1 comment on “A Modern Marvel in a Historical City: The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao”

A Modern Marvel in a Historical City: The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao


Guggenheim Sign

As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I was privileged to travel onboard Regatta with the Oceania Club Reunion Cruise for the past two weeks. I dined like a queen, was pampered in the spa, made many new friends, and collected countless stories to share with you here on the blog. I thought I would start with one of the fascinating destinations along our Western Mediterranean itinerary. While I greatly enjoyed each and every port, I had especially been looking forward to seeing Bilbao, Spain, and its Guggenheim Museum. I was not disappointed.

Peter welcomes
As I wanted to make the most of my time in Bilbao, I joined one of Oceania Cruises’ Excursions. As we debarked the ship, our charming tour guide, Peter, welcomed us to our motorcoach for the short drive to the city’s center. You may be thinking, the name Peter doesn’t sound very Spanish, and you would be correct. Peter is actually German, but his wife is Basque, and he has lived in the region for more than 20 years. He is quite fond of the northern region of Spain and the disciplined, hardworking Basque people whose attitudes and mentality he describes as similar to the Germans. He is pleased that cultural phenomena such as the Guggenheim have drawn astute tourists to the area, and he is happy to let those who want to lie on a beach visit the south of Spain. We can tell right away that Peter has an endearing personality, a great sense of humor, and a firm grasp on the English language.

Classic and Modern

We begin with a walking tour of the Old Town and a bit of history to get us oriented. Bilbao is both a modern and historical city in the Basque region of Spain, about ten miles up the Nervion River from the Bay of Biscay. (Note the modern sculpture in front of the Baroque architecture of City Hall pictured above.) While villages were beginning to appear on the shores of the river centuries earlier, the city was officially founded in 1300 by Don Diego Lopez, and its government charter brought with it many rights and privileges that led to the city’s rapid growth. Bilbao experienced a period of decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the demand for iron ore led to renewed growth in the 19th century, and Bilbao became a strong industrial center.

Arriaga Theater

The Old Town was severely damaged by flood in 1983. The water level reached the ceiling of the first floor of the Arriaga Theatre (pictured above), which required extensive renovations. Bilbao has since reinvented itself as a center for tourism and services. With an ambitious plan for urban development, the city created a transportation infrastructure that included an international airport, a subway system designed by Sir Norman Foster, and a footbridge across the Nervion by Santiago Calatrava. To secure a renowned cultural center for the city, the Basque government courted the Guggenheim Foundation and offered to foot the cost for the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which was completed in October 1997 for a cost of over $100 million.

Widest View
Peter confessed that he was originally opposed to the expense and the idea of the museum in Bilbao, but happily admits his error in judgment. The museum has invigorated Bilbao, inspired pride in its citizens, and of course brought millions of tourists to the city.

Ann David Puppy

Regatta guests David and Anne Joffe are pictured above with Jeff Koons’ floral sculpture of a West Highland terrier that welcomes visitors to the Guggenheim. Once a traveling exhibit, it is now part of the museum’s permanent collection, as the Bilbao citizenry grew quite attached to the aptly named Puppy.

Best Bridge
The museum building itself is a work of art both inside and out, a fascinating amalgam of different spaces, forms, and materials. Everywhere you look the eye is infatuated.  Frank Gehry of course designed the museum, and according to Peter, his design was chosen over other competing architects because it best integrated the city with the river that has always been its core and lifeline. The exterior surface is covered in titanium plates, chosen on the one hand because they are guaranteed to resist corrosion for 100 years, but primarily because they resemble the scales of a fish, a motif of which Gehry is quite fond and which likewise links the city to the river.

Far Tulips

Close Tulips
Pictured above: Tulips by Jeff Koons

When people hear the term “modern art,” their reactions run the gamut from utter fascination to “pshaw.” Before you determine which way you lean, I  encourage you to visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao and to see it with an experienced guide. David was our guide inside the museum, and it is hard to say which were more valuable – his insights or his encouragement of us to discover our own.

The currently featured collection is by Anish Kapoor, creator of Chicago’s famous “Bean” – a nickname that indicates the work’s accessibility and also the city’s affection for the giant, reflective orb in Millennium Park. Cloud Gate (the actual name of the piece) is an equally appropriate title that touches on the beauty and power that likewise define Kapoor’s art. Part of Kapoor’s brilliance is his ability to take what appear to be simple forms and elevate them to the sublime, using the interaction of light, color, presence and context to engage the onlooker in a way that creates a personal experience.

Shooting Into the Corner
Shooting into the Corner. As part of this provocative piece by Kapoor, a man periodically emerges to load the cannon and fire a cartridge of red wax into the corner wall.

While Kapoor’s work can be quite dramatic as above, it is often much more subtle. Forget all of the artsy babble and consider Kapoor’s work Yellow, in which he paints a single shade of yellow in the shape of a huge square with a concave center that actually sinks into the wall. From a distance the shading created by the concavity inspires a vision of the sun’s warmth. Only as you get closer do you realize the work is three-dimensional. Western artists for centuries have been using color in two-dimensions to create the illusion of depth, but Kapoor uses color and depth to create the illusion of two dimensions. And all of Kapoor’s works evolve with each step you take toward or away from them, so that your own consciousness is always part of the artwork itself. While in classical art, you often have to know the story of the artist or the history of the work to understand it, modern art is more often about experience and perspective, so that to appreciate it, you may only have to know your own mind.

Far Serra
I haven’t even touched on the permanent collection by Richard Serra, which began with the construction of the enormous, undulating steel structure known as Snake, which so anchored the Guggenheim’s largest gallery that seven more pieces were commissioned to join it and named collectively The Matter of Time. Serra’s work invites you in to explore. You may get lost, if you’re lucky.

Close Serra 2
Enter Serra 2

You can also see Warhol and Rauschenberg and other modern masters, but if words or photos could do justice to these works, you wouldn’t need to visit the museum. While I am obviously a fan, I realize each of us has our own taste in art. So rest assured that Bilbao has a Museum of Fine Arts featuring an extensive classical arts collection, and the city also offers many charms beyond the realm of the creative arts. If you’re at all intrigued, both Marina and Insignia will visit Bilbao as part of their Western Mediterranean itineraries in May 2011.



0 comments on “Fascinating Photos from the Norwegian Fjords and Polar Ice Barrier”

Fascinating Photos from the Norwegian Fjords and Polar Ice Barrier


Insignia just finished exploring the Norwegian Fjords and even ventured as far north as the Polar Ice Barrier, the nearly vertical seaward edge of the ice cap at the North Pole. Beautiful and fascinating photos were the result. Above and below you see the fjords and glaciers of Magdalene Bay and the town of Spitzbergen.


Magdalene Bay and Ice Barrier 026
As Insignia cruised ever closer to the North Pole, the temperature became quite chilly. Crewmen were lowered into the icy waters in a tiny boat, so they could collect ice to serve in Insignia’s cocktails! It’s an age-old tradition and certainly demonstrates the commitment of our crew.

Magdalene Bay and Ice Barrier 068
Magdalene Bay and Ice Barrier 038

Magdalene Bay and Ice Barrier 057

A successful voyage and a safe return to Insignia. Cheers!


4 comments on “Regatta Cruises Into St. Petersburg”

Regatta Cruises Into St. Petersburg


On Wednesday, Regatta will cruise into the port of St. Petersburg. Most every Oceania Cruises’ itinerary that includes St. Petersburg also thankfully features an overnight in this fascinating city. In both name and history, the city has come full circle. Originally named St. Petersburg after the patron saint of Tsar Peter I, it was changed to Petrograd, to Leningrad and then back to St. Petersburg. The city has seen the wealth of tsars, the ravages of war, the cries of revolution, near economic collapse and recent rebirth — and this is just in the last century.

I found St. Petersburg to be one of the prettiest, most colorful cities I’ve ever visited. Most of the historic buildings are painted in beautiful shades of green, pink, blue, or gold set against brilliant white moldings. While many cities have street vendors selling their art, here is where I chose to purchase a few watercolors, as St. Petersburg is a city that demands to be painted. (My husband chose the famous nesting matryoshka dolls — created in the images of Russian leaders. Putin is inside Gorbachev inside Stalin inside Lenin, an amusing and novel souvenir, which I believe currently resides in our hall closet.)

Numerous rivers, channels, and bridges also contribute to the city’s beauty and have earned it the nickname, “Venice of the North.” While Moscow is distinctly Russian, St. Petersburg does have a more Western European feel. It also has a very low skyline, as a law has been in place for centuries that dictates that no building shall be taller than the Winter Palace. However, just last month a Russian court gave the controversial go-ahead for construction of a 403-meter skyscraper in the heart of the city. So keep your eyes on the skies here. The view may soon be changing.

If forced to label two highlights as “must see,” the first I would choose is the Hermitage. If you took one minute to look at each piece in the museum, it would take eleven years to see them all. Needless to say, I recommend booking an excursion with Oceania Cruises for this visit. I don’t think we would have even made it through the line to get in without our esteemed guide and her special privileges. But thanks to our tour guide, we bypassed the line and were quickly but gently guided to some of the museum’s greatest gems. The Hermitage has the largest collection of paintings in the world, from famous Madonnas by Da Vinci and Rafael to works of Picasso and Matisse, not to mention the sculpture, the jewelry and the prehistoric artifacts. Even the museum itself is a work of art, as the main collection is housed in the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian Tsars.

Arriving Catherine Palace
I’m excited to arrive at Catherine Palace.

The Hermitage began with the private collection of Catherine the Great, bringing me to my next must-see — the Catherine Palace. The palace was largely destroyed during World War II but has been restored to its former glory through immense restoration efforts. I joined the Oceania Cruises’ excursion, Grand Imperial Evening of the Tsars — a heady title no doubt — and I was curious to see if it would live up to its billing. We began with a private after-hours tour of the palace. Our group felt quite exclusive as we toured through the quiet halls undisturbed. We even had an escort of Royal Guards, who appeared silently and at attention from moment to moment. I was unsure whether it was appropriate to take their picture, so as you can see I was quite stealthy in sneaking a photo. I’m sure the guard didn’t even notice.

Lisa and Guard
It can be difficult to find historic sites that are in truly original condition, so having seen many reconstructions, I have to say one of the most impressive is certainly the Amber Room in Catherine Palace. The effort and expense to reconstruct this famous room, over a period of almost 25 years, have created a current incarnation that must be as stunning as the original. The entire room glows with amber and gold leaf. Add to this the history (and mobility) of the room — how it was constructed in Prussia, gifted to Peter the Great, installed in the Winter Palace, moved to the Catherine Palace, then looted and lost in World War II — and you have a thing of legend. Yes, the entire room disappeared, and the fate of the original Amber Room remains a mystery, one you’ll often find referenced in fiction, television and film.

After the tour we were treated to a visit from Catherine the Great herself (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) in full regalia, welcoming us to her ballroom for champagne and a display of Russian dance. As I sipped my champagne, I was struck by how just over 100 years ago, dignitaries from all over Asia and Europe were being hosted in this very spot by Russia tsars. And just 30 years ago, as a child during the Cold War, I never imagined I would even be allowed to visit this country. Now here I was, learning its history and culture first hand. It most certainly was a grand imperial evening.