Bilbao 'Basques' in stylish profile

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NEW YORK -- Much as some flock to Paris to scale the Eiffel Tower or head to Rome to crane their necks at the Sistine Chapel, many visitors and operators have wedged Bilbao stops into their Spain itineraries ever since the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997.

But there's much more to Bilbao -- from local Basque seafood specialties to other architectural wonders.

In addition to the Guggenheim, other highlights worth a gander include the Palacio Euskalduna arts and conference complex, subway stations designed by British architect Norman Foster and the city-center Abandoibarra commercial project, being built to connect all these new civic dots.

The Guggenheim hosts two new exhibits: "Paris: Capital of the Arts, 1900-1968," with works by Modigliani, Duchamp and Picasso, through Sept. 3, and a photography installation by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, to run until Oct. 1.

The Palacio Euskalduna, which opened in 1999, joins the Guggenheim among Bilbao's elite arts institutions. There's much else ado on Bilbao's cultural front this fall, with several arts festivals scheduled for the city and its nearby towns.

For example, in September, both the Festival of 20th Century Music and the A.B.A.O. Opera Season kick off in Bilbao, as does the International Folk Music Festival in Getxo.

In November, Bilbao hosts the International Festival of Puppets and Marionettes; in December, it will hold a festival of documentaries and short films from around the world.

Historical attractions include the city's Old Quarter, the 109-year-old Hanging Bridge and the Cathedral of Santiago.

Local Basque cuisine, a mix of Iberian and French takes on seafood dishes, is gaining fame among both residents and vacationers, said Tom Spagnoletti, account executive at Spain operator Comtours in Cleveland.

"In summer, even people from Madrid will visit Bilbao for its restaurants," he said. "Basque cuisine is up and coming, and we see more interest in gastronomy tours."

Comtours offers a seven-night package with air from New York for $1,969 per person, double, through Aug. 31. From Sept. 1 through Oct. 31, the price is $1,729. Agent pay starts at 10%.

For information or to book, call (800) 248-1331, or visit www.comtours.com.

Another tour operator paying 10% on FIT stays in Bilbao is Europe Express, which offers a three-night, land-only Bilbao Stopover priced from $240 per person in early September.

For details, call (800) 927-3876 or visit www.europeexpress.com. For more on Bilbao, visit www.basquecountry-tourism.com.

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