Bilbao & the Basque Lands

The chapters on the history, language and identity of the bull-running, red hot pepper-eating, poetry spouting, graffiti-scrawling, yodelling Basque people make excellent armchair reading, and the nuts and bolts travel tips will prove invaluable on the road. You won't find a better guide to the region.

The best guidebook by far for this area.

Sunday Times

By far the best...

Daily Telegraph

Written with wit, humor and passion.

Independent on Sunday

The Guggenheims – an excerpt from Bilbao & the Basque Lands

It really looks a good deal like they’d gobble all in sight
On top of earth or under it, so fearful is their might
They’ll gobble all there is to get and turn you inside out
The Guggenheims will get you if you don’t watch out.

Washington Times, 1910

Gobblers? By the 1970s, even most Americans only remembered the Guggenheims for the extraordinary museum in New York that bears their name, forgetting how only a few decades before their names were splashed regularly across the front pages as one of the dozen richest families in the United States. The one link they have with Bilbao is metals: iron made Bilbao, copper made the Guggenheims. And the fruit of their unlikely marriage, fittingly, is a titanium miracle child.

The Guggenheims were one of the great American sagas of rags to riches. Anti-Semitism in a Swiss ghetto is what pushed Simon Guggenheim the tailor to emigrate to Philadelphia in 1847, where he and his 20-year-old son Meyer first worked as itinerant peddlers. Meyer had no formal education, but he realized that his best-selling item was stove polish, and soon began making a better polish at home with the help of a second-hand sausage stuffer. From stove polish Meyer went on to coffee extract, then to food and clothing during the Civil War, spices, lye, Swiss lace and embroideries. The turning point came in 1881, with a haphazard purchase of two waterlogged lead and silver mines in Colorado. Meyer had them drained, and they proved far richer than anyone had imagined. Meyer soon built his first smelter and, like the other robber barons of the era, he did his share to found the American labour movement; starvation wages for miners were the rule, and strikers were clobbered into submission.

Unlike the other robber barons, though, Meyer had seven sons who took over the mining business as a formidable unit. Operations soon expanded to Mexico. In 1900 they battled a Rockefeller-controlled trust for control of America’s mines and smelters, and ended up owning 51 per cent of the trust. With JP Morgan they bought Kennecott, a mountain of solid copper in Alaska, and built a $25 million railroad over a moving glacier to exploit it, scooping up much of the rest of Alaska’s mineral wealth while they were at it with such assiduity that they also helped to spark the American conservationist movement. They joined with the financier Thomas Ryan to exploit the Congo’s diamonds and gold mines for its owner-slave-master, King Leopold II of Belgium. They expanded into diamond mines in Angola. They acquired a huge copper mind in Bingham canyon in Utah, and then topped that by buying the Chuquicamata mine in Chile, the world’s richest copper field. They owned tin mines in Malaysia. By the First World War, the Guggenheims controlled 75 per cent of the earth’s silver, copper and lead. The family, however, was beginning to fray. One brother went down on the Titanic. The youngest brother sued the older brothers. No one had seven sons; in fact, male heirs interested in the business were exceedingly rare. In 1923, the five remaining brothers sold Chuquicamata to Anaconda Copper, sat back on their multi-millions, and decided it was time to give them away.

The Guggenheims were remarkable for the speed in which they made their fortune, but perhaps are even more so for how quickly and farsightedly they dispersed it. One brother financed the first aeronautics studies in America, the rocket experiments of Robert H. Goddard, the ancestors of the Jet Propulsion labs at Princeton and Cal Tech, the masterminds of the US space programme. Another set up a free dental clinic for the children of New York, and left millions to Mount Sinai Hospital and the Mayo Clinic. Another set up a foundation to dispense grants to promising scholars, artists and scientists to do with a they pleased, enabling hundreds of people to start their careers or work on their masterpieces: Linus Pauling, Aaron Copland, Katherine Anne Porter, Vladimir Nabokov, Gian Carlo Menotti, Henry Kissinger, W. H. Auden, Samuel Barber, Thomas Wolfe and Marianne Moore were all Guggenheim fellows.

Then there was brother Solomon, the charmer, who acquired a sudden interest in non-objective art at the age of 65, after meeting a 36-year-old baroness named Hilla Rebay. Solomon was captivated, and took it to heart when she told him it was his duty to stop collecting Old Masters and patronize the new. Under her guidance he acquired the Kandinskys, Delaunays, Légers, Feiningers, and Molohy-Nagys that became the basis of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Rebay was the first director. The collection went on tours around America, and with its success Rebay pressed Solomon into building a temple for his collection in New York, and getting America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to design it. Finished in 1959, the Guggenheim Museum was the most controversial, and the most organic, sculpturally beautiful building erected in America in the 20th century.

But even before its completion, the Guggenheims were expanding. In the early 1940s, keen collector Peggy Guggenheim (whose father had gone down with the Titanic) wowed the New York art world with her Art of the Century exhibition, displaying her collection of works by Duchamp, Ernst, Mondrian, Tanguy, Arp, Bracusi, Giacometti and Klee, many of whom were scarcely known in America. Art of the Century was a major force behind abstract expressionism, led by Peggy’s protégé Jackson Pollock (who started off as a carpenter in Solomon’s museum) and Robert Motherwell. After the war, Peggy bought a palazzo in Venice to exhibit her collection, and since her death in 1979 it, too, has been owned by the Guggenheim Foundations.

The Guggenheims always knew that mines eventually give out, but the fact that countries like Chile and Angola would nationalize theirs in the 1970s caught them unawares. Share prices collapsed and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s original endowment, which depended on the dividends, could no longer meet operating costs. Money-spinners like a restaurant and shop were opened, but the Foundation, concluding its biggest assets were its fabulous permanent collection and its prestigious name, decided that a satellite was in order. In his quest to find a site another Guggenheim, Thomas Krens, the head of the Foundation, went around the world, to Salzburg, Tokyo, Moscow, Vienna, London and elsewhere, ready to wheel and deal. None of the proposed marriages worked out for one reason or another– until Krens met the Basques, who were ready to come up with dowry.

At the time, Bilbao’s movers and shakers were already well along in their grand scheme for converting the dirty old rust bucket along the Nervión into a magnet for service and high tech industries. Although a dramatic string of dazzling architectural projects, including Sir Norman Foster’s metro, the Calatrava airport terminal and the new congress and performance centre, were under way, they were still casting about for a prestigious state-of-the-art project to anchor their redevelopment schemes, something that would encourage outside investment, something truly bodacious that would give the Basque Country headlines that didn’t mention the word terrorism. After the huge success of an exhibition of the Guggenheim’s permanent works at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, the Basques realized a Guggenheim museum was just what they were looking for and boldly suggested Bilbao to Krens...

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls