The largest city in the Basque Country has boxed its way free from industrial decline and a violent past. Here’s how a music festival and museum helped ring the changes
Words Phil Hebblethwaite
Photography Jodi Burian & 'Music Snapper'
The defining building of modern Bilbao is the Guggenheim, which was opened in 1997 and can be found bankside about a kilometre up the Nervión River from the city’s old town. Vast and ship-like, as if Picasso had been asked to sculpt a giant metallic steamer in the Cubist style, the Frank Gehry-designed mega-museum serves to remind locals of their heavy industrial past, while also repositioning the city as the culture capital of the Spanish Basque country. People from San Sebastián, 60 miles away, may have something to say about that, but there’s no question that the Guggenheim has been crucial in ensuring Bilbao emerged triumphantly from the dark shadows of Franco’s dictatorship and its crippling economic crisis of the 1980s, during which time Basque separatist group ETA ran riot.
It’s for residents, los Bilbainos, to say whether this most of complicated of cities has found peace with itself, but the feel of the place today is one of certainty. It looks great, the atmosphere is confident (helped, no doubt, by the recent successes of their football club, Athletic Bilbao, for whom only Basques are allowed to play) and it’s not much of a surprise that there’s a huge music festival going on up a hill on the city’s outskirts, at which The Cure and Radiohead are billed.
In a city that for decades was defined by tension, the Guggenheim had a difficult beginning. Locals couldn’t imagine how a largely closed-off port and mining town with a northern Spanish, rainy climate could suddenly reinvent itself as an arts mecca for tourists, and ETA was so appalled that a Canadian-American architect had been brought in to design the building they tried to blow up a 43-foot-high, flower-covered Jeff Koons sculpture of a puppy that sits in front of the museum. They failed, but a policeman who caught them in the act was shot dead by the terrorists, giving the Guggenheim a violent birth that was uncannily fitting with the region’s history.
The Basque country is an inverted triangle of land, 20,000 kilometres square, on either side of the northwest third of the Pyrenees. Today, three million people live there, 300,000 of which are under the jurisdiction of the French government. About 30 per cent (and growing) can speak the Basque language, Euskera — an ancient, non-Indo European tongue totally unlike Spanish. Anthropology suggests the Basques are the oldest people in Europe, but their exact history is a source of contention. Even objective historians are accused of bias by those that disagree with them. It’s as Orson Welles says in a fabulous 1955 documentary he made in the French Basque country, which is on YouTube in full: “All we know for sure is what a Basque is not… It is true that his position is something like the Red Indians in America — he is an Aboriginal.”
The nationalist movement is surprisingly new. It is described in Paddy Woodworth’s book, Dirty War, Clean Hands, as starting in 1895 when Basque ideologist Sabino Arana, embarrassed by association with the bureaucratic and hopeless administration in Madrid of the time, founded the Bilbao-based Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV or Basque Nationalist Party). They were initially moderate, but began calling for, first, partial self-government and then full independence in the 1930s. They met vicious opposition. “Faced with regionalism, understanding,” promised the right-wing government of 1934. “Faced with separation, execution in the public square.”
ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Fatherland and Liberty) was formed in Bilbao in 1959 by a youth section of the PNV annoyed with the party’s uncommitted response to Franco’s fascist regime. In 1968, they carried out their first killing in the northern Basque town of Irun. Under threat from Madrid, they declared, were their language, culture and way of life. During the regime (1936-1975), few could disagree. The fascists held separatism to be so abhorrent, they outlawed local dialect, forbade parents to give their children Basque names, banned regional parties and tortured suspected dissidents. Membership swelled and, as the most vocal opponents of Franco’s dictatorship, they enjoyed a long period of unparalleled support from wide sections of Spanish society that had no particular opinion on their separatist cause.
Popularity inevitably dwindled (in both the Basque Country and wider Spanish society) when it became clear that the military wing of the group that split from the political end had no intention of laying down arms in the optimistic atmosphere of a new democracy. Ceasefires were later declared in 1989, 1996, 1998 and 2006 — all broken — and it wasn’t until October 20, 2011, after 829 deaths had been attributed to ETA, that the group announced a “definitive cessation of its armed activity” (although their promise is not trusted by the current Spanish government).
For the massive majority of citizens in modern Bilbao, who are proud of their Basque heritage but don’t support ETA (a 2009 poll suggested 1 per cent total support, 3 per cent “justified with criticism”), there are terrible reminders of the brutality in the city, including a plaque outside the Guggenheim commemorating the death of the policeman shot by ETA in 1997, Ertzaina Txema Agirre. But it was noticeable in a tour of the city that The Stool Pigeon was given that the separatist cause, whether diplomatic or violent, wasn’t mentioned once, whereas Athletic Bilbao and the identification of the city as a new cultural paradise were remarked upon a lot. In that respect, the Guggenheim itself stands as monument to what Bilbao wants to be, and is, today. Bringing in a celebrated international architect forced the city to face outwards to the world, but the building itself looks and feels both Spanish and Basque. The influence of Picasso in the design is pure Spain; the ship-like structure is all Bilbao.
Really, it’s hard to think of another city that has transformed its fortunes and broken with its past in such an effective manner, and the festival we’re in town for, BBK Live, is very much part of the regeneration. It debuted in 2006 with a budget of 4.2m euros after the local government failed to establish a street circuit for motorsport in the city. Guns N’ Roses, Placebo and The Pretenders headlined the inaugural event, held, as it is today, on the spectacular slopes of Mount Cobetas, a short bus ride up from the city centre. Over 50,000 people attended the festival over its three days, and it’s now more than doubled in size. According to the El Mundo newspaper, this year’s event brought in 17.5m euros to the local economy (at what’s an impossibly hard time for Spain as a whole), a good chunk of it from music fans from outside the city and abroad. If British festivals are struggling to compete with cheaper prices in Europe, here’s an example of why: a three-day ticket is 89 euros, budget flights head direct into Bilbao from London, and booze on the ground and at the event is a whole load cheaper than at home.
The line-up was good as anything the UK had/has to offer this summer: The Cure and Radiohead headlined the first two nights, Keane and Garbage the final night, and also billed were Warpaint, Bloc Party, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Four Tet, Here We Go Magic and Glasvegas, as well as, less interestingly, Mumford & Sons, Snow Patrol, Noah & The Whale and The Kooks. It’s a more mainstream list of attractions than, say, Primavera Sound offers, and it’s a different kind of event to boot. It’s sponsored by a savings bank, BBK (Bilbao Bizkaia Kutxa), for one, and you can camp, but you’d do better to book a hotel in the city and, seeing as music starts and finishes late, investigate the museums and old town during the day.
THREE QUICK REVIEWS
1. Jon Spencer: a proper blues explosion! An electrifying reminder of how good the three-piece are live ahead of their new album, due in October.
2. The Cure: General Smith still runs a tight shop, eh? And for a very, very long time. Three-hour, 37-song set while the rest of the stages were shut down; most of the big songs; fantastic sound (and singing). Loved it for exactly 2 hours, 12 minutes.
3. Radiohead: Is the tide turning against Yorke & Co.? Prior to this performance, seven Radiohead shows across Europe were postponed following a stage-collapse disaster in Canada on June 16 that killed technician Scott Johnson. An initial statement was made by drummer Phil Selway before another, from the band as a whole, raised eyebrows for mentioning damage to their light show and backline before expressing their “grief and shock ensuing from this terrible accident”.
They played a plodding and self-indulgent set, short on hits, that left all but their hardcore fans upfront bored witless. And then they were widely ridiculed for saying the following between songs while positioned under a massive logo of their paymasters for the night, BBK bank: “We know in Spain you’re having a lot of trouble. Cuts, cuts, no money, no money. Well, we think you should be taking to the streets. Someone stole that money off you. The banks.”
Truly, the hypocrisy in that statement boggles the mind, and Yorke was sporting a ponytail. It took seeing the stunning David Hockney exhibition, which has travelled from the Tate Modern to the Bilbao’s Guggenheim, to suddenly feel less embarrassed by British art abroad.