food / travel

The Story Of Bilbao: Clean A River, Save The City

Architectural and planning innovations have given new life to Bilbao, Spain, transforming it from a grey post-industrial city into a trendy tourist destination.

Bilbao's Guggenheim museum
Bilbao's Guggenheim museum
Berto González Montaner


BILBAO When our small group from Buenos Aires stopped a couple of Basque men in mid-jog to ask about this city, one of them told us emphatically, "We've even got fish now!" He was referring to the Nervion River that flows through his hometown of Bilbao in northern Spain. We too have a river in our city, the Riachuelo, though it may have more in common with the Nervion's dirtier past than its current incarnation.

In a matter of decades, Bilbao has earned an international reputation for its high quality of life. Because my wife is of Basque ancestry, our first task on the visit was to systematically visit the Basque Country seeking information about her grandparents, one of whom was from the lower Abaurrea, the other from Zumárraga.

But I insisted on expanding this particular plan by adding stops in Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Barcelona. If you're ever there, don't miss Seville's cathedral and its Giralda tower, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada, and the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona's art nouveau basilica.

Bilbao cityscape — Photo: Cata

But we returned to the Artxanda hill in Bilbao where we had bumped into the Basque joggers. Down ahead of us was the Guggenheim Museum shining over the river bank. To the right were the Abandoibarra park and the city's only tower, designed by an Italian. A little further were the city's Congress and Music Hall, covered with a metal shell that recalls the shipyards that used to be here. On the other side of the Guggenheim, another pedestrian bridge ties the two banks together. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, it leads to two shortish tower blocks built by Arata Izosaki. And beyond these are the charming old quarter, the cathedral of Saint James and the little shops around its base.

It's when our new friends began to offer details about how Bilbao has changed that the similarities emerged with our own Matanza-Riachuelo basin.

"This used to be all filth," they recalled of the area. "All the industrial and sewage waste ended up in the river, which was completely polluted and gave off an unbearable stench. When it rained a lot and the sea rose, the waters of the Nervion could not be evacuated, so there was flooding. All the way to the Arriaga theater at the gates of the old quarter there were up to four meters of water!"

But when they took the polluting factories out of town, created the treatment plant and cleaned the river, everything changed.

Factory on the Nervion River, near Bilbao — Photo: ukberri

The Plan Ría 2000 brought everything to this city that has given it new life: the Guggenheim, the parks, the Metro designed by Norman Foster, Rafael Moneo's university library. "But the good thing," said the younger jogger, "is that this isn't stopping." He indicated some of the latest public projects, such as Philippe Starck's conversion of the Old Municipal Corn Exchange. It's all part of the Guggenheim effect, as they say here, reconverting the industrial infrastructure into quality architecture to prepare the city for the tourism and culture economy.

The Nervion of yore had so much in common with our Riachuelo, even the "hanging ferry" facilities at its mouth, similar to one in La Boca. The ferry structure in Bilbao's Portugalete district was the first of its kind anywhere, and it still works. A lift will also take you onto the top of the supporting structure so you can stare down at the Nervion from its 61-meter height.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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