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Gehry's eye candy brings the burger bar to Bilbao cuisine

A cheap flight landed me at Biarritz, from where I drove a car west along the Atlantic coast into northern Spain. Car hire was cheap, even with the irresistibly sensible bolt-on insurance options (validated by a small prang); the hotel only had basic bedrooms and no conference clutter; similarly the streets were well-designed, maintained and, indeed, populated - a link there, surely. Donostia San Sebastißn is a proper model city.

The only hint of the political reality of ETA is that the police wear balaclavas - I assume to conceal their individual identity, just as I assumed they were the police. Anyway, there is much to be learned. There is an absence of supermarkets but plenty of real customer choice; butchers, fishmongers and grocers housed together in mini-markets.

The magnificent array of 19th and 20thcentury apartment buildings (San Sebastißn was destroyed in the Peninsular War) are well balconied, and the opportunity to redimension the vista is exploited by corner windows; occupiers' needs are more important than deference to the language of Classicism.

Moneo's two glass prisms that comprise the Kursaal sit beyond the promenade. Unlike his early nearby apartment building, these prisms set out to contrast, their elegant form more important than their function as a home for concerts and exhibitions. San Sebastißn has no need for the Bilbao effect. Although it is declining as a port (though its fishing fleet still looks healthy), it is a successful seaside resort with fine food and political ambition beyond the hosting of party conferences. With its separatist agenda backed explicitly by the over-60s, who sport the Basque beret (a blue form of the oversized cloth cap beloved of Andy Capp), it is more Belfast than Bournemouth.

Cuisine distinguishes this city. Of Spain's four restaurants with three Michelin rosettes, two are a short drive from the seafront, and every street offers less distinguished but still delightful food. In my brief stay I sampled a good range; the consistent theme is the careful assembly of good, basic ingredients.

On Saturday I dined at Zuberoa (two rosettes), enjoying a meal of squid casserole followed by calf's snout. Sunday lunch, armed with a packet of Rennies, was the big one: Arzak (three rosettes) and the 'menu degustation'.

The reputation of the 'maestro' who came out to greet guests was always evident but never overwhelming. The staff recognised that most diners were there to enjoy the occasion, not to understand the brilliance of the structure, the materials or indeed the assembly.

How, I wondered, would this contrast with the offerings of Monday and the Canadian 'maestro' Gehry? Bilbao is magnificently situated in a wide river valley. Gehry and the Guggenheim are the two North Americans - one a brand and the other a franchise - that, with help from an entrepreneurial Greek, are credited in England with remaking this city.

I have always believed that 'decorating the box' is the worst conclusion of the declining role of the architect in construction. Yet here is an international icon by a star architect that is celebrated for doing just that - only here the box is decorated twice: once externally and once internally, the latter by a sparse collection.

I was also attracted to Bilbao by the idea of the brutal directness of the transporter bridge.

Unfortunately my visit was on a Monday so I gained access to neither the Guggenheim nor the bridge. So I left Bilbao with the perceptions with which I entered: that the bridge is great and the Guggenheim is a box cleverly wrapped in a coat of metal, twisted until it resembles a fancy pile of contemporary chocolate cake.

Gehry's building is to architecture what Planet Hollywood is to cuisine: an enjoyable one-off experience. Which is good if, occasionally, you prefer candy to dessert.

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