by Smith) for another of the long line of businessmen-politicians who were drawn here to show their wealth, it was designed for one family.  And that family (or the heirs) still own the place.

On a far less  grand scale, but still with the quirkiness of Basque architecture, we have the Lifeboat Station, right on the harbor.

It was built in 1920 in a neo-Basque regional style.  The building is supposed to evoke the elements of a farmhouse.  If you compare it to Aitzgoyen, you can see the kinship with its rectangular body and sweeping roof.

I have said it before.  I will say it again.  Spain’s neutrality in both the First and Second World Wars saved its people and its historical architecture from destruction.  If this row of homes had been built on the coast of western France, British and American bombs would have flattened them.

So, there you have it.  My little tour through the waterfront.  I hope you enjoyed the buildings.  I certainly did.  These simple days are some of my favorites.

I arrived back at the ship just in time to watch the ship’s dancers perform as part of a sail-away party.  If all goes well, you may meet them and the singers at dinner tomorrow night.

You can share my plate of venison.  If you like, you can have all of my lobster plate.

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