Fish and Fashion in the Basque Country

Peter Williamson, 01 September, 2017
The fishing port of Getaria in Spain's Basque Country is famous for more than just excellent seafood restaurants, as Inntravel's Peter Williamson finds out...

The old town of tall, red-roofed medieval buildings and narrow cobbled lanes sits precariously on a high promontory, dominated by the imposing, biscuit-coloured church and its octagonal tower. On either side, wide sandy bays are pounded by relentless Atlantic rollers which draw hardy surfers throughout the year. The channel that once divided the town from the island of San Anton, known locally as El Ratón (The ‘Mouse’) has long since been subsumed by the encroaching harbour that now serves one of northern Spain’s busiest fishing ports.

I’m in Getaria in the province of Gipuzkoa in the Basque country, less than 30 miles from the border with France. I’ve just spent a week walking in the mountains to the south, following rushing rivers in deep, wooded canyons where pine martens hunt on the ground and majestic vultures soar overhead. But now I’ve come to the sea to explore the remarkable coast here – and it couldn’t be more different.

From my boutique hotel, the exquisite Saiaz Getaria, it’s a short stroll to the harbour. I walk along the cobbled street and down steep steps to reach a tunnel that passes beneath the immense fortified walls of the 15th-century church of San Salvador. Emerging into the brilliant sunshine once more, I come out above the harbour which is alive with noise and colour.

The fishing fleet has just returned to port and it’s a case of ‘all hands on deck’ to get their precious cargoes unloaded and into the market, where eager buyers wait to haggle over the best deals. There are plenty of ropes to coil in shipshape fashion, too.

Unsurprisingly, Getaria is well-known for its fabulous seafood restaurants and among the eager buyers down on the quay are many of the restaurateurs who are, unknown to them, about to satisfy my appetite during my time here. I’d heard about the seafood in Getaria long before setting off for Spain and so I am looking forward to trying at least a couple of the town’s restaurants, with the Michelin-starred Elkano at the top of my wish list. But wouldn’t you know it! The day before I arrived the owners went on holiday and closed the doors for two weeks. Now, in some places, this may prove a massive disappointment – but not here, where there is seemingly an excellent fish restaurant on every corner and several overlooking the harbour.

However, before heading off to find fish-dish heaven, I can’t resist the opportunity to pop into one of the many pintxos bars that line Nagusia Kalea, the pedestrianised main street that leads down to the church. Other evenings may be quiet, but Friday in Getaria is definitely pintxos night. In the first bar I mingle with jovial crowds, have a beer and a bite to eat, then wander all of 20 metres along the street to the next packed bar. Pintxos is the Basque word for tapas – that varied array of small tasty dishes that you find all across Spain. (I wish we had something similar in the UK.)

It’s tempting to get carried away and keep eating, but there is a fish out there somewhere with my name on it – I just need to find it. Heading down towards the harbour, I see a chef quietly barbecuing what looks like a whole turbot over the open flames of a large grill. This looks like my kind of place, so I enter – and my culinary adventure begins.

I’m seated in Kaia Kaipe, founded in 1962, and today run by Igor Arregi, the grandson of the founder. The restaurant specialises in seafood dishes (what else?), and the name reflects its maritime heritage (kaia means ‘port’ or ‘harbour’ in Euskadi – the Basque language). It’s getting dark over the sea but there’s a cosy atmosphere inside and the waiters are gliding round with the consummate ease of those who know their jobs inside out. As I peruse the menu, my mouth involuntarily begins to water at the prospect of what is to follow. The ‘exuberant’ wine list has a similar effect on me – such mouth-watering prices! Having seen a turbot being grilled earlier, it seemed a natural choice, though fortunately I don’t have to eat a whole one. My fish is divine, swimming towards that great ocean in the sky in a sauce of golden, melted butter and succulent clams. I wash it down with a glass or two of the local Getariako Txakolina, a very pale, slightly sparkling, yellow-greenish fruity wine of the region. Once simply a homemade wine drunk by peasants, its appeal and quality has grown to such an extent that the wine produced in the hills above where I now sit was the first variety of txakoli to receive the ‘Denomination of Origin’ certification in 1989.

Later, I find myself wandering past the shuttered Elkano restaurant. How can this place be better than where I’ve just been? I ponder. It must be truly remarkable. The Elkano is named after one of Getaria’s most famous seafaring sons, Juan Sebastian Elcano, who captained one of five ships under Magellan on his remarkable expedition to the East Indies in 1519. Known today as the Maluccas, these ‘Spice Islands’ drew adventurers from halfway round the world, keen to take the islands’ natural treasures of nutmeg, mace and cloves back to adorn the grandest tables of Europe.

It didn’t quite work out for Magellan, who was killed in the Philippines in 1521, but Elcano brought the surviving ship, the Nao Victoria, back to Spain to great acclaim the following year, thus securing his place in history as the first person to circumnavigate the globe. His statue stands in the small square opposite the restaurant.

Getaria is also the birthplace of another ground-breaking adventurer – though this man is famed for pushing the boundaries of high fashion to the limit, rather than for crossing geographical boundaries on the high seas.

From the centre of the town, a three-part escalator took me up the steep hillside to the entrance of a futuristic glass and black cuboid building that looks somewhat out of place in this otherwise very traditional town. This is the Museo Balenciaga which showcases the work of reputedly the world's greatest haute couturier.

Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895-1972) was a designer and founder of the Balenciaga fashion house. Throughout his illustrious career, he had a reputation as a couturier of uncompromising standards and was deemed the greatest of all by his peers.

Since 2011, this purpose-built museum has exhibited examples of his work, with many of the 1200 pieces in the collection being supplied by his pupil Hubert de Givenchy and clients, such as Grace Kelly. Other famous clients included Mona von Bismarck, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, plus the Spanish royal family and the country’s leading aristocracy.

The Basque Country’s other claim to fashion fame is, of course, for giving its name to... well, the basque, that sometimes risqué close-fitting bodice that extends from a woman’s shoulders to the waist. Its modern incarnations evolved from the black lace waistcoats worn by Basque women as part of their traditional national costume. Today, it has been elevated to a whole new level, and such bodices are now shown off, rather than being hidden, often incorporated into stylish gowns.

Back at my hotel, the affable owner, Mikel Muñoa pours me a nightcap of the local craft beer, Olantea, as I relax in the lounge. Far away, the sun is slowly setting behind billowing white clouds lining the distant horizon.

The hotel began life as a wealthy merchant’s gothic tower house in the fifteenth century but was lovingly refurbished to its former glory by Mikel’s parents in the late twentieth century, having bought it in a ruinous state. More recently, Mikel converted it into the hotel of today. The rooms and public spaces are spacious and well-furnished, many featuring antiques and period features, but that’s only half the story. From the double-arched main entrance on the narrow cobbled street it looks very much as it would have done when it was built, but step inside and another character is revealed.

In a move that made his parents shudder, Mikel remodelled the seaward side of the hotel, replacing solid defensive walls with floor-to-ceiling glass panels and wide verandas so that guests can make the most of the spectacular views across the bay. Whereas the traditional rooms in the old half of the hotel overlook the cobbled street, those in the ‘modern’ half are more contemporary, and nowhere more so than in the lounge. Here, the walls are adorned with vast colourful images of haute couture, Mikel’s homage to Cristóbal Balenciaga, cleverly marrying the modern history of the town with its rich past.


The Three Faces of Green Spain

After exploring the mountains and deep gorges of northern Spain, this holiday ends with a discovery of the coast and three nights in Getaria, where you dine on arguably the best seafood in Spain.
More about our walking holiday in Asturias >
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