16 Nov 2011

6 Nov 2011

There's more to Bilbao than the Guggenheim

The main reason that people visit Bilbao, I imagine, is to visit the wonderful Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum. It is definitely worth a visit - both for the incredible building, but also for the modern artworks inside and out. We were in Bilbao as a starting point for a trip to the Picos de Europa national park nearby, but Bilbao made a perfect spot to visit before we headed off to the mountains.

Even if you don't want to fork out the €20 odd to get in to the Guggenheim, there's plenty to see around the outside, with sculptures by Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois and Anish Kapoor.

But away from the museum there is also a lot to see. Bilbao was once an industrial city, with not a lot on offer. In the '80s the Basque authorities began a period of redevelopment and with the building of the Guggenheim in 1997 the city really began its transformation, which is still ongoing. I first went 8 or 9 years ago, and even then it wasn't quite as appealing. Now it is a very pleasant city to spend a couple of days in - there's walkways all along the Nervión river over which the stunning white bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava sits (it is named "Pasarela Zubizuri" which means white bridge in Basque).Wandering around on a Sunday morning we stumbled into a large square in Casco Viejo (the old town). In one corner of the square people of all ages huddled together. As we meandered through the crowds we noticed that they had lists and piles of football cards. We were there a week later and the same was going on - people swapping cards to get the ones needed for their lists.
The other thing we stumbled upon was a game of Basque Pelota in progress. We peered through the railings until an old man beckoned us inside to watch. It looked like a game of squash, only on a slightly larger court with green walls and the guys hit the ball with their hands. The speed was impressive; I didn't want to think how their hands might look close-up. A week later we were back and some young boys were playing; it wasn't quite as impressive or fast - they'd got a long way to go...
The other thing that seemed to be a Sunday activity was just hanging out along the river; either sitting on a bench enjoying the sun, or walking or cycling along the newly-created riverside path. There was also a jazz trio at an open-air café opposite the Guggenheim, and people with their typically short fringes (a Basque thing, apparently) sat enjoying the music with a cheap glass of wine or beer.

Once the sun sets the city comes alive in a different way.
In the early evening on Saturdays the old town is still alive with shoppers, but the crowd slowly changes as people come out for pintxos, the Basque equivalent to tapas, only smaller and cheaper.
The narrow streets of the old town teem with pintxos bars, with young, dark-haired, short-fringed locals drinking red wine with coke, smoking outside in the streets, hopping from bar to bar, grabbing a pintxo here and a pintxo there. We spent our last night in Spain there, with a friend from LA, and had to try the wine and coke (despite the horror of the idea). I tried to order three red wines with coke and the barman started to pour three glasses of wine, before getting out another glass for coke. I stopped him and tried to explain that I wanted the wine mixed together with the coke, like the last person had had. He laughed when he realised, said "ah, kalimotxo!" and added ice-cubes and coke to the glasses. It didn't taste as bad as I expected - more like coke than wine, but it did feel wrong. The coke was more expensive than the wine in the glass too, so we didn't order another.
As well as being a great little city to hang out in for a weekend, Bilbao was also a great starting point for a trip to the Picos de Europa mountains nearby. The mountains are 200km away, but the road connections along the northern coast of Spain are pretty good (we didn't have a map and ended up in the middle of Santander by accident, which was a bit annoying). You could fly into Santander itself, which is only 100km away from the park, but then you'd have to fly on Ryanair, and I'd rather drive an extra 100km than having to do that :)

28 Sep 2011

The Changing Face of the City of London

I've been working on and off in London for 19 years now, and it is barely recognisable compared with the skyline back in 1992. Canary Wharf just about existed then (only the main tower - 1 Canada Square - had been built by the early 1990s). Windows were still boarded up from IRA bombings. Things have changed. I've had a few periods abroad in my life and every time I come back, a few more skyscrapers seem to have popped up. But now even after a few months away from the City of London I return to find a new tower. I wandered around this afternoon and took a few shots of the buildings.

The newest addition to the City's skyline (the Shard aside as it's still under construction) is the Heron Tower, sitting on the corner of Bishopsgate and Camomile Street (leading to Bevis Marks - the site of my first City summer job back in 1992). 
There used to be an ugly Norton Rose building on this site, but I guess this was pulled down a few years ago. The Heron Tower was designed by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox and was completed in 2010 (originally approved by John Prescott, to be the same height as Tower 42 - the old NatWest Tower - but this was increased on appeal). It reaches 230m including a 28m mast; the third tallest building in the UK, after 1 Canada Square and the Shard (when it's finished). This winter there will be a branch of Sushi Samba opening in the tower (my favourite restaurant chain in the US - a mix of Japanese, Peruvian and Brasilian food) - can't wait!

While working in the City a few years ago I watched the Gherkin going up, floor by floor. Every week it seemed as if a new floor had appeared. The official name is the Swiss Re Building, but most people know it as the Gherkin.
It's built on the site of the Baltic Exchange on St. Mary Axe, which was damaged by an IRA bomb in April 1992. The building was designed by Norman Foster and Arup engineers, built by Skanska and completed in 2003. It towers above older buildings such as the St. Andrew Undershaft Church. At least the City has some old buildings nestled in its undergrowth, unlike the rather characterless Canary Wharf; it just has a shopping mall underneath.

Heading down to London Bridge the skyline is also changing dramatically. On the north side of the bridge is one of my favourite old buildings - Adelaide House, an imposing art deco building dating back to 1925.
It was one of the first buildings in London to have air conditioning, an internal mail system and a putting green on the roof. Renovated in 2007 it now houses the law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner. For some reason there is a bit on the right hand side that ruins the symmetry - it looks as if it was added at a later date.

Built in 1986 on the south side of London Bridge is one of my favourite modern buildings, No 1 London Bridge - although it's not that modern now. 
It was designed by the John S. Bonnington Partnership. It has a lot of different tenants, most of which appear to be charities. Behind No 1 London Bridge is the Shard, which sits on top of London Bridge station, replacing the old PwC Southwark Towers.
It's been under construction since 2009, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, and when completed in 2012 it will be the tallest building in the European Union (although only the 45th tallest in the world, at 310m or 1,017ft tall). There was a lot of controversy over the height and design, but as with the Heron Tower John Prescott signed it off , saying that he was satisfied that the design was of the highest architectural quality. Some might argue that Prezza has destroyed the London skyline.... It certainly has changed since 1993. With the Heron Tower and Shard it has changed dramatically since 2009. I'll wait until the Shard is finished before I pass final judgment, but I'm not too keen on its position away from the rest of the tall buildings. You can see it from a long way away.

On my way back to Monument station I stopped on London Bridge when I saw this woman with an umbrella taking photos of Tower Bridge in the distance.  Everyone else walking past did a double-take.
Okay, so it was warm today (about 25 degrees C) but it really wasn't that hot. This is not south-east Asia, this is London. In September.

19 Sep 2011

Photo Opportunities in Canary Wharf

I worked for nearly two years in Canary Wharf; in fact, working there was what first made me carry a point-and-shoot camera around in my handbag with me everywhere (with the hope that one day I'd see the tops of the skyscrapers peaking above fog from my 35th floor view - it never happened, although we were hidden in fog on a number of occasions). I also began to walk part of the way along the River Thames, as far as Westminster, every morning, and was always stopping to photograph Battersea Power Station or the pretty lines of lamp-posts. Some of my favourite shots came from that walk, on a couple of foggy days last November.

Anyway, back to Canary Wharf. I used to take photos with my point-and-shoot while I was working up there on the 35th floor of one of those skyscrapers - the view of the sunsets was incredible (not so great for photographs, as there was always some reflection from the lights inside, even if I tried to squeeze myself behind a pillar). Sometimes it even made working late all worthwhile, although my colleagues thought I was a bit strange! I stopped working there at the end of May, but revisited recently, taking the Canon 60D and wide-angle lens with me (no access to level 35 this time, so all from the street). The sky was almost playing ball - with a few clouds to give it some interest, but not so many that the skies were washed out.
It's a great place to just stop and look up. Some of the architecture is quite beautiful. You just have to make sure that there are no security guards around, as it's a private estate, and they can be funny about you taking photos - officially it's not allowed. It's a huge estate, though, so it's not too hard to find a quiet spot. There are also some stunning sculptures, some a little hidden away. This is one of my favourites, just down the steps from the First Edition bar on the west side.
I really like looking up at the top of the buildings. The wide-angle lens distorts them even more than the eye does, but I still like the effect - it's pretty dramatic.
I'm off to the City tomorrow, so if it's not too rainy I may get some shots of the new skyscrapers that have popped up in the last couple of years (eg. the Heron Building). Check out my website for a few more shots, in the London gallery.

16 Sep 2011

Wanderlust likes my Waffles!

They can taste the sugar ...
PS. On Wanderlust I'm known as 'satkinson' - my former identity!

13 Sep 2011

Legalised Graffiti in Ghent

Ever since I saw stencil graffiti in the San Telmo area of Buenos Aires, I've come to quite like some kinds of graffiti. I don't like the illiterate tagging that lines the railway tracks in London or anarchic ranting, but the artistic stuff isn't bad. In Buenos Aires, some of the stencils were in English, and usually a bit humourous, although always a bit political. Not sure about the Michael Jackson one.

There's some great stuff in Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. Here's a couple I noticed at the bottom of a couple of shops.

Barrio Bellavista in Santiago de Chile has enormous amounts of graffiti; the area is renowned for its local artists.

Finding a Banksy is always satisfying; there's definitely something intriguing about the elusive character. The one on the left, in Bristol, has been hit with paintballs - vandalism of graffiti...

So I was quite interested when I read in my guide book to Ghent that there was a famous graffiti street - Werregarenstraat - bang in the middle of the old town. It has been designated as an area where anyone can come and do their graffiti stuff. It is a busy alleyway, used as a cut-through by ordinary passers-by, who climb over the paint pots and spray paint cans, passing artists at work. As we got there we saw two guys with ladders and big paint-brushes painting large areas white, over others' work. This is how it works: you paint your stuff and sooner or later someone will come and paint over it with theirs. I guess there's some sort of etiquette or code, but who knows how it works in practise. But it gives young artists a chance to get their work seen.
Some argue that it defeats the purpose of graffiti, as graffiti is a means of expressing political dissatisfaction through vandalism (or whatever!) and if it's allowed then it's not vandalism. But there seems to be enough people who leave their mark, so they must be okay with the whole idea. In the rest of Ghent there is only a small smattering of graffiti that we saw; the usual vandalistic rubbish!
Here's a selection of scenes from the street, in a mix of colour, black & white and sepia: