Exterior of a large building with a banner reading: Urdaibai Bird Center over the entrance.

Birds and Bilbao: Basque Country

Yesterday, we left Urdaibai Bird Center extremely glad we prioritized this stop. The Urdaibai Biosphere Preserve’s status reminds me a bit of the Adirondacks Park in New York. It’s not a national park, neither is it entirely or even mostly government-owned land. Still, it’s a specific region packed full of recreational opportunity and science and conservation work. The bird center is one of those scientific institutions.

It is located on a “flyway” path, meaning there is a rotating cast of birds who inhabit this specific area along their migration path. Some of them live there year round, like the coot who runs the shop, we were told. Others like the Eurasian Spoonbill, are fully migratory birds that can be found around the world and are usually but not necessarily around. Finally, others we missed entirely because they’re only around seasonally, or for one or two months a year. The day we were there, we could see 44 different species in the wetland.

The center was a good spot to enjoy some quiet nature, and take in the greater reserve area. Certain attractions were inaccessible to our current, stroller-dependent travel mode, but having a central base inland from the sea made it easy to access both the beach and forested portions while also feeling connected to the reserve’s conservation purpose.


Bilbao is one of the principle cities of Basque Country which includes much of northern Spain and southwestern France. It is the historical home of a specific ethnic group called Basque or euskaldunak in their own language. The other principle cities are Bayonne (France), Vitoria-Gasteiz, and San Sebastián – Donostia. There is an impressive and efficient light rail train network connecting these and dozens of small towns throughout the Basque Country.

We rented a car when we arrived in Donostia, primarily because despite these trains, it’s still necessary to access specific destinations efficiently. Also we have a 4 year old with us and getting on and off trains and busses with all our stuff is kind of an ordeal. To access a city of more than 1 million, though, we decided we’d be better off to park-and-ride the train into the city, and access the attractions we wanted to see on foot.

From the bird center, we drove to a town called Amorebieta-Etxano (etch-ahno). This town of 20,000 people has three train stations served by two different lines connecting it to Bilbao. This was a bit unbelievable to me as we stopped at small stations in towns between 1,000 and 20,000 inhabitants on our way into the city center.

I kept wondering what it would be like if we had trains that connected Milwaukee and Madison to Green Bay, and then region trains to connect to Wausau, Door County, and the towns throughout the north woods. A key difference in the geography is Bilbao’s urban area, which is about four times the population of Green Bay. Still, as a thought experiment, it was easy to imagine how different life and tourism could be in a northwoods connected by regional light rail where effectiveness was measured in economic activity and ridership rather than profitability.

Anyway, Bilbao and the train ride in were both stunning. Our main objective was the Guggenheim Bilbao Art Museum, a Frank Gehry work inaugurated in 1997. It bore a striking resemblance to another Gehry work built in the 1990s.

Exterior of the Guggenheim in Bilbao taken from the adjacent bridge crossing the Nervión estuary. It is a metallic building with curves meeting at acute corners.
If you’ve seen the Weisman on the UMN campus, this should look very familiar.

The primary exhibit we spent time in was called La Materia del Tiemo (The Matter of Time), a walk-through sculpture made from weathering steel by Richard Serra. This was as fun for László as it was for us to walk through and look, listen, and feel how the work moved us. At one point, we walked through a spiral and the shifting vanishing point made it difficult to keep my balance. When we reached the center, we found wells and whisper walls where we could experiment with sound traveling among the air, steel, and the marble floor beneath us. I could have spent a lot more time observing and being in this scultpure’s presence but we only had a couple hours. Also, the kid lost interest pretty quickly.

If there’s only one exhibit you can get to at the Guggenheim, this is not a bad one to choose, especially if you have a kid that like to run around and make noises. This exhibit is designed to be loud, touched, and moved through. The building itself is part of the admission price and Gehry’s choices of material, shape, and communication between the interior and exterior of the building make it really part sculpture.

Another fun tie in to home: Bilbao’s airport terminal and tower were designed by Santiago Calatrava, the controversial Spanish architect who did the Milwaukee Art Museum.

We took the train back to Amorebieta then got in our car for the hour-or-so drive to our cabin at Campingred Itxaspe on the Basque coast and the end of our tour of Spain. More on that as we settle in and enjoy the pool.