To take the pulse of a European village, one typically goes to a bar or a café. In Getaria, Spain, one heads down to the port. It’s the lifeblood of this active fishing village, situated along the craggy Basque coast. And Getaria’s history with seafarers goes back centuries.
During 18 months of barely leaving New York, I fantasized about returning to Getaria, which I had last visited two years ago, before there was a virus called Covid-19. For three weeks starting in mid-September I realized that dream, living in an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea.
There I felt the anxieties of the past year give way to optimism. The surfers in the water below seemed so resilient as they waited for the next wave. At night the twinkling lights of fishing boats reminded me of the need for patience. Shifting tides and weather patterns were a metaphor for nature’s capacity to change.
It would be the third segment of a ten-week pandemic sojourn in rural Europe during which my husband and I lived in Airbnbs and generally prepared our own meals. For most of that time we would rely on a rental car for transportation. And though interaction with locals is one of the great pleasures of foreign travel, it would be constrained by Covid protocols. In Getaria, masks were obligatory, even outdoors, when standing less than 1.5 meters (about five feet) apart. Unlike back home, those requirements were graciously observed.
The village, which has 4,000 inhabitants during the summer, had already emptied out by the time we arrived. In the hills above it, grape pickers were harvesting the latest crop for Getariako Txakolina – a dry young white wine with an AOC designation produced by more than 30 local vintners. Sunny weather brought day-trippers, mostly from France and Spain. But by evening Getaria belonged to its 2,500 year-round residents, many of whom work in the fishing industry, in visitors’ services and maintaining the village against the constant incursions of the sea.
“This is a good time to be here,” Fernando Alberdi, owner of Getaria’s artisanal ice cream shop Dona Doni, told me when we stopped by for a scoop soon after our arrival. The last time we were here he had just been designated a winner in the Gelato World Tour, for his mango and Espelette pepper sorbet, and all the locals were coming in to congratulate him. In July he’d had less favorable publicity, after various customers tested positive for Covid; others who had been at the store during a five-day period were asked to get tested. We were glad to find his shop still doing a brisk business, with social distancing observed in the queue outside.
It was early evening, which is a time for socializing. Some nursed an aperitif in the shadow of the church, at tables outside the old town bars. Uphill from there children rode their bikes around a statue of Juan Sebastián Elkano in the small town square.
Elkano, who set sail in 1519 on Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition to circumnavigate the world, is a Getaria hero. After two years of Sturm und Drang en route, including a mutiny and Magellan’s murder, Elkano, the story goes, led the 17 other European survivors of the original 240-man expedition to achieve their goal.
Diagonally opposite this statue of Elkano (one of two in the village) is Restaurant Elkano, opened in 1964 and now a Michelin-star establishment. Its position within eyesight of the statue is a bit ironic: Elkano the explorer reportedly died at sea, of malnutrition.
Still, his legend lives on, including among families that took his name without being his descendants. One owns the Elkano fish store, or pescadería, at the port. Though no relation to Elkano the restaurant, Elkano the fish store is a major wholesale supplier, including of rodaballo, or turbot.
At lunchtime, outside restaurants around Getaria, one can see rodaballo being cooked on grills called parrillas. These metal contraptions, about five feet wide and fueled with wood charcoal, are distinctive because of the wheel on the front. They permit the grill master to easily raise and lower the grate to control the distance from the flame of whatever he is cooking.
In Getaria it’s likely to be steak or turbot, which is enclosed in a fish-shaped metal basket with a long handle before being placed on the grill. As it cooks, and again before it is brought to the table, the grill master applies an emulsion of olive oil and white wine vinegar. This is done with dramatic flair by holding a plastic bottle about three feet above the fish and giving it a few generous squirts.
On menus, portion sizes are for two people, and at Elkano the price in September was €96 per kilo, or roughly $50 per pound. Since cost is based on weight before cooking, and a small rodaballo weighs at least one kilo (2.2 pounds), eating this delicacy at a place like Elkano can easily bring on a case of sticker shock.
Basically, one pays for the performance of a waiter who fillets the fish beside your table with surgical precision. The one we cooked in the oven of our apartment, with fish bought at Elkano the pescadería, did not look nearly as nice. But, for whatever reason, it tasted better and, at €25 (about $29) per kilo, cost a fraction as much as what we ate the previous week at Elkano.
Though Getaria is often credited with popularizing this fish, the supply of it in local waters has been depleted, so most of the rodaballo served there comes from elsewhere. What we bought at the pescadería in 2019 came from Denmark, this year’s from France.
For the same reason, besugo, or sea bream, popular among the Basques, has become a luxury fish. (At the pescadería it cost €40, or about $46 per kilo, for fish that came from Galicia.) This, too, we cooked ourselves, but during a lunch splurge we discovered that Xixario, a tiny restaurant in the port town of Orio, did it much better. Just four miles from Getaria, they use a very different cooking technique: a flat grill, and no fish cage. “That’s because our fish is fresher,” the Mexican grill master told me, as he deftly flipped the sizzling sea bream. Did I detect a little local competition?
More typically, we bought the catch of the morning or the previous evening, following the lead of thrift-minded pensioners who seemed to know a good value. On days when the mild-tasting, flat shore fish called faneca was available, our dinner for two cost roughly $7. For about twice that, we could buy fresh hake. (The Spanish word for it is merluza.) This very versatile fish can be sautéed in a frying pan with a splash of olive oil or poached in the oven. We just needed to tell Marijosa the fishmonger how we planned to cook it and she would fillet it for us at no charge. The fish heads that she gave us – hake or monkfish – to make stock for a hearty soup, were also gratis.
While the Basques rejoice in their local, seasonal bounty, they are also experts in canning and preserving – perhaps because of their tradition as seafarers. In this business there are four distinct seasons in Getaria: mackerel in February and March; anchovies from April through June; white tuna from July through September; and sardines in October and November. At the Eroski supermarket in Zarautz, a bustling beach town about two miles from Getaria, there’s an entire aisle stocked with nothing but preserved tuna.
We shopped there and at the weekly outdoor markets in Tolosa and Ordizia, where merchants have dispersed over a wider area to minimize Covid risks, stanchions have been set up to channel foot traffic and everyone wore masks. Still, one can sense the buzz over whatever’s fresh and plentiful. At this time of year it was about mushrooms, conferencia pears and many varieties of peppers that are used in Basque cooking.
For those who don’t enjoy cooking on what’s supposed to be a vacation, there are restaurants. El Astillero in Getaria, next to the fish store (which is also its supplier), is a better deal than the establishments uphill. (When making a reservation you can request a table overlooking the port.) Like other restaurants, it attracts upscale day-trippers rather than the scruffier-looking surfers who live out of their campers along the stone walls of the village.
Another attraction for visitors is the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, which showcases the work of Getaria’s most famous 20th-century contemporary homeboy, who died in 1972. Balenciaga, whose mother was a seamstress, grew up to be the couturier to Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn, among others. His father, who died young, was, like so many others who have inhabited Getaria, a fisherman.
Getaria also gets its share of pilgrims hiking the Camino de Santiago. The network of routes includes trails through the vineyards and a portion of the pedestrian path that parallels the coastal road connecting Getaria with Zarautz.
We walked this part of the Camino almost daily, inhaling the aroma of the eucalyptus forest on the other side of the road. Twice our reward was lunch at Kirkilla, a homey Zarautz restaurant with a local following and a menú del día that’s an extremely good value. For the fixed price of €19.90 (about $23 at current conversion rates) on weekdays (€27.90, or $32, on weekends), it includes three courses and wine, with some virtuoso offerings. The velvety mango gazpacho with chunks of salmon, topped with a scoop of goat cheese ice cream, was ethereal. For the main course the showstopper was the tostón de pato desmigado. A medley of flavors and textures, it consisted of pulled roasted duck formed into a brick, served with two sauces and garnished with crunchy crumbles of duck skin. Like other fine restaurants in the area, Kirkilla has made adaptations to Covid, spacing tables farther apart, opening windows and doors, and serving outside when possible.
Another worthy culinary destination was Sunday lunch at Restaurante Asador Bedua in Zumaia, where watching Basque families gather for a multi-course meal, generally including grilled fish or meat, is half the fun. It’s a great place to sample a cod omelette, which is a Basque specialty; delicate and fluffy, theirs bears no resemblance to the dried-out versions served elsewhere as bar food. Likewise, their home-cured tuna is better than any bottled or canned version I’ve tasted. And the raspberry cheesecake with cheese ice cream is definitely worth the calories.
Our weekdays in Getaria started and ended with a walk down to the port. Except on Mondays, when the fish store is closed, we went there to buy the latest catch. Between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. we returned to watch the fleet go out.
Against this backdrop on our last evening, we stumbled upon an annual ritual: women sitting on the ground mending the gigantic fishing nets. This custom is so important in Getaria that the village has honored it with art in public places. On the side of one of the warehouses at the harbor, it’s commemorated in a black-and-white painting that depicts women in what looks like clothing of centuries past.
Near where the women were sitting on this particular evening stands a 1970 stone statue of a woman with two young boys looking out to sea. She is holding one child on her hip and has her arm around the shoulders of the other. The dedication is to la mujer del pescador (the fisherman’s woman).
“Are you all the women of the fishermen?” I ask one of those mending the nets.
She didn’t look up or stop stitching as she replied in Spanish. Muchas son, pero no tiene que ser. Many are, but one doesn’t have to be.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.