Traveller's Checks: Bilbao shows how to turn round a city's fortunes

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

It's been a confusing week of old-world complacency versus new-world energy. A heartening glimpse of modernity came on a return trip from Stansted to Santiago Calatrava's recently opened airport in Bilbao, which looks like a fabulous white ray taking off into the landscape. The impression of having entered a brave new world was only slightly diminished by the footbath of disinfectant and the full baggage search (we're looking for meat and dairy, okay?) which greeted passengers from Britain. The unfussy informality of Go seemed pretty modern to me, while Iberia was busy delaying plane-loads of people because of a pilots' work to rule.

It's been a confusing week of old-world complacency versus new-world energy. A heartening glimpse of modernity came on a return trip from Stansted to Santiago Calatrava's recently opened airport in Bilbao, which looks like a fabulous white ray taking off into the landscape. The impression of having entered a brave new world was only slightly diminished by the footbath of disinfectant and the full baggage search (we're looking for meat and dairy, okay?) which greeted passengers from Britain. The unfussy informality of Go seemed pretty modern to me, while Iberia was busy delaying plane-loads of people because of a pilots' work to rule.

British Airways distinguished itself by taking a full 12 minutes to answer my call from Spain (that's £20 in hotel bill language, plus plenty of time to hear a recorded voice repeating the mantra that my "patience is appreciated") before telling me that the "system was down" and no flight details were available. The operator first suggested that I visit the airport for information, which was absurd, and then said she'd ring back, which was also clearly crazy because she didn't. Bilbao currently exemplifies the possibility of urban regeneration in Europe. Local people are still pinching themselves when they see tour groups arriving to visit the "Gug" (Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, above), the Music Theatre and the city's fast expanding set of cultural establishments and top shops. Visi Urtiaga, a student turned tour-guide, told me that "we used to think people were lost - they'd come here by mistake and really wanted to be in San Sebastian along the coast. In 15 years we've gone from the worst of times to the best of times."

Time to clean up our act

Travelling on Norman Foster's sleek new Bilbao Metro, clean and safe even late at night, it was impossible not to make comparisons with the West End of London. Lord Lloyd-Webber and Sir Cameron Mackintosh may not represent the vanguard of radical thinking but their recent and heartfelt lamentation that theatreland is a sick patient whose condition is being aggravated by street squalor and traffic congestion is surely justified. Some people excuse London's beggars and the swill of empty burger boxes on the grounds that they somehow make the city more real. When, as happened last week, a survey is published that lists Vancouver and Zurich as the world's most popular "liveable" cities, they delight in reminding us that these are places for the living dead, zomboid capitals of the universe. But perhaps a better comparison would be with New York. Here, after a dismal deterioration during the 1980s, the city turned itself around - it fixed the subway, massively upgraded areas such as Times Square and swapped the pavement pizza for more salubrious dining. I haven't noticed that NYC has slipped down below Maastricht on the excitement scoreboard as a result.

s.marling@independent.co.uk

Comments